RIO DE JANEIRO – That nasty collision with J.R. Smith in Game 5 of the NBA Finals set off a unsettling chain of events that put Andrew Bogut on crutches, made him a helpless bystander as LeBron James dunked the greatest season in NBA history into the trash, and sent him packing for his third professional home as a casualty in Kevin Durant’s free-agent decision. Each situation was crushing in itself. Combined, they nearly sent Bogut into a funk this offseason.
“The first couple of weeks, it was rough waters,” Bogut said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
But what kept the 31-year-old Bogut from sulking through his summer were the only encouraging words he heard throughout that whirlwind month: six weeks. Bogut was given that as the earliest estimated timetable for his possible return from bone bruises and a hyperextended knee – which meant that Bogut could be ready just in time for the Rio Olympics if he dedicated himself to an intense rehabilitation program. Far-fetched as it seemed, the chance to represent Australia for possibly one last time in the Olympics was enough incentive, enough of a needed distraction to avoid dwelling on his sorrows.
“Mentally and physically, it was good to have another goal straight away,” Bogut said. “It was a freak play, like most of my injuries. It was frustrating, the way the whole thing played out. It wasn’t great. But it happened. The reason why we’re professional athletes and there’s all these big contracts is because we have to deal with that, we have to suck it up and move on. Move on to the next thing, and that’s the Olympics.”
Moving on still required some patience and discretion, since Bogut had no desire to rush back and show up as damaged goods with the Dallas Mavericks, the team that swooped him up in a trade after Golden State sought to clear the necessary cap space to sign Durant.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been one of the more vocal detractors of NBA players participating in international competitions but didn’t want to block the pursuit of his latest acquisition. And Bogut waited until last Friday – the day before Australia’s opening win against France – to declare himself fit to compete in these.
“If it wasn’t right, I’d put my hand up and I’m on a flight back home. It was good enough to play,” Bogut said, adding that Cuban “has been great. We have a great relationship via email and via text. The whole thing was, if you feel like you’re 100 percent, and you feel like your knee is a go, we’re going to support you. I couldn’t ask for a better organization to give me that confidence.”
Bogut will have a reunion with two former Warriors teammates (Draymond Green and Klay Thompson), a former Warrior turned current Mavericks teammate (Harrison Barnes) and the man who created the entire awkward situation (Durant) on Wednesday when Australia takes on the United States in an intriguing matchup of undefeated teams in the preliminary round.
“It’ll be all right,” Bogut said. “I’m in Texas, so I’m pretty pumped about it. Harrison is still my teammate, so we’re good. Those guys are guys I’ll always remember and have friendships with. You win a championship with a group of guys, it doesn’t happen very often, and you all remember that.”
Playing free of a brace but wearing significant padding, Bogut has been surprisingly effective and explosive, catching alley-oop dunks and snaring rebounds despite spending most of the past few weeks focused on repairing his knee. “There is a lot of pride there for him,” Australian assistant coach and former NBA champion Luc Longley said of Bogut. “He really does care about his teammates and playing for his country. To see him play that well, that hard, that long. That’s leadership for us. They see a guy who makes x-million dollars, an old guy with nothing really to prove putting himself on the line and playing that hard, that does wonders for your group.”
Bogut’s play in Rio has helped distance him from a rough start at these games. Using the hashtag #IOCLuxuryLodging, Bogut posted pictures on his Twitter account of the conditions in the Olympic Village, with tiny beds and showers that required him to assemble his own curtain. Thompson, who is staying on a luxury cruise ship with Team USA, joked, “Andrew’s been spoiled.”
Bogut has since stated that his comments were taken out of context. “I apologize to the people of Brazil,” Bogut said. “I never intended that to be a shot at them. It was more a shot at the IOC to get out of the penthouse suites and get things rolling a little bit better.”
After missing the London Olympics with an ankle injury, Bogut endured back spasms during the 2015 regional Olympic qualifier with the understanding that he might never get another chance to compete on the most recognized international stage. Australia has never medaled in the Olympics and has a decent chance after already recording wins against France and Serbia.
“He’s playing great. It’s good to see him out there healthy because he had a tough injury in the Finals. We definitely missed him,” Thompson said. “I knew this was potentially his last Olympics and I knew he didn’t want to miss it for anything and he was going to do everything he could to get back. You don’t want to be sitting at home, sulking on what could’ve been. We all wanted, obviously, to get that second ring, but it didn’t turn out that way.”
A medal won’t erase the disappointment of being absent when an NBA-record 73 wins wound up only being good enough to secure finishing as a championship runner-up. But just being at these games, being back on the floor, has already ensured that his summer wouldn’t be wasted with regret. “I didn’t want it taken away that easily,” Bogut said.
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