From Pain to Promise
Posted Mar 23 2007 1:15AM
"There were certain things I couldn't do," he told me, "but I just figured that, you know, maybe ... I don't know what I figured, because it wasn't really getting any better. It really wasn't. I don't know what I figured. I just thought that I could tough it out. It was really probably dumb of me to go as long as I did without it."
It was Thursday, Feb. 22., exactly one month after RJ went under the knife to remove three bone spurs out of his right ankle, and 15 days before he will eventually return to action in Houston on March 9. He's riding the exercise bike in the Nets' practice gym. It's almost noon and practice starts soon. RJ has been here almost an hour.
On that day, we're less than four hours from the trade deadline, and with rumors swirling around the Nets in every direction, I ask him if he's thinking about who his teammates will and won't be when he returns to uniform.
"You don't really worry about stuff," he tells me, citing the fact that in his six years with the Nets, Rod Thorn has made only one major in-season trade, and just four total. The big one was the Vince Carter deal in December of 2004. Still, if there was ever a time since then for Thorn to make a major move, this was it.
Not the Nets We Know and Love
The 2006-07 season has been nothing short of a disaster in East Rutherford. Returning the core that won their fourth Atlantic Division title in five years, the Nets were expected to run away with another.
But so far this season, the Nets have had more doctor's appointments than victories. It started with rookie Josh Boone, who had shoulder surgery before training camp began. Then Eddie House had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in October and missed the first 15 games of the season. Clifford Robinson had the same in late November and missed 22 games.
Then, the big one: Nenad Krstic tore his ACL on Dec. 22. Reconstructive surgery. Out for the season.
On top of all that, there were off-the-court issues and on-court apathy that led to some serious ugliness...
0-4 against Portland and Seattle
Meanwhile, Jefferson was never 100 percent. His problems trace back to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Heat last May, when he sprained his ankle in the third quarter of a blowout of the eventual champs. He would play the remainder of the series, but he wasn't the same and the Nets dropped four straight.
Over the summer, he turned the ankle again and shut it down for a month and a half.
"They were like, 'Hey don't work out. Don't even do anything. Just do therapy.'"
Training camp arrived and he felt OK until he tweaked it again in the last preseason game.
"And then, I think it was the second game against Miami, I was out there and it was like a dead stick."
It would be an issue from then on. And he sprained his other ankle a week later, causing him to miss five games in mid-November. He sat out another a month later. He had good days. He had bad days. He had cortisone shots and he was doing "a ton" of physical therapy every day, both before and after practice.
He saw several different doctors, "and none of them gave me a definitive answer of what was wrong and what needed to be done." There was a large bone spur in the front of his ankle and a smaller ones in the back. There were also small tears in the tendon in the back. Multiple issues and multiple proposed solutions.
Meanwhile, the Nets were struggling, despite Jason Kidd having one of his best seasons in recent memory and Vince Carter still putting up big numbers. Naturally, eyes turned to RJ.
"People started to question how hard I played," he told me. "Like if I was either dogging it or not doing the things... That thing kinda pissed me off a little bit, because you're sitting here playing hurt. People don't see that, you know, you sit in a timeout and it takes two or three plays up and down for your ankle to get rewarmed up from the timeout, but people don't see that."
Finally, he got the answer he was looking for.
"The last doctor I saw was like, 'You see these bone spurs in the back of your ankle. That's what's causing the inflammation. Yes, we should probably take out the front. I wouldn't touch the tendon. I think the tendon is fine. Everyone has some kind of trauma to their tendons in that area.'
"After seeing five or six doctors is when I finally got an answer that I was like, 'Ok, I like that.'"
He had the surgery on Monday, Jan. 22, the day the Nets began their eventful five-game trip out West. They lost the first three games on three game-winning shots by Mike Bibby, Monta Ellis and Cuttino Mobley. RJ watched in frustration, unable to do much other than watch games and play Halo in his Manhattan apartment.
Meanwhile, scar tissue built up, delaying his rehab a bit. He was on crutches for a full two weeks after the surgery, with treatment being compression and elevation. When I met with him on deadline day, he hadn't done any on-court work yet. But that started soon after. No contact work, just shooting and running drills.
Before the Nets departed for this past five-game trip, RJ wasn't sure he'd be able to play before they returned, but Lawrence Frank said that he wouldn't be taking him if there wasn't a chance.
After an ugly loss in Philadelphia and a somewhat encouraging performance against the Mavs, the Nets practiced in Dallas on March 7 and in Houston the day after. It was RJ's first full-out action since the surgery. He also ran the stairs at the Toyota Center, which is not a normal rehab activity, but helped him stretch the muscles and "get some of that explosion back," according to Nets trainer Tim Walsh.
Then, despite a schedule of four road games in the next five days, RJ decided it was time.
"It's such a tricky thing, and I've been playing hurt, beat up and not 100 percent all year long," he said. "So, I was really and truly trying to hold out as long as I possibly could, because you know, what game do you have if you come back too early and you're still playing at the same percentage you were before you went down?"
But for Walsh, the concern was more with the rest of RJ's body than with the ankle. If he wasn't in game condition, he would risk the chance of a different injury.
Against Houston, he played 16 minutes and scored two points on 1-of-6 from the field. A slow start, but feeling good the next night in San Antonio, he pushed his minutes to 35.
Then, facing another back-to-back in Memphis and Oklahoma City, Walsh kept him limited to 28 minutes both nights. The results were nothing short of exceptional. He averaged 22.0 points per game, while shooting .625 from the field and getting to the line a total of 19 times. He was running the floor, getting to the basket and elevating well.
Most important, the Nets finished their trip with a pair of wins.
"It felt good more because of the team," RJ said. "We're a team. Vince is playing better when I'm on the court. I'm playing better when J-Kidd is on the court. As a team, everyone is playing better when we're whole."
Tonight against Miami (8 p.m. ET, TNT), Walsh will let him go an additional five or six minutes, "and after that, he'll just go."
And the Nets just might go with him.
"There's still a lot of hope for this season," RJ told me this morning.
So, despite the ugliness of the season so far, the Nets are in playoff position with a lot of room to improve. And with their big three completely in tact for the first time since last May, they can put everything behind them and focus on the last 17 games.
"It not that difficult," RJ explained to me, "mainly because you have a chance for redemption. Not only can we be in the playoffs, we can have a fairly decent seed considering all the things that have been going on."