HAMILTON – His left wrist was crushed, caught between a UPS truck and a concrete wall.
It was the left wrist, which made it especially tough for Shad Blair to swallow. This college freshman from Eureka, Montana, who moved his wife and two daughters to Dallas to pursue a basketball dream at Eastfield Community College, was given what amounted to an athletic death sentence when a doctor told the lefty his arm would never be the same.
At the time the accident was the perfect metaphor for his life. He was caught in a serious pinch, futility tugging at his work boots in a big city where three times his tool chest was stolen from his vehicle.
Blair, who admits he was only in college to play hoops, finally had enough and moved his family back to western Montana. All those times his college basketball coach told him he has what it takes to play pro ball, all those days spent imagining himself making a living on the hardwood, were buried under the weight of his hard-scrabble reality.
In the past 16 years since his accident, Blair has put almost all his energy into providing for his family. Making ends meet is not easy for him.
A young-looking 36-year-old with the frame of an NCAA Division I power forward and work ethic of a coal miner, the 6-foot-10 giant has found his footing as an employee at Garden City Plumbing. His work ethic is the one thing that has never let him down.
Blair currently lives in Stevensville with his wife, Jolene, and two girls, who will both attend high school in August. Two years ago, he mentioned to his wife that he’d probably never realize his basketball dream. While the words came off the cuff, the day is still vivid in his memory.
Maybe because of the way his life changed last July. Blair was playing in a city league basketball game in Darby, a big fish in a small pond, not real concerned about who he was up against.
After the game, a fill-in player from the other team approached him. It was Ryan Wetzel, a Bitterroot Valley resident and Billings native who eight years ago went into business as a basketball personal trainer.
Wetzel, who works out of the Canyons Athletic Club in Hamilton, knows a little about pro basketball. A member of the Blackfeet tribe and former college hoopster at MSU Billings, he was part of a Native American national team prior to a brief pro career in Europe.
“When we started playing that day, defensively I started realizing this guy we were up against is not just 6-10 and un-athletic,” Wetzel recalled. “He can move real well, play good defense, block shots. He dunked on a couple of our players and his team won.
“At the end of the game I walked up to him and said, ‘Fill me in man, where you from?’ He said Stevensville. I asked, ‘Where did you play college?’ He told me he was injured and didn’t really pursue it after that.”
Wetzel was so impressed with Blair he asked him to play on his team in the Shriner’s Shootout in Cut Bank. Competing against college-aged players from as far away as Washington and parts of Canada, the big guy continued to impress.
“On the way back from the tournament I was talking to him and he asked about my pro career,” Wetzel said. “I said, ‘It wasn’t the greatest. I just went for it.’
“Then I asked, ‘What do you think about it? Would you be interested if I introduced you to some pro scouts?’ His eyes just opened wide, then he thought I was joking. I said, ‘No I’m serious. You have an opportunity here man. Your size and ability, you can help some teams.’”
Blair will never forget that day.
“Ryan gave me that look and I really weighed his opinion because he had been at that level,” Shad said. “Plus I’ve seen him play.”
The past 12 months have been a whirlwind. When Blair isn’t busy with his full-time plumbing position and other odd jobs that help pay the bills, you can usually find him working out alone or with Wetzel.
Shad attended his first professional combine last August in Florida and was a bit overwhelmed. Still, he made a good enough impression that he was urged to attend an invitation-only tournament in Tampa Bay.
“Just getting that invite, my confidence went way up,” Blair said. “I came into the second one and I think the players gave me more respect.
“I didn’t have the DI experience. I told myself I’m going to make an impression this time. When I went into it (in January) I wanted to tear somebody’s arm down and throw down on them.”
After the first game, Blair was complimented by several coaches. Later he was approached by Joe Dinda, a certified agent of the Fédération Internationale de Basketball (FIBA).
“He asked me, ‘Has anyone come to talk to you yet?’” Blair shared. “I told him no and he had a disgusted look.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you get down to my combine and we’ll get you some better looks. It’s one of the biggest ones in the country. I’m going to waive your entry fee. I want you to show up.’ I gained even more confidence from that. I really want to pursue this. I know what to expect now and this next one belongs to me.”
The “next one” starts Friday in Las Vegas. For Blair, it’s the big one. He will tackle a series of drills designed to highlight his strengths and reveal any weaknesses in front of pro scouts from around the world.
Wetzel, whose father, Don, lettered for the Montana Grizzly basketball team in 1969, has high hopes for his wiry, 200-pound pupil.
“No he might not get you 30 points a game, but he’s going to get you 10 points, 10 to 15 rebounds and a game-winning block,” Wetzel said. “Defensively he’s a monster. He’s not the most sound offensive player but he reads the floor and he’s got a motor like an 18-year-old kid.
“It’s the hunger I see on the floor. I look at a guy like him and I look at some other kid who has kind of had his career handed to him. He kind of gets soft and this kid here is starving. He wants it so bad. He’s been burning for it. It’s been something on his mind since he was injured 16 years ago. He works 12 hours a day and then comes to the gym and runs for five miles, lifts for two hours, shoots for two hours and dribbles for an hour.”
Scouts from Norway have already expressed interest. But Blair has no intention of moving overseas without his family.
“I want enough money to bring them with me and give them a life-long experience, too,” he said. “They’re with me. They’re the No. 1 priority.”
Jolene Blair, who met her husband at a basketball game in Eureka, is behind her big guy 100 percent.
“His heart has always been about basketball,” she said. “I always thought he could do it. His two daughters are behind him 100 percent.
“Good things do happen to good people, and in my eyes he deserves it. He’s faithful and loyal and good to his friends. He’s the perfect guy. He’s my perfect guy.”
Shad, who will turn 37 in November, says he has been blessed with tremendous support from the Bitterroot Valley community. Recently a fund-raiser was held to help defray the costs of his trip to Vegas.
“It feels good to have the backing behind you,” he said. “It almost feels like it gives me extra drive to achieve this.
“I hate failing and I feel like I don’t want to let these people down. I’m the same way with plumbing. I’m not going to go do half-way work. I want them to look at it and go, ‘Wow, that’s an exceptional job.’ That’s how I like to do everything, no half-way.”