What is basketball about? For some people, it's just another game. For others, it's all about winning, or teamwork, or competition. For some, it's an integral part of their culture, a pillar that their lives revolve around.
I think when you really break it down, basketball is all about relationships. The relationship between the offense and defense, the ball and the rim, relationships between players and coaches, between coaches and owners, teams and fans, et cetera, et cetera. But chief among those relationships is the one between the player and his body.
Don't scoff, it really is a relationship! Check it: how much time does a professional athlete spend working on his body over the course of his career? How many conversations about his body with doctors and trainers? How many times does he find himself pushing his body to its limit during conditioning workouts, honing it during shooting drills, and maintaining it with ice baths and epsom salts. An athlete must have an incredibly close relationship with his body in order to be successful.
So what happens when part of the body breaks down? Sure, there's the physical pain of the injury. But the emotional stress of seeing your teammates looking on while you're on the ground, unable to rise onto your own feet, is somehow worse. Then there's the trainers and coaches you've gotten to know so well, all the fans and media who follow your every move, and all the cameras broadcasting the your tarnished image across the globe. You can't help but feel like you've let them down, somehow.
And even after all that you're left with the feeling of having trusted your body and felt it betray you. What I remember most when I tore the ACL in my left knee was the feeling that the relationship I had with my body had been forever altered. The stability I was used to? Gone. The strength and flexibility that had taken years to develop? MIA.
The medical diagnosis was straightforward: I was labelled a Grade II sprain of the anterior cruciate ligament, 60% torn but with no new structural damage anywhere else inside the knee. I had scar tissue built up where I had previously partially torn the meniscus, but that wouldn't interfere. The swelling was surprisingly low, and my doctors determined that surgery could be avoided if I followed a strict rehab schedule and vowed to never play without a brace.
So I started the rehab, and I was a bonafide mint for the physical therapist's office. I can't tell you how many hours I spent on stationary bikes or plodding along treadmills set to "snail". I do know that after four months, I was able to jog for the first time, or at least limp quickly. Basketball activities followed another five months after that, and after about 13 months, I was able to play my first pickup game (with a brace) since the original injury.
The rehab process was great for physical recovery, but it also helped repair the relationship I had with my body. I learned a lot about how rehab doesn't heal the ligaments, but builds and trains your muscles to compensate for the diminished stability resulting from the injury. In my case with a partial tear, they actually want the scar tissue to grow to reconnect the separated parts of the ligament, and that arthroscopy to "clean up" the tissue would only be necessary if it didn't fill in the way they wanted it.
I played in a rec league in Austin, TX last spring, and it was the first time I'd played organized basketball since getting hurt. I had been playing pickup games for years by then and had a contraption on my knee big enough to double as a weapon in the game Clue. I was comfortable with myself and the relationship I had with my body...but it wasn't ever like it was before. I had a scare halfway through the season; a scrum for a loose ball ended up with a teammate getting pushed into the side of my left knee, and my body shut down while my brain screamed, "Not again!"
It's a dark place to be for an athlete, or anyone for that matter, coming back from an injury that kept you from walking. And even after a full recovery, all it takes is a nudge to plunge you back into that darkness. There was a terrific article published on Grantland a few days ago by Neil Gabler, who called the ACL "a gremlin, just waiting to pop." That's exactly what it feels like. The reassurance offered by doctors, teammates, and family members definitely helps, as does the treatment and physical therapy, but it never gets rid of that subtle angst that hangs around in the back of your mind.
Now, I'm not Jabari Parker. My injury happened in a gym populated by no more than 30 people, not a crowd of thousands, and I'm sure Jabari's health insurance is better than mine, as is his access to cutting-edge medical care. And he's a mature guy with a great outlook and a positive vibe. But I've never been able to fully shake the uncertainty, and that's something Jabari will be going through as he works his way back towards a healthy relationship with his body. The toughest part won't be the surgery or the recovery or the workouts to get it back to where it needs to be. What's hardest is rebuilding the trust that had been built up for years and vanished in an instant.
But if I can get close, I've got a good feeling about someone like Parker. Get well soon, Jabari.