Most of redshirt sophomore Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva’s 2016 postseason workouts were standard.
After starting 30 games as a freshman for the Atlantic 10 Championship team, the 6-foot-8 forward was ready to be one of the best players on the team his sophomore year. Nothing was going to hold him back.
Then, one day in June, Oliva got back to his room after working out and heard it.
It was his knee. He wasn’t in pain then and hadn’t been in pain during his workout. Sometimes he would feel a twinge in his knee while playing, but it hadn’t been anything to worry about.
The loud pop told him otherwise. Something was wrong.
“Basically, I had a hole in my cartilage,” Oliva said. “That’s kind of annoying because it’s not like an ACL. They can’t just reconstruct it. It’s something that’s almost like a natural process to rebuild.”
Oliva’s doctors weren’t sure what exactly prompted the injury. Their best guess was that a previously-unknown chronic condition caused problems with the cartilage in Oliva’s knee, although it’s also possible a hit on the court caused the injury.
Either way, it wasn’t good news for Oliva.
Even after he knew something was wrong, Oliva felt fine physically. He was running and shooting baskets the day of his surgery.
“It wasn’t painful, but it was something that was going to be worse,” Oliva said. “If it gets worse, then it becomes harder to fix over time.”
Rather than risk a more severe injury later, Oliva prepared himself to miss about seven months to recover from surgery.
Reality played out differently. Oliva awoke from surgery to hear the news from his mother.
“You’re going to need another surgery.”
The doctors changed the course of action, adding at least another five months to Oliva’s recovery timeline.
During the first surgery, doctors removed a piece of Oliva’s healthy cartilage and let it grow for about a month and a half. During that time, Oliva was mostly on crutches or bed-ridden. Then came the next surgery.
“I got my second surgery and for two-and-a-half months, I was on crutches,” Oliva said. “I had to spend eight hours in one of those machines that moves your leg in order to not create scar tissue.”
Even so, Oliva lost most of the muscles in his leg. His knee was still swollen when his doctors told him he could begin walking again.
“I honestly forgot how to walk at some point,” Oliva said. “It was just weird putting the weight on my leg.”
The next two to three months were spent rebuilding the muscles in Oliva’s leg. For three months after that, Oliva worked on regaining his balance and correctly positioning his feet. He then spent a few more months working on the motions of running and jumping.
Finally, in June 2017, Oliva was cleared to rejoin basketball practices.
While the year-long rehab process kept Oliva busy physically, another matter kept him occupied mentally. The 2015-16 Hawks were crowned A-10 champions, won a March Madness game for the first time since 2004, and finished with a 28-8 record.
“As a team, it was great,” Oliva said. “Personally, I’m a competitor and I want to be on the court as much as I can. It was frustrating for me because a lot of times I wouldn’t understand that there are guys older than me and at some points in the game, they were better than me. I would have that immature mentality of, ‘I can make more baskets, I want to be on the court,’ but sometimes that’s not what we needed.”
Oliva averaged 4.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 16.5 minutes per game his freshman season. While he was glad head coach Phil Martelli trusted him enough to be a starter, Oliva wasn’t playing as much as he would have liked, which was confusing for him.
“I knew the reasons why I didn’t play as much that year,” Oliva said. “At that time, I couldn’t understand them, and I knew I couldn’t understand them.”
Redshirting the 2016-17 season gave Oliva time to think about his freshman year and how he could learn from his mistakes.
One of Oliva’s key takeaways from his reflection was the importance of being smart and reacting well on the court. There was a hitch in implementing that mindset when he got back to practices, though.
“In the beginning, I was not able to make plays in general. I just couldn’t see the game like I used to,” Oliva said. “One day, I was thinking, ‘Oh, wow, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play basketball at this level again.’ But the next day, it would be like, ‘Okay, I got it. I got it.’”
Oliva was rusty after being away from the game for so long. Running at full speed was a challenge. He also had to work to get back his confidence and his trust in his body.
After spending a few weeks of the summer back home in Italy, Oliva came back to Hawk Hill ready to compete.
“I remember I…came back, got a steal, went sprinting down the court, and dunked,” Oliva said. “I was like, ‘All right, maybe I’m good now.’
Of course, practices are much different from games. With the Hawks’ first two games on the road, Oliva would have to wait a while to return to the welcoming roar of the fans filling Hagan Arena.
Oliva started in the season opener at Toledo. Despite the familiar situation, that game felt different.
“It was a lot of emotion,” Oliva said. “I was trying to contain it. I was trying to say, ‘Okay, I’m used to this,’ but it felt like that was my first college game all over again… It was hard getting back to the crowds booing you. It’s fun. It’s the most fun part, but, at that point, it gets to your head.”
Oliva also felt he had something to prove, even though no one was pressuring him. He wanted to show everyone he deserved to be back.
In the first five games of the season, Oliva set new career highs in points, rebounds, and assists, including pulling down double-digit rebounds for the first time. That’s not what matters to Oliva, though.
“I don’t care about career highs or stuff like that,” Oliva said. “I just hope to play well and have fun and show what I can do.”
While Oliva is determined to continue like his injury never happened, he realizes other people might be focused on his injury while he’s playing.
“If I’m on the court, it’s because I feel 100 percent,” Oliva said. “I don’t want anybody telling me ‘It’s okay because you’re injured.’ I’m on the court and I’m going to give it all I’ve got. In two months, maybe I’ll be better physically, in better condition. Right now, I don’t make excuses.”
Oliva checks in with his doctors about once a month. His leg feels good, but he’s constantly working to improve certain aspects of his game, like his speed.
Basketball has been a part of Oliva’s life for as long as he can remember. His older sister and father used to play and his mother is passionate about the sport her family loves. Even though Oliva’s father stopped playing basketball when he was 20, he’s played a vital role in his son’s development as a player.
“He’s always been a guide, mostly emotionally,” Oliva said. “I feel like that’s a big part… We have our little conversations. We don’t need a lot of words, but he just knows what to say to me.”
As the past year and a half has taught Oliva, mental aspects of the game are just as important as physical aspects. When he was injured, people would tell him to stay optimistic – easier said than done. Now, he recognizes the importance of staying positive, and gives the same advice to injured teammates.
“[The first game back] almost didn’t feel real,” Oliva said. “Sometimes, I get frustrated with a lot of stuff. I need to be better, but at the same time, I remember where I was one year ago and I want to be grateful for the fact that I’m back and I can still play. I shouldn’t take it for granted.”
Oliva can’t be sure what the future holds, so he takes life and practice one day at a time. For now, he can be sure of one thing:
Checco Oliva is back and working to be better every day.