Tim Duncan is the Greatest of All-Time. We all know that. We’ve all been blessed beyond words to get to watch the man play in the prime of his career, and we’re all slowly starting to realize that the door is shutting. Our appreciation for his talents and his career grows daily within each of us, as we recount the decade plus of memories that virtually no other franchise gets. We’ve been very lucky to have a player of his skill, character and passion playing in the Silver and Black, and as the lights gradually dim on his contract and career, we’re finally getting it.
But do you already feel that way about DeJuan Blair? Because you really should.
I get to have shoulder surgery later this week. Super excited, considering the unanimous opinions I get from everyone who has medical advice for me is that alongside a knee surgery, shoulder surgery requires the most painful rehab imaginable. I assume it’s the toil from a lifetime of overuse and injuries, but the pain is simply getting too much to just ignore. Plus, I can’t reach up with my dominant arm… so there’s that motivation too. Torn rotator cuff, bone spurs (yeah, I actually think that one is pretty awesome and asked him to just leave those there) and a completely disintegrated ball joint. Yee freakin ha.
My orthopedic surgeon has an amazing resume, and I’m fortunate to have him doing the slicing. I’m not mentioning any names, but he’s been the team doctor on several Olympic Dream Teams and US World Teams. Fortunately, I have good insurance now and since none of us know how long that may last, I swung for the fences in lining this guy up. Needless to say, he’s highly qualified and specializes in sports injuries, specifically basketball and more specifically professional basketball. I’ve never talked to anyone who was more competent and knowledgeable about the medical physics of the game and the movements and results associated with the human body. Playing the game of basketball at an intense level obviously exerts distinct pressures and forces on athletes, and this guys is seen as an expert by most everyone in the field.
Earlier this last week, I had my "pre-op" appointment. For those of you yet to have the pleasure of arthroscopic surgery, that’s when they sit you down and explain all the various horse tranquilizers that they’ll be gleefully injecting into your body. It’s astounding to me that all of those chemicals will be in my body for that long- isn’t that how some superheros were created? Guy falls in vat of nuclear waste and can suddenly twist space and time. Guy has shoulder surgery and has to take gnarly pain meds… and becomes an optimist about the Spurs? Maybe I’m just being a baby. No, I don’t want your opinion. Anyway…
Also explained is how absolutely worthless you’re going to be for the next 4 months and how insanely agonizing the rehab is during this time. And after your 4 months of glee, supposedly it’s another year or more of rebuilding fun. It’s a riveting meeting and I left mine feeling like this past weekend was a sort of "Green Mile." Apparently it’s much better and much easier to just not have to have shoulder surgery. But at the end of the appointment, after all the jargon was explained and I was getting ready to leave, I asked for a few more minutes of Doc’s time to ask some curious questions. No motivation, I just suddenly realized that I’d never had an asset or opportunity like this and had better use it.
I cut straight to the point and asked him what it would be like for a professional athlete to have no ACLs. How the human body would respond to this, what overcompensations would be made, what consequences there would be at the absence, and finally… how long the expected career would be.
"I’m not naming any names, Doc, I’m just wondering because I’ve heard of players who dealt with that."
I didn’t in any way intend to be a negative-Nancy or a doomsayer (and still don’t right now, for the record), I was just curious and never really understood everything. I think that’s probably true of most everyone really. We all hear, "He has no ACLs" and we joke about it; but we never really understood what it meant and what it entailed. It’s something in the knee, right? Does it mean he doesn’t have knees? Are stairs impossible for him? Is "Indian style" seating just a pipe dream? I want to know these things and better understand what’s in store. I’m a learner like that.
First off, quickly and basically, the ACL is one of four major ligaments in the knee. Essentially, it holds the knee together and prevents it from falling apart or rotating out. The more you know. Daa daa, daa DAAA.
The beginning of our conversation was succinct. He asked, "What sport… It’s not basketball, is it?!"
I nodded fearfully. He replied, "College or pro?" I slowly offered up, "Pro." He countered, "He’s not a large man, is he?" I don’t like where this is going.
I didn’t expect the way he responded at all; it was arguably more discouraging than even hearing I was less than a week away from surgery myself. Immediately after our quick back-and-forth, he started laughing, and said that an athlete playing at that level without ACLs whatsoever was next to impossible. (This made me happy, "defying the odds" and all.) He said that it was an INCREDIBLE testament to that player’s work ethic and passion that he was even playing basketball at all, much less in the Association. He explained that basketball requires expansion and contraction of those ligaments that most other games do not. Basketball puts incredible exertion on those ligaments that other sports simply don’t require. The quick motions, the lateral movements, the constant running and pushing off and jumping and landing hard and bending… the game abuses that specific part of the body. It’s why you hear about so many basketball injuries involving the ACLs. Add to that the fact that most players in the game are physically abnormal in either their weight or height or both and this puts added stress on the ligament, that it’s literally just "a matter of time" for the majority of players before they’re calling plays as the "Yesterday’s Star" with Ernie, Charles and Kenny.
