ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The games were the best part for Alex Kirk.
Sitting on the bench last season with his Lobo teammates during UNM’s 28-win, Mountain West championship run that ended in the second round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament made him forget.
“I could almost get away from the injury for a little bit during the games,” said Kirk, a center for the UNM men’s basketball team who sat out the 2011-12 season after back surgery. “That was the time when I felt like most a part of the team. I mean, I know I was always a part of the team, but during the games, sitting there with the guys, that was the time I thought about the injury the least.”
The practices were another story.
Kirk, who officially stands at 6-feet-11¾ inches tall, said the slipped disc in his back that led to a pinched nerve and sometimes excruciating shooting pains in his left leg made him realize two things: One, he loves basketball. And two, he hopes he never has sit out because of an injury again.
“Watching practice,” Kirk recalls, “it was great learning so much from guys like Drew (Gordon) and A.J. (Hardeman), but those practices were the hardest for me, the most frustrating. It was almost depressing.”
That isn’t the case anymore. The former Los Alamos High School star enters his sophomore season (his injury did not cost him a year of eligibility), and he’s as driven as ever to get back on the court and live up to lofty expectations.
Head coach Steve Alford not only believes Kirk will contribute this season; the sixth-year head coach expects the red-headed big man to announce his presence on the national stage as “one of the best centers playing in the West.”
“It’s not pressure,” Alford says of the bold prediction. “If you look at what Alex did as a freshman and you start to look at the other centers that are in the West, I think he’s definitely one of the better big men in the West. I think that’s what he aspires to be.”
They may be arguing semantics, but Kirk actually does think the prediction puts pressure on him. He just doesn’t mind it.
“That’s a great honor. It’s great for him to say that I have that sort of potential, but the key word is potential,” Kirk said. “I know I have a lot of work still to do to live up to that.”
Kirk started 18 games as a true freshman in the 2010-11 season. That included the first 18 contests — mostly while Gordon was sitting out after his transfer from UCLA. Kirk averaged 8.1 points per game in the nonconference portion of the schedule. But the numbers dropped to 4.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game by the end of the season, and it was apparent something wasn’t right.
In hindsight, Kirk says, his injury woes may have started in high school when he often experienced stiffness in his hip, leading to a host of other injuries in his legs and lower back.
“I’m 100 percent now,” Kirk said, adding that as long as he continues to work on his flexibility and strength, there’s no reason to think “that the back will be an issue at all again.”
He’ll need to be in top form to go extended minutes while opposing teams come at him with a physical style of play, trying to expose the perceived weakness that he’s a soft center who prefers to work from the perimeter.
“You’ll definitely see more skill than athleticism out of me. I know that,” Kirk said. “I’m not your typical pounder that pounds the ball inside, but I’ve been working on my back to the basket which is going to be key. I also do help with stretching the defense — help getting the big guy (defending me) out of the lane for our guards driving.”
And it should be noted that Kirk goes against teammate Cameron Barstow, a 6-9, 250-pound workout warrior who few would argue is the strongest big man in the Mountain West this coming season.
“I think the strength of Alex is he’s an inside-out post,” Alford said. “And he’s got to have good balance there. A 7-footer has to establish himself inside first, and he’s gotten a lot better at understanding that. And going against Cam every day, he’s going to be just fine when other teams try to get physical against him.”
If Barstow is helping Kirk’s return physically, another former Lobo may be able to take some credit for keeping Kirk focused mentally.
Former Lobo forward Emmanuel Negedu’s heart condition forced his college career to end, but he was there with Kirk at most of last year’s practices, watching from the sidelines.
“He never actually said, ‘Hey, at least you’re going to play basketball again,’” Kirk said of Negedu, “but you could see it. He was there with me and always keeping my head right and keeping me focused on getting back to where I could get back on the court.”
Now that long wait to get back on the court is almost over.