Inside the bubble in Orlando, silence is the most notable difference for NBA players. In a league where there’s usually 20,000 fans roaring during a game, the scrimmages NBA teams have been playing thus far have been remarkably quiet without that energy.
By far the loudest any of the games have been to this point, however, was Friday evening’s scrimmage between the Thunder and the Boston Celtics.
With 5:33 remaining in the third quarter, Thunder guard Andre Roberson walked onto the floor.
Behind him stood Steven Adams, his long-time teammate and friend, brothers since they were drafted together in 2013. Chris Paul hooted from a few seats away, waving his hands above his beaming smile. Youngsters like Hamidou Diallo, Lu Dort and Terrance Ferguson, all of whom Roberson has mentored, were filled with emotion and screamed at the top of their lungs.
For the first time in 909 days, Roberson stepped on an NBA floor in a Thunder jersey during an actual game.
“A lot of emotions,” Roberson said of the moment. “Anxious, happy, just overly ecstatic just to get back out there on the floor and here coach call my name again.”
“What this organization is about is being resilient,” said Thunder guard Andre Roberson at the outset of his recovery process in the spring of 2018.
That was a couple months after he suffered a gruesome knee injury, a ruptured patellar tendon, while flying up for an alley-oop in Detroit on Jan. 27, 2018. He streaked baseline as he’d done hundreds of times before, elevated and crashed, sliding himself to the baseline in agony. Teammates rushed to his side, showering him in love as he was carted off the floor.
Over the past 30 months, after the surgery to repair the patellar tendon itself, Roberson suffered multiple setbacks, including arthroscopic surgery, a procedure to alleviate discomfort from a suture then a big one – an avulsion fracture in his knee, where a piece of bone was torn off by the tendon. Roberson was close to returning in the fall of 2018 when that injury occurred, and after that it was an extremely steep hill to climb to try and get to a place of comfort with his knee.
During his rehab, Roberson’s days were lonely. Him and a trainer, off to the side, doing rehab work. Waiting for the rest of the team to leave the floor so he could do some individual, non-contact work after practice. When the team left on road trips, it was Roberson in an empty, echoing facility doing the solitary and tedious work of putting one foot in front of the other.
Roberson hoped he’d be able to participate fully in 2019 Training Camp, but he just couldn’t ramp it up enough to be full-go with the team. He left the Thunder for a few months during the 2019-20 season to focus on his rehab elsewhere and shortly after he came back, the NBA came to nearly as sudden of a halt as his own career had 26 months prior.
With everyone on the Thunder roster and throughout the NBA effectively starting at zero after four months off and limited practice ability due to COVID-19, Roberson was able to play catchup from March through July. As the Thunder assembled for training camp in Oklahoma City, Roberson participated, then he made the trip to Orlando with the team and practiced fully every day with the group.
“It's just seeing him in good spirits,” reflected Adams after the first true practice.
Roberson’s mood was high. The confidence that understandably and naturally wavered over the past two and a half years was back.
The first four minutes that Roberson played against the Celtics, he was just literally getting his feet under him. New shoes and a fresh, slippery court had him sliding around a bit.
On defense he was marking Celtics guard Grant Williams, closing out on the perimeter, contesting rebounds and on offense, he was moving off of the ball and keeping the floor spaced. At a stoppage, he went over to talk to Billy Donovan, the Thunder’s Head Coach, who has been tied to Roberson throughout the past 909 days, keeping him involved in game plans and setting up film sessions for him to lead with young teammates.
“It’s been inspiring to see him out there. I couldn't be happier for him,” said Donovan. “It’s been a long two years. I'm sure for him that he's had his moments of ups and downs, more so we probably all any of us can realize or imagine.”
As Roberson adjusted the jersey that surely took a bit of getting used to again, former Thunder center Enes Kanter walked past and gave him a hearty pat on the chest, congratulating him on being back on the floor. Soon though, it was Roberson that was giving it right back to the Celtics big man.
After pump-faking in the left corner, Roberson drove past Kanter, lost the handle for a brief second then collected the ball again and finished a quick layup from under the rim. It was his first two points since the two that were taken away from him by his patellar tendon on that fateful night in Detroit.
“It was an unbelievable feeling for us to see one of our brothers, who we know what he’s been through mentally,” said Thunder point guard and NBPA President Chris Paul. “The circumstances that took place gave him this opportunity, so to see him out here playing this game we know he loves was special for everybody on our team.”
Roberson later buried a corner three-pointer in front of Kanter and held up three fingers as he ran back up the court, soaking in Adams flexing and screaming, Paul hollering and the rest of the Thunder players and staff whooping it up.
The 6-foot-7 guard also showed that his natural instincts on the defensive side of the ball haven’t left him. He battled for defensive boards, either grabbing them or keeping them alive. On one play he came over in help-side defense to make a deflection then a steal. A few possessions later, he recovered on a drive by Celtics guard Javonte Green and swatted a layup attempt off the backboard. Two quintessential Andre Roberson plays, in only his first game back.
Love to see it. pic.twitter.com/8YXic181ZV— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) July 24, 2020
“He is smartest defensive player I've been around,” said guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “He's always in the right spot. He knows where the next pass is gonna be.”
“You were able to see glimpses of what’s made him such a great defensive player, the things that he does and just how smart he is and his ability with his feet and his length,” said Donovan. “He actually played really, really well. And I give him a lot of credit for a guy that’s had off for as long as he has to get out there in the first competitive situation and then do a great job. I couldn’t be any happier.”
In the scrimmage, Roberson played 11 minutes and 56 seconds, putting up 5 points on 2-for-3 shooting, including 1-for-2 from three, to go with 2 rebounds, a steal and a block. A pretty familiar Roberson stat-line to go with his patented defensive prowess. It’s that defensive ability that earned him so many kudos during the first five years of his career. In 2017-18, when he suffered the injury, he was shooting a career-best 53.7 percent from the floor but more importantly, he was on the short list for Defensive Player of the Year.
“The thing that makes Dre a great defender is when someone scores on him, it doesn't deter him from the next possession and he doesn't get disrupted,” said Thunder General Manager Sam Presti. “It’s the same thing in this when you suffer an injury like this, there's going to be setbacks and probably in his case there's more than you would have hoped. But that hasn't deterred him.”
As he checked out of the game, he scrambled through the physically distanced seats along the Thunder bench, high-fiving every single one of his teammates and staff members, thanking them for everything they’ve done over the past 30 months to help him in his grueling journey.
In reality, it’s the Thunder who are appreciative of Andre. During the time he was out he stayed connected to the rest of the group, mentoring young players and helping out with scouting reports for particularly tricking opponents. He served in the Oklahoma City community, giving out turkeys at Thanksgiving and reading to students.
“He's about everything that's right in sports and in teams, and the way you know that is when things are not going right for you, you can still be totally invested in the team,” said Presti. “I think that's a real form of mental toughness that you can still be committed to the team, and what's best for the team, even when your situation is either being affected or it's not going the way you want it to go.”
After the game, Roberson spoke to the media, with a camera right in front of his face, his bright, caring eyes popping out from above a mask. Just as he normally does on the court by hustling around screens, setting picks and diving on the floor, Roberson didn’t make it about himself on Friday night. He took the opportunity instead to reach out, 1,200 miles away, to the Thunder faithful who kept him in their hearts for all this time.
“I just want to thank everybody in Oklahoma City and fans around all around the world for sticking with me and support me through this whole journey,” said Roberson. “I couldn't be more thankful and appreciative of the support from everybody.”
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