By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
He had become something of the forgotten hero at the West Virginia University Coliseum, one of the greatest players to wear a Mountaineer uniform but one whose memory had faded with the passage of time.
Now he was back, a decade and a half after his final game in Morgantown, the naive child of yesterday now a citizen of the world, midway into his 30s, brought back to town by Bob Huggins to serve as an instructor at his fantasy camp.
As it was with every time he has sneaked back into town, Damian Owens was amazed at what he saw.
“It’s good to see the change, good to see Morgantown growing,” he said.
The city and the university are bigger, better today, and being inside the new basketball facility Huggins had pushed through was almost like being in a palace he never thought he’d see.
But it wasn’t only the city and the school that had changed. So had the silky smooth kid with the quick hands, the love of driving the baseline and with enough basketball savvy that his 97 steals in 1998 remain a school record.
“When you are 19 or 20 you think you are invincible and feel you can go on forever,” he admitted.
Now, though, he understands that things often are not as they seem when you are 20, something he acknowledges through the message on his cellphone, one that notes that a man may fall often but the proof of his worth is in how many times he gets back up.
As a player it was difficult to think of Damian Owens failing.
Owens easily ranks among West Virginia’s best all-around players of the past 50 years. The Seat Pleasant, Md., native scored more than 1,600 points, grabbed more than 800 rebounds, handed out more than 300 assists and pulled off more than 200 steals during his career.
If there was any WVU player his game was comparable to, it was the immortal Da’Sean Butler’s.
“You know,” he said, when that was brought up to him, “I’m staying with him during camp, but I never really thought of that.”
Not only was his career comparable to Butler’s, but the way his life played out.
Butler’s story, of course, is well known, leading WVU to the Final Four only to suffer a devastating knee injury with nine minutes left in his last game, that one-sided loss to Duke, an injury that to date has cost him an NBA career and the riches and fame that go with it.
Owens, like Butler, had known not only individual success but team success on the court.
In 1998 the Mountaineers seemed destined for greatness after having grown through their transition from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East. In fact, he had shown them they belonged in the Big East when he scored 27 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and handed out six assists in West Virginia’s 81-70 win over Georgetown in the first-ever ESPN Big Monday game at the Coliseum.
That 1998 team would go on to pull off a stunning NCAA upset, beating Huggins’ highly favored Cincinnati team on Jarrod West’s last-second miracle bank shot to advance to the Sweet 16.
But it wasn’t to be, as the Mountaineers lost to Utah.
“I think about that game to this day,” he said. “We lost to a team we were supposed to beat. We didn’t play our best game as a team, and they went to the championship game. That could have been us.”
By that time, though, Owens had already suffered an individual setback, not as severe as Butler’s knee injury, but enough to change the course of his personal history.
Late in the season Owens injured his back while attempting to grab a rebound against Syracuse.
“I was going up for a rebound and I kind of got pushed in the air and I was falling back,” he recalled. “At the same time, Brent Solheim was jumping up and he hit me in the back. Fortunately, there wasn’t anything permanently wrong with my back. It was just a very, very deep bruise.”
It wasn’t permanent, but it hurt his play in the Big East and the NCAA tournaments, averaging 10.1 points a game after having averaged 16.8 points a game up until the injury.
“(The night of the injury) I was in bed and I had to get up to use the bathroom and I had to push myself off the bed and drag myself across the floor to get there,” he said.
Owens had been projected as an NBA draft pick but his play down the stretch and questions about his health kept that from happening, and he wound up traveling the world playing basketball, never getting the big break.
He doesn’t look back on it with any regrets.
“I believe God has a plan. Maybe what happened meant I wasn’t ready. I accept it,” he said. “The truth about life is we all are going to face disappointment and failure. It’s only bad if you don’t learn from it.”
Owens looks back now at his time at West Virginia as a crucial time in his development.
“It developed me as a person. It taught me that people are people. I had grown up around only African-Americans and I didn’t know how to approach Caucasian people until I got to school. That helped me when I went and played in China and Taiwan and the Philippines.
“I learned that people are great and it doesn’t make a difference what your nationality is. It helped me blossom and I appreciate it, for now I have friendships around the world.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.