From brain injury to basketball: Michael Otoo returns to the sport he loves

A young basketball player steps onto the court to play his first game since a traumatic brain injury that doctors said might keep him from ever playing again.

Mount Allison Mountie Michael Otoo plays in his first game since suffering a severe traumatic brain injury

Michael Otoo played his first game since the injury at the Ken Gould Invitation Tournament in Fredericton. (Philip Drost/CBC)

Doctors told Michael Otoo he would likely never be able to play varsity basketball again after suffering a severe traumatic brain injury in the summer of 2016.

It was a crushing prognosis for a man who's been playing basketball since he was nine. Otoo had spent the two years prior playing for the Mount Allison Mounties in Sackville, N.B., and after the injury, he made it his goal to once again play for the university.

On Friday, he finally accomplished that goal. Otoo, of Ottawa, played in three games over the weekend as part of a tournament held by St. Thomas University. 

Otoo's coach Steve Chapman says even when off the court, Otoo is an important piece of the team. (Philip Drost/CBC)
"It was really, really amazing," Otoo said. 

"Even players on the other team are saying good job and stuff, and it's nice to see you on the court again, so it's nice. And I did pretty well in my first game too, so I'm pretty happy about that."

The Injury

Otoo was involved in a motor vehicle pedestrian accident on Canada Day in 2016. He was in a coma for five days. He lost some teeth, broke a rib, and suffered a traumatic brain injury. 

Michael Otoo was in a coma for five days after suffering the brain injury. (Submitted by Michael Otoo)
"I was surprised and shocked, just because I knew what exciting things the upcoming year was going to bring, and knowing I couldn't be a part of it was really tough on me," said Otoo. 

The rib healed, but the brain injury is taking more time. Otoo had to go to the Ottawa Rehabilitation Centre for a month.

"I felt like in Space Jam, you know when they take the best players' talents? That's how I felt," said Otoo.

"I was really dizzy, couldn't really walk that properly, my cognitive skills were horrible."

Not long after the injury happened, Otoo's sister gave him a quote for encouragement.

Michael Otoo still isn't fully healed, but has been able to make his way back to the basketball court. (Submitted by Micheal Otoo)
"It was, 'You can't control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it,'" said Otoo. 

That's when he made the return to basketball his top priority. He also wanted to raise awareness for brain injuries and the after effects. 

"With a brain injury, it's really hard for people to understand what's going on with you, so at times people would think I'm great, or even now people would think I'm just as good physically as before, but it's not true. I still have daily struggles that I'm going through," said Otoo. 

Player of the game

Michael Otoo's first minutes of action came against the UNB Saint John Seawolves, when his coach tapped him on the knee and told him to sub in.

"I'm not going to lie, I was itching to get out there," said Otoo. 

Michael Otoo made it his goal to be able to once again play for the Mount Allison Mounties (Philip Drost/CBC)
"I was super nervous when I got out there, the anxiety levels were crazy, but it was amazing to go out there."

When Otoo scored his first points of the game, he said it felt like he was in a dream. He didn't even realize the significance of it until his teammate told him, and the rest of his teammates cheered him on. 

Michael Otoo stands with his coach Steve Chapman after winning player of the game on Sunday. (Submitted)
In the final game of the tournament, the Mount Allison Mounties defeated the Dalhousie Agricultural College Rams, and Michael Otoo was named player of the game. 

Mounties coach Steve Chapman became head coach during the year Otoo spent recovering, but he knows what an important role Otoo plays on the team, and not just on the court. 

"For the returning veterans it was quite the adjustment. Michael's a great team guy and a great locker room guy... He's just such a character guy. You got to have a Michael Otoo on your team," said Chapman.

"Michael's story is about more than just basketball. Michael's story is about life and perseverance."  

Otoo said he might not see the same number of minutes on the court as he did before the injury, but he'll still find ways to help his team out. 

Michael Otoo played for the Mount Allison Mounties for two years before getting injured. (Philip Drost/CBC)
"No matter what, if I'm on the court or off the court this year, I'm going to try to help the team because I know things could go at a blink of an eye. So no matter what, I'm just trying to be positive and make the guys also be positive, and give it your all, because you never know when it could be your last game," said Otoo. 

Otoo is continuing with his rehab therapy. He wears a special headband to protect his head while playing, and has to rest before and after games. There's a risk to his health every time Otoo steps onto the court. But it doesn't scare him. 

"I know no matter what happens, God has a plan for me, so I just got to trust God in all of this. No matter what happens, God has my back."

About the Author

Philip Drost

Philip Drost is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick.