Tyson Burton has daily reminders of how lucky he is to be walking let alone playing competitive basketball for the Altona Gators.
If the scar across the front of his neck is not confronting enough, the 30-centimetre line of stitches along his spine shows just how fortunate he is to be jousting with the big men in Big V basketball men’s division 2.
Burton feared he would never walk again after a freak accident left him paralysed.
He was 15 at the time and had just returned from a fishing trip when he tried to get out of the boat, only for a foot to get tangled.
When Burton fell back, he did so into shallow water, striking his head on a hard surface. The fall caused fractures in his spine.
“When it happened, I was completely paralysed,” Burton told Star Weekly. “I hit my head pretty hard and everyone was pretty worried. It took them a day to realise I’d broken my neck. At first they were saying I’d never be walking for the rest of my life. It wasn’t looking too good.”
The odds were stacked against Burton. For the whole of 2013, he was in a complete daze as his medication took hold.
Surgery was risky, but giving up on hope was not an option for Burton.
The sports-loving teenager – at the time a basketballer with the Gators and a footballer with Point Cook – had too much energy to spend his life confined to a wheelchair.
“It was pretty risky surgery, but they did a good job of it. I’m still around.”
Burton never gave up hope of walking again.
The Point Cook resident underwent intensive rehabilitation and began to turn the corner as the strength of his family and friends pulled him through dark days.
In particular, his brother, Daniel, a personal trainer, was there every step of the way.
The reward for Daniel is the chance to play basketball with his brother, which they do so every Wednesday night.
Burton’s excitement levels rise when basketball is discussed.
The 18-year-old spends his lunch breaks watching NBA League Pass, and he’s more than willing to dissect the LA Clippers’ season.
Then he takes me back to the day at the end of his rehab that he holds close to his heart.
“They told me I wouldn’t play basketball again,” Burton said. “But I kept getting better and eventually the doctor let me play.
“That was the best thing I ever heard in my life – when they said I could play again.”
Even with the all-clear from the specialist, Burton had a significant mental hurdle to overcome. He began his comeback by simply hitting free throws.
Once Burton was back on the court, he was fair game – and it was during one of these early matches that his confidence in his body fully returned.
“I was just mucking around and got a big hit to the head and it was all good,” he said. “I got confidence from that hard knock. There are times when I still think twice about things because of it, but most of the time it’s pretty good.”
This is Burton’s second season back for the Altona Gators.
In his first, he played sporadic minutes as a back-up big.
He’s the first to admit he wasn’t in game- shape for big minutes last season, but a lengthy pre-season campaign had him in tip-top shape heading into this year, even if it was slightly derailed by a foot injury.
Gators coach Des Radoslovic is amazed by Burton’s improvement on and off the court.
“He had a broken neck two years ago and was told he wasn’t going to walk again,” Radoslovic said.
“His improvement from the start of last year, coming in out of shape and out of nowhere basically, to now … he’s our starting centre and just such an important part of the team.”
Burton is an under-sized centre, but he’s banging bodies with some quality division 2 bigs, something that doesn’t faze him in the slightest as he’s averaging 13.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.
Burton’s numbers continue to improve game by game. He reached a season-high 20 points for the first time two weeks ago and his field goal efficiency is up there with the best centres in the league.
Burton has played between 20 and 25 minutes a game on a regular basis this season, the only limitation on his minutes being foul trouble.
He has fouled out in three games in 2016 as he adjusts to the way the game is officiated in division 2.
“Last season, when we were playing division 1, the referees sort of let it go a bit,” he said. “But since going down to division 2, it’s a bit softer I think.”
Burton wants to feature in a Gators playoff campaign.
But above all, he will cherish every moment he has on court, whether it be with the Gators or just shooting around in the local park, because he knows how quickly it can be taken away.
“I’m just enjoying being able to play.”