MISSOULA – Donaven Dorsey took a deep breath and looked out onto the Dahlberg Arena court at his teammates practicing.
The redshirt senior for the Montana men's basketball team reflected on two-and-a-half long years. One year that saw him sit because of transfer rules, the other a cancer scare that prematurely ended what was supposed to be a big contribution year from the Lacey, Washington, native last season.
On Friday that wait will come to an end when Dorsey and the Grizzlies take on Georgia State to open the regular season. When Dorsey enters the game, it will be the first time since March 21, 2016, that he played in a competitive basketball game.
“It’s been a long time, man,” Dorsey said ahead of Montana's season opener against Georgia State on Friday at Dahlberg Arena. “It’s finally real.”
Prior to this week, Dorsey said he had not given it much thought about what it will feel like when he steps onto the court in a regular-season game. His focus has mainly been on getting back in shape and becoming more mentally prepared for Friday night and the season ahead.
As the moment gets closer though, he said those thoughts creep into his mind.
“I’m really just grateful to have the opportunity to play and just be out here,” Dorsey said. “It’s been a long and rough road back, you know what I mean? It’s been a lot of hard work and some setbacks but I continue to grind and I had a lot of people in my corner with teammates, coaches, family and friends and everything who kept me positive throughout the whole process.
“Just trying to mentally prepare myself and not get overly excited but still be excited. Try not to be anxious and nervous and just go out there and have fun.”
Dorsey spent two years at the University of Washington before transferring to Montana. He had to sit out the 2016-17 year due to transfer rules and was poised to be a big contributor for Montana last season.
Prior to the start of summer, Dorsey said he began to feel a consistent pain in his hip that spring. He got some treatment for the pain, but it never fully went away, so Dorsey simply developed a tolerance to it before heading back to Washington to rest for a few weeks. He said it began to feel better after that.
However, when he started playing again, it continued to hurt, so when he got back to campus, it was time to get an MRI, which he did in late September. In that moment, he found out he had a tumor on the head of his femur.
“When I first figured out, it was really heartbreaking because as soon as they said ‘tumor’ I knew for a fact I wasn’t going to be able to play anymore,” Dorsey said. “(Head coach) Travis (DeCuire) was with me when I met with the doctor, and he was just there encouraging me, but it was really tough for me.
“Found myself at some of the lowest points I’ve ever been at in my life just mentally and spiritually. Just my faith in God and my parents and everybody else in my corner kind of just held me together when I was broken.”
“For him what I saw was his life flash before him,” DeCuire added. “All of these questions are going through his mind. And I think that that conversation was more than a basketball conversation at that point. It was life and what’s best for Donaven.”
After undergoing a biopsy in October and finding out the tumor was benign, a weight was lifted off of Dorsey’s shoulders, but he was still upset he couldn’t join the team that season. He estimates he spent three to four months on bed rest and crutches and spent some time back home in Washington where assistant coach Rachi Wortham visited him a couple of times. His teammates were constantly checking in on him to make sure he was doing all right.
“Just having that support goes a long way even though it didn’t feel like it at the time, now that I look back on it, I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to get through it without them,’” Dorsey said. “That was really big for me.”
Dorsey got back to campus and got off of crutches. Once that happened, he said his spirits rose. Physical therapy followed. That grind included extra lifts, conditioning and working with Brandon Ronan, the director of the athletic performance center.
He said he feels about 90 percent and has dropped from 246 pounds to 211 in his workouts. He was cleared to play in May.
“I was just like I want to get back on the court and whatever I have to do to get out there,” Dorsey said. “Went through the pain and now I’m here ready to go.
“It was definitely a long process and it was draining but my teammates and coaches and everybody kept me lifted and by the grace of God I’m here playing basketball again.”
Since his return, Dorsey has suited up in the scrimmage and exhibition against Whitworth for the Griz. The rust was there as Dorsey struggled early on against Whitworth. He was 0 for 2 from the field, both open 3-point attempts, in the first half and made one free throw. After getting back in the locker room, he came out and adjusted, and scored on a three-point play almost four minutes into the second half. Not long after, he made his first 3-pointer from the field.
“I’ve known Donaven since we were little so seeing him out here after not playing for two years is big time,” senior Ahmaad Rorie said after the win over Whitworth. “We really care about him, and he’s been hurting for a long time, so for him to see some shots go through the net is a big confidence boost for him.”
Dorsey finished the game 3 for 7 for 12 points with a block and one rebound. He shot 2 for 5 from three.
“I think our team was excited for him when he hit a three Friday night,” DeCuire said. “Just to see the team erupt for him was incredible. It’s an example of this being a family situation.
“You don’t wish this on anyone, and I think sometimes we forget that we play this game because we love it. A lot of guys play for what they want out of it and I think he’s an example of someone who loves the game so much that he’ll go through whatever he needs to go through just to get back on the floor again.”
Dorsey said he enters every game with nerves. But for him, just seeing a basket go down was another step toward building confidence and getting back to where he was over two years ago.
“At the beginning of the game, it just felt really fast,” Dorsey said. “I haven’t been out here in so long. It felt a little sped up, so it took me a couple subs to get a feel for the game. Once I saw the bucket go in, I felt like I was at home. It felt good.”
In the grand scheme of things, Dorsey is just happy to be healthy again. He looked at internships back home and worked with a local newspaper as well as with another family member in the media field. Dorsey, who is a communications major, hopes to work in media and marketing someday.
Dorsey will try for a medical waiver after the season is over to get a sixth year of eligibility. But after everything he’s been through over the past year, the sole focus is the here and now and appreciating each moment.
“It kind of gave me a different aspect on life,” Dorsey said. “A lot of times, us athletes, we just have our minds on the sport and the score and that’s really all it is. Once I got hurt, it changed my perspective on everything, and I started looking at other ways to be successful off the court. On the courtside, it made me want to grind even harder.”