Steamboat Springs A stranger in the stands might never have noticed.
Soroco boys basketball coach Sam McLeod is no stranger, however.
Alex Estes stole a pass in last weekend's basketball game against North Park and was down the court, leaping toward the rim in the blink of an eye. He lifted up and soared, flying with the ball to the height of the rim before he finally let it slip away, up, over and in.
The junior point guard grabbed the rim as he soared past, filling the gym with a resounding thump as the ball fell through the net.
To a stranger, it was an athletic play from beginning to end. But McLeod could only wince.
"He tried to go up and dunk," McLeod said after the game. "He can't get there right now."
That's not news for most 5-foot-11 high school juniors, but Estes usually is a player of explosive legs - so explosive he placed third in the long jump at the Class 2A state track meet as a sophomore last spring. But that dynamite turned into a dud after he broke his left ankle first during a summer basketball camp, then more severely in a preseason football scrimmage.
"He's still only 80 percent," McLeod said. "He still plays with a lot of pain."
Leading the way
McLeod should know. He broke his own ankle in high school and went on to play college basketball with screws holding his bones together.
When Estes first sustained the injury, he thought it was little more than a rolled ankle. In fact, he played on it for three more games at the team camp in New Mexico.
"Then, one game, it gave out," he said. "I couldn't put any more pressure on it. That's when I decided to stop."
Estes wore a boot for much of the rest of the summer and was cleared by doctors before football practice started in August. His problems were far from finished, however. He broke the ankle again during Soroco's football scrimmage against Vail Christian and was forced to sit out the entire season after having surgery and screws put in to stabilize the bone.
McLeod, aware that the mental toll can be as devastating to a young athlete as any physical damage, was quick to get in touch.
"Just from my experience, I know it's tough," he said. "It was really tough for him during football season. I spent a lot of time talking to him about fighting through the tough parts."
Estes' ankle eventually healed again, and again he got the go-ahead from a doctor. When basketball practice started, he was on the floor with his teammates, ready to compete.
"It's surprising when you look at an X-ray and you have two screws in your leg," he said.
Healing up and moving on
Soroco's boys team is off to one of its best starts, winning six of its seven games before the two-week holiday vacation. Even as he's temporarily lost his ability to dunk, Estes has played an important role in that surge. He was second on the team in the 78-28 blowout of North Park, scoring 13 points.
"He's doing a good job, but he has a hard time finishing a play," McLeod said. "A lot of that is the foot. He's an explosive jumper. Without that ankle injury, he could probably drop step and dunk the basketball. Now, he can't."
It's getting better. He's learned to take off from his right foot instead of his more natural left.
"I'm sure it looked funny at first when I was trying to use my other foot," Estes said. "My track coach thinks I might even be able to jump further if I learn to jump with the one I didn't break."
The holiday break could serve as the perfect chance for him to reach 100 percent with the ankle. He has big plans for the remainder of the basketball season. Soroco is eyeing a bid to the state tournament, and Estes said the team is determined to finish at or near the top of the Western Slope League.
And, he said he'd love to top his big performance at last year's state track meet.
He's focusing on being a three-sport athlete now, holding out hope of perhaps playing one of them in college.
He has snowboarded only twice in the past year.
"I was trying not to get injured," he said, laughing. "I still have another year of high school. That has really helped. This is my first year of major injuries, and it was tough to deal with the first time."