He elaborated that in my specific player’s example, it was likely that the player overcompensated for the lack of ACLs by getting stronger in other areas. Perhaps other ligaments were being asked to carry more of the load (no pun intended) or the joint itself was freakishly different enabling the player to perform at that level. Think of stories about people that go blind and can quickly smell or hear even better. The human body is mysterious and amazing, and it’s incredible how it can overcome deficits when needed.
But here’s where it got real discouraging. The final stage of our conversation/lesson involved Doc quickly describing my player’s career limitations. No matter the overcompensation and determination, the hard line of medical and physical fact would approach that player much quickly than others, he said. There’s just no way to do certain things without certain components, and over a shorter amount of time that principle would catch up to the athlete. He said that he would expect a player with no ACLs to obviously not even be playing at that level, much less playing well or effectively. But moreso, that that player would definitely not have near the potential of longevity that others would. We already knew that of course, but my doctor estimated that the career of said player would be over (because damage was occurring that simply could not be recovered from) within "several" years.
(This is the point of the appointment in which my jaw was on the floor and I was without speech.)
We knew when Blair was drafted that the Spurs were lucky, even all the pundits were shocked that such an incredible steal was again made by San Antonio. Yeah he has medical issues, but the Spurs again shocked the world with a pick that would turn into a strong piece for them to build around, post-Duncan. After this conversation with my doctor I began to wonder if, with the Blair pick, the Spurs were literally drafting for "the now" and not thinking much about the future. All the way home I thought about the ramifications of what the doctor told me and how that would affect my beloved franchise. I want to be the first to say, even now, that ANYTHING can happen… that I believe and hope for the best… that we truly don’t understand the power of "heart" and perseverance… that medical miracles have happened before and can happen again… that this is simply ONE medical opinion, and doctors have been known to be mistaken. I have no doubt that a player who has already overcome so much to play at such a high level in college, then has overcome so much more to play at a high level professionally, cannot be counted out in any way. A player with that much focus and passion who has overcome such medical roadblocks cannot be underestimated. Ask other teams in the league now- if they had that draft again today and Dejuan won’t be underestimated another 36 times, I guarantee.
But I know the Spurs were aware of all this information. And I wonder, were they simply hoping and rolling the dice? Or were they knowingly drafting simply for the present, and hoping for the later? Several players drafted after Blair would likely provide more long-term security and promise, why take a chance on the medical issues that so many other teams avoided, if not for the immediate skill-set alone? And on an even more extreme, doomsday level… what would the repercussions be if this medical prognosis is true and we squeeze 3 years out of our pick? I’ve whispered it before and no one nationally has touched on this yet, but there’s likely to be a lockout next season. Tim Duncan’s contract expires thereafter. I personally believe that we very well may be watching Timmy’s last work this season. If the lockout happens and robs us of a full season, does anyone really believe that TD (after stating that "when he’s done, he’s done") would re-up for multi-year contract AFTER he’s already sat out a full year? I’m not trying to start a conspiracy or a discussion, but you do the math. Pop’s tired, and Tim deeply wants to be fathering and beaching at this point. If that happens, could we also be looking at losing Blair in roughly this same time frame?
Whatever the answers, we’ll never know. Beast’s long-term prognosis will only be told through time (and mojo, obviously). The reality is, only time will tell in all of these issues. And when time passes and events come to light, as Sir Bruce famously used to say, "It is what it is." I’m choosing hope and joy in the right now, and I'm deciding to live in the moment.
Which brings me to my point- We’ve all slowly started to realize how valuable the experience of being a part of the Duncan-era is. Gradually, as the years go by and as his career nears its end, the ability to appreciate him is dawning on us more and more fully. Just about every Spurs fan, in a small way that isn't talked about, regrets that from ’00-’08 we were too enamored with the brilliance to step aside and relish the reality of having Tim Duncan in our lives -- to understand what life will be like without him. We, for the most part, have become desensitized to how lucky we are to both have him on our team, and get to see him in his prime.
As of this week, I feel the same exact way about DeJuan.
Here's this man-child, in only in his 2nd year, who possesses the strength of four men and the passion to single-handedly alter an entire game. And still so much more promise and potential -- we’re lucky to have him. One day, sooner or later, we’ll be begging the Rashos and the Alonzos and the Gists to develop skills that young Dejuan already has. And I have decided, from here forward, to completely enjoy and absorb the wonder of having Beast on our team. Not that I (or any of us, really) haven't been doing that already; but I think we’ve all gotten so caught up in how breathtaking Blair’s potential is that we’ve failed to completely appreciate his value in the now. I’m going to try my hardest to avoid thinking about tomorrow and the inevitable post-Duncan rebuilding, and instead focus right now on being stunned and grateful when he goes through 3 defenders for the And1. I’m going to be thankful for this year’s team and be anxious to see what they’ll do today. Not next year. Not in 3 years, but right now. Tomorrows are never promised and news like this just reinforces that we should relish the immediate. The San Antonio Spurs and its fanbase have been blessed in the sports world to have the pieces we’ve had over the years, and we all need to focus on enjoying and valuing the present while we have, it before the Clipperslike-era does begin, whenever that comes.
When it does, we may or may not have Beast. I’ll be on my couch either remembering DeJuan Blair with fondness, or cheering him on as he posts up two opponents. But either way, I’ll probably still be doing doped-up shoulder rehab.