CLEVELAND – Five Cavaliers players scattered like roaches bugging out over a light bulb. Several Boston players stood still, crouched low or leaned in, incredulous at what they were seeing. In that instant, the guys over on the Cleveland bench – with the nearest and clearest view of Gordon Hayward’s hideously twisted left leg and ankle – recoiled, turning away in unison as if choreographed.
It looked like the sort of Fred Sanford routine NBA players break out on All-Star Saturday, wincing and staggering in playful reaction to some dazzling dunk. Only this wasn’t theatrics, this was horrific. And their reactions were emotional, and real.
“I’ve seen a couple injuries like that in my lifetime,” Cleveland’s LeBron James said later, long after Hayward – the Celtics’ shiny new All-Star free-agent acquisition – had been taken off the floor on a stretcher. “Those are the injuries that you never see coming and you never want to happen, no matter who it is, no matter what the stature, no matter how much competitive nature that you have.”
Barely five minutes into the former Utah small forward’s official debut with Boston, he went up for an alley-oop pass, lost his balance when making contact with James and crashed to the court with his left leg bent grotesquely beneath him. His teammate Jaylen Brown finished the play with a layup, but Hayward stayed down.
He was angled toward one corner, the far end from Boston’s bench but close to where the Cavaliers were sitting. Hayward’s face contorted in pain, he grabbed at his leg and then his head. Some Cleveland guys actually felt sick to their stomachs and, as many of the 20,562 in the stands realized what was happening, they felt it too.
They’re the injuries that generate as many clicks on YouTube as they do claims that they’re too graphic and unnerving to ever view again. Like Golden State guard Shaun Livingston shredding his left knee in the open court with the Clippers in 2007. Or Kevin Ware, a sophomore at Louisville, contesting a shot against Duke in the NCAA tournament and having his right leg crumple beneath him at all sorts of wrong angles.
Who can forget former Pacers All-Star Paul George, whose career was put in peril in the summer of 2014? That was when George, in a scrimmage with Team USA in Las Vegas, landed on the basket stanchion and suffered an open tibia/fibula fracture to his right leg.
James ticked them off one after another, each trauma burned into his and many of the other players’ memories. They are sports’ most miserable and unwatchable moments, plays that remind everyone that basketball is just a game and that careers and health can be irretrievably altered in a few regrettable seconds.
The air got sucked out of Quicken Loans Arena for a long time Tuesday night. An uncomfortable murmur rumbled around the stands, while rattled players did what they could to breathe and focus again on the floor.
It was the opposite of everything the NBA hoped for when it booked the two Eastern Conference rivals to go at it, on network television, in the first of what will be 1,230 games in the 2017-18 regular season.
Of course, the immediate reaction of some involved was to wonder, “Game? What game?” Once Hayward got carted out with what Boston coach Brad Stevens referred to as a dislocated ankle and tibia fracture, more than a few mates and opponents were ready to unplug with him.
“Yeah. It just really hits hard,” said Celtics forward Al Horford. “But then you look at the other guys on the team. You look … you still have a game to play. And there’s no easy way around it. We have to rally up and just think ahead. That’s what we did as best we could tonight.”
Said Cleveland’s Kevin Love: “I was mad because I’d gone out with two fouls. Then that happened and I was like, aww, OK…”
Horford, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Celtics huddled up near their bench. Their emotions and thoughts were running wild, and it took a minute to gather themselves.
Irving, who got his abrupt offseason trade request honored reluctantly by the Cavs, was the targeted “guest of honor” for this one. He got booed lustily at The Q and that was fine, some harmless fun for the fans he’d jilted. Yet that seemed unimportant, too, in the context of what everyone had just witnessed.
“At the end of the day, there was still a game to be played,” Irving said. “As [harsh] as that sounds, we understand that. We’re professionals. So we just picked the rest of our guys up. … We all just had to calm down and come into halftime and just speak with one another and get back dialed in.”
By the break, Cleveland was up 54-38. Its lead ballooned to 18 at one point, with the Celtics sputtering along at 34 percent field-goal accuracy. That might have messed with the Cavs’ focus, even as Boston was dialing itself back in. Led by young forwards Brown and Jayson Tatum with eight points each, the visitors shot 13-of-21 and outscored Cleveland 33-18 in the third quarter.
Had Boston coach Brad Stevens, in his disappointment, broken out a “win one for Gordo” speech? Stevens, remember, coached Hayward in his two seasons at Butler before they each headed to the NBA. He has known the player since he was 17.
“I don’t have any magic words,” Stevens said. “You’re all hurting for him, and I’m not going to try to take the human element out of it. … We played with some semblance of organization and togetherness [after halftime].”
The Celtics scratched all the way back and edged ahead for about five of the game’s final six minutes. Then James spun around Brown for a layup and a one-point lead. The Cavs’ superstar pressured Marcus Smart into losing a pass out of bounds at 1:04. Then he got crowded in a double team, only to find Love on the right side for a 3-pointer that made it 102-98.
The gap was three in the final seconds when Brown, then Irving missed shots to tie. And that was that. Cleveland was glad to have won but there wasn’t anyone on either side who hadn’t had a rough day at the office.
That was part of this night too, the way uniforms and logos and intense competition melted away as Hayward writhed on the court. The Cavaliers were as distraught as the Celtics over his injury. Derrick Rose, who knows a thing or two about lower-extremity blowouts, crouched in silence. Dwyane Wade bowed down. Several of the Cavs, including James and Love, checked in at Hayward’s stretcher before it was rolled off.
“Even though he was from the opposing team,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said, “we’re still a fraternity and we’re still brothers.”
The notion of unity driving so much controversy in anthem form before so many sports events lately came so naturally to two teams trying to topple each other, chase down the same goals and occupy the same space at season’s end. In real life, a hurricane or some other disaster can bridge gaps between people who otherwise might not budge. In a basketball game, one player’s scary, significant injury can have livelihoods and opportunities flashing before the others’ eyes. And dropping their guards.
“Everyone understands that it’s more than basketball,” an emotional Horford said. “Over the years, guys will get to know every guy in the league. And we never want to see anybody get hurt. It just shows the brotherhood in the league. You saw the guys on the other side, how they came up to Gordon to make sure he was fine. Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt.”
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