Sport has cruel way of reminding greats they too are mere mortals

Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant reacts after sustaining an Achilles injury during the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors during Game Five of the NBA finals on Monday. It was his first game back after spending over a month sidelined due to a calf injury. Picture: Gregory Shamus

Just as the screams of history and legacy can make the greats try to play on one leg, nature has a cruel and sudden way of reminding them that even they are mortals.

Just as was the case with Henry Shefflin nine years ago, Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors last Monday night pulled up hobbling just as he was entering his 13th minute back out in the arena, competing in the biggest game of the year that his sport can provide.

Durant had temporarily seemed to have justified the decision — his, the organisation’s, the medical staff’s, we’ll return to whose it was later — to suit up for Game Five of the NBA finals, having gone for 11 points in those opening 12 minutes, despite having missed the previous five weeks and nine games with a supposed calf strain.

With the Toronto Raptors up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series, his Warriors were on the brink of elimination and in dire need of a huge intervention to keep alive their hopes of a third consecutive NBA championship. Durant duly seemed to provide it, and instant offence along with it, sinking all three three-point shots he put up.

It would prove to be a catalyst that would ultimately spark the Warriors to a win. Although the Raptors would rallied to take a six-point lead entering the final three minutes, the Warriors would surged again with a late three-point spree from their other two other superstars, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, for a 106-105 victory to delay and possibly cancel altogether the biggest communal party in Canada’s history.

But in saving the Warriors’ season, Durant has seriously compromised his career, and possibly with it, his legacy, one of the very things he was trying to protect and enhance.

Durant departed the game having torn his Achilles, probably the worst kind of injury that a basketball player can suffer. In 2013, the same year that Kobe Bryant was crippled by the same injury, a medical study identified that of the 18 players who suffered a major Achilles injury over the previous 25 years, seven of them never returned to the league. Only Dominique Wilkins returned to anything like his former glory, Bryant being a shell of his old self.

Durant will return at some point, but probably not until the season after next. By then, he’ll be 32. That’s not an old age as far as basket ballers go, but it is for one who has suffered an Achilles.

Had he sat out the rest of these NBA finals, he would have resumed playing in the autumn, with whichever team he chose to sign with on a max contract — he was, and still is, the most coveted free agent in world basketball this summer — and assumed LeBron James’ old position as the best player in the world.

Now he’s been stolen a couple of his prime years, while some of the other top free agents available this summer who would otherwise have teamed up with him may forego so, calculating it could be a waste of a couple of years of their own prime not being on a viable contender.

Already his injury is being touted as a great cautionary tale about the nature of sport, just as his layoff since Game Five generated much speculation about his true desire to win a third consecutive title with the Warriors and his commitment to a franchise he’d probably be leaving this in the summer anyway.

Only a couple of days ago, the Athletic website were reporting that several figures in the organisation and even dressing room were frustrated by Durant’s injury status, especially when several other teammates had toughened it out and hastened back from injury to play in this series.

Durant has a reputation for being particularly conscious and sensitive of what others have to say, once even holding burner accounts to engage in Twitter debates to defend his position. Did he listen to the knockers more than his body?

Jalen Rose, a former NBA veteran himself and now excellent pundit, certainly contends so.

“I blame the overall culture of sports,” he said on ESPN yesterday.

“There is a herd mentality when you are a professional athlete and when you start to make money, people think you’re immune to everything that comes with being a human being. If they [the Warriors] had been 3-1 up, he would not have returned. But because they were down 3-1, it was, ‘Oh, he’s soft, he didn’t want it, he wasn’t committed. And he was leaving anyway.’

“There’s a [lyric], people bring flowers to your funeral but don’t bring you soup when you’re sick. Everyone is now faking that they care about his interests. But they don’t! You can’t be out there 75% against Kawhi Leonard in the NBA finals. If he can’t do it, he shouldn’t play! And now he can’t, for 12 months… Congrats, world. We got our pound of flesh.”

Chris Carter, another former US pro athlete and now a pundit, concurred. “For any athlete watching that, I hope they learned one thing — listen to your body. You can only listen to the training staff so far, the [medics] so far, and you definitely can’t listen to your team-mates. Because if you listen to them, they’ll have you out there playing.”

