Road to Recovery
An Inside Look at Krstic's Rehabiliation
By Matthew McQueeny
Nenad Krstic knew it when it happened. He knew right away that it was bad.
It was December 22 - the Nets were hosting the Lakers - and Krstic was 25 games and 30 minutes into what was shaping up as yet another season of improvement in a career arc that had only been on the steady ascent. The Serbian Center was averaging 16.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, and a .526 field-goal percentage.
With just over six minutes left in the third quarter Krstic caught a pass in the lane, started to back down his defender, and suddenly, his knee gave out. The seven-footer crumbled to the court – the obvious pain showing on his face - clutching his left knee.
“I went to spin. My knee twisted and I heard a pop.”
Upon further medical examination, it was determined that the 23 year-old tore the anterior-cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee. What makes an ACL tear so debilitating is that it cannot simply be rehabbed; once it tears, it literally needs to be reconstructed. So, using a ligament from Krstic’s right knee, Nets’ doctors David Altchek and Riley Williams III performed reconstructive surgery on his left knee on January 10. The surgery was a success but it would only be the beginning of a long and arduous rehabilitation.
The goal of the initial post-operative period is to reduce swelling in the knee, restore the range of motion, protect the integrity of the new ligament in the knee, and prevent muscle atrophy. Because surgery was performed on both of his knees – the left ACL was reconstructed with a tendon from the right knee - Krstic returned home with both legs in braces.
In the weeks leading up to the surgery and the time right after, Nenad admitted that negative thoughts definitely crept into his mind. This is an athlete who knows nothing but tireless work, a player who always stays at the gym well past practice time, shooting jumper after jumper, and here he was resigned to his bed.
“A lot of thoughts went through my head when I got the injury, like if I will ever be back like I was or if I am going to be 100%,” said Krstic.
“First week, I was so miserable. Both my knees were such that I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t go in the bathroom, I couldn’t take a shower. So, it was really hard.”
The negative thoughts quickly dissipated as he spoke to players and contacts stateside and overseas – Krstic is from Serbia - who had suffered a similar injury. Their words of encouragement and stories of successful returns to competition gave him the inspiration to know that he would get through it and make his return.
Nenad’s rehabilitation team has been led by Nets head trainer, Tim Walsh, Nets Assistant Coach/Strength & Conditioning Coach, Rich Dalatri, and Drs. Altchek and Williams. Matt Gibble, physical therapist and co-owner of Excel Orthopedic Rehabilitation, was also a main voice of encouragement for Nenad. Gibble worked with Jason Kidd to help bring him back from left knee micro-fracture surgery in 2004 and has worked with Krstic on his rehabilitation.
As soon as Krstic was off crutches and able to walk, it was on to isometric quadriceps sets – consisting of simply lifting the leg up and back down while on your back- and pool work. An optimal means of knee rehabilitation, working in a pool is an excellent way to get a cardiovascular workout without imposing unnecessary stress on the knee. Getting in the water also allowed Nenad some piece of mind. It was a tangible step towards his rehabilitation, got him exercising again and kept his mind on positive advancement. Pool work consisted of swimming, deep water non-impact running, and kicking drills.
“The pool was big for me…It just helped me to feel in my head that I was doing something, to sweat a little.”
As Krstic progressed in his rehab, resistance was added – in the form of ankle weights - to his quadriceps sets. Next were weighted exercises, such as leg presses and hamstring curls. The main goal was building back up and even bettering his strength while above all protecting the integrity of the new ligament. Soon, the stationary bike was added to his routine. At first, it was to simply help with range-of-motion but duration was slowly added to provide a cardiovascular boost.
When we shadowed Nenad’s workouts in early May, which was well into his rehabilitation, his routine was 10 minutes on the bike, 10 minutes on the treadmill - walking on an incline - and 10 minutes on the elliptical trainer. This was simply done to break up the monotony of being on one machine for 30 straight minutes.
Krstic actually admitted that if he had his druthers he would not be on cardio machines. He typically does not use them in his normal training routine, and does not particularly like them. The kid can play basketball all day and prefers that as his cardio, but he knew that to get back to those basketball activities, the machines were necessary.
His tireless work ethic and motivation have pushed him through such things. He always has his eye on the goal: to get back on the court and play basketball.
He does not care for weight work either but he knows that it will give him the bulk to battle with the behemoths. His slight disinclination to the weight room is not a product of laziness; again, he really just likes to play basketball and time spent lifting weights is simply time away from the court. But he knows adding muscle is a necessary means in that it will benefit him against the competition.
Since he was last seen playing, Nenad has actually put on 10 solid pounds of muscle. His lifting routine has been a six day affair, rotating between upper and lower body workouts each day. During his workouts, just like during his practice time, he makes every last rep count and is the last one to leave. There are no complaints and no alibis. Krstic has missed but a few workouts during the entire process.
Otherwise, it has been the motivated monotony of three-hour workout days. Cold pad, ultrasound, cardio, stretching, weight work, plyometrics, cold pack and muscle stimulant for rehab sessions and all of the above plus 45 minutes of shooting on alternate days.
Looking myopically, Krstic’s time away from the game has absolutely been a step back. But looking long-term, it could give him the opportunity to come back two steps ahead. Sustaining such a serious injury lends itself to inaction and therefore, contemplation and assessment.
For one, He has been able to build strength at a clip that would be impossible during the rigors of a NBA season. Two, there is no chance he will take the game for granted now. Not that he is the type of kid who takes anything for granted but you can guarantee he now has a strong sense of his career mortality at a very young age. And finally, he has seen himself go through a lengthy and rigorous rehab. When it is over, he will automatically be a changed man because of the experience. The singular focus and intensity that has helped him excel in his rehabilitation will only help in those tough stretches of a game and a season.
Nenad will be finishing up the rehabilitation part of his comeback in the coming weeks. He will then head back home to Serbia for a part of the summer before returning 8-10 weeks before the start of the season for the basketball portion of his comeback. When training camp arrives, he will be back and practicing with his teammates and the center of the Nets future will be back in the only place he really wants to be: the basketball court. And you can guarantee he will be shooting jumpers long past practice time. Getting better. It’s the only thing he knows.