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Pain Drain

by Jackie MacMullan

Posted: Wed April 1, 1998

Sports Illustrated When Bucks point guard Terrell Brandon sprained his left ankle for the second time this season, on Feb. 5, he promised himself that he wouldn't return until it was fully healed. At week's end Brandon was still in street clothes, Milwaukee had dropped 15 of its last 17 games and coach Chris Ford had seen the Bucks' promising season—and probably his hopes of keeping his job—go up in smoke.

Brandon's lengthy stay on the injured list—he had missed 24 games through Sunday—prompted whispers around the league: How much time does a sprained ankle take to heal? Why hadn't Brandon come back to help the Bucks, who were 24-22 at the time of his injury, make a playoff run? Similar skepticism had been voiced about Penny Hardaway in March, when he called it quits for the year after straining his left calf. (Six weeks earlier Hardaway had returned to action from December surgery on his left knee.) Sources close to the Magic say coach Chuck Daly had trouble concealing his disgust when he learned of Hardaway's decision.

Terrell Brandon
Out with a sprained left ankle for the last 24 games, Brandon won't make a hasty return to the Bucks.    (John Biever)

Brandon says any doubts about the severity of his injury are unfair. "I've played hurt my whole career," he says. "I play with a steel rod in my leg [from a broken tibia three years ago]. The reason I'm out now is that I came back too quickly from the first ankle injury [on Dec. 13, which sidelined him for 17 days]. It's almost like some people would rather see a guy limping around on the court, instead of getting himself ready to make a real contribution."

NBA lore is replete with heroic tales of wounded warriors, from Willis Reed's hobbling onto the court for the Knicks with a badly injured right leg in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals to Celtic Kevin McHale's limping through the 1987 Finals with a broken right foot. "Back then you played through almost anything," says McHale. "I knew if I kept going, I'd probably be looking at an operation. But I had a responsibility to my team. It was paying me a lot of money. Too often today, players think the team has a responsibility to take care of them, instead of the other way around."

Where should the line be drawn? When does playing hurt become not valiant but foolish? Both Brandon and Hardaway contend that coming back this season could have caused them irreparable harm, yet sources on each of their teams privately dispute that. Regardless, it's clear that there are more reasons than ever for players to be reluctant about making hasty returns.

Because of the huge salaries at stake, players are unlikely to risk jeopardizing their futures for short-term goals, such as helping their teams reach the playoffs. Players' agents, who almost always advise their clients to err on the side of caution, have had an impact as well. Then there's technology: What used to be a sore ankle that required a couple of days' rest can now be diagnosed, with an MRI, as a stress fracture that needs weeks to heal.

Yet the most obvious change is in the way players think about injuries. At one time suiting up hurt was a badge of honor. Now players worry that their reputations will be scarred if they are less than 100% fit. "If a guy comes back and he's not the same," says Pistons forward Grant Long, "the media's going to rip him for it."

Knicks center Patrick Ewing, who is the president of the players' union, is pushing to return this season from wrist surgery, but he would never encourage a young teammate without financial security to do the same. "If you become damaged goods," Ewing says, "it's not like they'll take care of you."

The 27-year-old Brandon has seen enough cautionary examples of players who have come back too soon and experienced ongoing pain. (While McHale is proud of his gutty performance in '87, he does have regrets about the harm it did to his body.) "I want to be able to walk when I retire," says Brandon. "I don't want to look like an old man at age 33."

Issue date: April 6, 1998

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