Smiles have not been easy to come by for Daniel Orton over the last few months.
Back in early November, just days before signing a national letter of intent to play basketball next year at the University of Kentucky, he suffered a knee injury that basically wiped out his entire senior season at Bishop McGuinness. Instead of having the opportunity to live up to his preseason player-of-the-year billing, Orton was reduced to a spectator and left with four grueling months of rehabilitation.
Then, in February, with much of his road to recovery behind him and a return to basketball looking more possible by the day, his personal life took a tragic turn when his mother lost a long battle with lupus.
With his world seemingly spiraling out of control, Orton remained grounded in his faith and family. Although brokenhearted, he managed to show the maturity of a young man well beyond his years by pushing forward with his life.
"It's been tough because we were so close. I've just tried to deal with it the best way I know how," said Orton, whose mother, Carolyn, was only 52 when she died on Feb. 10.
He further dedicated himself to his rehab sessions and did everything in his power to return in time to potentially help the Irish defend the Class 4A state title they had won three consecutive seasons. Even though his No. 1 fan would no longer be sitting in the stands to watch him play, he pushed himself harder than ever.
"Daniel has held up pretty well. We preach Christ around our house and he has had his faith to fall back on. He has moved forward with his life and done the things his mom would want him to do," said Larry Orton, Daniel's father.
All of the hard work paid off for the 6-foot-10 center, who averaged 16 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocked shots during a stellar prep career. He was cleared to play again just in time for McGuinness' first state tournament game last week and his impact was immediate as he scored nine points and grabbed eight boards in a win over Bethel.
In the state semifinals, he had three blocks and 10 rebounds to help the Irish knock off Fort Gibson 69-56, and earn a shot at a fourth straight gold ball.
But it was not to be. Despite getting 14 points from Orton, McGuinness finally ran out of steam against a talented Star Spencer team that took a 67-61 decision in last Saturday's championship game. It was no doubt a bittersweet return for Orton.
"It definitely felt good to get back out there and play again. But my mom was definitely on my mind a lot," he said. "After every state championship game, she'd be the first person I'd go see (in the stands). After Saturday's game, I didn't really know what to do " she wasn't there and we lost, so it was not the same."
THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS
Moments after the loss, Orton shared some thoughts and feelings with his teammates in the locker room.
"Daniel put things into perspective when he spoke in the locker room. He talked about how basketball is big, but how it's just a part of life," said McGuinness head coach Andy Fisher. "It's been amazing to see how well he's handled everything, especially with his mom's passing. She was the biggest influence on his life and will continue to be because of the relationship they shared."
Orton has coped with the loss of his mother on his own terms. He might have easily let his grief consume him, but instead, he chose to embrace all of the positives she reinforced in his life.
"She was the core to our family and the reason we are so close. That won't ever go away," he said.
With his high school hoops career behind him, Orton is focusing on the future. He left this week for a training session in California, where he was expected to work on strengthening his knee and polishing some of his basic court skills.
"Daniel is a great person. And as a player, he is as good as there is in this (recruiting) class, and he should make a major impact for us immediately," said Wildcat coach Billy Gillispie, who was in Norman over the weekend to watch Orton play.
Orton will graduate from McGuinness in May and head for Kentucky a few days later, where he'll enroll in summer classes. Even though the Wildcats have produced two straight subpar seasons under Gillispie, Orton has not wavered on his commitment to UK. "Jay C. Upchurch