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King went into seclusion for the two years he was rehabilitating (he took twice as long as the others to recover because he stepped in a ditch while jogging, reinjuring his knee), in part to avoid those questions. "When I was injured, I felt I had to protect myself emotionally from the game," said King when he rejoined the Knicks in April 1987. "If I had stopped to give interviews all the time, it would have interfered with my concentration."
Thanks in part to King's high level of play since returning, teams now can't do enough to support players who sustain ACL injuries. The Bucks furnished a weight room for Krystkowiak in his house in Polson, Mont. Nine months after Harper's operation—and three months before he started playing again—the Clippers signed him to a four-year, $10.5 million contract, and it has no clauses regarding his injury.
When a player comes back after ACL surgery, his coach is faced with the sensitive task of easing him back into the lineup. A few months after he returned to the Lakers, in November 1983, Kupchak was complaining about not getting playing time. His coach, Pat Riley, responded by saying, "An injured player who wants to come back before he's ready can have a negative effect on the group—they know you're playing him because of who he was." A month before Harper's return to the Clippers, coach Mike Schuler said, "His return and starting roles have already been discussed with the players."
Schuler said he assumed that Harper, who's 27, would be the same player he was before he was hurt. In fact, Harper has averaged 19.6 points and 5.4 assists per game since coming back in January.
Manning, 24, averaged 16.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game over the two seasons since he returned to the Clippers, but he recognizes that he's not the same player he was before the injury. "It's different," he says. "You wake up with two scars on your leg—you know you weren't born with them. Even if you're no different physically, you're different psychologically."
Before operating, Lombardo tells his patients that their knees will never be the same. Even King, who has come back better than anyone else ever has, is not the same player he was. King says he is playing differently because he's part of a different team's offense; others claim it's his knee that has made him a different player. He was once the best finisher of a fast break in the NBA. Now he has developed more ways to score than anyone else in the league (besides Michael Jordan). Kupchak went from being a mobile power forward to a backup center because he could no longer run the floor. Kupchak, now the assistant general manager of the Lakers, says, "[King] did what I dreamed of doing."
Manning, who ran the floor as well as any young forward in the league before he got hurt, was prepared to change his game. "I was 6'10" before the surgery," he says. "I'm 6'10" after. At worst I'd have become a post-up player."
Krystkowiak, who depended more on strength than on speed even before he was hurt, believes he will have an easier time regaining his skills than some other ACL-injury victims did because of his style of play. "I spend most of my time on the ground," he says. "Ron Harper is in the air. He relies on quickness and lateral movement. Other players are as dependent on quickness as I am on strength. I just want to prove that I can get back to where I was."
One morning in December, four months after his ACL surgery, Krystkowiak was in his 23rd minute on the exercise bike at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic, his eyes focused out the window and onto Myrtle Street, when he burst into a grin. As thrilled as he was to finally feel the sting of sweat in his eyes, and as satisfied as he was to finally see his scarred left knee whirling beneath him, the smile was not for that. It was, Krystkowiak said, for this: "Sometimes I just start daydreaming about playing again. When I'm on this bike, I can see myself out there on the floor, playing. I can finally see it."