Matt Alvarado thought the final game of his junior season would be a springboard.
Little did he know it was a curtain call.
The Gilbert High boys basketball team made a Cinderella run through the 5A-I state tournament last season, defeating two higher seeds and pushing top-ranked Highland to the brink in the state semifinals.
In that game, Alvarado scored 14 points, but the Tigers eventually blew a 10-point second-half lead and lost by seven.
Still, Alvarado was feeling good.
The graduation of several starters would mean more playing time as a senior, and he was pleased with his progress on the court and in the weight room. He was also chosen as a team captain.
“Everything was going so well,” Alvarado said.
A month before the season began, that all changed.
He came home from his job at Target in early September, and didn’t feel well.
First it was just dizziness, soreness and some vomiting. A basic flu bug, Alvarado thought.
But a week and a half later, on the morning he was set to see a doctor, Alvarado went to turn on a light, and his right arm would not move.
Alvarado was sent to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a neurological spine disorder that leaves the infected areas extremely weak. Many times, the disorder affects the legs and can cause paralysis.
Alvarado’s case wasn’t that severe, but his right shoulder was affected, and the hospital stay lasted a week.
He eventually returned to school, but simple tasks like eating, putting on a shirt and writing became cumbersome. Even putting on deodorant took some time to master.
“I’d pick up my arm and set it on the dresser,” Alvarado said. “Then I could put my deodorant on.”
Despite the setback, Alvarado was determined to play basketball this season.
Medicine that caused weight gain and weeks of inactivity combined to add 20 pounds to his frame, but Alvarado wouldn’t sit out the bi-weekly conditioning sessions.
“He literally could not move his right arm (during a run on the track),” Gilbert coach Jay Caserio said. “He’s 20 pounds overweight, and it’s 105 degrees out. Towards the end, he finally asks me if he can walk. It’s just amazing to watch a kid be that dedicated.”
Besides the lack of conditioning, Alvarado said he felt good.
But the first dose of reality came at practice. His first shot attempt was just five feet away from the basket. It didn’t make it halfway. Even then, Alvarado refused to give up.
“I always thought, 'OK, I’ll get back into it,’” he said. “That was my thing. Give me two weeks and I’ll be back. Give me to the third game and I’ll be back. After the tournament, I’ll be back. Everyone thinks they’re Superman right away. It’s just never the case.”
When the improvement didn’t happen quickly enough — full recovery can take up to two years — Alvarado came to grips with sitting out his final season.
Caserio said he was worried about breaking the news to Alvarado, but he never had to.
“He just looked at me one day and said, 'Coach, I know I’m not going to play this year,’” Caserio said. “'I just want to be around the guys.’”
While Alvarado won’t see any game action, it’s hard to tell. He’s one of the more vocal players on the practice court.
On the bench during games, Alvarado acts as a coach, explaining what he sees to the younger teammates that are playing in his vacated spot.
While transverse myelitis may have robbed Alvarado of his senior season, it hasn’t taken his sense of humor.
When he returned to the weight room, Alvarado tried to do a set of a low weight because he knew his shoulder could not support what he used to lift.
It was still too heavy, so he took more off. And then more. And more.
Eventually, Alvarado was doing bench presses with just five pounds on each side of the bar.
“I’m not saying I was a huge lifter, but I could do a decent amount of weight,” Alvarado said. “And I’m sitting here doing fives.”
Alvarado’s lifting partner and best friend, Austin James, couldn’t help but smile. Soon, Alvarado was showing off his lack of strength.
“He would joke around, like 'Hey guys, check this out,’” James said. “He would put 50 pounds (for his left arm) and two pounds (for his right)... Even if things aren’t the best, you can still look at the positive things in life. Not just all the negatives. And that’s definitely what Matt does.”
Said Alvarado: “It is funny, me lifting five pounds. If he was lifting five pounds, I wouldn’t hold back a laugh. That’s just how it is. It’s what I needed.
“When something like this happens, that’s how you have to be. You can’t sit at the end of the bench with your head down, saying 'That should have been me that hit that shot.’ I try to make people laugh, make people smile. Despite my struggles, you have to have a good time with it.”