Zach LaVine always has been someone who's reached for the heights, a two-time NBA Slam Dunk champion and elite scorer among the league's most productive who is having an All-Star season. But no one in NBA history really has achieved a comparable rare air.
Because no one with such a serious knee injury—Feb. 4, 2017 tearing his ACL—ever has returned to play with similar commensurate explosive athletic abilities, LaVine arguably even more acrobatic than he was before the injury. It's essentially unknown in NBA history.
"You really don't know how your body is going to respond," LaVine said about his ACL tear. "Everybody is different. I just wanted to attack it and regardless at the end of this I would be happy with the result because I gave it my all.
Zach LaVine rises up for a big dunk against the Orlando Magic.
"I felt I was going to come back and be better," LaVine insisted. "That's just the mindset I have. I put the work in and felt I was the guy who could get back to where I was and better. I feel I have a lot more things I can reach; I feel I haven't reached my ceiling yet, either."
LaVine, 25, is having yet another career season, averaging more than 28 points per game to rank among the premier scorers in the NBA. The 6-6 shooting guard also is averaging more than five assists and rebounds and more than one steal, all among the best at his position. His shooting averages overall of 52 percent and 43 percent on threes are near the top of the NBA. He's on target for his first All-Star game appearance.
"I call him Secretariat," says Bulls executive senior advisor Doug Collins. "He's a thoroughbred. The game is so easy for him. His jump shot is beautiful. I marvel at him. I'll be watching the game with my wife and I'll say, ‘Kathy, do you realize how good this guy is?' That distance shooting, the speed, quickness and burst. I've been in the NBA for 48 years and he makes the game look as easy as anyone I've seen."
Collins is an appropriate judge because he was LaVine in the 1970s. The former Bulls coach who is regarded as one of the top turnaround coaches in NBA history was a star shooting guard of he 1970s. A 6-6 shooter like LaVine, Collins made four consecutive All-Star teams and helped lead the 76ers to the 1977 NBA Finals.
Then Collins suffered an ACL tear and never played again.
Medical procedures then were primitive compared to the treatments these days. But Collins knows better than most the effect that injury can have. He said he marvels not just at LaVine's game, but in his amazing recovery. "To say a guy is going to be better athletically than he was before? I don't see any drop, I'll tell you that," admires Collins. "With Zach, not only are you making these spectacular plays, he's up in the air like it's a ballet."
There have been many NBA players who have come back from ACL surgery to have excellent careers. Even Bernard King about a decade after Collins made an All-Star team. Some of the players who have returned from ACL to excel include Jamal Crawford, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Lowry, Jamal Wilkes, Tim Hardaway, Shaun Livingston, Danilo Gallinari, Jason Kidd, Ricky Rubio, Baron Davis, Rajon Rondo and lately Derrick Rose and Kristaps Porzingis. It's been devastating for many, like Danny Manning, Al Jefferson, Bob Lanier, Billy Cunningham, Larry Krstkowiak, Jabari Parker and Nate Robinson.
Basically no one has returned to play in the air and as athletically as LaVine, who has increased his scoring average almost a dozen points per game since his return with the Bulls three years ago.
Zach LaVine dunks against the Pelicans
"I'm very thankful," acknowledges LaVine. "I don't know if it's the hard work. I had a great surgeon, a great recovery team and in rehab. One of those things you have to be thankful for, I'm glad I was able to keep a lot of my athleticism. And I got more explosive just through the workouts.
"I might not have the same vertical leap," LaVine admitted, "but I was also about 185 pounds when I hurt my knee and now I'm 205, 210. So I'm a lot stronger and a lot more explosive than I was before when I was younger.
"I look at it as you've got to play the cards you're dealt," LaVine says. "Even with the team you're playing with. You don't get to pick who drafts you. You don't get to pick your teammates, your role or position or the injuries you have. You have to play the cards you are dealt."
It's an amazing story the way LaVine filled an inside straight flush.
Zach LaVine played one year at UCLA (2013-2014)
The skinny guard from Renton, Washington was the usual all-stater who went to UCLA and stayed one year mostly coming off the bench. He rose up the draft boards to No. 13 with comparisons to Bruins athletic predecessor Russell Westbrook. LaVine went to what seemed like it would be a revival for the Minnesota Timberwolves with No. 1 overall picks Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. And it was looking that way with all three averaging more than 20 points per game midway through the 2016-17 season. LaVine had flown to a 40-point game, but had to miss a few games when teammate Kris Dunn crashed into his hip during a game.
LaVine's scoring average dipped to around 19 when the Timberwolves were in Detroit Feb. 3 with LaVine finally feeling right after about a month playing through the hip pointer. He had 20 points on nine of 13 shooting in about 30 minutes when he went up around Andre Drummond and landed awkwardly.
