The 2014 NBA season was especially tough for Kevin Love. In August, the power forward and his guard-like skills were traded in a three-team deal from the Timberwolves to the Cavaliers. Love arrived in Cleveland and was met by Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, and the big three instantly became the talk to the league. Despite loads of high — maybe even unrealistic — expectations early on, the group produced a championship-caliber team in their first-year together.
But the 6’10’’ star’s season took an unexpected turn at the start of the playoffs when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. And Cleveland came up short in the NBA Finals against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
Love, LeBron, and the rest of the Cavs officially turn the page when they open their 2015 season tonight against the Bulls in Chicago. SI Kids caught up with Love to talk about his injury history (mostly scrapes and sprains), what he learned from the sideline, and how he plans to emerge stronger this year. But first, we talked about working with the company Shock Doctor on their new mouth guard and why it’s important to have great mouth protection on the court.
Can you talk a little bit about teaming up with Shock Doctor?
I’m partnering with Shock Doctor basically to teach young athletes how to protect themselves, not only in basketball, but also on the field of play. When you’re out there playing, you just want to play the game and not worry about anything else. For me, it’s the best mouth guard I’ve used. It’s very comfortable. You don’t even realize you’re wearing it. When you look at the numbers, 5 million kids had their teeth knocked out and in basketball one-third of the injuries are to the neck and face. So it’s basically about a younger demographic being protected.
Any scary stories about getting hit in the mouth or getting teeth knocked out?
Yes. When I didn’t wear a mouth guard in high school, I actually had a number of loose teeth. I never actually had teeth knocked out (knock on wood), but had a lot of close calls and bloody mouths. I also had braces from age 21 to 23, so that’s when I was really, like, “Ok I need a mouth guard.” I remember in some practices and games I would get hit in the mouth and my entire upper bottom lip would rub and it would bloody up my whole mouth. Mouth guards hit pretty close to home.
What would you say to a kid who really doesn’t want to wear one?
It doesn’t affect your performance. Most of the top players in the league wear mouth guards. LeBron, Steph Curry, a lot of the top guys are wearing mouth guards. It becomes kind of a part of what they’re outfitted in, and they can just go about their business and play their game without any setbacks or anything that would affect their performance.
I know you have a little bit of an injury history. How were last season’s injuries different from others?
If you play long enough, injuries happen. There’s never a good time for an injury, but it was tough because we were playing Game 4 in Boston and about to move onto the second round of the playoffs. It was also an upper extremity; my shoulder. I knew when it happened that these types of injuries are lengthy as far as recovery process goes. That was tough for me, because most of my other injuries were just a couple of months here or there and I was back playing. I took the whole summer to rehab and now I’m feeling a lot better.
How did the injury make you physically stronger? Mentally?
Each time something like this happens, you tend to respect the game more. And also look at it as an opportunity. Yes you’re hurt, but you can work on other things like balancing out your body and getting your mental game in the right spot. Make it so that you come back refreshed from a physical and mental standpoint.
What did you learn about the team from watching them compete in the playoffs?
We had a lot of guys step up. I went down, Kyrie went down, guys had different injuries throughout the playoffs or they played through it. We persevered through a lot, and almost got the job done with lacking two of our top three scorers and guys who weren’t necessarily at full strength. Going that deep into the season, you need a little bit of luck from an injury standpoint and need to be refreshed and to have legs. But we really gave it our best shot.
How do you stay involved and maintain a leadership role when you’re injured?
You have to remain positive and vocal. And keep telling yourself that you’re a big part of this. I had to sit there and watch from Game 4 of the quarterfinals on. But I had been through the entire season to that point with the team, so it wouldn’t have been right of me to not be there supporting them through everything. You saw those guys make really, truly a great run led by LeBron. We were down, but we weren’t out and that’ll give us a lot of strength. There’s hunger going into this year.
When you get back on the floor how do you keep from playing tentative or being afraid of being reinjured?
It’s weird to say there’s something good about an injury, but with the timing I’ve been able to do a lot of contact work with a pad and a lot of one on one, which will progress to more contact as far as five-on-five goes and getting my rhythm. Time is on my side. And knowing that we have a great chance to play into June again and into the Finals, I can take my time. I don’t necessarily feel stressed or feel like I get out there as soon as I can. I just want to make sure I’m right from a physical standpoint, from a mental standpoint, and make sure that when I go out there I’m not going to be a shadow of myself. I will be who I intend on being when I step onto the floor.
When you guys start team practices, what can you do to make things easier on yourself as you try to get back into the swing of things?
I always try to stay involved, stay vocal. Try to keep myself and other guys talking. I like to do my work early, be serious, but also have fun too. So I try to keep the banter going and keep everybody engaged. We’re lucky to have great veterans on our team and a coaching staff of guys who have coached at the highest level. That makes it easy to stay engaged and go about different practices. And that allows me, when I step onto the court or when I’m off of the court watching film work or going through different plays with the coaching staff, it makes it easier to transition to getting back out there on the floor.
Photos: Tony Dejak/AP (action), Shock Doctor (product)