Eighteen months ago Haywoode Workman thought his six-year NBA career might be over. Workman, who had played point for Indiana the previous four seasons, had just undergone his third operation in 13 months to repair a severely injured left knee. Workman tore his ACL on a fourth-quarter drive against Washington on Nov. 9, 1996, and also suffered cartilage damage.
The first surgery repaired the ACL, but that operation and a subsequent procedure failed to stimulate adequate regeneration of the damaged cartilage, so the Pacers' team physician, Sanford Kunkel, opted for a new technique: He plugged two holes in Workman's cartilage—one the size of a silver dollar and the other the size of a quarter—with pieces of cartilage trimmed from another part of the same knee.
Today, Workman, 33, is the starting point guard for Milwaukee, ably filling in for the recently acquired Sam Cassell, who has missed most of the season with a sprained right ankle. On March 18, in his first regular-season game in 29 months, Workman had nine points, eight rebounds and eight assists in a 99-83 win over Boston. Ten days later he scored 19 points in a 94-85 victory over Minnesota. Through Sunday he was averaging 25.9 minutes and 5.7 assists per game and playing solid defense. Milwaukee had gone 8-7 since signing Workman and was in contention for its first playoff appearance in eight years. "He's been a gift," says Bucks coach George Karl.
A gift that had been under wraps—and jogging in the shallow end of pools—for a long time. Despite his protracted layoff, Workman stayed optimistic. "I never really got bored, because I could see the progress in my knee," Workman says. "I just got impatient. I played a lot of golf."
After the third surgery, Kunkel told Workman that the odds of his playing again were 50-50. "If anybody could make it back, it was Haywoode," says 76ers coach Larry Brown, who coached Workman in Indiana. "He has unbelievable character and toughness."
Workman wanted to come back with the Pacers, whom he helped lead to the Eastern Conference finals in 1994, but he suffered a groin pull in this season's abbreviated training camp and was waived by Indiana on Feb. 19. "We had a numbers problem at point guard, so we had to let him go," says Pacers president Donnie Walsh. "It killed me. Woody's got a heart as big as his body."
In Boston on April 2, Milwaukee's new point guard turned in a typical Workman-like performance. With 2:05 left, the Bucks trailed 81-79-When Celtics forward Antoine Walker blocked Ray Allen's jumper, Boston guard Kenny Anderson grabbed the loose ball and took off for what figured to be an easy layup. Workman, however, beat him down the court and drew an offensive foul; Milwaukee went on to win 84-83-Workman finished with five assists, six rebounds, one turnover, no points and the game-winning flop. "I'm not really a stat guy," Workman says. "I play the game to try to win the game. If you win, then everybody looks good."
Workman certainly looks good. His left knee looks good. And suddenly, so do the Bucks.