Shannon Sharpe, another former NFL great and now Fox Sports pundit, spoke even more eloquently about the implicit heat players will come under from within others in the dressing room. “This is how they go about it. ‘Are you okay?’ ‘How far long are you?’ ‘Man, we sure could do with you out there. Just your presence.’ ‘KD [Durant], we don’t need you to be KD. Just your presence.’ That’s how they put pressure on you.”

Such a dynamic is not exclusive to the big pro leagues in the States. It’s happened in some of the biggest dressing rooms in Gaelic Games.

Back in late August 2010, Henry Shefflin famously participated in an in-house game in Nowlan Park in front of 10,000 curious observers.

In his autobiography, he recalls how at half-time, Brian Cody approached him. “Are you playing on?” As Shefflin would note in his autobiography, it wasn’t really a question. So, yeah, three weeks after doing his cruciate, he played on and get through a full-scale training session, something Durant didn’t. The drive for five would do that to you.

So can the quest to win your county’s first All Ireland in 81 years. In Raising The Banner, Ger Loughnane recalls how Brian Lohan damaged his hamstring during the 1995All-Ireland semi-final against Galway but played on after “I went down to the sideline and looked at him”.

The Wolfe Tones man Lohan pulled his hamstring again with 20 minutes to go in the final. Loughnane, according to his own account, instructed physio Colum Flynn to tell Lohan “he’s not f***n’ coming off!” He duly obeyed.

“He just got on with it and pretended nothing was wrong with him. It would never happen in soccer. In the last 20 minutes, he used his head, stayed goalside of John Troy and played away with a torn hamstring. He wasn’t able to train for three months afterwards… He was willing to go through the pain barrier because the team needed him to.”

It was something similar with Tyrone eight years later claiming their first All Ireland title. In the warm up, Peter Canavan slid up to Mickey Harte and while tying his laces, conveyed his uncertainty whether his heavily-strapped ankle would hold up. “It’ll hold up alright,” Harte essentially relayed back.

Canavan duly started to kick four first-half points to steady Tyrone before coming off at half-time in accordance with their pre-arranged and groundbreaking substitution strategy. On that occasion,Canavan’s “presence” for his free taking along was enough.

As Rose implies, though, it’s another thing trying to guard and shake off a Kawhi Leonard. Although basketball is a sport with a rich tradition of greats gritting it out and playing through injury — Jordan leaving regular season games in crutches only to resume his Jump man act the next night, Bryant played with a broken hand in the 2010 finals, Curry is playing with a hurt left hand right now — something as serious as a leg injury which was obviously affecting Durant is another bridge altogether.

A Loughnane, Lohan and Canavan may calculate that unlike in the NBA or soccer, there is no money or max contracts. The only currency is Celtic Crosses. But for every case like Lohan, there are many more Shefflins (“We gambled and we lost,” he’d surmise. “Do I regret it? The morning after the final, I’d never regretted anything more in my life. In time, I’d come to realise it was a chance I simply had to take”).

Tony Browne has spoken about how a year or two after the summer of 1998, his career was in jeopardy because of the amount of times he tried to squeeze out one more game on a damaged ankle to help his county or club get another game.

“Later on in my career when I knew better and I knew my body a lot better, I wouldn’t even have considered taking the field,” he’d tell this paper two years ago. “And nowadays you would have more protection. ‘Listen, we’re taking the decision away from you. We need you for the next five years.’”

One of the most interesting contributions from an Irish tweeter on the Durant situation was that offered by the former Tipperary hurling and Munster rugby physio, John Casey. “Even top organisations can get load management wrong. There are external factors like player, fan and media pressure that make load management difficult.”

Casey offered his players the protection that Browne advocated. Lar Corbett would have heard his toughness questioned through the years but he’d come to listen to his body and Casey, and produce four peak years that would match that of anyone who ever played the game and would have been impossible had they listened to “external factors”.

Durant though did. One of the great ironies of his situation is that his direct opponent in these finals, Leonard, fell into dispute with his old team, the San Antonio Spurs when they passed him fit to play last season but he refrained from doing so, and duly asked to be traded.

This past regular season,he was rested for 20 regular seasons by the Raptors.

He listened to his body. His load was managed.

Maybe he’ll go on to have a career as long as Browne.

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