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After surviving brain tumor, professional basketball trainer Jordan Lawley is retraining himself

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Professional trainer Jordan Lawley, right, works with Steve Taylor, center, who plays as a power forward for the Toledo Rockets, at Lawley training center in Irvine.
(Photo by Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

We’ve all heard stories about a medical mistake that ended with disastrous results.

But how about a story of a medical mistake that led to miraculous results?

That’s what happened to Jordan Lawley.

Lawley played basketball for UC San Diego. After college he played professionally in New Zealand and Mexico. He opened his eponymous gym in Irvine in 2013, where he now teaches skills to NBA All-Stars like Julius Randle, Klay Thompson and Carmelo Anthony.

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More than 5,000 players, both pros and amateurs, have trained there.

The story begins late last October. Lawley was cruising in the carpool lane on the 5 Freeway near Lake Forest. Traffic on the right was at a dead stop, but his lane was wide open. Then a car in the stalled lane tried to swerve into the HOV lane right when he was passing it.

Smash. Boom. Bang. Lawley’s Tesla spun out, hitting 12 other vehicles. His car was totaled, but he actually walked away, just dazed, confused and sore.

A few weeks later, though, his knees were still hurting. Lawley spent 10 hours a day on the courts, teaching floaters and step backs: work that’s tough on the knees. He asked his doctor to please order up an MRI.

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When he showed up for the test just before Christmas the technicians told him to climb into the machine for an MRI — on his head and neck.

“I was really confused,” Lawley says, laughing. “I told them it seems like there’s a lot of real estate between the neck and the knees.”

Those were their orders, the technicians told him. Get in.

So Lawley climbed inside and figured he would return another day for a knee MRI. Before he could even book it, the results from his head MRI came back.

They showed a 3.5-centimeter tumor attached to his cerebellum. He had an acoustic neuroma, a rare benign mass that typically affects balance and hearing (mostly in older women). Lawley had no symptoms, yet his tumor was a Grade 4, the largest there is. It was pressing against his brain stem, actually moving it. A little further and he would have wound up paralyzed.

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Jordan Lawley, left, works with Thon Maker, who plays in the NBA as a center for the Detroit Pistons, at Lawley training center in Irvine.
(Photo by Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

It remains unclear how the MRI order wound up being for his head rather than his knees; probably just a miscommunication, but Lawley wasn’t complaining.

A life-threatening surgery was set for the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix in April. It lasted 12 hours. And it took its toll.

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One of his buttocks, of all things, had lost oxygen and died, but not before swelling up like crazy.

“My left butt cheek looks like Nicki Minaj, and my right one looks like a pancake,” he says.

He also lost his balance, and is still working on getting that back.

“My balance is my livelihood, and I feel like I’m kind of drunk or on a ship 24/7,” he says.

Some early facial paralysis is almost gone, but other challenges remain.

“It still takes a lot of time for me to focus on a moving target like a basketball,” he says. “And holding my child is a little difficult.”

Even tougher, he is deaf in his right ear and will be for the rest of his life.

“The neurosurgeon did an amazing job of getting me back to as close to normal as possible,” he says. “This is my new norm. Nothing has hurt my quality of life. I’m feeling blessed, that’s for sure.”

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Jordan Lawley, second from right, works with Issac Humphries, right, who last season played in the NBA as a power forward for the Atlanta Hawks, at Lawley training center in Irvine.
(Photo by Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

If this story has a theme, there it is. Lawley’s half-glass-full attitude. And it’s contagious. Many of his 350,000 Instagram followers (@jlawbball) have sent him messages to tell him that he has inspired them to put their own problems into perspective.

Lawley’s faith dates back to his Pentecostal childhood in Lodi, where grandpa Lowell was the family pastor.

“It was hellfire and brimstone, and people are running down the aisles speaking in tongues,” he says.

Grandpa used to tell little “Jordie” that one day he would get a chance to preach to others about his faith.

Using social media, he feels like he’s finally doing what grandpa had predicted. Lawley’s Instagram profile shouts his faith: “Child of God. Brain tumor survivor.”

“I have yet to see Jordan have a bad day or a non-smiling day,” says Detroit Pistons star Thon Maker. “He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him. He is inspiring others.”

“I wanted to be his rock, but his strength gave me strength,” says his wife, Danielle, who was pregnant throughout the whole ordeal and just gave birth to a girl named Arie.

They and their toddler son Parker attend Saddleback Church in Lake Forest. They live in Ladera Ranch.

Only three months post surgery, Lawley is back on the courts, working with pros from China, Australia, Greece and India, although not quite burning the 5,000 calories a day he used to require.

Right before all this happened, he ate so much every day at nearby Burntzilla that they had him create his own burger to put up on the board for a couple of weeks. The Crossover (bacon, guacamole and a fried egg), remains on the menu, honoring Lawley’s spirit.

But what about those knees?

“Oh,” Lawley says. “They still suck.”

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Lori Basheda is a contributor to TimesOC.

For more news and features about Orange County, visit TimesOC.com or follow us on Twitter @timesocofficial.


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