Just six days after the Denver Nuggets lost in the first round of the playoffs last season, Al Harrington laid in a Denver hospital bed with an IV running to his heart, and his knee swelling by the minute.
All season long, Harrington had been described as the key to Denver’s success by head coach George Karl.
On the court, the 13-year veteran provided the Nuggets with the wisdom and poise while averaging 27 minutes, 14 points and six rebounds per game.
Off the court, he was a great locker room guy. Funny and charismatic, Harrington — known by friends in the NBA as “CheddaCheese” because of his smooth personality and smile — was always willing to offer advice and support.
At 32 years old, Harrington believed he had a few more years of solid basketball left in him. Questions of retirement never even entered his mind.
But as he laid in that hospital bed, six days after scoring 24 points against the Los Angeles Lakers, the power forward was unsure if he would ever reach another year as an NBA player.
“It was supposed to be a simple operation,” Harrington said, explaining the meniscus repair he underwent to heal a sore right knee. “I expected to be back working out in like three or four weeks.”
Two days after the surgery, Harrington had his follow up with the doctor. Everything looked good.
That night after dinner, things changed. Harrington retold the story in his smooth tenor voice. A sway with every phrase, he made the words feel like a melody. Words that didn’t match the smile that they came from.
“I was just sitting around and I started to feel a little sick,” he said. “Then I started sweating. Then I started throwing up. My knee was killing me, but I thought it was just the medicine wearing off.”
“I’m looking at my knee and it looks like it’s getting bigger even as I’m looking at it. Now I’m thinking to myself, ‘Is this thing growing on me?’ “
Harrington called the doctor who performed the surgery and told him his symptoms. He was rushed to the doctor’s office where they drew his blood and found an infection that had developed in his knee. Immediately he was prepped for another surgery.
Over the next 10 weeks, he went through four more surgeries. Every day a nurse would visit his home to inject antibiotics through a PICC line (a catheter normally inserted in the arm and running near the heart). His knee continued to swell and had to be drained frequently.
The process cleared the infection, but it also left his knee weak and damaged from scar tissue.
“I remember thinking, ‘This can’t be it. This can’t be how it ends for me,’ ” he said of his basketball career. “I just felt like it was something I could fight. If I just put the work in, I knew I could beat it.”
His confidence in hard work stemmed all the way back to his childhood days in New Jersey.
At age 8, Harrington lost his father to cancer. His father told him that because he was the oldest child, he would have to become the man of the house, a title that carried much responsibility and work.
Harrington took his father’s words to heart as he helped his mother care for his younger brother and sister.
At 14, Harrington decided to start playing basketball when he grew from 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-4 over the summer. He remembers being so bad he wouldn’t even get picked in games at the park. By his senior year of high school, Harrington was the No. 1 player in the country.
At 18, the Indiana Pacers drafted Harrington out of high school with the 25th pick in the 1998 draft. He was young and clueless about everything, but a veteran teammate noticed his work ethic and took him under his wing.
“[Antonio Davis] really helped shape and mold me,” he said. “He showed me how to be a professional as far as the real work ethic it takes to stay in the league. Not just the work you put in your game, but with handling your business, with staying healthy, with relationships. He taught me so much.
“I always tell people, me being the 25th pick, I actually won. Because of the people I was surrounded with and the things I learned, I won.”
Now Harrington will need that same winning attitude as he prepares to return to an Orlando Magic team that could really use his help.
In August, Harrington and his Denver teammate Arron Afflalo and a 2014 first-round pick were sent to the Magic as part of the four-team Dwight Howard trade. Afflalo is the team’s leading scorer. Harrington has yet to play a single minute.
His goal is to make a return in the second half of the season, though rumors of retirement have surfaced over the past few months. Harrington never gives life to the rumors, joking that he doesn’t even know how to spell the word.
“There’s always going to be people that just write you off,” Harrington said. “For me it’s about getting back out there on the court and doing what I love at a high level. I know I can still play.”
Harrington’s knee is structurally fine. After the team practices, he takes to the court, going through strenuous floor drills, cutting and planting, and playing pick-up games with the younger players.
He says his only challenge now will be having the mental toughness to understand that when the games become live, he’ll need some time to get back in rhythm.
“This is the first time in my career I haven’t started a season,” Harrington said. “I just have to realize that no matter how hard I’ve worked, I’ll still have to work that much harder to catch up.”
Harrington says he’s ready for the challenge. In fact, he wouldn’t have it any other way.