Elijah Hampton never really knew what he had until it was gone.
When the N.C. High School Athletic Association ruled he was ineligible to play for his Jay M. Robinson basketball team for the bulk of his junior season because of an attendance issue, Hampton was crushed. He was forced to sit and watch his teammates for the first time since he began playing the sport at age 8.
"The first couple of weeks were tough, and I was really down," said Hampton, who averaged 20 points per game his sophomore year. "But Coach (Joe) Pike kept me focused on working on my game. All of that time off from my team definitely made me appreciate basketball a lot more than I had in the past."
Hampton was able to come back for the final seven games of last season, when he averaged 21 points per game and helped build momentum for this season. The Bulldogs knocked off Hickory Ridge, Mount Pleasant and Northwest Cabarrus in the final two weeks of the season to close out the year 11-13 and 6-8 in South Piedmont 3A Conference play.
In his first game back, against Northwest Cabarrus - which was tied for the conference lead with Concord at the time - Hampton hit the game-winnning shot to upset the Trojans.
"We were all heartbroken that Elijah had to sit out," said Pike of his 11th year as head coach. "We really struggled without him. For him to come back and hit a game-winner was a great moment for all of us."
Hampton said he remembers that game as if it were yesterday.
"Just being back on the court with my teammates and our crowd was emotional. I had to fight back some tears," the senior said. "Then, after I hit the game-winner, I just thanked God for giving me back basketball. I felt like I had made the NBA or something."
But after missing the playoffs again, with losing records in each of the past two seasons, Hampton and his Robinson team believed they had a lot to prove this season.
Hampton and the Bulldogs worked hard over the summer to improve every aspect of their game.
"Elijah was extremely motivated for the entire offseason," Pike said. "He became a gym rat. He didn't miss any workouts or open gyms in the summer and fall and was a great leader and example for our younger guys."
All of that work has paid off, as Robinson has gone from the bottom of the conference to second place going into the conference tournament this week.
The Bulldogs (19-4 overall and 11-2 in the conference, heading into last Friday's regular-season finale against Hickory Ridge) are one of the hottest teams around, having won 16 of their last 17 games.
Hampton, 18, has been the main catalyst. The 6-3, 185-pound forward averages 18 points and 10 rebounds per game and can play all five positions, if needed, Pike said.
He is joined by five seniors who lead the Bulldogs, including point guard Ivan Lowe (Hampton's half-brother), Kevin Anzenberger and Sean Smith in the backcourt. Brody Koerner, who averages 13 points and nine rebounds a game, joins Hamptom down low.
Hampton has been at his best in the team's biggest moments, including the East Lincoln Winter Jam Christmas tournament. There he earned Most Valuable Player honors after leading his team past East Lincoln, Myers Park and Rocky River in successive days to win the event.
While his numbers are just as good, Hampton's focus has changed.
"In the past, I was all about me," Hampton said. "But now I try to focus on getting my teammates involved first and getting a win. When you play that way, the game comes to you, and it has made me a lot better player."
Hampton and his team now shift their focus to the conference tournament, where they want nothing less than another shot at Concord.
"We definitely feel like we are the best team in the conference, but we have to prove it," Hampton said.
Hampton said he is also excited about the making the playoffs for the first time since his freshman year.
Hampton hopes all these games will help his future. He hopes to be able to play in college. Hampton has interest from schools like Radford and Johnson C. Smith, Pike said, but he may also have to pursue the junior college or prep school route.
Either way, Hampton just wants to keep basketball in his life.
"My dream has always been to play college basketball," Hampton said. "What I've been through in the last year has only made me want it more. I am going to do everything I can to get there."