Denver Nuggets: Perspective on Injury and Recovery

Denver Nuggets (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Denver Nuggets (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Having just come through my own medical issue and recovery, I’ve gained some perspective on our injured Denver Nuggets players.

It’s gotten to be a thing when watching Denver Nuggets games, seeing Michael Porter Jr., Isaiah Thomas and Jarred Vanderbilt in street clothes at the end of the bench.  They cheer, they enjoy the success of their teammates, they seem part of the team.  It makes it that much more enticing to see the trio on the basketball floor.

This is an odd season for the Nuggets, while we’d love to see what we have in those players, they are not in any way crucial to the Nuggets success this season.  Denver has managed to survive the injury monster for the most part.  The short-term injured are mostly back though Jamal Murray missed Saturday night’s game with a sore ankle.  Vanderbilt made his NBA debut and secured many firsts (point, rebound, block, assist) in garbage time against Phoenix.

Vanderbilt is on his way to the D-league to “get his legs under him” according to Michael Malone and that leaves just Thomas and Porter on the mystery return list. Rumors, shared and approved by Thomas on Twitter, claim that the guard could see action on the Nuggets homestand preceding the NBA All-Star festivities.  Coach Malone was quick to confirm that those rumors had no basis within the organization.

It’s all very frustrating, particularly when we’ve seen video of MPJ dunking and draining jumpers.

Recently, I’ve had that frustration tempered a little bit with my own health issues that required some downtime and healing.  I’ve discovered that injury that prevents you from day-to-day things has stages, like the terminal disease six stages of acceptance thing.

Conventionally, we think: Get hurt, get diagnosed, recover, rehabilitate, return.  That’s how injury flows in sports and we’re not given much in the way of information beyond that.

The reality or the psychology of injury is much more complex than that, however.  The first stage can go on for a long time among us mortals but is a little more compact with access to the levels of care that our Nuggets get.  Their injuries are immediately diagnosed and treatment begins without delay.  I struggled with the idea that I could fight through for days before admitting that I was not able to continue.  It cost time but it also weakens mental resolve.  Limitations of the body are difficult because we wish to “will” ourselves though things.  When we can’t mentally, it’s viewed as weakness.  When we can’t physically, sometimes our minds still believe it to be weakness and there’s a whole process of acceptance required to move on to treatment.

Treatment is sort of a surrender, surgeries and hospitals are situations that prevent you from normal activity and there’s nothing you can do about it.  It’s like a little reprieve between diagnosis and recovery, a mental vacation, if you will.  Inevitably, though, they come with discharge papers and instructions and schedules for more doctor visits and recovery begins.

This was the hardest part for me, knowing that I’m not going to die, I’ve been fixed, I’m at home but I still can’t get back to my day-to-day life.  A lot of this time is spent resting, allowing your body to work through the injury and the steps taken to repair it.  You plan and refine the plan for all the things you are going to do once you are back-in-the-saddle.  You start to get impatient for that day, trying to will your body to allow you to be done with all of this.

A funny thing happens during this time.  Some days, you open your eyes and you believe you are fine.  Nevermind that doctors have told you your recovery will take much longer, you’ve decided that you are well enough to resume normal activity.  Get up, get showered, get to work, whatever that is.  This ends up disastrous as your body quickly informs you that while the injury may be in a place that you can manage it, your body is not the same as it was.  You have little energy, the smallest activity wipes you out.  Sure, your knee/foot/hip/kidneys don’t hurt but everything else is and feels wrong.

This is probably what’s happened to IT, we know he’s mentioned that trying to come back too soon from injury has doubled, tripled the process.  It’s like starting over again and again.  It’s particularly difficult for strong-willed individuals like Thomas because no matter how much you are instructed on the process, you believe that you know better and that you are the one that will beat this in half the time they say.

It chips away at your confidence, your mental ability to evaluate, plan, execute.  You start to feel helpless, a slave to the failings of a body or body part that has no business demanding this much control over things.  It’s depressing. Depression leads to retreat and recovery slows.  This is the hardest part to fight through.  Once the injury is resolved, the mental recovery can take much longer to work itself out. There’s a proclivity to jump back into activities at the same level you left them at.  For me, sitting down to write about my beloved local teams became a test.  I’d get up, sit at my desk and try to write.

Not only was what I produced garbage, it was mentally taxing enough that I abandoned the articles and ideas and waited to try another day.  This went on far longer than I was comfortable with, that internal conflict between what I should be doing and what I could do raging every day.  It took nearly a month longer than my plans allowed for and that in itself creates anxiety.  Trust me, I realize the scale, writing about sports is nothing compared to the demands of many jobs, certainly professional athlete sits near the top of that list.  Even telling this tale I can’t help but think this seems weak and small. That’s kind of the point.

The physical recovery from injury is maybe 10% of the total.  It’s dependent on the length of time it takes for you to “trust” your body.  Trust that you can eat or run or jump or that you are prepared to re-engage.  There’s no timetable that can account for that.

So, while I wait for Thomas and Porter to catch up to their bodies, I’ll remember that my own recovery was filled with setbacks and obstacles and that was just six-weeks.  Add in the expectation that these men return to world-class athlete status and my understanding curve improves exponentially.  I get why there’s no timeframe, it’s because there’s no timeframe.  There’s no way to know when your body and mind will reconnect and allow you to be the previous version of yourself, if that’s even possible.  Injury changes you permanently, your expectations, it certainly removes the veil of invulnerability and always resides in the back of your mind as a possibility.

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I don’t envy Porter or Thomas the path they’ve been on.  Both look to be close to recovered and that in itself shows their remarkable resolve.  I’ll be there cheering when they return with fresh understanding of what it took for each to get there.