Weekly Countdown: Life's a pain around NBA -- even for mascots
Injuries are taking their toll throughout the league early in the season
Danny Ainge recounts story from his most bizarre injury as a player
More topics: Examining the Raptors and "lame-duck" coaches
5 Views of NBA injuries
It's something we take for granted. But people are hurting out there.
5. NBA All-Injured Teams. To qualify, players must be expected to miss at least two weeks this season. Note the array of talent that has been sidelined already.
G Tony Parker, Spurs: sprained ankle, out 2-4 weeks
G Deron Williams, Jazz: sprained ankle, missed first six games
G Kirk Hinrich, Bulls: thumb surgery, out three months
4. The strangest injury of all time. I asked Celtics president Danny Ainge if the league had suffered an unusual number of injuries early this season.
"I don't think it's that uncommon,'' he said. "I look at the Tony Parker injury, I had that happen to me a bunch of times in my career. I came down on a foot and rolled that ankle. That's just bad luck.''
I reminded him that Red Auerbach used to say the era of oversized sneakers was responsible for many injuries.
"Yeah,'' Ainge said, "but I don't think that's it. I think some guys, just the way their bodies go, they are susceptible. Some guys don't get any sprains; some just land wrong. Tony's ankle just went, he hit it hard.''
Ainge was the victim of the weirdest injury that I can remember in the NBA. In a 1983 first-round playoff game with Atlanta, Ainge tried to tackle Tree Rollins. Ainge shrieked in pain from the ensuing tangled pile of bodies.
"We got into a little scuffle out on the court by the foul line and he almost bit my finger off,'' Ainge said. "He bit it all the way through. I had to get two stitches.''
He raised his right hand to reveal the scar on his middle finger.
"Usually, you don't put stitches on a human bite,'' he said. "But just to keep everything in there together, they had to put a couple of stitches in there.''
Did he realize that someone was biting him?
"Oh, yeah, I knew it was happening,'' he said. "Oh, yeah.''
The next day, the Boston Herald published one of the great headlines: "Tree Bites Man.''
3. The costs of being injured. Arenas signed a six-year, $111 million contract with the Wizards last summer. He is being paid approximately $180,000 per game this season. Therefore, the Wizards are out $1 million in lost pay already, though it's important to remember that their re-signing of Arenas persuaded many ticket buyers to invest in the team.
The billions of dollars paid in player salaries has changed the way the games are being played, and you can see it in all sports. In the NFL, they keep adding rules to protect the quarterbacks. In baseball, you don't see pitchers throwing inside nearly as often as Bob Gibson did, when he would frighten batters off the plate. The best NBA defenses used to beat up anyone who dared drive the ball to the basket, but that kind of vigilanteism is no longer tolerated. The players are too valuable to be exposed to unnecessary risk, especially when TV ratings depend on the abilities of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant to elevate above the rim.
"It used to be that players didn't necessarily like the guys on the other team,'' said a longtime NBA executive, who asked to remain anonymous. "Now you see them after the game, no matter what happens, they're all hugging each other. At times, I wonder if it's a collusion -- you don't play too hard, I don't play too hard, and nobody gets hurt. What happened to the day when you were supposed to hate your opponent, you wanted to knock his lights out and you didn't dare be his friend? Maybe we're a more educated and civilized society for doing what we do today. But I miss the intensity, especially when I see these guys hugging each other and saying, 'I love you, man,' and 'Call me! Call me!'
"I think it started with Isiah [Thomas] and Magic [Johnson] when they would kiss each other [before each game of the 1988 NBA Finals]. The superstars are attracted to the other superstars. If they went to college together, that's one thing; that makes perfect sense. But I miss the good old days, and I hate to say it: I miss it when guys wanted to take out the other guy.''
The last infamous "taking out'' happened during the 1984 Finals when Kevin McHale destroyed Kurt Rambis on a breakaway. Each was among the nicest, most outgoing players in the league, but McHale was a Celtic and Rambis was a Laker.
