Victim of Duluth hit-and-run crash rebuilds a life, one memory at a timeRICK LUBBERS: When Alex Balluff shoots baskets with the Minnesota Timberwolves today, his parents will snap dozens of photos. Without those pictures, Alex, 20, won’t be able to re-create the memories of the special event once they inevitably evaporate from his short-term memory.
By: Rick Lubbers, Duluth News Tribune
When Alex Balluff shoots baskets with the Minnesota Timberwolves today, his parents, Debbie and Mike, will snap dozens of photos, capturing the moments frame by frame.
Without those pictures, Alex, 20, won’t be able to re-create the memories of the special event once they inevitably evaporate from his short-term memory.
On Oct. 31, 2009, Alex was struck from behind by a drunken driver while walking with his friends along Rice Lake Road; the driver left the scene. The one-time baseball and basketball standout and honor student at St. Francis High School suffered such traumatic brain injuries that he was given a 1 percent chance of living. Beyond that, the prognosis was grim even if he did survive.
“We were told that if he lived, he would be living in a nursing home,” Debbie said by phone Wednesday afternoon.
Now, less than three years later, Alex will be a guest of the Timberwolves, who finish their season tonight at home against the Denver Nuggets. Alex will receive a lot of mementos from his visit, including a signed ball and jersey, but he’s really looking forward to watching the Timberwolves’ pregame shoot-around and launching a few shots of his own.
“I will be lighting it up,” Alex said with a laugh. “I’m going to show them how to really shoot.”
He’s been practicing his shot and trying to rekindle the smooth stroke that helped him shoot 84 percent from the free-throw line and 36 percent from 3-point range (third-highest in school history) on the St. Francis varsity squad from 2007-09.
Shooting a basketball used to be as natural as breathing, eating or walking for Alex, but after the accident and several months in various stages of a coma, he needed to relearn how to do all four.
“It was a miracle that Alex survived,” said Debbie, adding that his engaging sense of humor has endured despite his many challenges. “It’s been a marathon, but we’ve made huge progress. Alex could easily be in a wheelchair or a respirator.”
Alex and Debbie share their story at local high schools in hopes of deterring young people from drinking and driving and so that other families can be spared the hardships they have endured.
“We pray that Alex’s story will help people to not drink and drive,” Debbie said. “This is not the life Alex chose, but he sure brings laughter and smiles to all who meet him.”
Although Alex was only visiting Duluth briefly before suffering his injuries, and the family lives in Ramsey, Minn., Debbie said the Twin Ports community has been instrumental in his recovery.
“They have rallied for Alex all through his marathon to recovery,” she said. “They have been there for Alex and his family.”
The Balluffs are praying for more miracles on Alex’s road to recovery. The 2009 St. Francis graduate still suffers severe fatigue, headaches, depression and visual blurriness due to his traumatic brain injury. He also needs 24-hour supervised care — and visual reminders to help him reconstruct his past, including a night he rang up 28 points for the Fighting Saints against St. Louis Park on the strength of eight 3-pointers.
“We have photographs from high school and from those moments,” Debbie said. “We’ve learned to be so thankful for those pictures and moments, those memories. Snapping pictures has helped Alex put together past memories. Those pictures help him stimulate his brain and remember those moments.
“Our life is measured in moments and seconds, and every moment matters.”
Now the Timberwolves are helping Alex create more memories. After hearing about his story, they invited him to spend some time with the team today.
“I pretty much watch every game,” said Alex, who also loves playing Texas Hold’em. “I am a sports nut.”
Now Alex will have one of the best seats in the house, along with his mom and dad and youngest brother, Chris, who is a senior at St. Francis.
“I am excited,” Alex said. “I love the Timberwolves and Ricky Rubio. I love Kevin Love. I’m going to get some pictures and keep them and remember them forever.”
Pictures are worth much more than a thousand words to Alex Balluff.
They’re worth a thousand memories.
Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at firstname.lastname@example.org or (218) 723-5317.