It's probably better that the gym is empty when Ronald Steele steps on the floor almost an hour before his teammates begin trickling in from the training room for practice. For an Alabama basketball team struggling through its worst Southeastern Conference season in more than a decade, watching a former All-American recovering from an injury amounts to a painful tease.
On Tuesday, the Alabama point guard starts his daily work with no coaches, no scouts, and no cheers. Just Steele and a guy shagging rebounds. He starts from the top of the key, and knocks down 13 out of 15 3-pointers. Most of them rip the net without even touching the rim.
He moves over to the corner for 15 more from long range, making 14, and a grin begins to give away Steele's disposition these days. Now he moves to the opposite corner and sinks 13 of 15, but none would have counted in a game. That's because Steele's not paying attention to where he is on the floor, and his feet are actually out of bounds. When one is redshirting through the fallout from three knee operations, it seems, shooting range isn't defined by lines on the court.
"He can shoot from anywhere," said walk-on Kyle Sellers, one of Steele's closest friends on the team. "Not many teams have an All-American playing on the scout team."
But while a Ronald Steele shooting display is as impressive today as it's ever been, it's not exactly what people were concerned about anyway. Even when Steele hobbled through his junior season (2006-07) with chronic knee pain, he was still deadly when given an open jumper.
It was his lightning-quick crossover dribble that didn't look the same.
His defense wasn't the same.
And most importantly, the team's results most definitely weren't the same.
"That was hard, not being able to walk some days, limping up and down the floor, and not being able to do things I knew I could always do," said Steele.
After one season of having his minutes dictated from game to game by his pain, Steele wasn't interested in another. Three surgeries - a microfracture procedure on the right knee and a pair of arthroscopic jobs on the left - conspired to make Steele a shadow of the player he was during his first two years at UA. The last of those, performed last summer, led Gottfried and Steele to the decision that he should redshirt this season in hopes of returning to full health for 2008-09.
So while his teammates have suited up 26 times for games this season, Steele has only watched. Occasionally, the team's other point guards have come to him for opinions and guidance to help improve their own games. But for the most part, Steele has nothing to do but wait out a forgettable season.
"I only would have had about a month to get ready for the season, and I just didn't think I could do it that quickly," said Steele. "… It's been hard to watch these guys struggle because I see how hard they work every day."
While Alabama's season has just about folded, the Steele plan has unfolded - beautifully. After watching practice from the sideline through the end of the calendar year, Steele returned to school after the holidays ready to test his limits. Within a couple of weeks, he was practicing full speed. And today, he believes he is back.
"I feel as good as I've felt in two years," said Steele.
Said Gottfried: "It's safe to say he's now, clearly, the best player in the gym every day. Day in, day out."
For Crimson Tide basketball fans, the two years since Steele played a healthy season may seem like two decades. But in 2005-06, Steele averaged 14.3 points per game, dished out 132 assists, hit 90 percent of his free throws and 41 percent of his 3-pointers. More than that, he was the sort of floor general that Gottfried says comes along very rarely.
"He's special. Right now, you can put him [on the scout team] with our three walk-ons, run them against our first group, and he makes the walk-ons look pretty darn good," said Gottfried. "… I believe he is on his way to coming back as one of the best guards in the nation next year, right off the bat."
Most college All-Americans would hardly know the last walk-on on the bench unless an injury forced them to the end of it. Steele, however, carries far less ego than most, and his relationship with Sellers was established long before Steele's redshirt bumped Sellers to the second-from-the-end position.
"When I got here last year, he was the first guy to come up to me and welcome me to the team," said Sellers. "We talked a lot when he had trouble with his knee. We would get together on the bus, road trips, in hotels, and read through the Bible together. He's overcome a lot of problems."
Credit Sellers with an assist. Next year, count on Steele for a bunch of them.