Posted Oct 27, 2012 10:32 AM
One by one, slowly and maybe a little gingerly, the NBA's ACL crew -- players who suffered devastating knee injuries last season, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and in some cases, the medial collateral ligament -- are coming back. The Black Sleeve Brotherhood can be identified both by the rubbery braces they wear on their surgically repaired legs and by the hopeful, nervous looks they inspire on the faces of their teams' fans.
Each of them is different. Different incidents, different tears, different surgeons, different recovery times, different players facing different expectations. Yet there is a kinship there, an empathy built from sharing the loneliness of a career-threatening injury and grueling rehab. Apart but together.
Derrick Rose, Ricky Rubio, Eric Maynor, Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis have limped in each other's casts and stretched against each other's resistance bands, figuratively anyway. On occasion, they have compared notes. As the 2012-13 season unfolds, they and so many others will begin comparing their comebacks.
"It's a tough injury," Rubio, the Minnesota Timberwolves' point guard, said last week. "You are like six, eight, nine months without playing your favorite sport. Sometimes [you miss] just playing basketball where you forget about everything and just enjoy it."
Rubio, who blew out his knee (ACL and MCL) in March when he collided with the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, spoke with Rose before a preseason game in Chicago. He also talked with players back home in Spain who had endured similar injuries, "like Raul Lopez, who was here in the NBA [Utah, 2003-05] for a couple years."
"But every player's different," Rubio said. "Nobody had the [exact] same injury. I mean, a little more meniscus. Or two ligaments or just one. ... Every recovery is different. We don't have to look at somebody else to see when one can come back. You just take your time."
None of the five guards is known to be behind schedule in his rehab, but then, none is officially ahead of it either. Rubio will be back in December, unless he holds off till January. That's the same month that Shumpert and the New York Knicks are targeting. Rose, who got hurt in the Bulls' playoff opener, is penciled in to return after the All-Star break -- that means late February, possibly into March.
Davis? His injury was especially gruesome, a dislocated knee cap, a partial tear of the patella tendon and complete ACL and MCL tears. Coming so deep into a career already beyond its quote of ailments and setbacks, the 33-year-old is hoping to play again in 2013-14. in the meantime, he has been kept around the Knicks in a front-office position.
That puts Maynor at the head of this particular class. He has been cleared since the starting of Oklahoma City's training camp, which opened about 9 1/2 months after the backup point guard went down in the Thunder's ninth game last season. He was scrimmaging in September and when coach Scott Brooks saw Maynor play in some 5-on-5 games, he exhaled a little on his player's and his team's behalf.
"In the 80s, when I played, this was career-ending," Brooks said. "Then it became, y'know, you come back in two years. Now it's like nine months. Look at [Minnesota Vikings running back] Adrian Peterson in football -- and he got something like 153 yards the other day [after ACL surgery in December]. He only has to play one game a week but still, they're coming at your knees every time."
NBA players face contact, too, but mostly they're their knees own worst enemies, cutting too severely, launching too explosively. That sense of hurting themselves, their bodies betraying them on a move or a leap they always took for granted, can make a player tentative, overly cautious. Which is no way to play at basketball's highest level.
"It was tough at first, even just working out," Maynor said. "Just not knowing if I can get back the step that I had. And all the moves, the quickness, stuff like that. But I pushed through it every day. Now I feel good.
"I think it's different for me because I was never like speed, speed, speed, speed, speed. I'm back to where I was. But D-Rose, he's fast all the time, so he's gonna have to work to get that back. But I know he'll work. He'll be straight."
If the waiting is the hardest part -- so says Tom Petty anyway -- the work of rehab and the separation from what teammates are doing line up second- and third-hardest in some order.
"In the beginning it was physical," Rubio said. "You were in so much pain, you had to fight every day and you had to bend the knee. Then when that pain goes away and you start to work out, you see your teammates and all your friends playing -- not just basketball games but basketball in the street this summer. I was sitting on the side. It was too hard mentally."
The other four ACL guys were into their offseasons when their recoveries really began. Rose and Rubio missed out on the London Olympics, their spots on Team USA and Spain's national team filled by others. But Maynor had it even worse -- Oklahoma City's best season ever barely had begun, and he wound up missing the team's trip to The Finals.
The Thunder picked up veteran Derek Fisher to play behind Russell Westbrook, so maybe they didn't miss Maynor as much as they might have. But it didn't help Maynor with what he was facing.
"I was away from the team for a little bit -- I couldn't stand it," he said. "I was at home, not doing anything. ... Sometimes you'd be at home and you're sitting there by yourself, like bored and thinking too much. When I got with my teammates, they were able to push me every day. Whether we were at home or on the road, they kept pushing me."
Brooks, GM Sam Presti and Maynor's teammates made it a priority to pull Maynor close, to keep at least the classroom portion of his NBA education in session.
"As soon as he was able to travel, he was traveling with us," Brooks said. "He was at every shootaround, every meeting, every film session. I had myself and all my assistant coaches always talk to him.
I always had him tell me about the game, give me a verbal scouting report about the game. What he thought of the players, what we could have done better."
Said center Kendrick Perkins, who came back from his own ACL surgery in 2010: "Being out, you want guys to make you feel a part of it, and we did a pretty good job of doing that. I told him, whatever you put into rehab is what you get out of it. Getting back in game shape, game rhythm. And just being strong mentally -- it's hard, so you have to stay focused and make sure you're not disturbed."
Brooks, when schooling Maynor on Xs & Os, even had him draw up some plays for the team. "I used a few of them. They didn't work too well," the coach said, laughing. "But he would come back the next day and try to give me some more.
"He's a thinking man's player. He's a point guard who loves the game. He's cerebral. That's how he has success in this league -- he's not going to blow by you and dunk over your. What he's going to do, he's going to outsmart you."
Ask him what percent of his game is back, and Maynor says simply, "I'm good." Teammate James Harden sees the same player who opened last season with OKC.
"He still dictates the game, still looks for his shot when he's open, still makes great decisions," Harden said. "Obviously he has to get back into his feel, but these last few weeks he's done a great job of getting there."
Brooks has watched Maynor closely, though, looking for slivers of doubt or fear.
"I've talked to him a few times. 'How's it going, Eric?' Just giving him confidence that he's back," Brooks said. "When you haven't played in a while -- I was the kind of player, if I didn't play for a week, I felt like I couldn't dribble -- you just don't feel comfortable.
"In September and early October, I think sometimes in practice he'd be like, 'Aw, I missed a shot. I missed a play.' But it wasn't because of the knee -- it was because he hadn't played in nine months and had nine other athletes coming at you at the highest level. But the last 10 days have been really good."
Ten days is nothing compared to the weeks and months these guys have labored and longed for this. Maynor is on his way. In some order, each on his own schedule, Rose, Rubio, Shumpert and (maybe) Davis will follow.
The rust period and the return to full capability will differ for each, same as the injuries and rehab. Already, the Black Sleeve Brigade can hear and feel the teammates and basketball fans pulling for them. They will trust in medical science. They will trust their trainers and therapists. Eventually, they will trust their knees.
"They're all competitors," Perkins said. "If I could come back from it, they can."
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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