When Liam Hunt landed awkwardly, severely injuring his lower leg during a basketball game in Rockingham, the crowd went silent.
Warning: This article contains descriptions and images that some readers may find distressing.
Players from the opposition moved to the opposite end of the court in shock.
The stadium quickly cleared despite minutes left on the game clock.
As Hunt was transferred to hospital, paramedics explained his badly injured leg could require an amputation with fears an artery had been severed.
Hunt’s leg was saved but his chances of returning to elite basketball seemed in doubt.
Pete D’Alessandro is an orthopedic surgeon and leads the sports trauma unit at Fiona Stanley Hospital.
“Liam had torn three of the major ligaments, which is a terrible injury,” Dr. D’Alessandro said.
“On top of that, he’d shredded the main nerve in the knee, which actually controls foot function, so he had a grossly unstable knee and a foot that didn’t work.
“For the average person, this is a life-changing injury. For a professional athlete in their 20s, it’s absolutely catastrophic.”
Hunt underwent painstaking surgery to piece the knee back together and began recovery with the goal of walking again.
Dr D’Alessandro said it was the first time in his career he doubted an athlete would recover.
“The odds were so stacked against him, it was so catastrophic, we really needed to be talking about ideally we’re going to be walking, maybe running, but to play basketball it would take a miracle to get him back out there,” he said.
Two years on and Hunt is not only walking, he has earned his place back into a competitive team playing elite basketball in the NBL1 West competition.
Injury, COVID puts promising career in jeopardy
After picking up the MVP award in the Geraldton Buccaneers 2019 Championship win, Hunt had been playing professional basketball on the east coast and had another contract signed to play in Germany when COVID-19 struck forcing a return to his home town.
A shortened season to replace the regular state league gave him an opportunity to suit up for his beloved Buccaneers, but it came crashing down in the third game of the season.
Hunt said after being given the news in August 2020 that it was unlikely he would play again, it took a long couple of days to cope with the shock.
“When you’re in that much shock from losing the sport you’ve loved for 20 years, it is a big shock for you,” he said.
“And then after those two days, I just ended up being really grateful that I’ve still got my leg and I’ve still got a quality of life there.
“Once I started doing the knee recovery stuff again, that’s when I got the motivation slowly but surely.”
Hunt said he felt a window of opportunity open when he began being able to stabilize his foot with the use of strapping and a brace and asked his specialists if he could have an opportunity to play.
The specialist said he could ask again in three to six months.
“That’s when it started to feel real, when he gave me that little time line target — that’s what I needed,” Hunt said.
He described the feeling of stepping back onto the court again as surreal.
“Just to put the jersey on again, you know every time, it just feels different to when I was before and it’s just a different motivation and a different part of being grateful,” he said.
“I just love playing the game.”
‘Impossible not to love the guy’
Dr D’Alessandro put the recovery down to Hunt’s personality, describing him as one of the most extraordinary individuals he had ever met despite regularly working with elite athletes.
“He had this incredible positivity despite being dealt such an awful deck of cards, an awful hand. It’s impossible not to love the guy,” he said.
Buccaneers coach Dayle Joseph witnessed the incident firsthand and sat with Hunt as he received medical attention that night.
“To see him come back gradually from that, to be able to walk, to be able to run and then to be able to play, and then contribute to the point where we’d probably be lost without him, it’s pretty remarkable,” he said.
“You hear about guys coming back from knee reconstructions and all that sort of thing all the time, whereas Liam’s come back from that plus all the other issues that were related to that injury at the time, so yeah, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Teammate and captain Mat Wundenberg said Hunt was inspirational and what he brought to the team could not be counted on a game sheet.
“Just 100 per cent passion,” he said.
“You could never doubt his heart, doubt his passion.
“It’d be fair to say he’s not as fluid or quite at the level he was prior to the injury, but his offensive touch and his smarts for the game, he hasn’t lost that.”
Dr D’Alessandro said he felt privileged to have played a small part in the journey.
“Liam has no right to be back playing professional basketball given the catastrophic injury he suffered, but sometimes good guys come from the clouds to win,” he said.
“Incredible hard work and determination pays off and Liam has just proven for everyone out there that anything is possible.”