Bubu Palo sprinted out of Iowa State's home locker room with his teammates last week while being showered with applause, culminating his long quest to rejoin the Cyclones.
Then the lights came on, the fans took their seats and Palo grabbed his hard-fought spot the bench.
To Palo's right stood a coach who won't talk about him. To Palo's left sat a university president whose push to keep him off the team went all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court.
For a program that just put up the best start in its history, Palo's awkward return hasn't been much to cheer about.
Palo is a backup point guard who was kicked off the Cyclones in August following sexual assault charges that were later dropped. Palo appealed the school's decision, and it wound up in court. He was reinstated by a judge's ruling on Jan. 16.
Palo is now eligible to play despite the best efforts of his own university to keep him away.
"Bubu is suited up. He's on the team. It is what it is right now. Obviously, I disagreed because I saw this differently than the judicial system outside of campus," Iowa State president Steven Leath said.
There has been a lot of that over the past 18 months between various courts, university officials and a player determined to clear his name.
It started in September 2012, when Palo was suspended after being charged with sexually abusing a woman he was driving home.
The Story County Attorney's Office said forensic evidence on a blouse belonging to the woman clashed with her and her mother's sworn testimony. Palo's attorney, Matthew Boles, said the discrepancy with the blouse was the "crowning piece of several inconsistencies" with the woman's story.
Palo, a former walk-on who grew up in Ames , was allowed back on the team last January. He averaged 2.8 points in 17 games.
But as Palo was preparing for his senior season, his status as a student-athlete landed on Leath's desk. Leath ruled that Palo's actions violated the school's student code of conduct. Palo was dismissed from the team on Aug. 30 but allowed to keep his scholarship.
Leath said he "spent a tremendous amount of time on all the material, from tapes to written material. And I and one of our most experienced faculty members who handles grievances on campus looked at it at the same time. We tried to be as careful and thoughtful as we possibly could be," Leath said.
Once Palo was booted from the team, nearly everyone forgot about him.
It was much easier to be swept away by Iowa State's historic start. The arrival of transfer point guard DeAndre Kane and the emergence of a host of young guards like Monte Morris and Naz Long more than make up for Palo's absence.
Iowa State won its first 14 games, reached as high as No. 8 in the Top 25 and became one of the most talked-about teams in the country.
All the while, Palo was watching from afar.
"It was definitely difficult," he said. "But I've kind of been used to it for the last couple months. That's kind of been normal life for me. Just adversity and just continue to keep a level head and no matter what happens, stay positive."
Last week, the state's highest court denied a request by the Iowa Board of Regents for an immediate stay of the ruling that allowed Palo to return to the team. According to Boles, any further legal action is likely weeks away.
Until then, Palo will remain a Cyclone.
"He has, from the very beginning of the criminal proceeding, professed his innocence," Boles said of Palo. "For the university to go through an administrative process that essentially discredits or discounts what the legal process, the judicial process has determined as to whether or not it was a prosecutable and provable case just flies in the face of that initial stance that he had, which is that he didn't do anything wrong."
Even though Palo has basically gotten what he wanted, it hardly feels like a victory to most of those involved.
Palo's teammates have been vocal in their support for Palo and insist he isn't a distraction even as the team lost four times in five games.
Athletic director Jamie Pollard isn't happy that Palo's eligibility was decided by the courts rather than the school. Coach Fred Hoiberg, who has typically been accommodating to reporters in his four seasons at Iowa State, has refused to discuss Palo.
Palo knows he won't play unless the Cyclones are ravaged by injuries or foul trouble. But he'll still be on the bench with his teammates — whether the university likes it or not.
"It was definitely still a little weird," Palo said. "Hopefully now it will just be smoother from here on out."
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