Mackenzie on NBA playoffs: Stuck on the sideline

Russell Westbrook gets back on his crutches at the end of the second quarter of Game 5. (AP/Sue Ogrocki)

Even more than Kevin Durant’s dunk or Mike Conley’s brilliant fourth quarter, there was a moment that stood out to me in Memphis’ 99-93 Game 2 victory.

That moment didn’t even take place on the basketball court.

As Durant continued to show that he is neither nice nor fair while Tony Allen continued to remind exactly why we love and respect his brand of badass, the clock continued to tick down in Oklahoma City with the game tied and crowd enthralled. The television broadcast cut to a quick shot of Russell Westbrook seated in an arena seat at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Legs stretched out onto the seat in front of him, there wasn’t a hint of emotion on his face.

On the floor, Westbrook’s expressions are outmatched only by his explosiveness. Each and every possession is played like his life depends on it. Break-neck speed, ferocious power that is usually reserved for non-point-guard positions, Westbrook’s game is loud. To see him in street clothes in the biggest moment of the season thus far felt every kind of wrong.

So often with injuries we talk about how the absence of a particular player affects the team we’re watching. How does Westbrook’s absence change what Durant’s role will have to be? How do the Golden State Warriors become a different team without David Lee? How much of an impact did the loss of Danilo Gallinari have on the Denver Nuggets’ first-round exit?

What we rarely talk about is how the injury — and the inability to play the game that has, over time, become a part of their identity– affects the player. We rush to question whether Luol Deng should have been on the bench, towel over his head, trash can between his legs, because a teammate was. That he was suffering weakness and complications from a spinal tap seems to fly above our heads, at least initially. This is the playoffs, this is what you live for, this is what you are supposed to do if you are a professional athlete.

We have to stop this. In our passion for this game, we cannot lose sight of the fact that these superstar players capable of superhero feats are nothing more than human when the uniforms are traded in for sweats or suits or, in Westbrook’s case, another zany outfit.

When Kobe Bryant spoke with the media following his Achilles’ tear, the one he suffered before gritting his teeth while walking on and off the court twice between sinking a pair of free throws, there were tears in his eyes. There was the faint imprint of a comforting lipstick kiss on his cheek and a shakiness to his voice that revealed the pain of knowing his body had betrayed him. It was as human of a moment we had ever seen through 17 years in the league. It was something that couldn’t be scripted. We plan out the happy moments, never the sad.

While players usually have an immediate outpouring of support from teammates, friends, family and fans, the longer they are away from the court that is their own safe place, the easier it becomes for our focus to shift from the individual to his team. It isn’t wrong that we move our attention to the active players and how they are going to have to compensate and adjust to make up for the loss of an injured teammate, but it’s important that we also acknowledge the emotional toll that injury can take on an athlete.

This isn’t just about Westbrook, this isn’t only about Derrick Rose or Gallinari or Deng or Bryant, it’s about any athlete that has to go through the process of rehabilitation while teammates continue to chase the prize.

When you do something for so long, day after day after day, when you love it more than anything, when you spend most of your waking hours doing it, watching or talking about it when you’re not, it becomes a part of you. For professional athletes, the ones who are stopped daily by strangers who know nothing about the person wearing the uniform, taking them away from their sport is more traumatic than we are often willing to consider.

If you were a writer, imagine having your hands tied behind your back. You can piece thoughts together in your head, but you cannot get them down on paper, or type them out into a computer. Day after day, these thoughts collect in your mind, but you’re unable to release them. On the day that your hands are freed, you try to write, but feel stunted. The time away has robbed you of your confidence in a way you likely didn’t expect. All of the things that were once second nature, so natural to you, are now being second guessed. The return has turned into a process of rebuilding your confidence and, in some ways, reclaiming your identity.

The mental fatigue and emotional exhaustion of an injury is very real.

For every tweet and text and well wish that flows through in the first week or two, there can be months of rehabilitation and lonely moments. On Tuesday night the Thunder tried to grab a commanding 2-0 lead in their series against the Grizzlies with Durant doing all he could to propel his team forward. Westbrook, the player with the game that doesn’t understand the concept of “inside voice”, could only watch silently from the stands.

When we watch these playoffs and enjoy the excitement and drama that comes along with them, let’s not forget the phenomenal athletes who are watching alongside us, unable to be where they are meant to be because of injuries, the cruelest enemy to any athlete.

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