UCLA Spiker Beats the Unbeatable : All-American Bruin Survives Shattered Leg to Play Again

Times Staff Writer

Reed Sunahara, a two-time UCLA All-American volleyball player from Hawaii, thought he had found the perfect solution to campus parking problems when he came to the mainland: a motorcycle.

Sunahara, who helped the Bruins and Coach Al Scates to three straight NCAA championships from 1982 to 1984, said that the motorcycle was a reliable, economical form of transportation between his Santa Monica apartment and UCLA.

"It was great," he said. "I didn't have to worry about parking."

The motorcycle was going great and so was the 6-4, 205-pound Sunahara, one of college volleyball's most powerful power hitters, when he turned out for the first week of practice at UCLA in October of 1984. He had no reason to think that he and the team wouldn't have another great year.

His Leg Shattered

After practice one night that week, he went to a friend's apartment to watch television and left for home on his cycle a little after midnight. A couple of blocks from his apartment he was hit by a car backing out of a driveway, he said, and his left leg was broken in five places.

The end of his playing career? It sure looked that way. But he is back playing for Scates, though he says he is playing at only about 80% of the ability he had before the accident.

Four-fifths of a Reed Sunahara, who also starred in basketball and baseball at Hilo High School, still is plenty of volleyball player. But it took six leg operations in six weeks and then a seventh before doctors were able to put him back together so that he could play.

During the first six operations, surgeons inserted transverse metal rods from his knee to the ankle and put the leg in a cast. After six weeks, the cast was removed, but the leg was not straight. Another cast was put on, but the leg still was not straight after four more weeks.

"They tried pushing on it to compensate, but that didn't work," he said. "The leg angled to the outside. It was like having two right legs, and it hurt really bad."

Seventh Operation

Sunahara had to have a seventh operation, in which doctors broke the leg again, removed the transverse rods and inserted another metal rod that ran the length of the tibia, the main bone in the leg, from knee to ankle. This time the operation worked; after six more weeks in a cast, the leg was straight.

If all that sounds like an agonizing experience, it was. But Sunahara, who sat out of volleyball last year to recuperate, said the months of rehabilitative therapy were nearly as bad. It included countless leg lifts on weight machines and with an orthotron, an electronic resistance machine.

"I had worked on my legs before, but not on a machine. It was really hard work--and boring."

However, the hard work was far from over when it came to returning to the volleyball court.

"The first month of the season, I got tired a lot. At the beginning, I could only play about two games of a match, but a couple of weeks ago I played in a five-game match."

Before every match he soaks his leg in a heated whirlpool bath, and he ices it down after he plays. "It still hurts after I play, but the ice does a lot of good."

And Sunahara also does a lot of good for Coach Scates, who has designed an offense around him.

The Bruins have not had their usual overpowering season, not like Sunahara's last playing year of 1984 when they posted a 31-0 record en route to the NCAA championship. At the start of the week, UCLA was 23-7 overall and 9-4 in the California Intercollegiate Volleyball Assn. Of late, the hottest team in college volleyball has been USC, which has won three of four matches from the Bruins this season.

Sunahara said that a leveling process has been at work in college volleyball. "UCLA was such a power that when another team beats us it makes their season. We are not as dominant as we used to be, and other teams think they can beat us.

"Now teams are much better, and you've got to concentrate on every point to be successful. In the past three years, every time we used to step on the court we knew we would win, and that's how it should be at UCLA."

Team 'Hit Rock Bottom'

He thinks it can be that way again and that the Bruins have a good chance to advance to the NCAA regionals. He said that he did not think that was the case in early March when the team lost to Penn State and USC, each loss coming in three straight games.

"We hit rock bottom against Penn State," he said. "Maybe we took it for granted that we're UCLA."

Apparently, overconfidence was not a problem in UCLA's last loss to USC. The Bruins extended the Trojans to five games before losing, 12-15, 15-12, 15-9, 6-15, 9-15. "We looked better even though we lost," Sunahara said.

He was asked if opponents, realizing he is not the player he was, are trying to take advantage of him, and he answered:

"Yes, especially when I'm in the back row. I'm not as quick as I was, and they are dinking the ball more when I'm in the back row and hitting it in spots. But overall they're not trying to pick on me. They're just trying to pick on the team."

He thinks the Bruins will be slim pickin's about the time of the NCAA West Regionals, April 24 and 26, at Loyola Marymount's Gersten Pavilion. "I think we'll start to play well again, and once we do, things will change. I hope the team starts peaking by the April regionals."

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