Warriors guard returns after fighting colitis

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» Sun Oct 22, 2006 3:25 am
Wagner puts health concerns behind him
By Geoff Lepper,
10/22/2006 02:39:44 AM PDT
You wouldn't know it from his NBA career, but Dajaun Wagner was a sturdy kid growing up.
If there were a hoop available and a ball in sight, young Dajuan would put both to good use.

"That was one kid you didn't have to worry about an injury keeping out, because any way he could get on the court, he would," Milt Wagner said.

So when the agony finally became unbearable, when the years of dealing with diarrhea, abdominal pain, fatigue and weight loss from Dujaun's undiagnosed colitis came due, Milt Wagner recognized how critical the situation was for his only son.

"(Dajuan) will play with pain, no problem. You'd think it's just cramps, then he'd go out and perform, and you'd think nothing of it." Milt said. "So when he finally came to the point he couldn't take it, you knew it was serious."

That point came almost one year ago. On Oct.25, 2005, Dajuan Wagner underwent major surgery to try to correct a problem that had plagued the No.6 pick in the 2002 NBA draft.

Wagner admitted that there were moments, lying in a hospital bed and sapped of all his energy by the disease, when he pondered whether it would force him from the game.

"You think about it sometimes, but you've just got to keep fighting," Wagner said. "I've got a big heart."

Colitis is a bowel disease that causes inflammation on the inner lining of the colon and rectum. It's more prevalent among the Caucasian and Jewish communities than African Americans, and usually
isn't diagnosed until a victim is in his 30s. It's hardly the culprit you'd expect to take down an NBA player in the prime of his athletic life.
That's just what it did. Wagner had already gone from a 13.4-points-per-game scorer as a Cleveland Cavaliers rookie in 2002-03 to missing 53 games over two seasons due to knee surgery, but the colitis brought his career to a skidding halt. By his last season in Cleveland, 2004-05, he had lost up to 35 pounds and sat out the last 46 games. He missed the entire 2005-06 season recovering from the surgery.

Wagner's surgeon, Dr. Joel Bauer, told the Philadelphia Daily News in August that "you can't even work at a normal job" while suffering from unchecked colitis. "I couldn't do my job with this. It's impossible."

"What I went through, it was the worst," Wagner said. "You couldn't put ice on it and come back."

To fix the problem more permanently, Bauer removed Wagner's colon and rectum and used intestine to replace the rectum, so he could avoid having to use a colostomy bag.

"While I was young, I just thought it was stomach pains, something I ate. As it kept going and kept bothering me, it just got constantly got worse," Wagner said. "That's when I chose to get the surgery. That's probably the best thing."

Wagner, who is wearing the No.0 jersey for the Warriors this season to signify a fresh start, said there are no restrictions on his physical capabilities, save for one: "I've just got to drink more Gatorade than everybody else."

He went out and proved it in the top summer leagues around Philadelphia, throwing down 132 points over the course of two games. The kid who once dropped 100 points in a game for Camden (N.J.) High School and averaged 21.2 points in his lone season at the University of Memphis was back.

"You've got to understand, he's only 23 years old," said Milt Wagner, the former NCAA (Louisville, 1986) and NBA (Los Angeles Lakers, 1988) champion who's now an assistant coach at UTEP. "He's still fresh. People have yet to see what Dajuan Wagner can really do. He has a whole other attitude out there on the floor. He wants to prove he's worthy of that No.6 pick in the draft."

Warriors coach Don Nelson is enamored with Wagner's scoring ability — so far, he's shooting 51 percent from the field and is fourth on the team in points per minute — and has praised his passing. But in a battle for playing time with Monta Ellis, Wagner is having to provide defense and rebounding — two items that were in short supply with the Cavaliers.

"To play, you've got to play defense. I came here trying to play defense more," Wagner said. "... I ain't just trying to just be here; I'm trying to have a good season."

Portland Trail Blazers forward Darius Miles likened the old Wagner to Allen Iverson in his ability to score from anywhere on the floor, especially with fearless drives in the paint.

"I've seen flashes of (the old Dajuan)," Miles said. "It looks like he's got his wind back. Once he gets his rhythm back, he's going to do what he can do."

At the start of training camp, Wagner said that he wouldn't mark Wednesday with any kind of commemoration or celebration. Instead, he's choosing to put that off for another week, until the Warriors open their season at home on Nov.1.

"I'm going to wait until I start playing," Wagner said. "I haven't accomplished my goal yet."

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