Krystkowiak tried to play on a damaged ACL. After he chipped cartilage and ripped both his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments during the '89 playoffs, surgeons fixed the cartilage and the collateral ligament. They didn't repair the ACL, however, because recovery from collateral ligament repair usually requires the knee to be immobile for four weeks; rehabilitation from ACL surgery requires constant movement of the knee as soon as possible. Krystkowiak tried to come back without ACL reconstruction. He played 16 games for Milwaukee toward the end of last season. "I thought I was back, but little things kept coming up," he says. "Then in the summer league [in Los Angeles] I knew something was wrong. I went to test the knee. I flunked the test. It kept popping and grinding."
Because he didn't have a sound ACL, Krystkowiak's tibia and femur were slipping out of place, mashing his cartilage to bits. On Aug. 28 he underwent a second operation, this one to reconstruct his ACL. Says Krystkowiak, "I didn't know what I was missing. Now I have an ACL and my knee feels much more stable." (Not incidentally, when Krystkowiak, 26, decided to have the ACL repaired, he had three years left on a four-year guaranteed contract and could thus afford to take another year off for rehabilitation.)
ACL rehabilitation starts immediately after surgery. A player wakes up after the patellar-tendon procedure in an anesthetized stupor, with his knee buckled into a bracelike contraption that flexes and extends his knee once a minute. The motion prevents the surgically weakened tendon from sticking to the tibia as it heals. After three to six weeks the player can pedal a stationary bicycle. A few months after that he can jog on a treadmill and start shooting set shots.
"When they start shooting, they think they're back," says Jones. "That's when they get lazy. You have to get on them. You have to call them names. You tell them you've had it, that you're leaving. Eventually they give in and say, 'O.K., I'll do the exercises.' "
Says Price, "My physical therapist told me that the main thing is that you're the one who has to do the rehabilitation. You're the only one who can get you back."
The most frustrating thing about the rehabilitation process is that for nearly a year, the knee seems to feel no better one day than it did the day before. The recovery is long and the progress is subtle because the graft and the muscles in the leg don't regain their strength for several months. Says Manning, "Sometimes I think it would be best if you could be hypnotized for a year."
One Thursday in December, Clive Brewster, Krystkowiak's physical therapist, promoted him to that thrilling stage of rehabilitation in which he would be allowed to grunt, groan and sweat aboard a hamstring-quadriceps machine. "It was like I had climbed a mountain," says Krystkowiak. "It's great to be able to get tired again."
Brewster, the director of physical therapy at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, says, "You have to give them little victories. Larry was heading for the dumps, so we put him on the machine and his whole spirit changed."
It's during the lonely year of rehab that membership in the ACL club pays off. "I've called other players just to let them know that it's something they can overcome," says King. "I talked to Larry Krystkowiak when [the Bullets] were in Milwaukee earlier in the season. He indicated that it's given him a lot of confidence just watching me, during those moments when it might be tough for him." In 1989 King called Manning to "let Danny know that it could be done." Manning, in turn, advised Harper. "I told him to be patient," says Manning. "I didn't know what he was going through, but I had a good idea."
If the ACL club had a slogan, it would be, Stop asking me that question. Other players recovering from ACL are the only ones who don't ask, "When are you coming back?" and "How's the knee?" A few weeks before he returned to the lineup, Harper said, "I want to get a shirt that Says WHEN I COME BACK, YOU'LL BE THE FIRST TO KNOW."