Rudy Gay, who underwent surgery in New York on his ruptured left Achilles’ tendon on Monday, probably could write a term paper by now on the injury, list the NBA players who tore the tendon, and cite the grim odds of a full recovery.
In an oft-cited study of 18 NBA players who ruptured their Achilles’ between 1988 to 2011 – co-authored by Dr. Nirav Amin and Dr. Douglas Cerynik and published in the June 3, 2013 issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine – the findings that examined height, weight, position and a variety of other factors revealed:
▪ The average age at the time of injury was 29.7 years.
▪ Seven of the players (39 percent) retired, among them Isiah Thomas, Christian Laettner and Mehmut Okur.
▪ The players who resumed their career missed an average of 55.9 games, and of those, only eight lasted into a second season.
After comparing statistics of the players during their two years before and after the injury, the authors concluded that those who returned to the league after a rupture “showed a significant decrease in playing time and performance.”
That group includes Kobe Bryant, Chauncey Billups, Elton Brand and Gerald Wilkins. There is one notable exception: Dominique Wilkins.
The Naismith Memorial Basketall Hall of Fame forward, who was one of the most dynamic players of his generation, remains a medical mystery man. The longtime Atlanta Hawks star tore his right Achilles’ in January 1992, only hours after being named to the All-Star team. Though Wilkins was almost absurdly athletic, his vitals nearly match those of Gay. Wilkins was 32, stood 6-foot-8 and was regarded among the league’s most durable, well-conditioned athletes.
But unlike virtually every player in the aforementioned study, the current Hawks television analyst recovered by the following training camp and continued to rank among the leagues’ most prolific scorers, averaging 29.9, 26.0, 24.4, 29.1, 17.8 and 18.2 points during the ensuing six seasons, and was named to two additional All-Star and all-league berths.
So why ’Nique and no one else?
Reached on his cellphone after a Hawks game last week, the genial Wilkins, who knows Gay partly because they grew up in the same neighborhood in Baltimore, reminisced about one of the most difficult periods of his life.
“I know what Rudy’s going through,” he said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I was playing a game in the Omni. I wasn’t even running hard, more like trotting, and then I heard something pop and fell to the ground. I looked around, and there was no one near me. But the pain went up my entire side, so I knew it was bad. I tried to stand, and there was nothing keeping my foot together. I was in complete shock, then in complete denial. I had surgery a day or two later, and told everyone who was there (this journalist included), that I would come back and be as good as ever. Deep down, though, I had tremendous doubts.”
Wilkins – one of the most innovative, explosive dunkers in history – experienced dramatic mood swings. He became particularly depressed immediately after the surgery, while staring at the burdensome white cast and thinking about other NBA players before the Amin/Cerynik study whose careers ended because of Achilles’ tears, including former Lakers star Norm Nixon.
His “pity party” – his words – ended when the grueling rehabilitation process began, and on days he needed added incentive, he approached physical therapy as if he were on the basketball court, competing against his friend Larry Bird in their epic 1988 fourth-quarter duel. The image cranked up his famous motor, rekindled his competitive edge, made him hunger for another shot at the Legend.
“I worked my ass off,” Wilkins continued. “I knew what all the statistics said, that my chances weren’t good, but you can’t measure heart and desire. How bad do you want it? Just like with my career, I never took nights off. I would rehab harder and harder. I went to training camp determined to go full-tilt, and if my Achilles’ gave out, so be it. I was going to go out on my terms. During one exhibition, I took a tough fall, and the first thing I did was grab my ankle. But I didn’t have any pain. And that’s when I knew I would be OK. I was still the guy who could battle Larry, Magic, Jordan.”
Wilkins, an underrated defender and passer before the Achilles’ tear, became even more versatile after the injury. Influenced as well by his advancing age, he relied less on his leaping ability and aerial acrobatics, and developed a more consistent3-point shot.
“What the tear does,” he continued, “is force you to play on the ground. You aren’t in the air as much. You become more fundamentally sound. It’s almost like the game slows down in your mind a little bit. And it’s funny, because before the injury, I didn’t really like shooting from outside. I liked attacking the rim, using my quickness to score or get into the paint and find open teammates. But you adjust, and Rudy will adjust. With all the medical advances today, if he wants it bad enough, he can come back and finish his career.”
The question is where? Gay, who turns 31 in August, is confronting a major financial decision. Before the injury, he planned to opt out of the final year of his guaranteed $14.7 million Kings contract and pursue a more lucrative, long-term deal, probably with another franchise. Though his age and the poor recovery rate suggests this would be a major risk, his close friend, Wesley Matthews, suffered the same injury two seasons ago and nonetheless signed a $70 million deal with the Dallas Mavericks.
Matthews, 30, isn’t the player he was before the injury. He played 78 games last season and has appeared in 43 games this year, and though improving, his shooting percentages have dipped to career lows of 38 and 39 percent, respectively.
“I’m going to get in touch with Rudy,” Wilkins added, “and tell him not to listen the skeptics. I look at my brother (Gerald). Frankly, I was just more determined than he was. Analytics can’t tell what’s in your heart. Rudy is a major talent. The only advice he needs is to keep believing in himself and work his ass off. I don’t have to be the only player to really come back from this injury.”