The Step Back

Gordon Hayward’s injury casts a shadow over the beginning of the NBA season

I was seven years old. I was in bed. And I was crying. My parents had agreed to let me stay up late to watch the first half of Super Bowl XXIII between the Bengals and 49ers, just late enough to catch a defensive lineman named Tim Krumrie suffer an absolutely horrific broken leg. (I’m going to mention several injuries in this piece and I’m not linking to any of them). It was disturbing and it was visceral. As a somewhat sheltered seven-year-old, I’m fairly sure it was the most violent thing I had ever seen in real life.

At that point in my sports-watching life, I cared more about football generally than I did about either the Bengals or the 49ers specifically. I’m quite certain that I had no idea who Kumrie was before that game and had no idea of the myriad ramifications of his injury beyond the impact of seeing his lower leg flap around like a shoelace.

I’m now 36 years old and I’ve seen (literally, watched) too many of these injuries to count. Kenyon Martin’s knee exploding, and with it a potential national championship for the University of Cincinnati. Paul George’s lower leg folding and ending an era of Indiana Pacers’ basketball. And now, Gordon Hayward, likely ending his season and the Celtics’ 2018 championship hopes less than six minutes into their first game.

If you haven’t seen it, consider yourself lucky.

Midway through the first quarter, Hayward cut towards the basket, rose for a lob from Kyrie Irving, caromed off LeBron James, landed awkwardly, and left us with one of the most disturbing visual injury images I can remember. The diagnosis on Tuesday night was a broken leg and dislocated ankle, words that don’t begin to capture the impact of what happened.

Doctors and medical professionals will make the decisions about how to heal Hayward’s leg and dictate the point at which we will see him back on an NBA court and (please, basketball Gods) in something approximating full command of his basketball talents. I have no idea what happened to Tim Krumrie, but I saw Kenyon Martin dunk again, exacting vengeance on backboards and stanchions, and Paul George certainly appears to be all the way back. That’s the silver lining I suppose.

But experience with trauma and tragedy doesn’t provide much solace in a moment like this. The Celtics battled back and almost stole an Opening Night victory, but their championship odds are shaved and their timeline is certainly altered. Those of us who caught that three seconds of Hayward sitting on the floor, his leg victimized by a most vicious geometry, won’t be able to shake the image easily. You might not care much for Hayward or be invested in the future of the Celtics, but a fellow human being (singular) has suffered a significant amount of pain, both physical and psychological, present and future. And a group of fellow human beings (plural) have had collective goals warped.

At present, the NBA is battling the spectre of the Warriors, and their dominant inevitability. The only weapon against that darkness if hope. That is what Opening Night is supposed to be about — every team is undefeated, every team has a chance, no matter how slim. To watch hope be stolen from the Celtics before the end of the first quarter of the first game undermines all of the wild shenanigans of this offseason. Perhaps not functionally (the Rockets did pull off the ring ceremony-spoiling upset) but certainly emotionally — to watch any team suffer a loss so great, is to be exposed to your own human frailty, and that of the players on your own favorite sports team.

All it takes is one fluky, awkward landing to displace the best-laid plans of mice and men. I suppose, a relentless optimist could argue that the vulnerability of the Warriors has been exaggerated as well — the unexpected byproducts of chaos loom large, they lost and we got a reminder that a freak injury could reshape their fate. But everyone is vulnerable. Fate doesn’t care about takez, and ringz, or the karma of hypothetical rewards earned or suffering accumulated. It’s all a dice roll and Golden State is just one-in-30. Watching Celtics stand in listless shock as Hayward was attended to, was more than enough to wash away any joy from the thought that your team might have a chance to celebrate like the Rockets.

The NBA regular season will march on. The Celtics will still win a great many games and the seed of possibility will find a way to germinate, take root here and there, pushing through and reaching for sunlight. Still, it’s a tough way to start the season to have hope squashed, so viscerally, so quickly and so dramatically — even if it’s just symbolic.

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