Road to Recovery:
The pain, process and return of an injured athlete.
Written by Dan Savage
Photography by Geoffrey Forbes
Since his return, Nikola Vucevic has reminded the Orlando Magic just how valuable he is to the squad.
In his first four games back from injury, the Magic’s starting center has posted 15.8 points per game on an efficient 54 percent shooting from the floor. Although Orlando came up short in those contests, it's been pleased to see Vucevic return and immediately make a high-level impact.
“He’s a terrific scorer, but prides himself on playing the right way,” Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s been a big part of our group buying into (making the right basketball play).”
However, Vucevic’s road to recovery began long before he stepped back on the Amway Center floor against the Knicks. In the midst of one of the most successful seasons of his career, Vucevic’s 2017-18 campaign came to a halt, when he fractured the second metacarpal (index finger) in his left hand on Dec. 23 during the Magic’s road contest against the Washington Wizards.
“When I got hit in my hand, I heard a weird noise, I looked at my hand, and I knew that something was off,” Vucevic said. “I was hoping it was just dislocated, you could put it back in place, it would be fine and I would just miss a couple of games. I called timeout, I asked to get subbed and I went to get X-rayed and it showed the fracture right away.”
That’s when the long and arduous journey began for Orlando’s big man.
“I was obviously very disappointed. We had a lot of injuries at that time. I was playing good basketball, and I was hoping that when all the guys came back, we could make a push.”
Vucevic had to wait several days before surgery on Dec. 26, and spent the Christmas holiday sitting at home with his left hand wrapped, diligently focused on avoiding any activity that could cause further damage.
“Once they told me that it usually takes six to eight weeks after the surgery, I knew it was going to be the most time I’ve ever missed,” he explained. “I just told myself, ‘it is what it is.’ I had to look at it as positive as I can, do whatever I can to come back as quick as I can.”
The week following surgery was one of the toughest for Vucevic as he adjusted to the most debilitating injury of his professional career.
"In season, and on game days, you are so used to shootaround, going back home to eat lunch and sleep and then coming back to the arena for the game; or you come and practice and then you rest,” he explained. “But (after surgery) I would wake up and ask, `What do I do?’ And I really couldn’t do anything because I had to rest the hand. Then, you watch the game on TV and you don’t even feel a part of the team because you’re not there. It’s not easy."
The initial stage of his rehab was simple: focus on regaining flexibility and mobility in his hand.
“For the first two weeks, the big thing was for me to take the splint off and try to open up my hand and close it,” he said. “Just keep doing that five times a day for 10 to 15 minutes just to get that range of motion back. It’s actually pretty difficult, because of the surgery and the trauma that went on within there.”
From there, he progressed to mixing in cardio to stay in as close to game shape as possible.
“The thing that helped me a lot was I was able to do a lot of running,” Vucevic said. “First week, I didn’t do anything, the second week, I was doing bike and elliptical, and after that I started to do running. So I think the fact that I could run up and down the court and do that – do different agility drills and all that – helped me stay in shape. Obviously it’s not game shape, it’s very different, but it helps me so I don’t come back to zero and have to start all over again.”
Then, to continue to rebuild strength and motion in his hand, Vucevic turned to a variety of techniques, including opening and closing his hand in a bowl of rice, squeezing a ball, and playing video games. Yes, that’s right, video games.
“At first, I couldn’t play (video games) for a long time,” he said. “I have this game that I play on my computer, Football Manager, where I’m the manager of a team and that definitely gets me motivated. I really get into it and you can just ask Evan (Fournier), who sits next to me on the plane.”
Finally, Vucevic evolved to playing 3-on-3 against coaches and staff along with a few of Orlando’s other recovering players such as Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross. But the turmoil of remaining on the sideline still burned him inside.
“Every game, I was sitting there watching and I wanted to go out there and play,” he said. “Especially when it comes to a close game, you want to jump out there and do whatever you can to help the team. That was the most difficult part. Once I was able to sit on the bench and watch, it was so difficult for me, because I’m so close, but I can’t get in there, I can’t help. That was the most difficult part for me.
I knew I had to be patient, and just wait and make sure everything is right before I came back. But the hardest part for me, was sitting there watching and not being able to be out there with my teammates.”
The Magic’s training staff led by High Performance Director David Tenney, exercised caution with Vucevic and he credits them for his successful recovery and for not placing any added pressure to rush back from the injury.
“I think that’s very important for a player to feel that the medical staff knows what they’re doing and that you see progress each day,” he explained.
From start to finish, they had a clear path to recovery set for Vucevic, which he feels aided in his successful return.
“The whole medical staff is very well organized about what I need to do,” he said. “Each day was really set for me. I knew exactly what time I’m doing what. From day one, they were there with whatever I needed.”
Finally, on Feb. 22, exactly 23 games after injuring his hand, Vucevic headed to Amway Center ready to make that return.
On the drive to the arena, he had to remind himself that he wouldn’t be putting on a suit that night, “although I do look good in a suit,” he joked.
Instead, he had to remember the exact times of his pregame routines. And as he walked into the locker room the anticipation started to build.
“I got excited just seeing my jersey hanging there,” Vucevic said.
There were no signs of rust for the seven-year veteran as he stepped on the floor. Thrusted back into the starting lineup, Vucevic had an electrifying first quarter, going a perfect 4-for-4 from the floor on his way to 10 points.
He would finish the night, 2-for-3 from downtown and 8-for-11 from the field.
“I think all the conditioning work and shooting (drills) I did during the process paid off, because I was able to come back and be effective,” he said.
And that’s the result of taking the right path down the road to recovery.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by Dan Savage are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.