It was May 22, 2016. Trey Lawrence was playing AAU basketball for Friends of Hoop Seattle, elevating for a dunk attempt in a game at Bellevue College.
The future appeared bright for the tall and talented sophomore guard, who was coming off an undefeated season on the Glacier Peak High School junior-varsity boys basketball team.
“He’d had a great year for us as a sophomore, so he was definitely someone that was ready to take that next step (as) a varsity player,” Glacier Peak coach Brian Hunter said. “Everything looked like he was going to have a super year.”
Then, in an instant, everything changed.
Lawrence was slightly undercut while leaping for the dunk, and his fingertips slipped off the rim. He came crashing down on the hardwood floor, falling hard on the right side of his head.
Coaches rushed onto the court to tend to Lawrence, and paramedics arrived shortly after. He was taken by ambulance to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
The violent fall caused both an epidural hematoma and subdural hematoma, meaning clotted blood had accumulated in two separate places — between the skull and the brain’s outer membrane, and between the outer membrane and the brain’s surface. The hematomas were creating pressure on Lawrence’s brain, and his brain was swelling from the severe impact of the fall.
On a scale of 1 to 10, doctors said the severity of his injury was an 8. Lawrence needed emergency surgery to save his life.
“They didn’t know at that point whether Trey was going to live or die,” said Holli Lawrence, Trey’s mother. “They didn’t know if he would make it through surgery.”
About one-quarter of Trey’s skull was removed during surgery, allowing surgeons to relieve pressure by clearing out the accumulated blood. The skull removal also relieved pressure by making room for his brain to expand. (That portion of his skull was placed in a bone bank and surgically reattached three months later, once the swelling subsided.)
The surgery was successful, but then came a nervous waiting period.
“The next 24 hours were crucial, because there was so much swelling in there and the (impact) was so hard,” Holli said. “They were just hopeful that he would make it through the night.”
‘The most horrendous night’
At the time of Trey’s fall, the Lawrence family was just five years removed from tragedy.
Trey’s father, Paul, a former Seattle University basketball player, suffered a heart attack during a pickup basketball game in 2011. He died shortly afterward on the way to the hospital.
Since losing her husband, Holli had avoided traveling without Trey and her two daughters, fearing something would happen to them while she was gone. But her friends had planned a Caribbean trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands, and they convinced Holli to come along.
Holli was on her way home — having just landed in Charlotte, North Carolina — when she received news that Trey was in the hospital and about to undergo emergency surgery.
“I immediately cried and started praying,” Holli said. “Faith is very important and a huge part of our lives. All I could do was pray.”
For Holli, not being with her son was a living nightmare.
“It was the most horrendous night,” she said.
Holli had a connecting flight to Phoenix, where she originally had planned to stay the night with a friend. She tried to change her flight to make it home that night, but the airline was uncooperative. She ended up spending the night in Phoenix before taking an early-morning flight to Seattle.
Holli said she’s thankful Trey’s two older sisters, Ashlee and Dominique, were with him through the night.
“His sisters were rock stars through the whole thing,” Holli said. “They were there that first night when I couldn’t be. They didn’t leave his side.”
Trey made it through the night, and by the time Holli arrived at Harborview the next morning, doctors were confident he would survive.
“They were very hopeful that he was going to recover,” she said. “To what full extent, they didn’t know yet. But they definitely felt (he) was going to live.”
Holli remembers a special moment later that day when a tube was taken out of Trey’s mouth to see if he could talk. Trey looked at his mother and said, “Hi, Mom.”
“Those two words were amazing,” Holli said.
Trey still has little memory of the first eight or nine days after the fall. He stayed at Harborview for the first week and a half of his recovery, spending most of his time either sleeping or answering questions intended to assess his mental functioning.
With each passing day, Trey slowly improved.
“Baby steps,” Holli said of her son’s time at Harborview. “Just little things like standing up … were big steps.”
Still, Holli was concerned that her son would never be the same again. Trey was conscious and able to recognize people, but his cheery personality was missing.
“He was very straight-faced (with) hardly any emotion,” she said. “He definitely was not Trey yet. Not at all. I literally thought to myself, ‘Is my baby never going to smile again?’ I had those moments like, ‘OK, he’s alive. But is this going to be it?’”
On his second-to-last day at Harborview, Trey put an end to that fear. Holli had left the room to take a shower, and when she returned, Trey was smiling and laughing with his sisters.
“(That) was such a beautiful thing,” Holli said. “That was almost like a turning point. He was coming back a little bit.”
The following day, Trey was transported to Seattle Children’s Hospital. About one week later, he was released and went home with his mother.
“Initially, they thought (he would spend) a couple months in the hospital,” Holli said. “Fortunately, every step of the way, he just kept doing better and better. He did everything (quicker) than what the doctors predicted.”
With part of his brain not covered by skull, Trey had to wear a protective helmet for three months until that portion of his skull was surgically reattached. Trey added his own touch, wrapping a Nike bandana around his helmet, complete with a “Be Strong” sticker that one of his friends made him.
“He stayed so positive through all of it,” Holli said.
Something to fight for
Children’s Hospital doctors advised Trey to never play basketball again, due to the severity of his injury. But two Harborview professionals — a retired neurosurgeon and the neurosurgeon who performed Trey’s emergency surgery — said he’d be able to return to the court. The latter said Trey would be able to play again in six to 12 months.
“It was probably one of the best things I’ve ever heard in my life,” Trey said.
Throughout the recovery process, basketball was never far from Trey’s mind.
About two weeks after the injury, he attended one of Glacier Peak’s spring tournament games in a wheelchair. At one point during his time at Children’s Hospital, he shot hoops outside with a stability belt around his waist. After returning home, he dribbled throughout the house.
