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Hall overcomes heart problem as his Shockers overcome all odds

By CNN Staff
updated 9:22 AM EDT, Fri April 5, 2013
Wichita State's Carl Hall cuts down the net at Los Angeles' Staples Center after an upset win over Ohio State.
Wichita State's Carl Hall cuts down the net at Los Angeles' Staples Center after an upset win over Ohio State.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carl Hall's heart condition threatened to end his college basketball career in 2007
  • The condition caused neurocardiogenic syncope, a loss of consciousness
  • After playing at two junior colleges, Wichita State picked him up before junior season
  • Hall's six blocked shots instrumental in Shockers' upset of No. 2-seeded Ohio State

Rachel Nichols hosts CNN's 'All Access at the Final Four' Saturday at 3pm ET on CNN.

(CNN) -- Carl Hall shouldn't be at the Big Dance, and it has nothing to do with the Wichita State Shockers being the Cinderellas of this year's tournament.

Hall is an underdog story all by himself. Now 26 and allowed to play only via a special NCAA medical waiver, there was a time Hall thought he'd never play basketball again.

But through the diligence and tenacity that has been a signature of the No. 9-seeded Shockers' historic run into the Final Four (they're the second-lowest seed to ever make it this far), Hall has demonstrated he was game for a comeback.

When the 6-foot-8 senior from Cochran, Georgia, first took the floor in 2007 to play at Middle Georgia College, his college career lasted all of three games. After visiting a doctor to diagnose the latest in a series of fainting spells that had been ongoing since high school, his career was shut down because of a heart condition.

The condition caused what is known as neurocardiogenic syncope, a loss of consciousness often caused by decreased blood to the brain.

Remember when President George W. Bush choked on the pretzel in 2002? Or when French President Nicolas Sarkozy collapsed while jogging in 2009? Both episodes were attributed to syncope.

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Like that, Hall went from junior-college baller to a $12-an-hour, assembly-line bulb painter working the graveyard shift at a lighting company in his hometown. It was a tough blow for the then-19-year-old.

"He got so depressed," his mother, Jackie Fields, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "For a while there, I thought, 'This boy thinks his life was over.' "

Hall stayed in school, paying his own way after losing his scholarship, and attended morning classes after his shifts ended at 7 a.m. His grades suffered, according to media reports.

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In 2009, doctors gave him exciting news. His medication was working. His heart was stabilizing. If he wanted, he could return to the court, they said, but Hall was tentative.

"Once you pass out you don't want to go through that situation again," Hall told Yahoo Sports.

Rather than go back to college, he went to the rec center, where he began playing in a church league. When coach Scott Moe heard of the development, he told Hall he could return to Middle Georgia, the Journal-Constitution reported.

Fields was worried it wasn't the best move for her son, but Hall told her he was willing to take the risk.

"I said if anything happens to me while I play basketball, I can live with it," Hall told the newspaper. "She said if I can live with it, she can."

He averaged almost 19 points and more than 11 rebounds a game, leading Middle Georgia to the national junior college tournament.

The next year, he transferred to Northwest Florida State, where that production continued. With a marksman-like 59% shooting, Hall averaged almost 18 points and 10 rebounds a game -- not to mention 2.3 blocks -- and was named 2011 Panhandle Conference Player of the Year.

By then, he'd already been on Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall's radar. Marshall recalled for ESPN the first time he saw the young man play.

"I said to my staff, 'I want that guy right there. The guy with the hair,' " Marshall said, referring to the dreadlocks Hall sported up until a few days before the NCAA Tournament.

Marshall had his reservations, though. It wasn't that Hall didn't have what it took to be a Shocker, but Marshall had been rocked by a player's heart problem in the past.

Just after accepting the Wichita State post, Marshall was watching one of his recruits, a Cameroonian from New Hampshire named Guy Alang-Ntang, play a pick-up game when the kid collapsed, dead on the floor.

"I'm watching him play pickup and 15 minutes later he just lurches back and it's over. That was my second day on the job," he told ESPN.

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Despite Hall's successes at Middle Georgia and Northwest Florida, he wasn't quite up for the task of playing NCAA ball. He was out of shape, sometimes taking breaks during team sprints, and he was frightened to push himself at first. Marshall was also unwilling to crack the whip.

"I didn't want to be the coach who made him pass out or worse," Marshall told ESPN.

Hall spent the off-season on the track, on the treadmill and on the stationary bike. During a preseason practice, he was running suicides -- a grueling series of sprints whose lengths increase in intervals -- when he realized he could finally give it 100%, according to the Journal-Constitution.

He's now making the most of the NCAA medical waivers that granted him a sixth season of eligibility. After averaging more than eight points and five rebounds as a junior -- and snaring the Missouri Valley Conference's newcomer of the year award -- the 26-year-old forward has become a force.

On top of 12.5 points and seven rebounds a game, Hall plays mean defense, averaging almost two blocks a game. You can ask the No. 2-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes about it -- that is, if they're willing to talk after Hall's six swatted shots helped the Shockers sink the favored Big Ten opponent last weekend.

That upset came two days after a 72-58 dismantling of the LaSalle Explorers -- on the back of Hall's 16-point, eight-rebound, three-block performance -- and a week after the Shockers lived up to their name by edging out the Gonzaga Bulldogs, one of the tournament's top-seeded teams.

Next up is perhaps Wichita State's most daunting challenge: a truly menacing Louisville Cardinals team that hasn't lost since February 9 and is averaging almost 81 points per game in the tournament.

With the exception of Oregon, which lost to Louisville by eight, no one has even stayed on the floor with the Cardinals, who whipped a vaunted Duke squad by 22 on Sunday.

The Shockers will go into Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Saturday as 11-point underdogs, but Wichita State is used to playing the role. They've already knocked off one No. 1 seed on the road to the college hoops championship.

Should they continue to defy the oddsmakers and win it all, the Kansas university of almost 15,000 students will become the lowest-seeded school to ever do it, topping the 1985 No. 8-seeded Villanova team.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves. Right now, Hall is just enjoying being there.

"It's like I'm in a dream right now, you know, and I'm just trying to take advantage of this whole opportunity," he told ESPN.

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