Some athletes, through no fault of their body's own and often because something lands the wrong way or some opponent falls onto the wrong thing, have to undergo surgery early in their careers. In their teens, even, during their amateur hour.
Some, by way of the typical wear and tear that a pro athlete's career demands, usually end up having to undergo at the very least an exploratory procedure, or one focused on the cleanup of debris or smaller parts that need to mend.
Some, like Dirk Nowitzki, are incredibly lucky. He gave up his amateur turn all the way back in May of 1998, and save for a sprained knee in 2003 that didn't require an operation, Dirk has been fortunate to stay away from the surgeon's knife for his entire career. For 43,595 combined regular and postseason minutes Dirk has continually worked as a go-to workhorse for a Dallas Mavericks team that has consistently been part of the championship picture for most of that just-about dynastic run. And, because these things tend to take a toll, Dirk had to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this autumn.
And, because he's a competitor and usually three times better than anyone he plays basketball with, Nowitzki sort of expected his knee to heal in three times the typical rate. Things haven't quite turned out that way, though. From the Dallas Morning News, quoting Dirk's interview on Fox Sports Southwest during Monday night's Dallas loss to Minnesota:
"Gotta admit, I'm already getting tired of rehab," Nowitzki said on Fox Sports Southwest's telecast, during the second quarter of tonight's game against Minnesota. "It's been three weeks. Obviously, that's a lot of time for me watching.
"At this point, gotta stay patient and do what the doctors and trainers tell me. Just keep rehabbing and see how long it is.
"When I originally heard three-to-six weeks, in my mind I'm thinking 'in two weeks I'm back.' But unfortunately, this is not how it happens. My first knee surgery of my career and unfortunately this stuff takes longer than we expected.
"So I've gotta be patient, do the smart thing and keep working."
Rehab is boring, all full of routine and those stupid printouts they give you that demand incessant calisthenics (really) and precious little "let's put shorts on and go out and drop 25 on Minnesota." It can't be easy for Nowitzki, this far into a storied and groundbreaking career, to go through this.
Again, though, it speaks to how unique his situation is. Magic Johnson tore up his knee a few years into his career. Larry Bird dealt with postseason-swaying bone spurs in his sixth season. Michael Jordan broke his foot just a week into his second season, and the aftermath of that injury gave the Chicago Bulls star a career's worth of fake villains and antagonists to add to his ever-growing list. Kevin Garnett's career was sent into a tizzy 3 1/2 years ago with his leg issues, and Kobe Bryant for years has been working through painful knee issues that require constant care.
This isn't to say that Dirk is somehow more indestructible than all of the giants listed above. It's just to point out that he's been incredibly fortunate; as fortunate as he's been incredibly good as a player.
And though we don't enjoy pointing this out, Dirk's return to form will be worth watching with an eagle eye. Nowitzki didn't tear a ligament, and it isn't as if he's been on the shelf for half a season, but taking to the court with all eyes on the returning king with a new knee brace and two-dozen extra things to think about cannot be easy. Nowitzki will have to re-learn how to play fearlessly, and that is something that could take a while.
To the Mavericks' credit, they were big enough to sign off on Nowitzki going under the knife while the season was young and two weeks of his recovery was endured during the exhibition season. And, to the team's credit, it's holding its own — a .500 record following Monday's loss, and a fifth-ranked offense for Dirk to come home to in a few weeks. Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman and even Brandan Wright have been fantastic in his absence; and we're still months away from the great Rick Carlisle putting all the data and game tape behind his team's initial 50-game start into the blender to come out with something inspiring in time for a postseason push.
All in all, with all things Nowitzki-related, the situation could be a lot worse. Just a few more weeks. And then, once the shorts are on, a few weeks after that in order to return to that day-to-day lifestyle of dropping 25 a game again.
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