For all that has gone wrong for the University of Wyoming men's basketball team during its current 7-22 campaign, you certainly can't blame redshirt sophomore guard Hunter Maldonado. If you knew what sort of every day ritual he's forced to put himself through so he can even practice, you'd respect him more than you already do.
On Dec. 11, 2018, Maldonado, already suffering from back spasms, took a devastating tumble in a home game against Denver. It was so bad, in fact, the Colorado Springs, Colorado, product was taken off Maury Brown Court in a wheelchair. He missed the remainder of the season as the Cowboys, quite literally, limped to an 8-24 record.
Maldonado has been all UW could have hoped for and then some since returning to the court for the 2019-20 season. He's averaging 35.6 minutes per game and leads the team in points, assists and rebounds. He has looked smooth and, at times, dominant. As much as a team 15 games under .500 can be bailed out, Maldonado has done just that: He is the lifeline for the Pokes, on the court and off of it.
Just because he's played nearly every minute this season, however, doesn't mean he's healthy, per se.
Let me take you into an average day for Maldonado. He arrives at the basketball facility an hour early before every practice and game day and proceeds to sit on a heating pad to loosen up his troublesome back. That is followed by various stretching to ease up said back and, depending on the day, is followed by more time on the heat pad and stretching. Then, of course, comes practice or an actual game.
In a 73-68 loss to Nevada on Tuesday, Maldonado took a nasty spill and landed on his back. He went to the locker room briefly before coming back out to the Cowboys' bench. He rode the exercise bike on the sideline for a bit before quietly making his way back into the game. He missed just five minutes of action despite at one point telling UW coach Allen Edwards he "really can't move."
"I'm not going to let anything stop me. I'm going do the best I can to get healthier for every single game. And no matter what, when it comes game time, you know, I'm telling myself this is the best I'm going be," Maldonado said. "I'm going to go out there and give it everything I got."
When Maldonado walks down the tunnel at Arena-Auditorium each day, something comes over him. Call it adrenaline, call it youthful resilience and/or ignorance. But whatever has ailed his back for the better part of 14 months dissipates. All he sees are two hoops standing on opposite ends of a 94-by-50-foot floor, his teammates, coaches and whoever or whatever happens to be standing in his way.
No, things haven't been pretty this season for the Cowboys. Losses have mounted, fans have shown displeasure and the future is uncertain. But Maldonado's heart and the impact he has on those around him is worthy of All-American recognition.
If grit was quantifiable, UW's captain would lead the nation. And sometimes, that's to Maldonado's detriment.
"He doesn't talk about it. And it really hurts him because he doesn't want his team to feel like he's not giving them his all," Edwards said. "He's a kid that's willing to run through a brick wall for this program."
In an era of college sports where players protect their bodies in hopes it aids their professional futures, Maldonado is a paragon. Why risk it and play through the pain? Because in the back of his mind, he knows nothing will ever be as bad as that day last December. And, more importantly, his band of brothers needs him.
"When people are counting on you, you lose the right to be selfish. And for me, I know the guys are counting on me, I know the coaching staff is counting on me," Maldonado said. "I'll do whatever I can. I know I'm not going to go out there and die.
"Like, I've been through the worst. Last year, that was the worst pain I could possibly feel, so nothing this year ... is going to match that."
Maldonado has the mindset and maturity of a sixth-year senior. The catch, of course, is he's a redshirt sophomore. But if you ask teammate T.J. Taylor, he'll tell you Maldonado has been that type of guy since he was a freshman. It's unlike anything he's ever seen.
Maldonado leads by example and, when he talks, everyone in the huddle listens. His presence and determination are inspiring; he makes you want to be a better version of yourself.
"He's always been like this. He's always led us. Coming in as a freshman, starting over a senior, just because he has those qualities," Taylor, a sophomore, said. "It's amazing. He's probably a once in a generation type of guy."
Taylor describes Maldonado as a jokester off the court. He's fun to be around. He enjoys playing "Call of Duty." In that sense, he's like most 20-somethings. But when he gets on the court, he'll call you out. He will correct you, regardless of how many years you've been a member of the team. Maldonado might as well be an assistant coach.
"He could probably run practice today on his own," Taylor said with a smile but complete seriousness. "I just don't even know how to explain it. He's a special dude."
In a season and, quite frankly, a career that has been marked by adversity, Maldonado had the moment of all moments last weekend in his hometown against his home team. With a road matchup at Air Force hanging in the balance, Maldonado hit a pair of 3-pointers, including a go-ahead shot with less than a minute remaining, that helped lead the Cowboys to just their second Mountain West victory this season.
In some ways, it was Maldonado's victory lap and homecoming. In another sense, it was just a win that, in the grand scheme of this season, doesn't mean all that much. The best UW can finish is 10th place in final MW standings. But Maldonado's moment in the winner's circle wasn't just about him or his homecoming. It was about his teammates' faith being rewarded. It was about coaches seeing the heart of their team not skip a beat when it mattered most.
And, most of all, it was about Maldonado deserving the right kind of break for a change.
"I really love Maldo," Edwards said. "He's banged up, but he's still out there 35 minutes giving us everything he has ... that's a guy that cares about this team and is willing to do whatever."
When I asked Maldonado about his triumph in Colorado Springs, the first thing he mentioned was getting a win for the team and about getting better. It took me prying to have him open up about shining in front of his family or against the team he grew up watching as a kid. It's never about Maldonado. It is always about the sum of the parts. That's why everyone in the UW locker room love him.
"(I'm) doing it for them because I know this season hasn't gone how we want to," Maldonado said. "But I'd fight and take a bullet for every one of these guys."
There aren't many Hunter Maldonados out there in the college basketball world. But UW is glad it has one of them.
"He's really our identity. Everything we want to be, he is," Taylor said. "No matter what, hurt, sick, not feeling well, (he) gives it all, more than (his) all. It's indescribable."
Michael Katz covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at email@example.com or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellkatz.