Friday, December 29, 2023

Return to Form

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The trained eye of an experienced sports fan can tell immediately.  The athlete is in motion, plants hard to alter direction and, without contact, crumples to the ground clutching a knee.  The replay delivers the damning evidence: as the athlete’s foot slams to the ground and body pivots, the knee buckles and collapses inward.

The athlete knows too.  It feels like disaster.  A movement they’ve done a thousand times is suddenly greeted with a disturbing pop, as femur slams into tibia, and the stomach-turning sensation of a major joint moving in a foreign and damaging way.

When you see it, you see it.  When you experience it, you experience it.  The only question is the extent of the collateral damage – a medial collateral ligament tear or meniscus implications.  The primary verdict is known: a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL).  A season ends and a team’s and an athlete’s future are now uncertain - and it happens just like that (writer snaps finger). 

Modern medicine being the totally awesome thing it is, a torn ACL is more of a career-pausing than the career-altering/ending injury it was years ago.  But it’s still no joke.  Due to poor blood flow in the area and the fibrous nature of the ligament, ACLs don’t heal well on their own.  They usually require reconstructive surgery using either harvested soft tissue from the patient’s patella tendon or hamstring, or a cadaver.  Return to activity is somewhere in the nine-month range; return to pre-injury form is more in the 12-to-18-month range.  Doable, but not great.

In an April 2021 game against the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets rising star point guard Jamal Murray penetrated the lane, planted his left leg, fell and slide in a heap under the basket.  The replay told the story.  The subsequent MRI confirmed the obvious: torn ACL.  The injury ended Murray’s season, cost him the next one too, and complicated the growth of one the NBAs best young teams.

Have you seen “The Super Mario Bros. Movie”?  It is a blast of irresistible nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the 1980s playing Nintendo or parents who reared kids in this millennium and battled Bowser on the Wii game consol.  I am both of those things; so, when my 16-year-old asked if his old man wanted to jump in the way-back machine and catch the flick, our tickets were punched.

The movie checked all the expected blocks.  There was much to absorb and many emotions were stirred.  But one message dominated our conversation on the way home: perseverance.  In many scenes, Mario faced doubts about his abilities (beware of fault-finders!) and seemingly insurmountable odds.  There were questions about his plumbing skills and chances in thwarting Bowser’s attack.  Without spoiling too much, he overcame them all with persistence, bravery and a palatable belief in himself.

Of course, happy endings are Hollywood’s greatest and most predictable trick.  Murray, in his rehab and return from an ACL injury, was guaranteed no such conclusion.  There was no script writer on standby to pen a fairy tale ending.  No matter…Murray is in the process of writing his own.

Murray returned to the court this season and, along with all-world center Nikola Jokic, led the Nuggets to the best record in the Western Conference.  The Nuggets charged through the playoffs, into the NBA Finals and are, as of this writing, just three wins from the franchise’s first NBA title.  Jokic deserves much credit, but in crunch time, it is often Murray who has taken the lead role. 

Suffice to say, Murray is a long way from that night in April 2021 when he laid under the basket, grasping a wounded knee, his once clear path to stardom now cloudy.  His return to form is a credit to him and his medical team; it is also a reminder that the tonic for any adversity is faith, hard work and perseverance.  Murray doesn’t have the hops of Super Mario - he isn’t leaping Koopa Troopas or Goombas - but his determined comeback would certainly prompt a tip of the cap from our favorite mustachioed video game and movie hero. 

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