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Published: Monday, 7/7/2008

Gift of forgotten basketball game a video treasure for family

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Jamie Mercurio, left, with his father, Jim, stands in front of some of the athletic awards and memorablia from Jamie's career. One of Jamie Mercurio's most productive games was a 1992 NCAA tournament match-up against North Carolina when he made eight 3-pointers and led Miami with 24 points. Jamie Mercurio, left, with his father, Jim, stands in front of some of the athletic awards and memorablia from Jamie's career. One of Jamie Mercurio's most productive games was a 1992 NCAA tournament match-up against North Carolina when he made eight 3-pointers and led Miami with 24 points.
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Jim Mercurio paces restlessly behind the soft sectional in his basement rec room, his attention repeatedly yanked toward the video playing on the big screen, pulled there like some kind of magnetic force field is at work.

For one brief, blessed moment, it is 1993 again.

The elevation on his son's jump shot comes effortlessly, as if gravity had suspended its role in the universe for that instant. Jamie Mercurio releases the ball with a precise snap of his wrist, sending it on an arcing trajectory that looks like it was traced by a delicate rainbow. The ball whips through the net, and Jim Mercurio just nods, since that was always the expected outcome.

On courts laid out in neatly aligned strips of light-colored hardwood, Jamie Mercurio was a near ideal melding of skill, athleticism and innate basketball smarts. As his father watched the recorded images, he saw his son play again, in a performance he never knew existed.

One of Jamie Mercurio s most productive games was in a
68-63 loss to North Carolina in the 1992 NCAA tournament. He made eight 3-pointers and led Miami with 24 points. One of Jamie Mercurio s most productive games was in a 68-63 loss to North Carolina in the 1992 NCAA tournament. He made eight 3-pointers and led Miami with 24 points.
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There were those quick hands that exacted an immediate toll for every risky pass by the opposition. There were the no-look relays to feed an open teammate, and there on display was that basketball I.Q. that every coach Jamie played for had marveled over.

Today, those movements are gone, swiped from Jamie's being in an early morning accident in November, 1994. Mercurio, who was then preparing for his first season as the girls varsity coach at Anthony Wayne, had his car leave the roadway and strike a tree and a fire hydrant, leaving him in an extended coma. His injuries were described as "massive" and the outlook for his future was grim, at best.

Jamie Mercurio has been in a wheelchair since the accident and has very limited speech. It took eight months of intensive hyperbaric treatments at a rehabilitation center in Florida to bring him out of the comatose state, and Jamie was left with very limited use of his limbs. His parents care for Jamie in their Perrysburg home.

"It was either that, or put him in a home someplace. And he's been with us ever since," Jim Mercurio said.

Joe Loy shows Jamie Mercurio a program from the benefit game Jamie played in at Cory-Rawson High School in 1993. Joe Loy shows Jamie Mercurio a program from the benefit game Jamie played in at Cory-Rawson High School in 1993.
JETTA FRASER Enlarge

Jim, who is retired and spends most of his days with his son, said Jamie lost quite a bit of his personality in the accident, but still wants to apologize to people he meets for his condition, and inability to converse.

"He wants them to know that he really shouldn't be in this wheelchair," the elder Mercurio said.

Jim Mercurio acknowledges that with each change of the seasons, each phase of the moon, the memories of that brilliant basketball career are being pushed further into the shadows.

There was the Maumee St. Joseph's grade school team Jamie helped lead to a four-year record of 52-6. There was the Pepsi Cola/NBA Hot Shot Contest, in which an 11-year-old Jamie finished third in the nation.

There were the glory days at Maumee High School, where as a sophomore Jamie helped the varsity win a Northern Lakes League championship and go undefeated in the regular season. Another NLL championship followed in his junior year, and a 19-4 record, with Jamie being named All-Ohio honorable mention.

His senior year at Maumee produced a 15-6 mark, a team MVP award, his second straight season as first-team All-NLL and all-district, and another All-Ohio honorable mention.

Mercurio went on to be a three-year starter at Miami Universtiy, where he hit a then school-record eight 3-pointers in a 1992 NCAA tournament game against North Carolina. He led the Redskins in assists for three seasons, and ranks second on the school's career list with 413. He was the team's most valuable player as a senior.

"Down at Miami, they still treat him like gold," Jim Mercurio said. "He loves going there. It provides only pleasant thoughts."

