Some Spurs fans may have noticed the conspicuous absence this season of a former player and fan favorite from their championship days. Aussie big man Aron Baynes, who was supposed to be entering the second year of a $14 million contract with the Toronto Raptors, was waived back in August. It seemed like an odd move, and the only explanation given at the time was he was dealing with a back issue.
However, perhaps no one outside of his immediate family, teammates and coaches knew exactly what was going on since he wanted to keep it quiet, but now he has opened up to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst about the entire ordeal, and it’s just as terrifying as it is heartbreaking.
Back during the Tokyo Olympics, Australia was playing in the quarterfinals when Baynes headed back to use the restroom between the third and fourth quarters. When he didn’t return, staffers went searching, only to find him collapsed on the floor of the locker room, bleeding from two puncture wounds on his arm. While there was no explanation for the wounds — maybe he had hit his arm on a couple of hooks, or it was the fall itself — the much more pressing matter was he was lethargic, unable walk, and almost too weak to speak. He was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, where an MRI showed he had an internal bleed that was putting pressure on his spine.
Three days earlier, while warming up after halftime against Nigeria, he routinely dunked the ball but lost his grip on the rim thanks to some hand sanitizer, falling and hitting his head and neck on the court. He sat out the second half as a precaution and needed medication to deal with the pain, but heading into the match-up against Italy, he felt well enough to play and had passed concussion protocols. Whether that fall caused the bleed, had anything to do with his fall on the way to the restroom that day, or if it was just a coincidence and the second fall was the cause remains a mystery, but regardless he was in a bad way.
To make matters worse, due to strict COVID rules in Japan at the time, he was all alone in the hospital with no visitors allowed, and there wasn’t anyone who could translate between him and his Japanese-speaking doctors and nurses. He was able to get enough help from an app to understand that they believed he needed surgery to relieve the pressure on his spine, but a neurosurgeon in Australia gave him a series of exercises to do, and once he had enough strength again, he would be allowed to return home and continue rehabbing.
Ten days later, he helplessly watched from his Tokyo hospital bed as his team won their bronze medals, and his teammates Matthew Dellavedova and Nathan Sobey were able to “sneak” into the hospital to give him his medal. The next day he was able stand and start stacking cups with his hands, meaning he could finally return to Australia, but first, he had to get there. He was medically transported and put under anesthesia for the eight-hour flight to a Brisbane hospital, but before he could finally see his wife and children again, he had to undergo a 14-day quarantine under Australian law.
He continued rehabbing in the hospital for another month, progressing from a wheelchair, to a walker and eventually walking on his own again. In just this last week, he was reached two personal goals: not falling for a week and running. To the untrained eye, he is himself again, exercising, enjoying strolls on the beach with his family in the Australian summer, and hoping to return to the NBA by next season. (He’s especially eager with the way the NBA is allowing a more physical style of play this season — right up his alley.)
It has been a terrifying six months for the Big Banger, and it puts a lot into perspective about how quickly life can go south. My dad went through a very similar ordeal a couple of years ago, with the difference being he had a benign brain tumor that had to be removed before he went through the same extensive rehab of having to learn to walk again and reteach himself basic motor skills. Like Baynes, my dad is mostly himself again today (just a little bit of a limp and deaf in one ear).
Here’s to hoping someone will take a chance on the Big Banger, and he can fulfill his goal of making it back to the NBA again. And who knows? Maybe it will be the Spurs: the first NBA team that ever believed in him.