He felt like he was living his worst nightmare. The images and fears that haunted him throughout his upbringing were now surrounding Nate Jawai.
He had always hated needles, avoided looking at blood and was terrified of the emergency room and sound of ambulance sirens. His mother Lyn was a nurse midwife, but he hated everything about hospitals.
However, two weeks after his 27th birthday last year, Jawai had to confront his fears when he endured severe trauma to his neck and back following a blow to the head. When he started having numbness in his arms, vertigo and horrible headaches, he had to seek treatment and suddenly felt like he was in an episode of E.R. (a television series he vowed to never watch).
“I was rushed to the hospital,” Jawai told Basketball Insiders in a phone interview. “My head was scanned, I got a Computed Tomography and was put in the Intensive Care Unit. I was completely knocked out, but when I woke up I couldn’t feel my legs. The entire bottom part of my body was numb. I was traumatized. I thought I was done, f***ed up.”
Just a few hours prior, the blow to Jawai’s head had occurred during a game.
“[Galatasaray] was playing against Olympaicos when I got hit hard in the head,” Jawai said. “I made a wrong turn and bumped my head hard against (former NBA first-round draft pick) Cedric Simmons’ shoulder. It was a timeout and my jaw felt funny. I had to put my jaw back because my face felt like a mess.”
Jawai recorded a Euroleague career-high 22 points on seven-for-eight shooting from the floor over 24 minutes of action in that game. It was also his second-best overall performance based on an index efficiency rating of 29. After winning titles in Serbia and Spain, he became a force in the paint for the Turks.
But a few hours after the contest, joined by his younger brother Omar and teammate Jamont Gordon, Jawai began acting funny. It wasn’t due to alcohol because there was no booze present. The awkwardness was out of his control.
“I felt drunk and knew something weird was going on,” Jawai said. “I started getting this huge headache. It was the size of a watermelon. My whole head was on fire, and I have a massive head. We were just sitting in the living room when all of the sudden I was feeling hot and my entire body was drenched in sweat. It didn’t add up because it was the winter. I was scared and said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ And we immediately called an ambulance.”
It was around 3 a.m. in Istanbul, Turkey when Jawai was taken to the E.R. He was hospitalized with immediate concerns for heart or brain anomalies. In 2008, Jawai was found to have an irregularity with his heart during a medical examination with the Toronto Raptors. He registered a total of 45 games in Toronto and with the Minnesota Timberwolves before falling out of the NBA.
The short ride over from his luxurious patio to the emergency room felt like forever for Jawai, who was once dubbed “Baby Shaq.” Thoughts kept piling up in his head and he felt anxious.
“I never felt something like that before so I knew something was wrong,” Jawai said before wondering, “‘Was this the end? Is my career done? Will I live?’”
Initial concerns were put to rest as medical tests revealed that Jawai, who suffered from symptoms of vertigo and numbness in his left arm and left leg, would be okay. After being examined, doctors felt the injuries were due to severe trauma to his neck and back. They were deemed non-life-threatening, but still serious. Even though he received good news, he wasn’t sure he’d ever play basketball again.
“I received treatment and a small cut on my brain,” Jawai said. “Retirement crossed my mind and the first thing I asked the doctors was, ‘Would I be able to play again?’ I didn’t want people beating around the bush, not giving me the facts. I had a lot of basketball left in me, but I was okay retiring over health reasons as opposed to doing something stupid off the court. I would’ve been pissed if that happened.”
Fortunately, he was told he could continue playing after recovering from the injury. The results were uplifting, and Jawai returned to his native land.
“I was told the timetable for recovery would be up to six months,” Jawai said. “I’m still not sure what I suffered exactly; it could’ve been the hit and trauma to the neck, or my hormone level being low, possibly stress … there were multiple reasons. As a result, I cut down on going out and stopped partying.”
Jawai headed to the Australia Institute of Sports and Centre of Excellence, where he worked on his craft and focused on staying in shape as he marked the previous World Cup tournament in Spain as his official comeback destination.
“I rehabbed for six months and waited for clearance from the doctors to return to pro ball,” he said. “I was dribbling and shooting the whole time, but I was ordered not to engage in contact.”
Jawai’s comeback to the parquet was complete over the summer, when he received an official invite to the Australia national team for Espana. There, he registered 4.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game over 11 minutes of action, including a tournament-best 10 points and five rebounds in a win against Angola.
“Without the help of the people at the AIS, the COE, the Australia national team and head coach Andrej Lemanis, none of this would’ve been possible,” Jawai said.
After the Worlds, Jawai re-signed with Turkish power-club Galatasaray, but made just 15 appearances before cutting ties with the organization, which was far behind on payments and owes money to multiple players. According to sources, Galatasaray are in debt of over $500,000 to Jawai and $150,000 to Great Britain power-forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu among others.
Furthermore, Jawai and former teammate Nolan Smith were put up in local hotels and forced to cover the cost of living throughout their time in Istanbul.
“I was happy to get a chance to return to Galatasaray as I have great memories of the fans and the club. I wanted to finish what we started a few years ago, but things didn’t work out because head coach [Ergin Ataman] expected me to be the player I was before my injury. It was extremely hard to live up to that given what I’ve gone through. It’s a shame things didn’t go as planned, but chapter two of a movie is never better than the first,” said Jawai, who registered 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 6.3 minutes over a handful of Euroleague games this season.
Jawai has since signed in the Spanish league, which is known as the top rated competition outside the NBA.
“I’m on the path to become the force I once was with Barcelona; I’m not far from getting there,” Jawai said. “I appreciate Morabanc Andorra for giving me the opportunity to play. Being here is humbling and it motivates me to work hard and get back to the elite European clubs.”
After a scary period, Jawai is thrilled to be back on the floor playing the game he loves.
Story By David Pick