Column: Brain-surgery survivor recounts his blessings on the basketball court |

Column: Brain-surgery survivor recounts his blessings on the basketball court

Dale Strode
The Aspen Times

Andrew Papenfus knew he would return to his high school gym.

But there was a lot he didn’t know.

Could he play basketball again?

Could he shoot the ball in the gymnasium where he became one of the greatest players in Aspen High School history?

Could he dunk? Could he run? Jump?


“This has been quite an adventure,” Papenfus said this week when he, indeed, returned to his beloved Aspen High School gymnasium. And he played basketball; he shot; he dunked; he ran; he walked.

Just 10 months ago, all of the above were in question.

Papenfus, in his senior year on the basketball team at Santa Clara University, faced the greatest challenge of his life — a brain tumor.

On Oct. 6, Dr. Mitchel Berger, chairman of neurological surgery at the University of California-San Francisco, removed the benign tumor and saved his life.

But his future as a basketball player was murky, at best. Not to mention his future as an NCAA Division I basketball player.

“You have to have a positive attitude. You have to keep working, day in and day out,” Papenfus said of the rigorous rehabilitation regimen required after his surgery. Basically, he had to relearn and refine his physical movements.

That included walking, running, shooting and dunking.

“That certainly was quite the experience … stepping back on the basketball court four months out of brain surgery,” Papenfus said of his dramatic and emotional return to D-I basketball in February with his supportive Santa Clara teammates.

“One of the greatest memories I’ll ever have is seeing every one of my teammates on the bench — seeing their reactions — when I got out there on the floor,” Papenfus said.

His family, his close friends, his faith, his teammates all made his recovery possible, he said.

“The support I had from the team was outstanding. They were in it every day with me,” Papenfus said. “They saw me in the hospital right after my brain surgery; they saw me with 48 staples in my head.”

And they saw him work tirelessly for a chance to play basketball again.

The fans, too.

“The reaction of the people, the fans. They wanted me to do this,” Papenfus said. “They were so stoked I was out there.”

The 6-6 forward and Colorado Max Preps player of the year in 2009-10 received standing ovations and special honors when he did return to the court in February — including an appearance in an ESPN television game.

He played again in March; more brief stints on the court for the veteran senior, who had started his college career at Hawaii-Hilo

His whirlwind final semester at Santa Clara included special presentations at BYU as well as at fellow West Coast Conference schools like St. Mary’s.

On June 13, Papenfus was graduated from Santa Clara University.

Then, a trip home.

Papenfus, back to visit family and friends, also visited the Aspen Basketball Academy for a reunion with Steve Ketchum, his high school coach.

“Being back in that gym with those kids,” Papenfus said. “That was special. I was in that camp when I was a kid. I have some great memories from that camp.”

Not to mention memories of his high school coach, who led the Aspen Skiers for 16 seasons. Ketchum recently has taken over as head coach at Ponderosa High School in Parker but maintains his summer Aspen Basketball Academy camps.

“Coach Ketchum started my love of basketball. It’s always great seeing coach,” Papenfus said. “And it was really nice seeing Matt (Matthew Holmes).”

Papenfus and Holmes were co-captains of what many consider as Aspen High School’s best boys basketball team – 26-1 and state runner-up in 2010.

Holmes, too, played a key role in Papenfus’ basketball career. Holmes encouraged the former hockey-football player to pursue basketball seriously.

Full circle.


Back in the AHS gym.

“I told those kids I was in their shoes when I was their age,” Papenfus said, adding that he could see the young basketball campers struggling to identify with his place as a basketball player.

“Then, I mentioned Matthew Dellavedova,” Papenfus said. “You know Matthew Dellavedova of the Cavs? I played against Matthew Dellavedova in college.”

Enough said.

“I couldn’t have done this myself. I had a ton of support,” Papenfus said before heading back to the Bay Area where he will pursue a business career.

“The support of the community of Aspen and the community of Santa Clara has been unbelievable,” he said, with a special mention for the enduring support of his mother and father — Joanne and Dr. Kurt Papenfus.

“I’ve had incredible support,” he said. “I’d like to tell the community of Aspen thank you.”

His incredible journey, he said, also refreshed his view of life, of friends, of mountains, of home.

“Once you make it to the top, it’s a beautiful view.”


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