Wolves Monday: Injuries hit on many levels

On Saturday night, I couldn’t help but stop and think a bit about objectivity and injuries. Where do they fit in this tricky world of sports writing, where to cover a team is to remain apart from it while also entrenched? 

As I watched Chase Budinger jettison from the scrum of players under the Timberwolves’ basket and hobble off the court in Chicago, propped up by a trainer and a teammate, I couldn’t help but be upset. I couldn’t help but feel that maybe I wasn’t 100 percent, authentically objective in that instance, when basketball for a moment became pain and a player became a person. 

But we’re not supposed to be upset, are we? As sports writers, we’re supposed to make a note and tweet and follow up. We’re supposed to stay on top of the injury and find out recovery times and surgery dates and prognoses. 

We’re supposed to do it all with a straight face and without a shred of emotion, when really, that’s so unrealistic.

In these 72 games on the Timberwolves beat, I’ve seen more injuries, I’d imagine, than some writers do in two or three seasons. I’ve learned to expect them, almost, especially this season, and I’ve learned what they do to a team. I’m not talking wins and losses here. I’m talking morale. I’m talking insecurity. I’m talking the fact that these are real people, in many cases good people, working hard at their job.

And so I’m supposed to watch Budinger’s fall Saturday night, to watch him hobble into the showers on crutches and with an ice bag taped to his knee, and think only about the facts and getting them out there? That’s ridiculous. Of course the facts are the first priority. Information is the currency of sports writing, and it’s what comes first. But there’s also emotion on nights like Saturday. There has to be.

In the locker rooms and at practices, athletes are people. They’re not writers’ friends, not in the least, but rather some odd form of business associates. And in that capacity, they’re men with stories and voices. They enjoy many of the same things as you and I. They talk about their parents, their favorite athletes, their college teams, their dogs – the exact topics you might discuss with your best friend or next-door neighbor. And so to watch them fall, hurt and be rendered so powerless is not fun, not at all. Even if I’m the furthest thing from a fan. Even if it’s my job to gather the information, write it, report it, synthesize it.

Yes, injuries are the risks these men take, the downside of the millions of dollars they rake in each year. But money shouldn’t enter into this equation, and if it does, remember this: Budinger is making less than a million this season. But we can’t fault athletes for their skills and the forces that have conspired to value those skills as they are valued, and when a player falls and his bones break or his ligaments snap, it doesn’t hurt less because he drives a nice car. It doesn’t take less time to recover because he has a second home. And to watch some of these players recover, well, it’s pretty inspiring.

The shot after shot after shot that Ricky Rubio takes everyday at practice is just the beginning of it. He’s running and jumping and biking and pushing himself, all the while wondering if he’ll accidentally go beyond the tipping point. Kevin Love’s sweat-drenched t-shirts after a pregame workout (mind you, for a game he won’t be playing in) is testament enough to how much these players want to recover, to get back, to fulfill the promise that they’ve made with their teams and their fans.

I joke that my job sucks the emotions out of sports, and in many instances, it’s true. I joke that instead of cheering for teams, I cheer for stories, and thus for my career. Also true. But on nights like Saturday, or last March 9, or Friday when Brandon Roy never emerged from the locker room, I feel for people, for them to succeed and get better and not have to feel that throbbing pain and nagging insecurity. 

I don’t believe in bad luck, or that the Timberwolves franchise is cursed. I don’t believe that these injuries have to spell doom (it’s a long season, people) or that the team should be pitied. And I don’t believe that to be objective is to lack emotion in every instance. I do, however, believe that this sucks. Not for the Timberwolves, but for the individuals, who in this instance are people, not players.

That L.A. team that used to play here: I have to imagine that I wasn’t the only one shocked to look at her phone this morning and see an update that MIKE D’ANTONI was hired as the Lakers’ new coach. MIKE D’ANTONI? Steve Nash’s vote? The guy who couldn’t deal with Carmelo and Amare and their personalities in New York? The guy whose offense relies on speed and youth?

Okay, I’m finished with that rant. Plus, there have been exactly zero games with D’Antoni on the Lakers’ bench, and popular opinion could be so, so wrong.

You’ve already read everything that’s going through my mind from people far closer to the Lakers than I. But now, with Phil Jackson fading back to memory (or perhaps becoming a barb that’s poked at the Lakers with every loss this season), it’s interesting to go back and look at the comments from Saturday night, when the Lakers-Jackson talk had escalated to the point that we were talking about the fact that they were speaking only to Jackson, that there were few hurdles remaining in the deal and that the Lakers were hammering out concessions with the coach.

It seemed like a sure thing, and when asked about Jackson going back to the Lakers, Rick Adelman had a few things to say. First, of course, was a joke about Jackson’s age – Adelman is nine months younger – and how it gave him hope for his own career. He also laughingly admitted that when he retires, it’ll be for good. Turns out Jackson ended up feeling the same. But the most interesting of Adelman’s thoughts applied not just to the Lakers with Jackson, but also to the Lakers with anyone:

“I had a feeling that whoever was the coach was going to win six games at home.”

This homestand might be the most organic of turnarounds for the Lakers. Heck, they maybe could even do it with Brown on the bench. You’ve got to guess they’ll take at least four of six – they’ve already won two – and it’ll be after this gift from the scheduling gods ends that the true test begins.

On Friday, Adelman made another good point: “I think if you fire the coach after the first five games, you better look in the other direction. But I think whoever gets the job has the chance to get in there and probably get successful real quick.”

You better look in the other direction. At the players, of course, because now it’s up to them. If Jackson were there, it would really have been up to them. There would have been no blaming Phil Jackson, not when it’s worked before, so well and so often. With D’Antoni, though, there can be blame. There will be. The Lakers are lucky in that respect, because if this thing they’ve got going remains so appallingly awkward, all D’Antoni’s faults will be at the center of the blame. It won’t be that these players are difficult to coach in a group, that the hodgepodge of talents and ages and personalities is in discord. It’ll be that still, there’s not the right guy at the front.

And if the Lakers do win under D’Antoni? If they win big? I, for one, will not be convinced that they’re doing it regardless of who’s coaching them, and that’s too bad for D’Antoni, especially if he is, actually, the best choice, and only the most superior of basketball minds can see it. But I’m not sold on that idea, either.

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