Michigan forward Mitch McGary, right, talks with forward Jordan Morgan on the bench. McGary has missed most of the season following back surgery. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Life in limbo doesn’t really suit Mitch McGary. The suits don’t really, either, for that matter.
He did have to buy a couple more to meet the dress-code requirement for his new temp job, however. And he understands this is his role to play now: A player-in-waiting, a coach-in-training, a cheerleader who shops at the Big & Tall outlet.
“But underneath my suit and tie,” McGary joked, “I’ve still got my imaginary jersey on.”
Uncomfortable, isn’t it?
“A little bit,” added McGary, whose sophomore season at Michigan was put on hold — along with his NBA aspirations — by a lower-back injury that eventually required surgery in early January.
Now with his team beating a familiar postseason path, a year after McGary’s breakout performance sparked the Wolverines’ run to the NCAA title game, the 6-foot-10 center is coping with contradictory emotions.
A couple weeks ago, he watched a replay of last year’s Final Four triumph over Syracuse — one of three double-doubles for McGary in that six-game tournament stretch. His first thought, he says, was, “I gotta get back to that.”
He quickly corrected himself, though.
“We’ve got to get back to that,” he said.
See? It’s still hard, separating one from the other.
“I’m still gonna support my team,” McGary said. “I’m still on this team. I’m still a part of this team. I’m just not playing.”
He hasn’t since mid-December, as everyone realizes. An injury that dates to August, if not before, kept McGary sidelined through fall practice and the beginning of the season. McGary returned to the lineup in mid-November and saw limited action in eight games — averaging 9.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in less than 25 minutes — before getting shut down again a month later. Surgery soon followed, though McGary and the team have declined to offer many specifics on the injury or the procedure.
Meantime, the sophomore has gone from a preseason first-team All-American to a founding member of Michigan’s “Bench Mob” with walk-on freshman Andrew Dakich, whose sideline celebrations have made him something of a cult hero. Together, they make quite a pair, what with Dakich’s comical swag and McGary’s natural exuberance. When they weren’t high-fiving or holstering six-shooters last weekend in Milwaukee, they were occasionally flapping their arms like birds.
“If I get too excited, Coach (John Beilein) will start yelling at me,” McGary said. “Right after the surgery, it was difficult, because I’m not a person who sits still. But now I can act like a kid again.”
Funny thing is, he’s starting to view the game more like an adult now. He’s had virtually an entire season to sit and watch from a different perspective, and now he finds himself saying — and doing — many of the things he largely ignored as a rambunctious player. Beilein and his staff have him charting fouls and rebounding stats, and they encourage his contributions in huddles and in the locker room.
“They call me Coach McGary now,” he laughed, “which is just … weird.”
And though he frequently left open the possibility of returning at some point this season — “We get to Dallas, you’ll see,” he said, coyly, during the Big Ten tournament — he’s probably not shedding that new title anytime soon. McGary admitted last week that’s a pipe dream.
“No, it’s gonna be a long time probably before I’m back and ready,” said McGary, who averaged 14.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game in last year’s tournament. “I would love to be back and playing with these guys. But I really want to have a long career, so I don’t want to reinjure myself.”
Beilein has said much the same, even as he acknowledged Tuesday on a national radio show there was talk of McGary undergoing surgery two months earlier than he did, with the hope he’d be back before the end of the season.
Now, instead, he’s still making his way through rehab, a progression that in the last month has seen him go from running on an underwater treadmill to running on the court to light jumping last week.
“It’s a slow process, but it’s coming along,” McGary said. “It’s tougher than it looks. I’m a person that has a lot of energy, a lot of excitement. So when I do something, I’m gonna do it all out. I kind of have to restrain myself. A lot.”
He credits his teammates — “my brothers,” McGary calls them — with helping him cope. (“I don’t think I’d be able to get through this surgery and this adversity without them,” he said.) And he credits them for coping without him, too.
“I went down, they all came together and said, ‘You know what? We’re gonna have to do this without Mitch,’ ” McGary said. “And they did just that. They came together and bonded like I never even thought they would.”
As for that imaginary uniform he’s wearing?
“We have no plans for Mitch to play,” Beilein said Tuesday morning on WTKA radio. “Simple enough?”
Sure, but what if …
“Plans can change,” Beilein allowed, “but we have no plan right now for Mitch to play, OK?”
OK, but what about after the season?
McGary, who’ll turn 22 in June, gave serious thought to entering the NBA draft last spring. But he opted to return along with fellow sophomore Glenn Robinson III, presumably for just one more season.
Robinson hasn’t made any declarations about his NBA plans yet. Neither has sophomore Nik Stauskas, though the Big Ten player of the year seems a good bet to be gone. Robinson, too, I’m guessing. McGary isn’t ruling it out, either, though he insists he’s not thinking about the NBA.
“I really haven’t,” he said. “It’s not even in the back of my mind. It’s somewhere else. I’m focused on this team, and this team winning a championship.”
This team, it’s still his team, no matter what his role.