Losing vision in his left eye always will be a part of his basketball story.
But Notre Dame freshman forward Eric Katenda is determined not to let it be the story for his college career.
Finishing up summer school and anxious to return home this weekend to see family and friends in his native Paris, Katenda dives into any discussion about the severed optic nerve he suffered last summer during a pickup game as quickly as he bounced from bed the last six weeks for another 6 a.m. workout with his teammates.
He'd rather the topic remain asleep. For good.
"It's a non-factor," Katenda said Tuesday morning in the Irish locker room lounge. "Everything that has happened in my life has happened for a reason. I'm going to keep praying and keep positive.
"But I came here to hoop and go to school. That's all I want to talk about."
Until Katenda appears in a game, all anyone has to go on is a back story that is borderline heartbreaking. Having committed to Notre Dame in the spring of 2011 while a senior at Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kan., Katenda embraced the opportunity as a dream come true. He couldn't wait to get to campus. To play basketball in the Big East. To step on the floor at Madison Square Garden. Katenda's arrival in South Bend was delayed by some seven months thanks to a series of circumstances.
When the NCAA Eligibility Center red-flagged and then slow-played acceptance of his college transcript over an Introduction to English course that Katenda had taken while at prep school in Cheshire, Conn., he was not allowed to enroll in summer school in June 2011. He remained at the home of his guardian outside Washington. Going for a rebound while playing pickup basketball, Katenda was poked in the eye by a finger of another player. Doctors initially had to be convinced as to how the injury happened. Rarely had they seen something so small do such damage. Surgery could not save his vision.
The injury also cost Katenda his first semester at Notre Dame. Given time by Irish coach Mike Brey to adjust to his new world, Katenda didn't arrive on campus until the week Notre Dame beat then-No. 1 and undefeated Syracuse to start a school-record nine-game Big East win streak. Each time the Irish traveled to another league game, Katenda, because he was a mid-year enrollee, remained on campus.
"It was tough coming in mid-year," he said. "I really had a hard time trying to fit in, getting to know the guys, getting into practices and trying to play."
Brey made good on his vow to take it slow with Katenda, who was limited to light shooting and skill work the rest of the 2011-12 season. To ease the adjustment, Brey also deemed Katenda off-limits for interviews. In spring and summer, Katenda, who wears protective glasses, has been able to turn loose his athleticism, as well as his 6-foot-8, 235-pound frame.
"It's on me to keep working and get better and get back to the level that I was at and compete," Katenda said. "I just need to keep working, stay focused and not let anything get me down.
"I'm getting there."
One sequence in a recent pickup game underscores that statement. Able to work free in the lane, Katenda caught an entry pass, split two defenders with his dribble, ignored any traffic around him, then rose quickly and confidently for a one-handed tomahawk dunk. Katenda banged the ball off the back of the rim, but the scene was a snapshot of the athletic ability fitting of someone who averaged 15.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals his senior season.
"He's got the look," said Brey, who spotted Katenda shooting alone in the Pit earlier this week late at night. "Physically and athletically, he's a Big East body. He's very competitive. He's built to play the game."
Katenda admits to having had good days and bad during summer practices and pickup sessions. A good day is when he still does everything he did before the injury -- score, rebound, pass, block shots, defend. Bad days arrive when Katenda struggles to decipher a ball screen on his left or back side.
"I have not seen a lack of eyesight handicap him," Brey said.
As much as he vows to stay positive, down time for Katenda bring down days. When he's active and engaged in the classroom or on the court, Katenda rarely ponders his predicament. Not so during idle hours in the Keough Hall dorm room he shared this summer with Irish sophomore teammate Pat Connaughton.
"I don't even think about my eye when I play," he said. "But when I start thinking about it, I'm like, 'Oh, shoot, I got hurt and can't see.' Then it starts bothering me.
"It's just something you have to live with."
Katenda will have time to figure how he fits into a 2012-13 Irish equation that includes a loaded front line of seniors Jack Cooley, Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman along with fellow freshman Zach Auguste. Having arrived after the semester break last winter, Katenda will not be eligible until the end of the fall semester. He may sit out this season to preserve a year of eligibility and better get a grasp on the Irish system.
"He understands that this is a process," Brey said. "His attitude has been great."
It's an attitude that has seldom changed since his life did.
"As soon as I get my confidence back, my game is still there," Katenda said. "I know I can help these guys in some way."
Staff writer Tom Noie: