On Jan. 8, 2012, East Brunswick High School guard Joey Ross found himself in an environment few 17-year-old kids ever get to experience. Surrounding him, fans from all over New Jersey packed school’s gymnasium, electricity buzzing as Ross and his Bears squad were set to take on high school basketball legend Bob Hurley and his highly-touted St. Anthony Friars.
Even as the UCLA-bound Kyle Anderson, the no. 3 recruit in the nation as per Rivals.com, took pregame layups, Ross took in everything around him.
“This is what it’s all about,” he said with a smile. “This is why I love this sport.”
Behind the enthusiasm is the story of Ross and his passion for the game of basketball. It is a tale, however, that nearly had a tragic ending.
“The second that my son Joey was born, I knew that I wanted to coach him,” said Cliff Ross, a former shooting guard at the University of Delaware. “I was really pumped to have a child I could pass my knowledge on to, should he be interested in the game of course.”
Not long after, his son was attending Cliff’s men’s league games in Linden, N.J. Whereas a standard 2 year old would be mesmerized by the other kids and their toys they brought to occupy the hour or two of boredom, things were different for Joey.
“He would sit and watch every single dribble, every single play with intrigue,” his father said. “He became really into it and invested.”
By age 4, barely out of pre-school, Joey already developed a knack for hitting the long-range shot. He became involved with the local recreation league, and made progress that caught the eye of his father in particular.
“I didn’t want to go crazy thinking he was the next NBA prospect, but he clearly stood out in my mind with the range on his shot and the ability to make it,” Cliff said. “Where most kids are staring down at the ball, he actually saw the floor. He was never the fastest or tallest, but he had those two things.”
From there, the tandem stayed together through the young Ross’ school days. Cliff served as Joey’s coach through recreation leagues, travel leagues, all the way up until the latter began playing AAU ball for the Garden State Knights. With the Knights, he spent time at guard while playing with and against some of the best players in the state, including the aforementioned Anderson and the Temple-bound Quenton DeCosey.
In his first high school tryout as a freshman, Joey complained of discomfort in his chest. Following a trip to the hospital, doctors informed the family that he was suffering from a condition called Pneumomediastinum, in which a pocket of air leaks into the chest cavity, which causes severe pain.
“The doctor told me it was very rare, and was unlikely to ever occur again,” Cliff said. With that in mind, his son hit the court, ready to become a member of the Bears and set forth on his dream of playing college ball.
His transition into high school ball was seamless as well, as by sophomore year, he found himself with a fair share of playing time, alongside becoming a fan-favorite through his ability to hit the shot from downtown and valiant leadership. At an even 6-feet tall, he was by no means the biggest player on the court, but his mind for the game and competitiveness compensated for that.
Through it all, his father sat in the bleachers each contest, capturing hundreds of photos each game to help showcase his son’s squad.
“He was at every game,” East Brunswick High School Director of Athletics Frank Noppenberger said. “You would think he was part of the team some times.”
The common thread of basketball joined the two Ross. But no coach or playbook could prepare them for what was ahead.
During the summer following Joey’s sophomore year, he partook in a basketball camp to occupy his time. One day, Cliff got a call he was not expecting to receive.
Ten percent of his son’s lung had collapsed. While alarming, it is common for little treatment to be done on one’s first lung collapse, viewing it more as a “pass.” With the 10 percent collapse being seen as a mere “air bubble” by doctors, Joey returned to play not long after.
“I was completely shocked,” he said. “I was told it was one in a million this would happen.”
In a late-November 2010 practice, he suffered yet another collapsed lung. This time, the damage was severe enough that Joey required surgery. Despite the pain and uncertainty caused by the setback, he pushed to return playing as quick as possible, and seemed ready for the team’s holiday tournament in December.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
“Right after the first surgery, they said the chances that it would come back again were near zero,” Joey said. “Within two weeks, I make a comeback, play two games and in another practice I feel the same pain. It was impossible. I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
This time, his third lung collapse in six months, the damage was far more severe. His second stay in the hospital required major constructive surgery on the lining of his lung, building a new sort of support system to prevent further collapses. The procedure kept him away from home for nearly half a month.
“When your child is hurting, there’s nothing worse in the world,” his father said. “With Joey being such a basketball kid, it’s his passion his life, to see him not healthy and to see him deprived of what he loves doing most. It was really as bad as it gets.”
During his recovery, both of Joey’s parents traded off nights caring for him. Like his father, his mother spent much of her time supporting his athletic career.
“It is tremendous to have a family that cares so much about you,” Joey said about his parents. “I think it definitely helped me keep my spirits up, even with something like this going on.”
Still, he hardly complained. Even when he had a tube sticking out of his chest, he rarely complained. When doctors advised him not to return, he did not complain. As he was recovering by doing a lap around the hospital, he refused to complain. He pushed for two laps instead.
On Feb. 28, about two months after his son’s incident, Cliff was on his way back from a business trip, awaiting his flight. East Brunswick had earned a state playoff game at home against division opponent South Brunswick, and word was it was possible Joey may play. His flight was delayed, and he was unable to get to the game in time, becoming one of just a handful of Joey’s games that he had ever missed.
In the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, with the Bears up single-digits versus the Vikings, Joey entered the contest to shoot free throws. The crowd of peers erupted upon hearing his name called from the public address announcer.
“I nailed two free throws. It was bittersweet because of how much time I had missed, but it felt great to be back in a big situation,” he said with a smile.
His father, meanwhile, was still well aware of what had happened.
“My wife gave me the play-by-play as it happened,” he said. “After what he’s been through, to have that moment, it’s unbelievable.”
The Bears won the game 61-58, with the free throws clinching the victory.
Fortunately, Joey returned for his senior season without incident. Instead, he flourished, averaging 12 points per game, including netting a career-high 24 against rival Old Bridge. He even adopted the nickname “Jimmer” due to his ability to hit the big shot, similar to Sacramento Kings guard Jimmer Fredette. More importantly, his hard work and determination paid off.
On March 13, he committed to play college basketball at Ithaca College. A D-III school, Joey believes he will be able to fit in nicely into their program.
“I’ve seen them play, and I think it’s the perfect situation for me,” he said. “They get out and run, they really love the 3-ball, and the shooters have the green light. I can see myself fitting in there right away definitely as a guy who can help them out.”
Following graduating college, he aspires to potentially play overseas for a living. However, he realizes that he wouldn’t be where he is today without his determination and the support he received from others.
“The whole experience made me a much stronger person,” Joey said. “I don’t take anything for granted. You never know what’s going to happen, and I’ve really become thankful for everything I have going for me now and everyone around me.”
Through his journey, the now 18-year-old Ross earned the respect of both those on the court and off the court, leaving a legacy with his story.
“He is one of the finest athletes to ever leave this school, not just on a competitive level, but on a personable level as well,” Noppenberger said. “He has the will to succeed, and with a great family and upbringing, he will be able to accomplish a lot I imagine.”
Anderson dropped 21 points against the Bears on that January afternoon, as his St. Anthony squad won in a 62-32 squash match. Despite hitting only two buckets that day, Ross held a smile after the game.
“That was unreal,” he said. “It’s days like today that I remember why I love this game so much.”
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