"It felt like I hyperextended my knee, to be honest with you," LaVine said. "It wasn't a gruesome injury. Mine was more the impact of how I landed. I went up on Drummond and tried to go around him and on the landing I got off balance a little bit. I landed with my heel on the ground and the doctors told me later I almost popped my own ACL. The force of it on my foot and shin. The doctors said it was about as clean a cut as you can get. It really hurt, but it wasn't something I even thought I had to come out of the game for.
"I walked it off," LaVine recalled. "I was just getting into rhythm and I didn't want to come out of the game. I played the whole third quarter after it happened. I came back in the fourth quarter and when I did a back cut I felt my knee shift and that's when I knew something was wrong. There was just nothing stopping it and I was, ‘Ok.'
"I walked off the court and I remember the doctors doing all the ACL checks and they were looking at me and had another doctor come check me and then another doctor and I think they knew what it was. But they couldn't tell me officially," LaVine recounted. "Then that night I could tell there was something wrong and was thinking maybe it was my meniscus. I didn't think it was the ACL. When they told me, it was devastating."
Just 22 years old, just about to break through with his play, seemingly a perfect fit with exciting young teammates. And now this!
"When they told me I was hysterical," LaVine admitted, speaking about it now almost academically. "I was extremely upset. I was yelling. My mom was the one who actually calmed me down. I was glad she was with me. I was really upset. I never had been injured much and I didn't think it was that severe of an injury at the time because it didn't hurt like I thought it would. My dad and my mom really helped me get back because there was the stage you have to go through with, ‘Why me' and ‘Poor me.' But once I got out of that stage I really attacked the process of getting back.
"People write you off, especially with the way the NBA is," LaVine said. "Even with coming to the Bulls, they forget what you've done up to that point because you've been gone for a year. That was motivating for me to want to show everybody I was going to come back better than I was before."
Sure, they all say that. Zach LaVine did that.
So LaVine began the lonely process of recovery and rehabilitation, initially alone at a hotel after surgery, watching his team from back in Los Angeles, throwing himself into the physical therapy like a job. LaVine always prided himself on the hard work, but not even so much for the work. It was fun for him. The gym was the joy. It would be again even as painful as it was.
"Once I was able to start getting into the mindset of getting back and healing and the process of the ups and downs, I actually look back on that now and think how much I really enjoyed the process of how hard it was and the satisfaction of reaching that mountaintop again," said LaVine. "It was pretty much my only escape. Some can go into it and half ass it or have doubts about your recovery and what you are going to be. My main thing is ‘I'm going to attack this as hard as I can each and every day and at the end of the day if I don't get to where I was, at least I'm not saying I wish I did it harder.' I laid it all on the line to where at the end of this whoever I become or however my knee holds up, I can't blame myself for not working hard. That's how I got through it."
Zach LaVine's corner three against the Pacers
So it was wake early and then about an hour or hour and a half of machine driven leg movements to warm up. Then walking the hallway for about a half hour. Then leg lifts and five or six hours of physical therapy with the icing, the recovery and the stretching. Then see you tomorrow.
"I wasn't really big talking to a lot of people," LaVine said. "My dad and physical therapist did a great job. The Timberwolves, too. All in teaching me about my knee and different parts of my body. I'm very in tune with my body now. So if I feel something now I know what it is, a ligament, a muscle; where does it connect and how your muscle affects your knee, your shin, your quad. It was extremely informational. I got into that process."
And then to the Bulls.
"I looked at coming to the Bulls as an opportunity," said LaVine. "We were very young and exciting in Minnesota. I always go out there and try to be the best I can be, but I'm a team guy and I was also trying to play a role as well. I was third or fourth option on the team. When you are playing with two No. 1 picks, you understand you are not going to have the same type of opportunities as they did. So in coming to Chicago I felt it was a chance to show I was as good as anybody in my class, if not better, and help the team. I feel like I'm still improving."
It's the stuff of stars and stardom.
Zach LaVine lays one up against OKC.
"Look, everybody's situation is different and I just try to make the best of my situation every time," said LaVine. "Everybody has the human nature of why me or poor me, but you can't let that creep in. You try to get that out of your mind as fast as possible because by doing that it's not going to change anything but make the situation worse. I always try to figure out how to make the situation I'm in better.
"I'm happy because when you see progress and the results of hard work, you know it's working. That's what keeps you going and make you wants to keep getting better," said LaVine. "I'm happy with the situation I'm in and the position I'm in and I'm eager to continue to grow as a player as well."
It's often during the darkest night when we see the brightest stars.