First Posted: 12/15/2014
S. ABINGTON TWP. – One of the things Clay Basalyga appreciated most on his road to recovery was friends stopping by and acting like everything was normal when he was confined to his home.
When it came time for Basalyga to begin the basketball season on the court with his Abington Heights teammates, he did his best to take the same approach, even though there were many times in the past five months when it would be easy to doubt whether he would be there.
“It was business as usual,” Basalyga said of being on the court opening night Dec. 5 when he scored 14 points in an impressive 63-29, non-league blowout of Holy Cross. “I was happy to be out there and I was excited, but at the same time, we had a few scrimmages in and I had been playing for about a month at that point.
“I was just ready to move on and get going.”
Basalyga’s summer league basketball in the months before the start of his senior year was interrupted by Lemierre syndrome and the potentially lethal combination of symptoms that are part of the syndrome, which evolves from a bacterium that starts by causing a sore throat.
Doctors told Basalyga, 18, that about 80 people a year in the United States are diagnosed with Lemierre syndrome, which strikes healthy young adults.
Basalyga considers himself lucky that he was seeking follow-up treatment on mononucleosis, which did not subside as quickly as hoped. Rather than complicate his condition, it led to early detection, one of the keys to keeping mortality rates between 4 and 12 percent for Lemierre syndrome, according to webmd.com.
Basalyga was already seeking medical help when the worst of the symptoms – convulsions, a 106-degree fever and a large blood clot in his neck – set in. CT scans and MRIs revealed spots on his lungs and heart. Basalyga was transferred from Scranton to Geisinger Medical Center in Danville where the official diagnosis was made.
New experimental drugs worked and helped spare Basalyga a treatment that can sometimes lead to weeks in intensive care. Instead, after eight days, he was released and sent home with a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) to continue receiving heavy doses of intravenous medicine though the PICC line in his upper arm three times a day for five more weeks while facing strict restrictions on physical activity.
Eileen Temprine, Basalyga’s mother, came home from work early each afternoon to help with the process.
“She came home every day to give me medicine,” Basalyga said. “It made everything better, knowing people had my back.
“I had friends over every day, just coming over to say ‘hi,” acting like nothing was wrong, just hanging out normally. Things like that made it easier.”
Basalyga, who began his hospitalization in early July, lost about 50 pounds. Because he had to be careful with the PICC line in and then while on blood thinners in the next stage of recovery, he was not completely cleared for workouts until late October.
While he returned to the court and basketball dribbling and shooting drills, Basalyga also needed time in the training room to be able navigate the difficult combination of getting in shape and putting on weight at the same time.
“I had great trainers down at Riverfront Sports that helped me out a lot,” Basalyga said.
Abington Heights coach Ken Bianchi faced the one-two punch of replacing seven important seniors, including Division I college players J.C. Show and Evan Maxwell, from last season’s championship squad and having many health-related uncertainties with the remaining players this preseason.
How much Basalyga could realistically be expected to help was a legitimate question. He has done more than help, however, moving up from being one of the team’s most important substitutes last season to learning a new position, developing a new style of play and running the offense as point guard.
“I’m a player that bases a lot of athleticism – strength and speed,” Basalyga said. “So, dropping 50 pounds really wasn’t the greatest thing. I had a lot of coaches helping me out, learning different things how to play.
“I’m not as heavy as I used to be, so I have to go more off speed. I had to develop more of a jump shot than I had, more of a pull-up jump shot than just getting to the rim every time.”
Thankful to have avoided what can be a longer hospitalization and period of inactivity, Basalyga is ahead of schedule personally and has the Comets ahead of the game in solving what could have been the team’s most glaring weakness – the lack of a true point guard.
“When I first got cleared to play, that’s when it was really emotional for me and my family,” Basalyga said. “We didn’t think it was going to be this quick. We were thinking like January, even if we pushed it.”
Basalyga, a small forward in the past, gave the Comets a little bit of everything in a 76-31 rout of Wyoming Valley West in the second game, contributing nine points, six rebounds, six assists and six steals.
“I have to be more of a ballhandler than I used to be,” he said. “Handling the ball, I’ve always been OK with. I could handle the ball in a full-court set on a press, but I had never really been the ball-handler in half-court sets.
“I had to work a lot on dribbling skills.”
That work has resulted in Basalyga being ready to set up teammates. He has also proved to be ready when points are needed.
After scoring a team-high 16 points in a 56-40, come-from-behind win over Dunmore, Basalyga was the second-leading scorer in a 3-0 start, averaging 13 points to rank behind only 6-foot-8 center Timmy Toro, the team’s only returning starter.