Summer Quandaries #33
September 2--28 days to camp
The effects of injury reach far beyond the DNP--Injury line in a box score. Those that have played basketball, or any sport, or tried any physical activity with a sore ankle, knee, wrist, or back, know just how surprising it can be to discover the far ranging effects of an injury. Try putting on socks, unscrewing a bottle cap, signing your name, or even pulling the covers over as you go to sleep--with an inflamed wrist. It doesn’t have to even be that overt. You get a similarly painful reminder if you try to punch the window button in a car, blow your nose, or even point your finger. Typing, forget about it; and we have arrived at the impetus for today’s (actually yesterday’s column). Two days of 10-hour driving, or even my half of it, and the wrist, even having driven left handed, was so fired up that I lost all enthusiasm for knocking out an article last night. No, two pain pills and the bed for me thank you.
It did set me to thinking about the plight of the athlete however. From my playing days I can remember taking another blow on an already swollen and painful thumb when I darted my hand out to deflect a pass long before the brain could check in with the reasoning of just how bad an idea this was. And it was not like this was my job; I think perhaps the imperative demands of avocation far outweigh those of vocation. If I am sick I’ll stay home from work; but short of broken bones or crutches I’ll be dragging my sorry carcass out onto that court for my daily fix of basketball bliss. I also remember the helpless feeling on the way up for a jump shot when I had no idea how much my legs, and the injured ankle or knee, were going to give me--it was the antithesis muscle memory and practiced release. And yet, it is likely that no professional cager plays into February without several nagging injuries. Certainly the vast majority are trying to compensate for having a badly sprained finger taped to the one next to it, jumping off an ankle so heavily wrapped that the range of motion is surely halved, or wincing with every step due to a knee wrenched beyond its limits (likely several times) during the course of the first fifty games. Remember, most of these “minor” inconveniences don’t even merit a note in the injured players’ list.
Basketball is NOT a non-contact sport, non-collision maybe, but clashes with the ball, the court, the rim or backboard, and other players occur every trip down the court, usually in multiples. In addition to the obvious impact on execution in games,
the resulting maladies take their toll on practice time, conditioning, timing, rhythm, and the mental durability to “do it all again the next night.” Show me a player going into the playoffs completely healthy and I’ll show you a player leading a charmed life, or just coming off sixty days of rehab.
So far we’ve been talking about the effects on individuals but there are numerous ways that individual injuries have team repercussions. As Celtics’ fans we readily and eagerly acknowledge the benefits accruing from team play, both on offense and defense. The bedrock of that cooperative effort is familiarity and comfort with your teammates--injury upsets that routine and balance. Similarly we faithful of the Green revel in the advantages of players knowing and playing their roles. Injuries have a way of upsetting the apple cart, forcing role players into larger parts and demanding coworkers to take on more responsibilities. When the parties return from their injury-forced absences, it is not easy, sometimes not even possible, to resume the original working arrangements that had been so effective. True, occasionally, the opening provided by injury allows a new talent to emerge. But for every Lou Gehrig or Michael Redd (whose opportunity with the Bucks came when Ray Allen was slowed by injuries) there are dozens of examples where the breakout proved to be only an illusion (one might argue that Tony Allen’s career month following Pierce’s injury was such, and that it set Tony back for years as he couldn’t quite resume the limited role of defensive stalwart and opportunistic offense).
Many would argue that basketball is a game of rhythm, both on the individual and on the team level. Injuries kill both. The individual loses the familiarity of knowing what his body will give him on any given move or movement. The team loses the flow--of their offensive options, of their defensive rotations, of their substitution patterns, and perhaps of their leadership responsibilities. If there were absolute solutions, you have to think coaches would have muddled across them since every team faces these problems multiple times every season. Some fare terribly, some fairly well, none perfectly.
Injuries remain the biggest unknown in every season. For any team’s success they are far and away the largest factor over which there is almost no control. Certainly teams make every effort to build depth, as has Danny especially this off season, as a hedge against the unpredictable, but almost certain, insults of chance. Teams that have overcome injury to a key player, and still gone on to win a Championship, are rare indeed; and the few examples are much more likely to come from decades ago before expansion had diluted the talent pool. The early Celtics were built so well by Red that their second five could have started for half the Association. For years the rich Yankees bought so much talent that when an All-Star went down, they just trotted out another one. But in the same way that scholarship limits meant that Notre Dame, USC, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas couldn’t stash the second hundred top recruits on their third and fourth teams, expansion has thinned the ranks in the NBA until most second-teamers would not start for another club either. Under these conditions it will likely remain a fact that Lady Luck will be a key player for any Championship team.