TORONTO — DeMarre Carroll didn’t want to have surgery on the right knee that had been screaming at him for nearly two months; he didn’t even want to come out of the starting lineup. But when the Toronto Raptors forward went to see a specialist in New York earlier this month—while his team was in town to play the same Brooklyn Nets they beat 112-100 Monday night—he wasn’t given any other option.
“The doc came in and he described what it was and was like, ‘whenever you want to do it,’” Carroll says, remembering the day two weeks ago when he saw Dr. Richard Altcheck and was prescribed arthroscopic surgery. “He was kind of surprised that I hadn’t done it sooner.”
And so Carroll went under the knife later that day at the Hospital for Special Surgery on the Upper East Side to “clean some stuff up” in that right knee and hopefully relieve Carroll of the pain and discomfort that was making it nearly unbearable for him to do his job.
“I was playing with a lot of inflammation in my knee for a long period of time,” Carroll says. “I tried to fight through it. But not everybody can be He-Man.”
No, not everybody, but that didn’t stop Carroll from trying for nearly two months, ever since he landed awkwardly on his right leg during a game against the New Orleans Pelicans in mid-November and immediately felt something wrong in his knee. Many athletes would have gotten things taken care of right then and there, but the famously stubborn Carroll had just returned from a three-game break to rest nagging plantar fasciitis in his right foot and wasn’t about to take himself out of the game. So he simply turned up-court and got moving.
“I think the adrenaline just kept running,” Carroll says. “I never said anything about it to anybody.”
Carroll played with soreness for the next five games, averaging nearly 37 minutes a night, until a Sunday afternoon tilt against the Los Angeles Clippers when he ran his sore knee directly into the leg of DeAndre Jordan while chasing J.J. Redick through a screen. That only made matters worse, causing more pain and swelling, which Carroll still refused to properly address, as he started the next six games until it simply became too much to handle.
Carroll sat out the next nine contests before returning for five in which his effectiveness was clearly hampered by the significant discomfort he was playing under. It wasn’t until that fifth game at home against Chicago, when Carroll played 24 minutes and watched his knee swell as “big as a grapefruit,” that he decided to seek more thorough treatment than playing through it. But even then, Carroll wanted to be on the floor.
“I still felt like I could go out there and compete,” Carroll says. “But when I went to the doctor they were like, ‘whoa, we need to get something done, man.’”
You can very much understand where Carroll’s coming from. He prides himself on his toughness and fortitude, and signed a four-year, $60-million contract this past off-season that he would very much like to live up to. That’s a hard thing to do on a couch, so Carroll carried on, never divulging just how much he was hurting—a stubborn, and somewhat worrying, habit that is nevertheless rooted in admirable causes.
Carroll was already walking around with a custom apparatus in his right shoe that lifted his heel and added arch support in order to take stress off the plantar fasciitis that had dogged him all season; he didn’t want to let his team down any further than he already felt he was.
But he simply couldn’t hide it. Carroll’s production was blatantly impacted on the floor (he was a team-low -14 in 26 minutes against Golden State in his final contest before the nine-game sabbatical) and teammates and coaches had begun asking him more frequently if he was really okay to be out there. One can only imagine how bad the discomfort must have gotten for Carroll to actually succumb to it.
“It’s one of those things, man,” Carroll says, leaning on his favourite phrase. “You try to play hurt; but sometimes you’ve got to listen to your body.”
Of course, the surgery had to happen eventually. What makes Carroll such a useful piece of the Raptors’ rotation is his ability to play relentless, dogged defence, chasing ball-handlers around the floor with unending determination. If Carroll can’t move explosively, and can’t change directions as quickly as he needs to, he’s robbed of much of his utility. While Carroll was an excellent contributor at both ends early on in the season, no one’s even sure if Raptors fans have seen how good Carroll could truly be.
“That’s the hard thing,” Carroll’s head coach, Dwane Casey, says. “I don’t know how healthy he’s been for a long time. Ever since training camp and early in the year, he’s had foot problems, knee problems, he’s had issues. So I don’t know how 100 per cent he’s ever been.”
The Raptors aren’t currently providing a timetable for Carroll’s return, although it isn’t expected to be anytime before March. He’s moving better everyday and he was at the Air Canada Centre throughout his team’s overseas trip last week to do what limited work he could, including plenty of stretching and conditioning work on the arm cycle, or as Carroll calls it, “the old man machine.”
But there’s still a long way to go before he’s able to return, a tough reality made easier by the fact the Raptors have played just six games in the two weeks Carroll’s been out, and are beginning a seven-game home stand dotted with inferior opposition.
“There’s not going to be a day-to-day report on how he’s doing. It’s going to happen when it’s going to happen,” Casey says. “It’s one of those things that has to be taken slow. You don’t want to rush it. You want to make sure he’s ready when he comes back.”
If one thing’s known right now it’s that Carroll—whose wife Iesha gave birth to the couple’s second child, Amare, last week— feels like he hasn’t shown the Raptors and their fans everything he can be for them. And he can’t wait until he gets the opportunity to do so.
“I’ve got a lot more to give—I feel like I should be playing at a very high level,” Carroll says. “And it was hurting me because I knew I couldn’t and my teammates knew I couldn’t. After seeing me in training camp and seeing me in the first couple games, they kind of figured that. Even coach Casey said he kind of knew something was going on. All I can do now is try to get better and go out there and compete. And hopefully I can take this team to a whole different level.”