The basketball diaries

Grigor Ivanov playing basketball. Photograph: Bulgarian Basketball Federation

Two o’clock in the morning, a car is speeding up on a bumpy road when suddenly the driver loses control. It is pitch black and nothing is visible in a radius of more than one meter. The only things Grigor Ivanov can see from the right seat of the crashed car are crushed metal, a lot of smoke and a twisted leg on 90 degrees.

“Don’t cut the pole, it’ll fall”, he hears somebody shout outside. What could have gone through the mind of Grigor when he was under the electricity pole at that time?

Five years ago Grigor Ivanov was in a car accident which changed his life forever.

Now, Ivanov is 23 years old. He studies Computing Science at New Bulgarian University, and likes to spend his free time playing basketball. He combines studying with working and at the same time practices 2-3 times a week.

“Sport definitely helps a lot to find a way to overcome difficulties”, says Ivanov. Basketball has always been a part of his routine and now he sees it as a “pleasant continuation of the things.”

“I am playing basketball for people with disabilities; de facto we are playing in wheelchairs. There are some differences in the rules, but by and large basketball is basketball,” he chuckles.

After the accident he recovered for months without complaining. He battled the aftermath like a samurai. Ivanov endured 7 days in a drug coma, 14 surgeries, and 85 days in a hospital. These were some of the results from the car accident, which happened 5 years ago. But there is more… He lost his leg.

His strength and courage are clear to see, through the shaky video link used to interview him for this article.

For the interview, he is wearing a black hoodie that contrasts the beige wall behind him. The black set of headphones sitting on his head complete the Men in Black look and give him a futuristic appearance  that is completed by his artificial leg. He looks like a man ahead of our time. Add to the equation a job in a cyber-security company, and the result is Grigor.

“Go ahead, ask whatever you’d like,” says Ivanov.

“… ‘what are you afraid of? … I replied ‘amputation’”

The car accident happened two days after Ivanov’s 18th birthday, during the summer break before his last year in high school. He was hospitalized with a lung trauma resulting from the car accident that lead to the drug coma and three surgeries for four days. The next two and a half months Ivanov tackled 11 more surgeries.

 “The doctors had told me that in two days I had a re-examination of my leg. I still don’t know if this was some sort of a sixth sense … but the night before the surgery I felt [the amputation] would happen. In the beginning I had the dark thoughts that I’d be a freak, that my life is over and I wouldn’t be able to do anything”.

Before the re-examination Ivanov has a conversation with a psychologist on inquiry of his parents.

“In the morning she came to me and directly asked me ‘what are you afraid of?’ and even more directly I replied ‘amputation’”, recalls Ivanov.

In the operating room he was conscious.  Grigor was lying on the operating table while doctors removed the bandages from his leg. He couldn’t see anything, in front of him stood a big cover. He could only see doctors moving. They went away and he had to wait alone in the room for a couple of minutes. After the return of the doctors, he learnt that he had three options regarding his leg. The first one was to proceed with the surgeries, which was dangerous because in case they were not successful, the result could have been fatal. Even if they managed to save the leg, Ivanov would have had to walk with crutches for the rest of his life. The second option was implanting muscle tissue but according to the doctor it was not worth it. The last choice was amputation.

He had already made up his mind. He knew what the best decision was. All sorts of thoughts were racing through his head. They were directed towards the future and what was he going to do after. He was not afraid. He felt the unknown coming closer. No matter how prepared he was, after hearing the diagnosis amputation, everything disappeared from his head and he had to fight again. Now his fear was real.

“You’re the first person to come back with a smile“

 “You’re the first person to come back with a smile”, nurses told Grigor after he is transferred to the intensive care post-surgical.

The recovery is slow. Because of the constant lying down he can barely sit for more than a couple of seconds. But this is not the only problem he is facing. He has to recover his balance because every time he gets up “everything is swirling around.” Little by little Grigor is taking steps to recover. With help he sits on the bed. Later on – alone. But the constant surgeries pull him back. After every single one of them he has to start all over again.

How does an athlete who has been engaged with sports throughout his whole life go back to the basketball terrain again?

Ivanov moved forwards with the help of Yavor Kehayov. He reached out to Kehayov through social media when he was in in the hospital. “He was a very catchy and grippy, exceptionally motivating person,” remembers Ivanov.

Yavor Kehayov, who passed away in 2015, was a stuntman, who inquired to have his leg amputated. During one of his stunts in the past, he hurt his leg very badly and for the next 12 years, Kehayov tried to recover but never succeeded. Then he made the life-changing decision.  He taught Ivanov to accept the circumstances and even take advantage of them. Kehayov became his role model, helping and guiding Ivanov to a path of recovery. He talked to Ivanov about the Japanese culture and samurais, their strength and how he can take advantage of the event. “He gave me the whole feeling that although I have a prosthesis, I’m not anything less than the others. But quite the opposite, it could be said that I’m one idea more,” Ivanov recalls.

“Pain is a privilege to the strong is something that Yavor taught me. I still love reminding myself that,” says Ivanov.

Grigor Ivanov. Photograph: Grigor Ivanov

He chuckles frequently while he talks. He is open, and not a single question bugs him. Grigor talks fast, he has a lot to say. His words are brave, words of a warrior. He is who he is because of the accident – a mature person with goals in his life.

Five years later, Ivanov plays for Sofia Balkan, a club in the national championship of Bulgaria, and the national team. He is not only a player, but deals with organizational activities such as budget allocation and future goals of the team. “Basketball is not only a sport but a community that unites people,” says Ivanov.

During the conversation there’s another disruption in the connection, giving a couple of seconds to process the courage of the young man. A few more pass before the connections works again and he continues as if nothing has happened.

“Basketball is before everything, one community of people who have been more or less on the same path that is similar to any of them,” says Ivanov.

The loss of his leg takes a lot from him but gives something in return. It gives Ivanov a sport that he loves and the opportunity to touch to professionalism and different championships.

He believes that his relationships with people have not been affected by the incident but briefly mentions those who feel uncomfortable seeing him.

 “There are these looks of the old women who are probably thinking ‘oh my God, the poor boy’. I’m not ‘oh my God, the poor boy’ because I’m no more different than any other young person,” says Ivanov.

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