Kevin Durant dropped the ball, skipped quickly in pain and dropped to the court Monday night with a sad but fundamental lesson on display for all us: That’s why you never second-guess injury decisions.
It’s why you never cheer for a player getting injured, as Toronto fans initially did in the moment. But it’s also why you never drop the, “not tough enough,” or, “doesn’t love the game,” line on a player for missing games.
We love to hear stories like Pat Riley, back in another day, asking some of his New York Knicks players dressed in suits due to aches or pains before a big game: “Could you give me five minutes if needed?”
A couple nodded.
“Then why aren’t you in uniform?” Riley said.
Everyone loves to sell the nobility of a player’s desire by seeing him limp into another game, as if it comes down to simply some mystical want and Disney-styled will.
Injuries are the black hole of public information for fans and often media. We have no idea what the doctors, often plural, say. We have no earthly idea how the medical reports read. We also don’t know about the involved risk in returning, because there’s always a measured risk with injury.
Durant was cleared to play by doctors for Monday night’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals after missing a loud month with a calf injury. It was loud, in part, because of the raised stakes and so many teammates playing hurt.
Andre Iguodala was bothered by a calf injury. DeMarcus Cousins tore a quadriceps muscle in April after missing much of the year with a torn Achilles. Kevon Looney has fractured cartilage in his rib cage. Klay Thompson strained his hamstring in the Finals and missed a game.
Against that national stage of the Finals, the daily drumbeat was whether Durant could play. And why wasn’t he?
We love the tough-guy stories in sports, like Dolphins receiver O.J. McDuffie playing through intolerable pain in his foot or Hall of Famer Jason Taylor taking such a large medication needle to play he nearly passed out. But it’s McDuffie who lost his career for playing so hurt.
We love to question quarterback decisions that have ruined the Dolphins. But some aren’t so dumb when the medical odds later come out. Six top doctors said Drew Brees had a 20% chance of returning from a shoulder injury. The same doctors said Daunte Culpepper’s knee had an 80% chance of recovering.
Wouldn’t you play the odds, as then-Dolphins coach Nick Saban did? Wouldn’t you curse the right decision that turned out all wrong?
We love, especially in the media, to wonder why coaches aren’t more open with players’ injuries. Maybe they will have to be with legalized betting coming, too. But why would any player want an opponent to know where and how severely he’s injured?
In hockey, they once filed such public admissions of injury under “diagonal rule.” If a team publicly said a player has a left-shoulder injury, it was really his right ankle. Now there are just “lower-body” and “upper-body” injuries. And that’s fine. After all, there are laws about disclosing medical information without consent.
The larger point here is the original one: Second-guessing injuries is unstable terrain to navigate. You don’t even know what you don’t know in most cases.
Sure, there is playing hurt and being injured, as Riley’s anecdote serves. Miami Marlins officials grumbled for years about Giancarlo Stanton not playing through aches and pains. They had team advisor Andre Dawson, who played through seven surgeries on each knee, talk with Stanton about the concept.
In the end, it’s the player’s choice. It’s his body. It’s his career. There are two times, in fact, when a player doesn’t just have the right but the responsibility to be selfish.
One is in the offseason regarding money or playing time. Once a season starts, the best pros are team players. Until then, every player is an individual company.
The other time for players to be selfish is when hurt. Durant no doubt was, in some regard. Doctors cleared him. He felt fine. But what happened Monday night showed why you can’t question an injured player.
The odds surely were with Durant to play. But sometimes even the best athletes get played by the odds.
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