When he needs inspiration, or just wants to relive a fond memory, Tommy Hambicki pops in the videotape of the Gilbert High School boys basketball team's state championship victory on March 4.
It’s somewhat surreal watching himself on the television screen, running and jumping, doing things he currently is unable to. Then, the final buzzer sounds on the Tigers’ victory, and Hambicki and his teammates spill their euphoria onto the America West Arena floor.
The 18-year-old watches the celebration and calls it the second-happiest moment of his life.
The happiest? That will be when he rises out of his wheelchair and walks again for the first time.
“You want to do those things you used to do and feel those things again,” said Hambicki, who is paralyzed from the waist down. “That’s my goal. I just want to do all I can, physically and mentally, to get ready for that. Then, I’ll let God do the rest.”
Not long ago, Hambicki was 5 feet, 11 inches of basketball hero who felt indestructible. Today, he’s in a wheelchair, and every waking moment is spent with his back, chest and torso in a cumbersome brace.
Hambicki’s condition is the result of a March 20 one-vehicle accident on a two-lane stretch of highway just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. He and four friends were returning from a spring break/championship celebration trip to Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, popularly known as Rocky Point.
The only serious injury was to Hambicki, the driver, who was not wearing a seat belt. He suffered a pinched spinal cord and broke the 11th thoracic vertebra in his spine. Later that night, he underwent five hours of surgery to fuse the vertebra and relieve the pressure on his spinal cord.
Patients can recover from such an injury in as little as six months to two years. Or never.
That’s the uncertainty Hambicki faces each day.
“There are no guarantees,” said Arnie Fonseca Jr., founder and owner of the Tempe-based Neuro Institute, where Hambicki rehabilitates. “He knows that. Tommy knows he could be in for the fight of his life. It could respond at any time, or it could be years.”
Still, Hambicki is doing his best to maintain a normal life. He hangs out at the movies with friends and goes to the mall with his girlfriend.
He returned to school and graduated on May 22 — and after he received his diploma, Hambicki got a group hug from fellow Gilbert students, right in the middle of the ceremony.
However, there’s a sizeable void, and that’s the game he loves.
“The thrill of playing basketball in a pickup game is gone, and that’s a hard thing,” Hambicki said. “I was at a party with friends, and they were playing, and I was sitting there watching them.
“I was like, ‘OK, let’s get up and play,’ but my legs wouldn’t move. It’s the hardest thing to deal with in all this because basketball was my life.”
SPUN OUT OF CONTROL
Hambicki was Mr. Clutch for the Tigers in the 5A state championship game on March 4. His eight points, including two 3-point baskets, during the last six minutes helped Gilbert outlast Desert Vista for a 56-51 victory.
He had designs on playing collegiately, either at Scottsdale Community College or an NCAA Division II school. His future plans, however, were altered when the Ford truck he was driving veered off that Mexican road.
“The last few days we were there, I wanted to get home,” Hambicki said. “I’d never been on a trip on my own, and I wanted to see my family again. The night before we left, I made sure I got in early. I knew I’d be driving.”
Hambicki said he had not been drinking, and was not drowsy when they left the next morning. But he said he had “highway hypnosis,” causing the vehicle to creep into the other lane a handful of times. Finally, he overcompensated too much, causing the truck to swerve off the road and onto flat dirt.
The ditch seemingly came out of nowhere. Hambicki quickly turned the truck sideways, but it flipped, coming to rest on the driver’s side. He called to his friends to make sure they were OK, then tried to lift himself out of the truck.
Suddenly, Hambicki couldn’t move. He reached down and felt a leg — and realized something might be seriously wrong.
“I didn’t know whose leg it was,” Hambicki said. “A friend had to tell me it was mine. I don’t know how to explain that feeling. I didn’t like it at all.”
Hambicki was transferred by ambulance to a hospital in Ajo, then airlifted to Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, where he underwent surgery.
Margi Hambicki, a divorced, stay-at-home mother, has provided her son with 24-hour care.
Tommy Hambicki cannot sleep on his side for more than 45 minutes at a time, or he develops sores. Margi sleeps on a cot in Tommy’s room at night, answering the alarm every 45 minutes to help him turn himself.
“I talked with a woman at the hospital whose son was going through a similar situation,” Margi Hambicki said. “She seemed bitter. I decided that, for me, it wasn’t going to be that way. My son is alive. He can tell me he loves me. I can hold him, and that’s all I need.
“If I have to go with two hours of sleep each night — which, sometimes, I do — it’s all worth it.”
For Margi Hambicki, perhaps the biggest positive from her son’s accident has been the personality change he has undergone. The indestructible jock is now a young Christian man.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think,” Hambicki said. “It totally has changed my outlook on life.
“I got baptized while in the hospital. I realized my life should be based on following God’s ways. He is the hope that I have to get better.”
Although raised in the church, Hambicki was not as passionate about religion as he is now. He reads his Bible regularly. He has healed relationships that, before his accident, were broken.
The acts of kindness Hambicki has received have been overwhelming.
A local building company made his bathroom wheelchair-accessible at no cost. And on Friday night, a fund-raiser will be held to help the Hambickis with rehab costs that have reached $6,000 a month.
“I never realized how many people cared for me until this happened,” Hambicki said.
HIGHS AND LOWS
During the three to four hours of rehab Hambicki does each session, six days a week, he is encouraged most by the fact that he experiences a burning sensation and tightness in his legs as they are moved via a machine.
“My muscles have gained a little size, and my legs feel better,” he said. “I can feel things in them I couldn’t before.”
Still, Fonseca warns, it’s still far too early to make assumptions. Hambicki has much pain, both physical and emotional, to experience.
“He’s going to go through periods of high highs and low lows,” Fonseca said. “That’s all coming. This is just part of it. He says he’s ready for it, but no one is really ready for all of that stuff. Reality can be tough to handle when you’re 18 years old.”
When Hambicki visits the Neuro Institute, the first thing he does is seek out a 24-year-old named David Martinez, who suffered a similar spinal injury.
This weekend, Martinez is getting married. And he’ll walk down the aisle.
The inspiration he has received from Martinez, as well as his own athletic instincts, make Hambicki eager to do the strength exercises and electrical muscle stimulation.
“His body is still going through healing, and there’s still some swelling in there, so you must be careful,” Fonseca said. “But he wants the work. He’s an athlete.”
Hambicki’s goal is clear and ambitious: to play basketball again by 2005.
“There’s never a time where I don’t think I’ll walk again,” he said.
Said Margi Hambicki: “I see his enthusiasm every day at the rehab center. He’s going to beat this. I know he is.”