Thursday, 15 October 2009

Interview: Retirement on hold for Eagles vet Stewart

Sometimes, even in the darkness, a chink of light is to be found. A ray of hope amid the despair. Lynard Stewart had known the ebbs and flows that come with being a professional basketballer but as he sat, last spring, pondering what might be – and what might not – he wondered if his entire playing career was on the brink of fading to black.

The Newcastle Eagles forward had undergone surgery to repair a torn meniscus, suffered just before last Christmas but barely detectable. “My leg locked up but came back in,” he recalls. “I didn’t know it was a tear in there but I played for another month.”

Eventually, when the reigning BBL Most Valuable Player went under the knife on Valentine’s Day, the wounds cut deeper than the surgeon intended. Self-doubt, anxiety and a sudden fallibility were added to the list.

“My rehab went well and I came back,” he reflects. “But then I caught an elbow, it knocked me out and I fell again. So we all sat down and talked. The team was winning. And Fab (Flournoy) said to me ‘why do you want to push yourself and risk things?’ So I relaxed, did my rehab, and all summer long worked on my leg.”

It says much for Newcastle that they declined to push the veteran forward back into service with the title still on the line. Yet, confined to frustrated spectator, the Philadelphia native found a new means to contribute. Given leeway by Eagles player-coach Flournoy to mentor his younger team-mates, Stewart caught a glimpse into a future that he had already begun to envisage.

“When I finish, my career I want to be a coach anyway,” he revealed. “So it’s helped me out for the future, being asked to talk to the guys and helping them through problems, and the good times and bad times.”

With two elder brothers who are assistant coaches in college basketball, the career path when the American decided to hang up his boots was an obvious one. “I know a lot of coaches at home,” he added. “Or I might do high school first. I’ve already had a lot of calls, asking me to do things when I’m home.”

It was a thrilling Plan B. Not just yet, however. Cajoled by friends, and inspired by his three-year-old daughter Leila, Stewart decided that his bionic knee was not yet prepared to give up the ghost, signing on for another year in Britain.

“When I was forced to think about retirement, I was coming up with plans about life after basketball,” Stewart recalled. “And that’s hard because this is one of the best jobs in the world to have. There aren’t many people who have jobs they love to do. A lot of guys go to work and hate it. I love this.

“I was like ‘this season, I have to come out and establish that I still got it’. It really hurt me sitting there because I never was hurt before. So for me to come back this year and play is all about trying to get back in the groove.”

So far, Stewart has slotted back in where he left. Newcastle is off to an unbeaten start. The former MVP looks like a potential MVP. It is business as usual. Almost.

“The only thing that still preys on my mind during games is when the injury did occur. I can’t forget that part, how it happened. It still scares me. But I think it will all come back quickly. The more we play and practice will help.”

Lest we forget, the Eagles won the league last term without their most potent and consistent performer. Despite losing Tafari Toney and Trey Moore, the Tyneside outfit look set to play out their final campaign at the Metro Arena as unquestionable favourites for every available piece of silverware before moving into a new 3,000 capacity home at the University of Northumbria.

“That’s the way it has to be,” Stewart grins. “Until somebody knocks us off that perch, that’s where we are. Even having that kind of attitude sometimes pushes you forward in games. But I haven’t seen everybody play. There are other teams who are supposed to be good. But they might not gel. Other teams will surprise you. Once we’ve played everybody once, then I’ll have a better idea.

“But that has been the main focus, to establish ourselves early. Joe Jackson’s the only new player. We want to get him acclimated quickly to the BBL. And if we get wins early in the BBL, that’s going to make things stronger for us later on. We talked a lot about not losing games early and it’s gone to plan so far.”

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