PROVO — During a practice last September, BYU forward Gavin Baxter endured a painful and major shoulder injury.

Then came surgery and weeks of grueling rehab. 

Almost everybody figured that Baxter would take a redshirt year and fully recover and prepare for the 2020-21 basketball campaign.

But as he watched his teammates exceed expectations and put together a special season, and as the doctor cleared him to compete again, Baxter examined the possibilities and faced a crucial decision.

Should he return to the court?

Baxter discussed the decision with his family and coach Mark Pope, among others. Ultimately, he chose to play again, though it was late in the season.

After sitting out the first 25 games of the year, Baxter burned his redshirt year on Feb. 8 by entering a game against San Francisco at the Marriott Center with 4:16 remaining in the first half. In all, he played just three minutes and didn’t attempt a shot. But his presence was noticed by everyone, including the BYU student section, which enthusiastically chanted his name as soon as he stepped on the court. 

As it turned out, Baxter played in only seven games as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars were projected as a No. 6 seed. 

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Months later, even knowing what he knows now, knowing his sophomore year consisted of only seven games, he would make the same choice again. 

“It was definitely a big decision. It was a situation where most guys would choose to redshirt and chalk it up and try it next year,” Baxter said recently. “For me, I just wanted to play on this team. For me, it was worth it 100%. I don’t regret it at all. Even not being able to play in the NCAA Tournament, it was worth it for me. It would have been over a year since I had played a game. So it was important for me to get back out there.”

For Baxter, it was important to compete with so many teammates that he loved, including seniors like Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws, Dalton Nixon, Jake Toolson and Zac Seljaas. The Cougars posted a 6-1 record during those seven games, with the only loss coming in what became the season finale, a 51-50 heartbreaker against Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals. 

Brigham Young Cougars forward Gavin Baxter (25) throws down a dunk during the BYU and Saint Mary’s WCC semifinal game at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Monday, March 9, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

“It was fantastic just to be a part of those wins,” Baxter said. “It was a special team.”

And, of course, Baxter is happy to have contributed in what turned out to be one of the most memorable games in school history — the Cougars’ 91-78 upset of No. 2 Gonzaga on Feb. 22. 

“It’s a lot about what Gavin is made of. In a sense, he mortgaged an entire season for seven games and then an unfinished ending. But in doing that, he gets to lay claim to some of the most epic moments that have ever taken place in the history of the Marriott Center,” said coach Mark Pope. “There’s an awful lot of players that have spent four years chasing moments that Gavin got to be a part of and never got. It’s a trade-off that he was really, really thoughtful about.

“Of course, he didn’t anticipate losing the NCAA Tournament. But I do know that it meant so much to him and for him to be a real part of what was happening,” Pope continued. “The truth is, we don’t get to enjoy a couple of those moments without him. We don’t. This team doesn’t get to do what it did if he doesn’t come out and jump in wholeheartedly for that little run.”

Pope said after the Gonzaga game, and still believes now, that Baxter’s presence against the Zags was a big contributing factor in the win. 

“He played big minutes. He got his first bucket of the season on an important offensive rebound and put-back,” Pope said. “Our performance as a team on the offensive glass was the best we had all season and he was such a key factor. Then he had to play while we were dancing around with foul trouble with Yoeli. He had a huge impact.

“It’s probably true that the outcome is not the same if Gavin’s not there, doing what he did. That was one of several incredibly memorable moments. It was pretty special what Gavin did last year.” 

Through seven games, Baxter played 8.8 minutes and shot 4 of 8 from the field, 1 of 2 from the free-throw line. He recorded 11 rebounds (five offensive, six defensive), three assists, four blocks and nine points. 

It’s not easy joining a team that late in the season and Baxter admits it was tough at times. 

“There was a bit of a learning curve even though I had played the year before. It was different with the team and the pace of the game and not having played in games before. It was tough to get used to that,” he said. “My conditioning wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I don’t think there would be any way to remedy that having sat out. The only way to get in basketball shape is to play in games. I was missing that. But I think I adjusted fairly well for the amount of time that I had to get back.”

Baxter returned to campus in early June for voluntary workouts after being away due to the pandemic. He’s been able to reunite with teammates and meet the new players that have joined the program in recent months. 

“It seems like it was years after the season ended seeing people,” Baxter said. “It’s been good to get back and meet all the new guys especially and start to form that bond with them.”

As for his shoulder? 

“It’s great. I almost have all the range of motion back,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get it 100% back because of the nature of the tear and the surgery and where it was. But as far as strength goes and motion, it’s doing really well.”

Baxter is eager to play his junior season. 

“I’m just trying to make it the best year I’ve had yet from an offensive and defensive standpoint,” he said. “I especially want to improve my motor on the floor, being able to beat guys down the floor and get easy buckets in transition as well as slashing and driving on the offensive end in the halfcourt.”

Playing those seven games has helped him prepare for his junior year, as opposed to sitting out for more than 18 months without playing. 

“It’s an advantage having played those games,” he said. “They weren’t small games, especially with Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. It was great to get that experience.”