“I truly believe (basketball) is what helped him have the recovery that he did,” Holli said. “He had something that he wanted to fight to get back for. He always had that push to just keep fighting.”
Trey even flew to Las Vegas that summer with his mother to watch his Friends of Hoop teammates play in a tournament.
“I just really wanted to be out there,” he said. “Having to watch, it sucked. It made me want to come back and play that much more.”
The journey back to the hardwood certainly wasn’t easy. Trey lost about 30 pounds in the hospital, as well as most of his strength and stamina. The injury also wreaked havoc on his balance.
“When I was going through the balance (struggles) and I could barely even stand on two feet without falling, basketball was kind of on the back-burner,” said Trey, whose recovery included numerous balance exercises. “I was just trying to get to my feet and get back to being able to walk and not be tired.”
But he never gave in.
The remainder of his skull was surgically reattached in August 2016, and he was cleared to run two weeks later. He gradually ratcheted up his physical activity, and before long was back on the basketball court.
“The fact that he tried out on the first day of tryouts still blows me away,” Hunter said. “That he was on the court with us the first day of (his) junior season is one of the more remarkable things I’ve ever been around.”
Tears of frustration
Prior to his injury, basketball came naturally to Trey. His movements were smooth, and his athleticism abundant.
But for a long time afterward, that wasn’t the case.
“It just felt awkward,” he said. “I was used to it being so natural. The motions of basketball were so easy before.
“And then (after the injury), it was all like a foreign language. You’re like, ‘OK, I can usually do this. Why can I not do this anymore?’”
Hunter remembers a particularly difficult moment early last season when Trey was struggling during practice.
“It might’ve just been catching the ball or driving to the basket and making a lay-up,” Hunter said. “It was something that he (used to) do easily, without thinking.”
Unable to do what he once could, Trey broke down in tears.
“It’s not the same,” Trey told his coach.
“That was just one of those moments I’ll never forget,” Hunter said. “He was really upset. And that was tough, because I think he really felt like when he got back on the court, everything would be back to normal and back to where it was.
“Even though he’d (made) this amazing amount of progress and was truly an unbelievable success story just at that point alone, I think in his own mind he realized that there was still a lot to overcome.”
Trey’s balance was off. He was weak from all the weight he’d lost. He was easily fatigued after months of little activity. Once-natural movements were suddenly difficult.
He played sparingly on varsity last season, serving mainly as a spectator during the Grizzlies’ run to a Wesco 4A title and state-tournament appearance.
“I was really happy with the team’s success, but (last season) wasn’t what I wanted it to be,” Trey said. “I had really high hopes for my junior year before everything happened. It was a really frustrating year.”
Yet through it all, Trey never gave up.
“I give Trey so much credit for his mental strength and will to just keep pushing through,” Holli said. “A lot of kids might have been like, ‘Screw it. I just want to quit. This is too hard. I have too much work I’ve got to put out there to get back to where I was.’ And not once did he take that attitude. Not once.
“It was always, ‘I’m just going to keep working, I’m going to keep fighting, I’m going to keep pushing.’”
Trey’s perseverance paid off.
The 6-foot-5 senior is compiling a standout season, averaging 9.4 points per game for Wesco 4A-leading Glacier Peak. He has scored double-digit points in seven of the past eight games, averaging 12.6 points per contest over that stretch.
Trey’s season-high 25-point performance in a Jan. 5 rout of Kamiak was particularly memorable.
“After that game, it just felt like this is what it’s supposed to be like,” he said. “It felt like (I was) fully back.”
Trey said things began clicking on the basketball court this past spring, and his strong play continued throughout an offseason filled with AAU and school ball.
“I was playing like myself again,” he said. “It just felt natural again.”
Hunter said he noticed a difference in Trey during summer games and tournaments.
“You could tell that he had started to regain some of what he had before he was hurt — balance-wise, explosive-wise and reaction-wise,” Hunter said. “I can only imagine what it’s like to have multiple brain surgeries and how that affects your balance and equilibrium. I just think he needed some time.”
The one speed bump came in August, when Trey underwent a third surgery. His skull had been deteriorating in several spots, prompting a large portion of it to be replaced by an artificial skull.
But after three weeks of rest following the surgery, Trey was back on the court.
“He hasn’t looked back,” Holli said. “He just keeps on doing the sport he loves.”
Watching him play this season, Hunter said he sometimes forgets Trey suffered a traumatic brain injury 20 months ago.
“He’ll do some plays in the game, and I’ll catch myself,” Hunter said. “On the drive home or when I’m away from the gym, I’ll remember that it wasn’t that long ago that he had something traumatic.”
Cheering from the stands, Holli also finds herself in moments of disbelief.
“It’s surreal,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s fantastic and beautiful. I just think back and shake my head sometimes.”
Hunter said Trey’s comeback was made possible by an unwavering desire to be his best.
“You don’t go from where he was to where he is right now,” Hunter said, “without having just a tremendous desire to be successful and be the best you can be.
“He doesn’t want to be just OK. He wants to be a lot better than that, and that’s I think what’s (kept) him on this path.”
Trey said he plans to continue his basketball career in college.
“He can definitely play at the college level,” Hunter said. “His best basketball is definitely ahead of him. Where he is right now and all the great things he’s doing I think will pale in comparison to what he’ll do down the road.
“He’s a really young senior that’s just beginning to scratch what kind of a player he’ll be. He’s going to be an unbelievable basketball player. He has a really high ceiling.
“His future is so bright,” Hunter added, “and he has all the same possibilities that he had before he got hurt. And you think about that — that’s amazing.”
Trey said the past two years have enhanced his perspective on life.
“It’s made me grow and appreciate the little things more, because you never know when it’s going to be gone,” he said.
“I’m just thankful to be here. It was quite the journey. I’m just glad to be back.”