(Steven Lane/The Columbian)
Sean Price has heard his share of pregame pep talks, but still he sits inside the cramped Clark College locker room and hangs on to every word from head coach Alex Kirk as if he's receiving prophecy from the oracle.
Price leans forward, his hands on both knees, listens intently and nods emphatically.
Six and five is the only thing that matters. Price agrees.
Gotta take this Green River game personally. Price acknowledges.
Need this win for the playoffs. Price shakes like a bobblehead.
Almost a decade ago, Price would've placed himself inside a plush locker room while listening to Coach and surrounded by his Division I teammates. When he graduated from Columbia River High School, Price never would have envisioned his career playing out quite like this — at 25 years old, only two years younger than the fresh-faced Kirk, and fired up to play inside a half-full community college gymnasium for a chance to get that sixth conference win of the season.
"It's taken me a little bit longer to accomplish what I've wanted to accomplish in playing basketball," Price says. "I feel like my path is different."
That path of his has been littered with years of bad fortune.
A ruptured vertebrae, a broken wrist and a near-death experience. These might have been the not-so-subtle flashing signs for just about anybody else to give up the game and become a grown-up. But not Price.
He still chases after his first love.
So, Price has pressed reset on his career and returned to competitive basketball for the 2012-13 season. At Clark, Price has become the team's best player, averaging 21.5 points and 8.4 rebounds a game.
"Not succeeding, getting injured and all these things happen for a reason," Price says. "That's why I'm at Clark now. All the stars have aligned."
• • •
Kenny Price tried his best to rush along with the rest of the Christmas shoppers on I-5.
He had his oldest son, Sean, a freshman at Grays Harbor College, home for the 2005 holiday break, and the two would take the family's full-size Chevy pickup to finish their shopping.
Traffic crawled along until Kenny had to forsake the accelerator pedal and come to a complete stop. Their truck had been stalled there for two minutes when the sight of an approaching Jeep Wrangler in the rearview mirror caught Kenny's eyes. The driver was working on a laptop computer while driving faster than 50 miles an hour.
The Jeep never slowed, and the resulting loud crash of twisting metal meant that basketball was over for Sean Price.
An instant had seemingly wiped away a lifelong passion. Teresa Price recognized this love whenever she caught her son acting as the kindergarten recess ringleader and rounding up every boy he could find to play basketball. The neighbors suffered it until they had to gently remind the kid that 10 o'clock at night wasn't the best time to be bouncing a basketball in his driveway. And when Columbia River coach David Long noticed it, he was simply scared for the young man.
"I was actually really concerned when he was a freshman that he would never reach the potential that he thought he was going to be," Long says. "He was obsessed with the game of basketball. Really dedicated to the game of basketball."
Long knew that Price had played through his elementary and middle-school years on a traveling team based in Portland where he learned his "playground moves," but at first blush, he didn't have what it would take to move through the Columbia River program.
Price was a skinny, scrawny freshman, soft with the ball and allergic to the paint. He primarily shot 3-pointers and collected one, maybe two rebounds all year, and those he probably picked up off the ground.
But a growth spurt finally matched his work ethic and the one-dimensional freshman with the Olive Oyl body developed into a 6-foot-4, 185-pound two-year varsity starter.
Long, who has been on the Columbia River sidelines for 20 seasons, still remembers the last game that Price played for him as the single greatest scoring line he's witnessed in high school basketball. Columbia River defeated the mammoth out of Seattle, Rainier Beach, for the third-place trophy in the 2005 state tournament. Price made 12 of 13 shots, never missed a free throw and finished with 35 points.
After that game, colleges noticed and Price received a lot of calls. He knew he would need to take the junior-college route — a B student in high school, Price did not get the qualifying test scores — so he picked Grays Harbor. Just a brief stop until he would transfer to Portland State or the University of Portland, Price told himself.
But, the driver inside the Jeep Wrangler never saw his father's brake lights.
Price and his father walked away from the accident, but not without sustaining injuries to their neck and back. Price could not jump, let alone play basketball, and through half a year of rehabilitation, he stayed away from the game.
"It drove him nuts because it kept him out of the gym," Long says, "(But) I'm a believer in fate.
"For Sean, maybe it gave him a different perspective, gave him a break from basketball that he needed."
• • •
Price had spent much of his brief freshman year at Grays Harbor second-guessing his move to follow the bouncing ball to Aberdeen. Then, the Christmas break car accident made the decision for him. He would move back home.
Part-time job purgatory followed. But it wasn't completely bad. A simple and easy-going character himself, Price had always enjoyed interacting with kids and found a niche while working with youth at a local community center.
He entertained thoughts of giving up basketball and pursuing a coaching career, until one day he met an old friend at the gym.
"We played one-on-one and I kicked his butt three straight times," Derek Thurston recalls. "He wasn't too happy about that."
As Columbia River teammates, Price and Thurston bonded over highly-spirited, trash-talking shooting drills. Thurston had just completed his freshman season at Clark (he did not return to school until this past fall) when he defeated Price in that fateful game.
More than anything else, the thrashing inspired Price to make a comeback.
Price and Thurston would spend their days at their jobs then at night, hit the gym together for marathon basketball sessions.
Price had his heart set on a return to basketball.
However in 2009, he started a new job at a trophy store when a sliver of metal pierced his left thumb. Price thought the thumb had been properly cleaned and bandaged but days later, it developed a staph infection. Doctors told him he could lose his hand within the next 12 hours and possibly his life within a day if the dangerous bacteria MRSA continued to spread.
The episode and two surgeries kept Price out of basketball again for another year, but he remained steadfast that he would play again.
"It was really devastating," Price said. "(But) I just knew that I needed to get back and that I needed to play. I needed to follow my dream because I knew this was what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to play."
The calamities continued even after the staph infection scare.
The summer before the 2010 school year, Price broke his left wrist and could not try out for the Clark basketball team as originally planned.
The series of unfortunate events only ceased this past season when Price joined the Clark Penguins — seven years after last playing competitive basketball.
• • •
When the Penguins retreat to the locker room for halftime, Price drips sweat and reaches for a tiny cup of water, needing a break after hitting 50 percent of his shots. Clark owns the 21-point advantage and he leads the team in scoring, but Price is hardly happy.
"Damn!" he closes his eyes and shouts. "I should've hit that (expletive) corner one! I thought it was money!"
Price then coughs in way that makes you feel sorry for his lungs, so he chugs more water. But not even a sip from the freshest springs could cure that cough.
When he's back home, Teresa Price discerns how he's still struggling with a two-month long sickness — "I don't know if the coach knows how it was affecting him," Teresa says — but Price will keep popping vitamins and pressing on.
He's had enough setbacks, now he pretends they don't exist. So Price didn't even tell his coaches about the abdominal strain he suffered before the season.
"I kept that on the quiet because I wanted to play so bad," Price says. "I didn't want anybody to know, so I fought through."
Clark will prevail in the game and get that magical sixth win. The team moves closer to making the playoffs.
Also, Price's individual success has sparked a new batch of intrigue. Price will be too old to play NCAA Division I basketball, but he is getting interest from several D-II programs. He's had so much practice talking to coaches and explaining why he's a 25-year-old college basketball player that Price can wrap up the last seven years of his life in four minutes flat.
It's taken a while, but basketball finally loves him back.
"I'm free now," Price says. "This is my time now."