It had been almost three years since JT Thompson last played a college basketball game.

It was Mar. 24, 2010.  Two years, 7 months and 20 days removed from the date of his collegiate return, which was this past Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012.

Two years, seven months, 20 days. 

That's a long time away from the sport you love.

JT Thompson was a junior at Virginia Tech -he played in all 34 games, including the Mar. 24, NIT quarterfinal matchup with Rhode Island at the Hokies' Cassell Coliseum.  Little did he know that would be the last game he would play for a long, long time.  He would not play as a senior.  Nor as a red-shirt senior.  Two separate knee surgeries sidelined him.  The first came in the preseason of his fourth year.  The second in the preseason of his fifth.

After graduating, he transferred to UNC Charlotte in hopes of stretching his career one more year as a graduate student.  He took a chance on the 49ers - and the 49ers took a chance on him.

Charlotte needed a strong inside presence to mentor an array of young talent.  Thompson was battle-tested from a run through the ACC. 

Thompson needed an opportunity to play.  Charlotte has a young lineup and a pressing need for experience.

 "I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to play somewhere," Thompson said, who is earning his master's in elementary education.  "I would have played anywhere.  I just wanted to play one more year.  They give you four years.  I wanted all of mine."

So he kept working.  Through rehab session after rehab session. 

"A lot of straight leg raises with ankle weights.  Toe raises," Thompson said.  "I lost all the muscle in my leg - that was one thing I had to get back.  But it would ache at night.  It would ache in the morning.  And then I'd go back that day for more.  The most difficult thing was getting that muscle back and getting that range of motion."

Endless time rehabbing.  Through ice bag after ice bag.  Through sore legs, sore muscles and sore joints.

If he kept working.  If his legs were strong enough.  If he could build muscle mass around the knees - he could play again.

"It was draining, mentally and physically," Thompson said.  "Even now, to sit out of practice, it kills me.  I'm an energy guy.  Explosive.  Dunks. Put backs, running the floor.  It was difficult.  It drained me."

Tuesday night, a t the 12:35 mark of the first half in the 49ers second game of the season, JT Thompson came off the bench for the first time.  The walk to the scorer's table must have felt like a marathoner's final 100 meters.  The long journey was nearly over.  The finish line was in sight.

"It was love," Thompson said.  "To see the crowd.  The crowd was ready for me.  My teammates were ready for me - my teammates acted up as soon as he called my name.  They were all cheering for me."

He ran onto the court and he played college basketball.  For the first time in two years, seven months and 20 days, he played college basketball.

"I waited so long for it.  Two years is a long time.  I love the game so much and I got out so long - I was just ready to play.  The feeling was amazing just to step on the court.  It was a surreal feeling."

He scored four points.  He had two rebounds.  He played 15 minutes.   Those are the numbers.

After the game, in the locker room, the team gave him a standing ovation.  That's where the real story is.

And it's a story of triumph. 

When JT Thompson felt the cheers as he headed to the scorer's table, when he looked to the bench to see his teammates' ecstatic reaction after scoring his first bucket, when the team rose up to salute him in the locker room afterwards -- that's when all the frustration, all the heartache, all the despair, all the lonely hours, all the pain became absolutely, positively worth it.

Welcome back, they may have said.  It's your turn to play - and you have absolutely, positively earned it.

Now get in the game.