February 24, 2010. Robbie Hummel drives home from the airport after a road game at Minnesota. His roommate, graduate assistant Bobby Riddell, rides shotgun.
Earlier in the night, Hummel planted on his right leg as he angled toward the basket for a layup. Minnesota players across the court heard the pop that came next.
Now Hummel, who's only been told that the bone is not broken, wants to know what's up.
"It's messed up about my knee," he says, trying to bait Riddell into telling him what the athletic trainer might have said to coaches.
"Yeah, I can't believe you tore it," Riddell responds.
So began Hummel's 18 month journey back to basketball.
Seven games into his senior season, the Valparaiso native stands atop the Big Ten Conference. He's the league's second-leading scorer and third in an unlikely combination of categories: blocked shots and 3-pointers made. This week he'll face his toughest tests yet, starting with tonight's Big Ten/ACC Challenge game against Miami and followed by Saturday's road trip to No. 11 Xavier.
It's a season that seemed just shy of impossible after Hummel twice tore his right ACL, first on that winter night in Minnesota, ending his junior season, then again during the first practice of what would have been his senior year.
"It would have been unbelievably disappointing if that was the end of his college career," Purdue coach Matt Painter said, "but his story's not over."
Hummel's story began in earnest at Valpo High, where he averaged 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game as a senior, good enough to earn a spot on the Indiana All-Star Team. Still, region basketball players including Scott Martin, E'Twaun Moore and Luke Harangody seemed to outshine him in high school.
"The biggest thing is he's gotten a lot stronger since high school," said Michigan guard Zack Novak, who played basketball at Chesterton. "He was really thin back then, but he's an Indiana basketball player; he's smart, plays the game the right way."
Purdue coach Matt Painter liked Hummel's grit. He once watched Hummel's team get handily beat by a much stronger opponent and marveled as every other kid on the court shut down -- except Hummel.
"They were done, there was no way they could win the game, and he was the only guy out there still fighting," Painter said. "I said, 'Man, that guy's competitive. He really wants to win.'"
Hummel, Martin and Moore signed with Purdue, and while Martin transferred after his freshman season, Hummel and Moore found a fast compatriot in fellow freshman JaJaun Johnson. Together the three helped Purdue to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances, including the 2009 Sweet Sixteen.
Their efforts had Purdue poised for a shot at the national championship by their junior year. The team was 23-3 and ranked third in the country when it traveled to Minnesota late in the regular season.
Hummel started that game, and had scored 11 points when he saw an opening, rose to the basket for a floater layup. He felt his knee give out as soon as he shifted his body weight to his right leg. He fell to the ground, right leg raised, face crinkled with pain.
At first he thought the bone broke, but the team's athletic trainer, Jeff Stein, repeatedly assured him it hadn't. The pain subsided a few minutes later in the locker room, and Hummel asked if he could go back in the game.
An orthopedic surgeon performed a Lachman's test, jiggling the knee to check for stability.
"No," he said. "Not tonight."
An MRI confirmed the ACL tear, and Hummel soon underwent surgery and laborious rehabilitation. Meanwhile the Purdue basketball team found itself struggling without him. The Boilermakers led Minnesota by 12 points when he left the game, ultimately winning 59-58.
Four days later they lost 53-44 at home against Michigan State, a team they beat with ease on its own home court less than three weeks earlier.
Hummel hated to see it.
"He carries some guilt," Painter said. "Even though he can't control it, he feels responsible when we struggle and he watches us play."
Hummel threw himself into rehab. Painter watched as his three-year starter -- named a Naismith Trophy Midseason Candidate on the day of his injury -- grind out long sessions pushing his knee to the brink of its strength. Painter saw Hummel transfer his gameday shut-up-and-grind-it-out toughness to every day of rehab, but he also revealed a more personal side of himself coaches hadn't noticed much to that point. Instead of being on the practice court and in the film room, Hummel was suddenly lurking around the office, in the gym at off hours, around the program moreso than in it.
"It becomes like 'Groundhog Day,'" Painter said. "You keep doing the same stuff over and over and over, but there's little achievements along the way that help you get through it."
Hummel matured in that time, Painter said, which happens when injuries bench good athletes. He began to see the game from a coach's perspective. Painter now calls his understanding of the game "cerebral."
Painter and Purdue were ready to exploit that advantage when Hummel returned for the 2010-11 season, but no one knew it would end before it began.
October 15, 2010. Hummel suits up for Purdue's first practice of the season, his first practice in seven months. He knows immediately when he lands the wrong way on his right knee, feels the repaired ligament snap again, even shoots his coach a look that says, "Yeah, I tore my knee again."
He knows the routine, but this time it's slower and he's got the whole season to recover. He lifts more weights, hoping to build more muscle and support the knee. It will be a year before he is allowed back in practice, and even then he'll go every other day through the 2011 preseason.
He says it was worth the patience.
"I'm very confident in the surgery, the rehab, all the work I've put in," Hummel said. "I know I can look at myself and say, 'I've done everything I can do.'"
Now he must learn to play without Johnson and Moore, who graduated and were picked by the Boston Celtics.
He compares this season to his own NBA draft.
"In the draft you see a lot of potential, but there's that unknown factor," he said before the season began. "No one's seen me play in so long that there's that same unknown factor."
Seven games later, he averages 19.3 points per game. He's developed beyond the skilled guard he was in high school, becoming not only a prolific 3-point shooter but an aggressive defender in the paint.
"Basketball-wise, I may be a little better than I was before Minnesota," Hummel said.