A dozen years ago, Miami established a team award in Jamie's name, given to the player who best exhibits the courage and determination shown by Mercurio. This year's recipient was Tim Pollitz, the former Ottawa-Glandorf standout.

But basketball - the records, the honors, the highlight reel performances - has been very much past tense for Jamie Mercurio. While standing in a corner of the rec room devoted to select memorabilia from those playing days, Jim Mercurio defines their reality.

"For Jamie right now, his memories are his life," his father said.

The videotape father and son watched for the first time this week gave them the power to crank the clock backward, and momentarily live in the past, while smiles and tears arm-wrestled for control of their emotions.

Jamie played in a benefit all-star game in May, 1993, helping raise money for a scholarship in memory of former Bowling Green State University student April Jones, who had died unexpectedly from a viral infection of the heart.

The game was played at Jones' alma mater, Cory-Rawson High School, about 10 miles southwest of Findlay. Mercurio was part of an Ohio all-star team that included former Ohio State standout Tom Brandewie, former BGSU and Cory-Rawson star Joe Faine, and University of Findlay standout Brian Vorst.

They faced a Michigan all-star group headed by former UM star and longtime NBA player Campy Russell, Michigan State products Kirk Manns and Barry Fordham, and the University of Houston's Rodney Heard.

This spring, almost 15 years to the day from the date that all-star game was played, Jim Mercurio first learned about it, and learned that the person he now helps dress each morning was one of the game's leading scorers, tossing in about 30 points.

The Mercurios were at Miami for an alumni function, and they crossed paths with Chris Leuthold, the longtime volleyball coach at Cory-Rawson who had worked the scorer's table that night at the all-star game. Recognizing Jamie, Leuthold asked Mercurio if he recalled the big scoring night he had in that benefit game.

"His face lit up and he smiled, so I knew he remembered it," Leuthold said.

Jim and his wife, Debbie, were stunned. They had followed that basketball career from the CYO games in the tiny gymnasiums of the Catholic schools around Toledo, all the way to the NCAA tournament. They erroneously believed they had seen it all.

"We didn't know what to say, because we never knew that game took place," Jim Mercurio said. "There was this piece of his basketball life that somehow we had missed out on."

Jim Mercurio said his son was out of college and living on his own at the time, and true to his casual, nonchalant demeanor, never mentioned the all-star game.

"He probably got a call to go play, and never thought another thing about it. Kids don't understand how important things like that are to their parents," Jim Mercurio said. "Then down at Miami, this fellow comes up to us out of nowhere and starts reliving this game with Jamie - a part of his playing career we never knew existed."

Leuthold got in touch with Joe Loy, one of the organizers of the benefit game and an uncle of April Jones, and Loy went on a determined search to find a tape of the game for the Mercurios. All the while, Loy said he could not rationally explain the meeting between Leuthold and the Mercurios as anything other than some super-spiritual triangulation.

"I'm not a real religious guy, but when something like this happens and brings these particular people together at that precise moment, I just got to believe there's some sort of divine intervention involved," Loy said. "There's no other way to figure it out."

So Loy made a copy of the game tape and contacted the Mercurios, indicating his intention to give them the recording.

"When I thought about what all these people had been through, if this could bring them a little piece of his life before the accident, it was worth any trouble it took to get them that DVD," Loy said.

Jim Mercurio was overwhelmed by the sequence of events.

"We're just moving along from day to day, knowing Jamie is stable, and this is the life we have," he said. "Then these guys come out of nowhere and bring us this video, and there's Jamie, running up and down the court, doing all those things he used to do. I want to properly thank these guys for doing this, and I don't even know their last names."

After the emotional introductions, while Jim Mercurio is reviewing the star-studded rosters from the all-star game with Loy, Jamie's nurse helps him into the wide recliner closest to the big screen. Jamie, 39, lets it be known that the formalities are over, and he wants to see that video.

Following the accident, there are no more graceful jump shots for Jamie Mercurio, no full-speed cross-over dribbles, no fast breaks, and no assists. The accident took the basketball player, but not the basketball fan. Jamie frowns over a missed shot, punches the air with a wobbly fist pump when he knocks down a long-range 3-pointer, and then shakes his head in mock disgust when his dad needles him over a rare turnover.

"This kind of thing, this is what he loves," Jim Mercurio said. "He likes to watch his highlight tape every once in a while. I've kind of put this all in the past, but Jamie makes sure it doesn't get put too far in the past. He has to have something to feel good about himself, and his basketball career provides that."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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