‘Be Your Own Motivation’: Injured N.B.A. Stars Talk Recovery

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For about a month after he was sidelined with a torn ligament in his right elbow, Paul George could do nothing but wait.

He had been through serious injuries before, but the waiting process for this one, in December, was new to him.

No activity for a few weeks. He couldn’t get back on the court for more than two months. His body, doctors told him, just needed rest.

George would watch N.B.A. games at home with his fiancée, young daughters, newborn son. The children would watch sometimes, but mostly stayed occupied with their iPads while George focused on work.

He would pay close enough attention to offer suggestions or words of encouragement to his Los Angeles Clippers teammates via text message. After a while, though, he felt an acute sense of regret.

“Early on they did a great job of kind of rallying and keeping together and having a strong season, but as the season went on, they kind of hit a wall and ran out of gas,” George said. “It was very noticeable. It was tough. It was tough to watch that and not be able to help them. I think that was probably the hardest part for me — watching.”

When George finally returned on March 29, he promptly scored 34 points to help the Clippers to a comeback win against the Utah Jazz.

George is among an unusually large group of players with proven talent who were injured for a considerable part of the 2021-22 regular season. He and others sustained serious injuries, and watched their teams go on without them, while embarking on an often lonely road back. Like George, some of them are returning to their teams just in time for the playoffs and have a chance to change their team’s fortunes dramatically.

“Having one of our best players back, one of the best players in the league, a guy who’s tremendous on both sides of the ball, does absolutely everything that we ask him and more,” Clippers guard Reggie Jackson said. “Just having him back, having more of our leaders back, you know, face of the franchise and one of the best players in the world, it just gives us more confidence.”

George’s teammate Kawhi Leonard has been spotted shooting at the team’s practice facility, having missed the entire season while recovering from A.C.L. surgery. Denver’s Jamal Murray, who had the same surgery, has shown positive signs of recovery, though it is unclear if he will return.

Center Brook Lopez returned to the Milwaukee Bucks on March 14 for the first time since the season opener. He had back surgery in December and was listed as “out indefinitely.”

“I’ve been through injuries a few times. It’s always just made me appreciate basketball and love it even more,” Lopez told reporters after his first game back. “I try never to take my time on the court for granted, whether it’s practice, shootaround or a game.”

He smiled brightly when asked about being back.

“I missed it so much,” Lopez said.

Miami Heat guard Victor Oladipo knows well the pangs of being away for so long. He had support from friends and family after injuries, but the road back still wasn’t easy.

“It can get lonely at times,” Oladipo said. “You’ve got to be your own biggest fan. You’ve got to be your own motivation. You’ve got to self-motivate, you’ve got to talk to yourself, you’ve got to be your best friend.”

Oladipo was an All-Star with the Indiana Pacers in 2017-18 and 2018-19. He ruptured his quadriceps tendon in January 2019 and had surgery shortly thereafter. A year later he returned to play but still didn’t feel right.

“It feels like it’s you hindering you from being where you need to be,” Oladipo said. “Or that this is your norm and you can never get back to playing freely.”

He said he realized soon after his surgery that it had been done incorrectly. He needed a second surgery in May of last year; he did not make his debut this season until last month.

Oladipo spent about a month and a half in a cast after the second surgery before restarting the process of learning how to use his legs properly.

When he could not be with the team for games, he would sometimes rent out a movie theater at the Brickell City Centre in Miami to watch games by himself, or with his assistant or manager.

“The screen is so big, it makes you feel like you’re actually in the game,” Oladipo said.

He watched critically, while sitting in the front row, trying to guess how the action would unfold. Sometimes he thought through what decisions he might make if he were the coach.

“You want to help the team,” Oladipo said. “If the team is doing well, you want to be part of that. You’ve got to just focus on you and focus on doing the things that you can do in order to get healthy and get right so that you can affect winning and help them the best you can.”

Unlike for Lopez and George, Oladipo’s role with the Heat going forward has not been fully established. He has played in only eight games since returning on March 7. On April 3 in Toronto, he scored 21 points.

“These are things we have seen daily, behind the scenes,” Chris Quinn, an assistant coach for the Heat, told reporters after the game, while filling in for Coach Erik Spoelstra, who was out because of coronavirus protocols. “It’s the hard work, it’s the grit, it’s the grind. Coming off what he came off injury wise, and for him to get to this point, it’s still part of the process of him becoming what he can be.”

The Heat did not play Oladipo in their next two games, but he scored 40 points in the team’s regular-season finale on Sunday.

“I’m still capable of doing a lot of good things out there, a lot of great things out there,” Oladipo said in an interview in late March. “Right now, I think my purpose for this team is to do whatever needs to be done in order for us to win.”

The need for patience doesn’t end once a player returns from injury. Minutes restrictions and nights off are common after a long layoff.

For George, that meant that during his second game back — an overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls — he couldn’t play at all in the overtime period.

“He tries to lobby, but it’s not up to him,” Clippers Coach Tyronn Lue said of George’s minutes restriction. “Our medical staff is the best in the league, so we give them full responsibility, and allow the player to protect him from himself because he wants to play. All players want to play when they’re on the floor.”

As George looks back on the months he spent without being able to play basketball, he acknowledges it was challenging to be forced to stay off the court. But overall he is comfortable with how it went.

“I think that’s what made the process so good and that’s what made me feel mentally so great about it,” George said. “There was no low points. I listened to my body; my body was hurt. I knew I needed some time off.”

There was a silver lining as well.

“I think the positives I took away from it was extended time being with my family,” George said. “Being with my kids. My girl. It was just a lot of time that I got to spend that I don’t usually spend because I’m playing on the road.”

The Clippers exceeded expectations without him. While across town the Lakers could not overcome losing LeBron James and Anthony Davis to injury for long stretches, the Clippers qualified for the play-in tournament without having George for most of the season and without having Leonard at all.

While Oladipo and the Heat are locked into the top seed of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Clippers, at No. 8 in the West, will have to fight through the play-in tournament to get either the seventh or eighth seed. They won four of the first five games after George returned. He will get to do a lot more than watch as their postseason begins.

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