"McHale took him out, and it changed the whole series,'' the executive recalled. "I bet if you were to ask Rambis today, he would still be upset about it.''
Those were the days.
2. The unseen injuries. On Wednesday in Toronto, The Raptor mascot was trying to dunk when his feet slipped through the springs. The Toronto Globe and Mail reported that he limped off the court and didn't return.
"An ankle sprain,'' Raptors media relations director Jim LaBumbard informed me. "Listed as day-to-day.''
I asked The Raptor to detail his injuries over the years.
"It's a long list,'' he said during a rare telephone interview Thursday. "A fractured tailbone. Cuts, scrapes and bruises, twisted ankles. I have one vertebrae that got twisted so I was getting pinched nerves in my back and neck. A few times I've dislocated a finger and popped it back in. I tore a hamstring trying to dunk over three ball racks stacked on top of each other. I had a concussion doing a backflip off something and hit a stanchion, or something, and ended up falling on my face, so when I got up I was like, 'Oh, I don't know where I am,' and they ended up escorting me out. I was in the old Skydome doing a dunk and I landed on top of the ball, I rolled my ankle on top of it. That's no fun. I came back the next game in a wheelchair with a sign that said, 'Say No To Trampoline Dunks.' "
The Raptor agreed to speak with me on condition that I not reveal his true identity. In that sense, it was like talking to Spider-Man. He has been The Raptor throughout the 14-year history of the franchise. Maybe you've seen him: He is bright red with an oversized head, sharp teeth and limited eyesight, mainly because he sees through his mouth.
"When I'm running around in that thing, it's like a sauna,'' he said of his outer skin. "You're breathing the same air inside of your head. Each night I'll sweat anywhere from six to nine pounds in water. I'll take my shirt off during timeouts and literally wring out the sweat.''
I first met The Raptor a few years ago at the Air Canada Centre. He came walking into the press room in the first quarter. When he took off his head, I felt like Dorothy looking behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. I don't know what I was expecting to see, but he wasn't it. My innocence was gone, and I have never viewed mascots the same way again. Not even the San Diego Chicken.
"I'm 35,'' he admitted. Before he was The Raptor, he was toiling in the Canadian football and basketball leagues. "This is my 20th season of doing mascoting,'' he said. "Every parent wishes their kids will grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer. Mine got a puppet.''
The speckled red tail and monocular eyes belie a discipline to his craft. He missed but one game after suffering the broken tailbone.
"I was tobogganing down the stairs and lost the positioning on the toboggan.'' After the collision, he said, "I got up on my own and my spine was completely tingling. I was like, 'Oh, my God, this hurts,' and I got up and walked away. There was a slight little fracture in the tailbone. I didn't dunk for the rest of the year, but I was back into doing some sort of running handstand maneuvers in a couple of weeks.''
I asked him what was the anticipated life expectancy of a Raptor.
"I get asked that all the time,'' he said. "The answer is as long as I can, because I love doing it. It's as fun a job as you can get in many different ways. You perform in games but also go out in the community and work with special-needs kids in different situations, such as going to hospitals for sick kids and bringing that element to them. I can tell you, there are times you're glad you're wearing a costume while you're seeing these kids in their situations. Because the whole time you're thinking, I've got problems?''
1. The worst victims. The Wizards are 1-6 without their starting point guard and center, which are traditionally the two most important positions in basketball. Haywood is expected to miss most or all of the season after undergoing preseason wrist surgery. Arenas' comeback from last year's microfracture surgery is an ongoing dilemma. But they still have two All-Stars in Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, who should be able to keep the Wizards close to .500 until Arenas returns.
The Spurs are 2-5 and rank an alarming 22nd in defensive field-goal percentage (45.6). But even if they're 10 games under .500 when Ginobili joins Parker back on the court next month, the Spurs are still going to make the playoffs. Health permitting, of course.