How a spider relearned to fly: Juhwan Harris-Dyson’s road to recovery

Basketball player stands on the court with a blank expression.
Lorenzo Dela Cruz /Staff

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It’s 4 o’clock in the morning, November 2017, and Juhwan Harris-Dyson can barely breathe.

What was thought to be a run-of-the-mill flu has metamorphosed into an illness that has thrown a wrench into Harris-Dyson’s plans for a prosperous freshman 2017-18 season.

Harris-Dyson, then a freshman trying to get his feet wet in university, was on the eve of experiencing his first taste of collegiate basketball. Now, he’s fighting for a morsel of oxygen.

“He was crying,” said Jeff Dyson, Harris-Dyson’s father, who contacted his son over the phone that night. “He was sort of inaudible. I was like, ‘Juhwan, what’s going on?’ I jumped up, sort of disoriented, 4:30 in the morning. My wife is behind me saying, ‘What’s going on, what’s going on with Juhwan?’ It was a really panic-stricken situation.”

This wasn’t in the script. But life is seldom about the plans one makes. Rather, it’s the way one adapts to new circumstances.

Enduring such a vicious case of the flu, as well as the subsequent rehabilitation process, was not in Harris-Dyson’s playbook. But in being thrown into one of the lowest points of his life, Harris-Dyson has arisen with a new perspective on the grander game of life.

Heading into his very first semester of college in fall 2017, Harris-Dyson had every reason to feel on top of the world.

Harris-Dyson, a four-star prospect out of high school, headlined an incoming class of freshmen featuring Justice Sueing and Darius McNeill. The freshman also got after it in the weight room, putting on extra muscle in preparation for the season.

Harris-Dyson pushed all the right buttons, but the story is never that Hollywood. On the eve of an exhibition against Providence, Harris-Dyson came down with a case of the flu that hit him like a ton of bricks. His parents, who made the trip up from Southern California for their son’s debut, could see this wasn’t normal.

“I first saw him in his dorm room bundled up in his bed,” said Marcella Dyson, the player’s mother, in an email. “He was obviously not himself at all. Fever, cold sweats and shivering. He’s never been this sick in his life.

Harris-Dyson didn’t realize it at the time, but the flu would change the course of his entire freshman season. For days, Harris-Dyson was confined to his bed. He continually threw up. He barely ate. All of his work from the summer was seemingly gone.

Harris-Dyson’s weight had capsized from 200 to 180 pounds. And with such a dramatic drop, gone wasn’t just Harris-Dyson’s strength, but his hallmark athleticism with it.

“All the weight that I lost was muscle. I was a lot skinnier,” Harris-Dyson said. “I looked like myself freshman year of high school when I looked in the mirror. It was a crazy thing to see.”

On a morning in November 2017 after initially contracting the flu, right as the season was beginning to enter its swing, Harris-Dyson hit a stomach-churning low. About 4 in the morning, Harris-Dyson awoke from a flu-shortened slumber. He could barely breathe.

“I thought I had something stuck in my throat,” Harris-Dyson said. “I woke (my roommate) Deschon (Winston) up in the middle of the night. He asked me if I was OK, and I told him I couldn’t really breathe. He called the ambulance for me. I went to the hospital, and they gave me IV fluids and helped because my throat had closed.”

Harris-Dyson was lucky enough to escape the traumatic experience with nothing but a scare and managed to make it back onto the court shortly after, but there was work to be done.

The explosiveness wasn’t there. The speed wasn’t there. The bounce wasn’t there. And, of course, the weight wasn’t there. Returning to the floor provided some solace for his young mind, but being back at square one took its own toll.

After missing Cal’s first two games of the season and the exhibition, Harris-Dyson managed to make his debut against Wofford and subsequently played most of the season, but he didn’t magically turn into his old self.

“It took me a really long time to feel like myself again,” Harris-Dyson said. “I was starting to look better, gain the weight back, but I still didn’t feel like I was myself until maybe the middle of the season, towards the end of the season.

In between putting a little extra food on his plate to get his weight up and rediscovering his sea legs, Harris-Dyson also had the extra challenge of becoming acquainted with the speed of the college game without all of the athleticism that got him there.

Harris-Dyson’s father bestowed upon him the nickname “Spiderfly” in high school for his athletic prowess, but in the early days of his collegiate career, he was far from the same player.

“When we came back up and saw him for the first time, just noticing how thin he was, I almost cried because I had no idea of the overall toll that the sickness had taken,” Jeff Dyson said.

But as the season rolled along, Harris-Dyson gradually began to show flashes of his old self, and it showed up in the box scores. While most players see dips in production during conference play, Harris-Dyson upped his per-game averages in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

Harris-Dyson’s inaugural season may not have unfolded in the fashion he imagined, but the forward was making waves in the Pac-12. It would be easy to play the what-if game and imagine an illness-free freshman year, but now a sophomore, he looks back on that year as a stepping stone to growing as an adult.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Harris-Dyson said. “Me getting sick at the beginning of the year, having to work my way back through it and get back — it helped me in a way. It gave me that trial, that test to get through. It just shows your love for something.”

What Harris-Dyson lost physically in the short term he gained mentally in the long term. Most college students need all four years to grow, to mature, but Harris-Dyson got a crash course in a subject that extends far beyond the hardwood.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.