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Clemson guard: 'It's a privilege to play every day'

BY AARON BRENNER

abrenner@postandcourier.com

A few enthusiastic fans waited patiently for their favorite player's autograph, and Jordan Roper rewarded them, his face sculpted with that easygoing smile.

Clemson had just dominated Furman 71-35 on Dec. 14, improving to 8-2, lifted by Roper's season-high 16 points. Dressed to impress the way Russell Westbrook would approve, the Tigers' charming sophomore guard enjoyed breaking away from postgame interviews and taking a few extra minutes on a Saturday night to make some youngsters' day, and maybe their week.

"Rope, he's a positive guy all-around," Roper's teammate, K.J. McDaniels, says from further inside the Littlejohn Coliseum corridor. "We've never seen him sad, really.

"He's been through some stuff, but we know he has the heart of a lion. He might be hurting inside, but he's always smiling."

Matching the bright disposition with his internal emotions is a daily struggle for Roper, which nobody but Roper truly understands. So few others have to mentally cope with suffering a troubling health scare at age 19.

Freak athlete

The diagnosis was delivered the same way a mechanic might indicate a flat tire.

"They said, well, looks like it was a stroke," says Eric Roper, Jordan's father. "That's how cavalier they put it."

It's no small issue in the Roper household in Irmo, a northwest suburb of Columbia. Eric's father passed away a few years ago from a stroke, and others on Eric's side have a history of strokes.

While strokes are still the world's second-leading cause of death (trailing heart disease), they're quite rare in teenagers; though some studies have suggested young people are suffering them at a higher rate, they're usually attributed to diabetics or overweight individuals.

That's not Roper: spry (at 5-11, he can vertical leap 40 inches), powerful (measuring at 165 pounds, he can bench 50 pounds above his weight) and a freak athlete for a long, long time.

Eric Roper remembers his boy, once a good soccer player and a great baseball pitcher, flirting with 90 mph on the radar gun as a 12-year-old.

"He was humming. He threw an effective curve. Nobody wanted to stay in the box," Eric says. "It was fun, but not enough action for him, so that's why he quit baseball. Too much standing around."

Jordan pitched right-handed, writes right-handed, does everything right-handed except basketball. He learned to shoot from his dad, by standing in front of Eric and basically mirroring his motion.

"The best I could tell because he was mimicking me," Roper says, "I'm right-handed, so when he would look at me, I guess he imitated what he saw with his left hand."

That left side of his body failed Roper for about six to eight hours last March.

'That was weird'

The Wednesday after spring break, a couple weeks after his sophomore season ended, Jordan Roper left a tutoring session headed for home when he dropped his cell phone. He bent down with his left hand to grab it, could see himself grab it, but couldn't feel anything.

"If you can imagine a cat playing with a yarn ball, that's what it was like," Roper says, recalling the event. "I finally picked up my phone, and was like, 'That was weird. I must be tired or something.' "

By the time Roper got home, he could hear his breath amplified out the side of his mouth. It seemed odd; a 7 a.m. workout early that day went fine. He had a test that afternoon, so he lay down trying to catch a nap, an unsuccessful effort.

So he rose, got some food and went to the exam, penning answers calmly with his right hand.

Friends started to realize something was wrong. They asked how he was feeling, and Roper wasn't answering clearly.

"Then they noticed I still had food in my mouth because I couldn't feel the left side of my face," Roper says. "So I was like, that's weird. But I had to lift later, so I didn't want to be like, uh, I feel weird today, I don't want to lift."

Roper got in his car to drive to the basketball weight room at Littlejohn, put his left hand on the steering wheel, and backed over the curb. More telltale signs.

Somehow, he arrived at the arena safely, got dressed and went upstairs to meet with strength and conditioning coach Darric Honnold, who just three days prior had honored Roper with the Tiger Strength Award at the team's banquet.

Just like with his friends, Roper couldn't verbalize anything to Honnold, who immediately sent Roper to see team trainer Andy McPherson, who noticed tingling, muscle weakness and incapacity of any voluntary movements on Roper's left side.

McPherson summoned Dr. Larry Bowman, the athletic department's orthopedic surgeon, to examine Roper. The whole time, the s-word never seemed real.

"You're thinking, is he really having a stroke? He's a healthy 19-year-old kid," McPherson says. "He didn't get hit in the head, he didn't twist his neck a certain way. There's no way it could be a stroke. Kept doubting that it was."

Testing everything

Bowman called ahead to the Oconee Medical Center in Seneca, and they were off to the emergency room, where Roper underwent a number of different procedures.

"From then on," Roper says, "I got the best medical care I'll probably ever get in my life."

Specialists administered a CT scan, an MRI, and a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE), which is an ultrasound with a tiny camera inserted orally through his esophagus to search for heart conditions.

A hematologist in Greenville took 20 vials of Roper's blood for analysis. A neurologist checked for blood clots in his brain, which could cut off circulation on one side of his body. The Ropers consulted with Dr. Marc Chimowitz, a stroke specialist at Charleston's Medical University of South Carolina.

Nothing seemed the evident culprit. Which was equal parts good news and strange news: Roper doesn't have any life-altering damages, but the whole episode was nearly unexplainable.

"The neurologist keyed it, if you had to do a scale of strokes from 0 to 100, Jordan Roper's was probably a two," McPherson says. "Very, very minor."

Moving on

After Roper suffered the first concussion of his life in Clemson's Nov. 24 loss to UMass in the Charleston Classic final game, he saw the same neurologist for an eight-month checkup.

"Totally unrelated," McPherson says. "Because of his history, we were very cautious.

"The neurologist has stated that he should not have any long-lasting effects. The chances of him getting another stroke are about the same amount of chances of him having a stroke the first time. So, pretty rare."

Roper is practicing full now, and has adjusted to a bench role in which he's third on the Tigers in scoring (8.8 points per game.) Other than taking 81 milligrams of aspirin - "baby strength", as it's known - every morning, there's no other precautionary routines.

"It's more things Jordan has to get through mentally," head coach Brad Brownell says, "than it is us having to manage anything."

Roper did not practice or work out for a few months, but did return for the summer session, and then suited up for the team's four exhibitions in Italy on an August tour.

"Being 19 and thinking about, you could have lost your life, that's pretty eye-opening," says Roper, who did turn 20 Nov. 2. "It's a privilege to play every day."

Roper led the Tigers in scoring (16 points) and supporting (four assists) per game in Italy.

He knew he was back early in the first game against the Italian All-Stars, when he grabbed ahold of a loose ball, and didn't hesitate. Off one dribble and three steps, Roper dunked on some Italian dude six inches taller, throwing down a vicious slam with his left hand.