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BOULDER - It was merely one dunk in a budding basketball career that already has seen plenty and promises many more. This particular throw down came to pass on Feb. 4, 2010, and by the dunker's standards, it was ho-hum - certainly nothing as YouTube worthy as what's already been posted.

Nonetheless, Shannon Sharpe viewed it as a milestone.

"First one since the surgery," Sharpe said, flashing the high-wattage smile that's already become a fixture in the Colorado men's basketball program.

Had it not been for the microfracture surgery performed in November on his left knee, Sharpe might be as well-regarded a freshman now as teammate Alec Burks. More muscular but five inches shorter than the lithe, gifted, 6-foot-6 Burks, Sharpe's athleticism had opened eyes and dropped jaws during preseason work and in pick-up games among the Buffaloes.

Then, on Day 1 of practice, "We were doing guard drills," Sharpe recalled. "My knee had been tender for a couple of weeks before . . . but I continued to play on it, thinking it was something minor.

"Everybody was dunking. I went up for a one-footed dunk and landed wrong on my left leg. My knee - I knew something was wrong, and from there on it was over."

But Sharpe continued to practice for the next several days until he experienced more pain. Further examination showed that he "probably had the same problem for a long time," Sharpe said. "And since I liked to jump a lot, it was getting worse and worse."

Nevertheless, some fleeting thought was given to delaying surgery and having him play his freshman season - a notion overturned by the medical staff and coach Jeff Bzdelik, who believed CU's future with a whole, healthy Sharpe was brighter than playing him with knee cartilage that was slowly wearing down.

"The right thing to do was to repair the damage and get him 100 percent," Bzdelik said. "If the damage wasn't repaired, it would have continued to damage itself to the point where the surgery would have been major - as opposed to fixing it and repairing to the point where he'd be ready and 100 percent next season."

For a variety of reasons and in a number of ways, Bzdelik's third CU team really could have used Sharpe. But Bzdelik called it "an easy decision" to take Sharpe out of the equation "because the priority is about the health of the young man - not the team.

"It was tough news to swallow at the time, but there was no hesitation on anyone's part at the university to do the right thing for him and his health."

As odd as this might sound, almost from moment of Sharpe's arrival in Boulder last summer, Bzdelik had found his team leader.

"And I say that based on his personality and how others engage in a positive way to him," Bzdelik said. "No. 2, his defensive pressure and presence was really going to be the heart and soul of our defense, because your defense starts with your ability to control the other team's point guard - and we haven't been able to do that."

Granted, the Buffs are a very young team (one senior), but I asked Bzdelik how rare he found it for a freshman to show up and assert himself as Sharpe did.

"Yes (it's rare), but he's a rare young man in terms of the positive intangibles combined with his athleticism and the skill he brings," Bzdelik said.

Leadership isn't foreign for Sharpe.

"I feel like once I learn everything, once I know what they expect, it's easier for me to lead," he said. "But yeah, I always felt I had a little leadership trait in me . . . going back to when I first picked up a basketball."

Others noticed it, too . . . couldn't help but notice, really.

Strength and conditioning coach James Hardy, who has seen far more of Sharpe than either expected, said Sharpe "wasn't doing what a freshman is supposed to do, as far as sitting and watching and fading into the background.

"I distinctly remember a point (in preseason work) where he was playing defense and the guy he was guarding simply couldn't get by him. He was like a sparkplug out there, going off . . . the intensity and passion he plays with are something to really be excited about.

"He was taking charge . . . his competitive spirit is unmatched. He wanted to win. It was great, because it rubbed off on some of the guys who were a little more hesitant."

Bzdelik and hesitancy of any sort aren't a real good fit, and that's undoubtedly why Sharpe's infectious spirit was so appealing. Sharpe has "attacked" his rehabilitation, doing whatever the medical staff and Hardy have prescribed.

Said Hardy: "He's very self-motivated; he's bought in to what we're trying to do here. He hasn't played, but when I tell him to go upstairs and get an extra lift in, he's up there. You don't have to fight him for that kind of stuff.

"He's doing what he can, but we've been real careful about what we're asking him to do. He's not full go, but if it was up to him, he'd be full go. Now."

After showing so much early promise, Sharpe concedes being a spectator has been difficult: "Really tough . . . but seeing things from the bench, I've learned a lot."

I asked him what he believes he would have brought to a team that is 2-9 in Big 12 Conference play (11-12 overall) with seven regular-season games and the league tournament remaining.

Without hesitating, he answered, "Energy, effort, athleticism - a different look. Nate (Tomlinson) and me are two different kinds of point guards. We would have kept defenses honest . . . I think I would have brought a lot to the table.

"I feel like I'm a lot better shooter at this level. It's not as easy to get to the basket - don't get me wrong, I can still get there and finish - but it's not as easy for me as it was in high school. That was my bread and butter. I felt like I didn't need to shoot the ball (from the perimeter) so I didn't.

"But now that I know that I need to, I've put a lot more emphasis on my perimeter shooting. But the main thing is, I think I can bring energy to the team - not so much on offense, but defense. It's not hard for us to score. I feel like if I can bring energy on the defensive end and grab a couple of rebounds here and there, then we'll be a lot better team."

Sharpe's wait to play surely seems endless; in addition to sitting out this season, he didn't play in 2008-09 at the Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute. But he has faced far tougher times away from his sport. Both of his parents died of heart failure less than two years apart when he was at Centennial High School in Corona, Calif.

His grandmother moved from Ohio to California to take care of Shannon and younger sister, Shari. High school teammates, friends and coaches (AAU included; he played for the Compton Magic Elite team) rallied around him - just as Bzdelik, his staff and the athletic department administration have done at CU.

Earlier this season, Jerry Johnson, longtime member and past president of the Denver Buffs Club, and several other hoops boosters had T-shirts and a banner printed that read "Shannon's Sharpe Shooters." When Sharpe returns, it will identify a section of fans at the Coors Events Center.

It was a supportive gesture for a player relegated to watching for an entire season, and Sharpe truly was moved: "I love it . . . it makes me feel wanted, that people are excited to see me. I just can't wait to get out there and not disappoint."

Something - it might be instinct, it might be his dunk-fest on YouTube - tells me Shannon Sharpe being a disappointment is not a real concern.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU