While Sukhpreet Singh would’ve told you that Sunday’s away matchup against U of T was just another game of the season, he had something personal on the line.
In the third quarter, trailing by nine, Singh came off a screen in the offensive end to get the ball in the corner. He squared up to basket, pump faked and drove to the lane, going for a lay-up with a double-clutch in midair. Off his release, the ball kissed the glass and fell through the hoop.
“And there it is!” said the announcer as the ball rattled through the mesh. “Sukhpreet Singh has become the all-time leading scorer for the Queen’s Gaels in their history!”
There it was, just how the announcer put it: Queen’s all-time scoring champ with 1,345 points and counting.
But three years ago, holding the Queen’s all-time record for points almost didn’t seem possible.
During his second year at Queen’s, Singh averaged 12 points per game, providing instant offense for a team that lacked a spark. But during that season, his hip started to hurt — something he attributed to a common case of wear and tear of playing every day as long as he could remember.
After an MRI, Singh found that it was more than that. He had a torn hip labrum — the rim of cartilage that holds the thighbone within the hip socket — and the season was just about halfway through. The injury required surgery and six months of rehabilitation, with a six-month wait for the operation.
Sometimes stories write themselves, but Singh wrote this one with a bum hip and a will to press on.
“Sukh was about 160 lbs [in first year] and I remember the first thing that came to mind when looking at him was, ‘How in the heck is this guy so good at basketball?’” said Ryall Stroud, a then-Gael teammate, on his initial impressions of the fifth-year guard.
The duo were part of head coach Stephan Barrie’s first recruiting haul in 2012, where he brought in a nine-man class in hopes of turning around a program desperate for a change in both culture and play. Of those nine, three started in over 14 games of the team’s 20-game season.
Fittingly, Singh was one of them.
“Sukh flat out produced when he was on the court,” said Stroud. “He made us better and we started winning. And in turn it forced the coaching staff to trust him and play him a lot.”
Barrie concurred, adding that Singh, the first recruit to sign for his program, rightly earned time on the floor.
“It wasn’t given to him,” he said, “as is the case with everyone. But his competitive level has been the best of any player that we’ve had here at the Queen’s.”
A product of the perennial powerhouse Martingrove Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Singh was named his team’s most valuable player his senior year — and for good reason.
“He was always a competitor,” said his former high school coach Shawn Gray. “I appreciated having him on the team — our defensive stopper, we called him.”
During his time at Martingrove, the 6’2” shifty playmaker won three city championships, as well as an OFSAA “AAA” championship in 2011. Yet throughout all of this, Singh wasn’t highly recruited.
Barrie recalls having a former assistant coach, Madhav Trivedi, take a trip out to Toronto. “There’s a player,” Trevedi told Barrie, “and you’ve got to see him.”
“I just knew, from the first time I saw him, that he had a lot of potential. I waskind of surprised and shocked that no one else was recruiting him,” Barrie said.
Singh wasn’t necessarily the program’s crown jewel, but he was their diamond in the rough, a talent that hovered under the radar.
“It was almost, like, let’s just keep him as quiet as possible and hopefully no one figures out that this kid is going to be as good as he’s going to be,” Barrie said.
Fast forward a calendar year later and Singh was headlining the OUA’s All-Rookie Team and, after ranking third amongst freshmen in scoring, he was awarded OUA co-Rookie of the Year.
“I feel forever in debt to them,” Singh said about his coaches Barrie and Madhav.
Back in July 2014, roughly six months following the diagnosis of his torn hip labrum, Singh finished playing his season, and headed into surgery.
Operative arthroscopy has often been met with significant success, but, as with most procedures, full recovery is certainly not guaranteed.
Singh told The Journal in a 2015 article that the first week fresh off his operation could be aptly characterized as “rough.”
“I couldn’t even move my leg without my mom or a friend coming down and helping me,” he said at the time.
The months preceding his return to the hardwood were crippling but imperative for recovery.
First off were crutches. Again, albeit mentally draining, a necessity. Slow and steady wins the race back to the court, he thought. Once comfortable, Singh skipped ahead to basic movements: lunges, extensions, core work and the like.
When Christmas rolled around in late 2014, he was poised to make his return — nimble and ready to roll, for the most part.
Rust considered, Singh dodged the dreaded slump many athletes endure after taking an extended leave. He scored a modest 16 points in his first game and levied a buzzer-beating winner over rivals Western in his second.
He was back.
But nearly a month later, it happened again. He’d torn his opposite hip labrum.
“It was brutal,” he said. Having been through the rehabilitation process before, he knew what to expect: crutches, followed by steady, methodical movements — “basically teaching yourself how to walk again,” Singh said — and then quicker exercises.
Singh and his hips had anything but a binding relationship, though it wasn’t all too bad. He’d find a way like he always did. During both injuries, Singh remembered what was most difficult.
“Seeing your teammates work every day without you … it’s grueling.”
Singh’s play for the Tricolour has been nothing short of remarkable, and the record proves it. But the points don’t tell the story — his character does.
“It’s a testament to the type of guy he is,” said Stroud, of Singh’s record. “After injuries like that, a lot of players may have been demoralized … not Sukh.”
“Just to come back from injury — period — was a turning point,” Barrie added.
Singh is respected for all the right reasons, and the reverence held for the player will leave an indelible mark on Queens’ history.
“It shows that if you put your mind to something, you can do anything,” Singh said.
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