When Bucks point guard Terrell Brandon sprained his left ankle
for the second time this season, on Feb. 5, he promised himself
that he wouldn't return until it was fully healed. At week's end
Brandon was still in street clothes, Milwaukee had dropped 15 of
its last 17 games and coach Chris Ford had seen the Bucks'
promising season--and probably his hopes of keeping his job--go
up in smoke.
Brandon's lengthy stay on the injured list--he had missed 24
games through Sunday--prompted whispers around the league: How
much time does a sprained ankle take to heal? Why hadn't Brandon
come back to help the Bucks, who were 24-22 at the time of his
injury, make a playoff run? Similar skepticism had been voiced
about Penny Hardaway in March, when he called it quits for the
year after straining his left calf. (Six weeks earlier Hardaway
had returned to action from December surgery on his left knee.)
Sources close to the Magic say coach Chuck Daly had trouble
concealing his disgust when he learned of Hardaway's decision.
Brandon says any doubts about the severity of his injury are
unfair. "I've played hurt my whole career," he says. "I play
with a steel rod in my leg [from a broken tibia three years
ago]. The reason I'm out now is that I came back too quickly
from the first ankle injury [on Dec. 13, which sidelined him for
17 days]. It's almost like some people would rather see a guy
limping around on the court, instead of getting himself ready to
make a real contribution."
NBA lore is replete with heroic tales of wounded warriors, from
Willis Reed's hobbling onto the court for the Knicks with a
badly injured right leg in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals to Celtic
Kevin McHale's limping through the 1987 Finals with a broken
right foot. "Back then you played through almost anything," says
McHale. "I knew if I kept going, I'd probably be looking at an
operation. But I had a responsibility to my team. It was paying
me a lot of money. Too often today, players think the team has a
responsibility to take care of them, instead of the other way
Where should the line be drawn? When does playing hurt become
not valiant but foolish? Both Brandon and Hardaway contend that
coming back this season could have caused them irreparable harm,
yet sources on each of their teams privately dispute that.
Regardless, it's clear that there are more reasons than ever for
players to be reluctant about making hasty returns.
Because of the huge salaries at stake, players are unlikely to
risk jeopardizing their futures for short-term goals, such as
helping their teams reach the playoffs. Players' agents, who
almost always advise their clients to err on the side of
caution, have had an impact as well. Then there's technology:
What used to be a sore ankle that required a couple of days'
rest can now be diagnosed, with an MRI, as a stress fracture
that needs weeks to heal.
Yet the most obvious change is in the way players think about
injuries. At one time suiting up hurt was a badge of honor. Now
players worry that their reputations will be scarred if they are
less than 100% fit. "If a guy comes back and he's not the same,"
says Pistons forward Grant Long, "the media's going to rip him
Knicks center Patrick Ewing, who is the president of the
players' union, is pushing to return this season from wrist
surgery, but he would never encourage a young teammate without
financial security to do the same. "If you become damaged
goods," Ewing says, "it's not like they'll take care of you."
The 27-year-old Brandon has seen enough cautionary examples of
players who have come back too soon and experienced ongoing
pain. (While McHale is proud of his gutty performance in '87, he
does have regrets about the harm it did to his body.) "I want to
be able to walk when I retire," says Brandon. "I don't want to
look like an old man at age 33."
LAETTNER WALLY PIPPED
Hawks forward Christian Laettner felt sick. "I don't think I'm
going to dress tonight," he said, turning to his backup, Alan
Henderson. With one hour left before the tip-off on Feb. 10,
Henderson had little time to fret over or prepare for his first
start of the season. "I do remember thinking, This is what I've
been waiting for," says Henderson, 25. "A chance to play a lot
of minutes. A chance not to look over my shoulder every time the
horn sounded, which in my case usually meant, Time is up."
Henderson piled up 19 points and 15 rebounds in the Hawks'
108-100 victory over the Bucks that night. He played so well in
the next four games that when Laettner returned a week later, he
found he had lost his place in the lineup. Through Sunday,
Henderson had averaged 17.2 points and 7.8 rebounds as a
starter. "If Christian never got the flu," says Henderson, "I
never would have been given the chance to show what I can do."
Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens had been increasing the 6'9",
235-pound Henderson's minutes before Laettner caught his bug. "I
like Alan's quickness," Wilkens says. "He's strong enough that
power forwards have to guard him, but he can get to the basket
like a small forward. And he gets a lot of tips."
Both Henderson and Laettner will be free agents this summer, and
league and team sources say Henderson will be the object of
Atlanta's affections. That's a huge change from last July, when
Henderson, who had averaged 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in his
first two seasons, turned down a contract extension that
averaged less than $3 million a year. Henderson felt he was
worth more but had been unable to prove it last season because
he missed 31 games with viral pancreatitis, an infection that
nearly cost him his life.
In October 1996, just before he was to begin working on a
community service project, Henderson began running a fever and
experiencing stomach pains. His teammates joked that he was
looking for an excuse to skip out on the charity work, but when
Henderson's symptoms persisted for three days and he was unable
to keep down food, the kidding ceased.
After being examined by doctors in Atlanta, he was admitted to
the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where a feeding tube was
inserted and he was subjected to a battery of grueling tests.
"It was incredibly stressful," Henderson says. "They'd come in
and say, 'Good news. You don't have cancer. Now we're going to
test you for AIDS and hepatitis.'"
The questions didn't end after three weeks in the hospital, when
he finally received a diagnosis of pancreatitis, which is
prevalent among alcoholics and drug users. Neither of those
factors was relevant in Henderson's case. (He still doesn't know
what caused the illness.) "I didn't spend a lot of time
wondering how I got it," he says. "I was too busy saying a lot
of prayers that it wasn't a lasting thing."
After dropping close to 30 pounds during his hospitalization,
Henderson was sent home. He spent another six weeks in bed
before he even considered lifting a basketball. By then Atlanta
was struggling without him, with critics citing a thin bench as
one of the Hawks' biggest weaknesses. Henderson wound up playing
just 30 games. "I kept telling everyone we were missing a key
guy," says Wilkens. "They'd look at me like I was crazy, then
they'd ask, 'Who?'" Now they know.
HE HOPES IT PAYS TO ADVERTISE
How badly does Warriors forward Donyell Marshall want to be
named the league's Most Improved Player? Enough to hire ProServ
to mount a campaign for his candidacy. According to the San
Francisco Chronicle, Marshall has been complaining that his own
team hasn't promoted him enough. He noted, among other things,
that his jersey wasn't displayed in shops selling Warriors
While Marshall's numbers have taken a sizable leap--to 15.4
points and 8.5 rebounds a game, compared with last season's 7.3
points and 4.5 boards--even he has to recognize that Golden
State has had its hands full with other public relations
problems. In fact, say Warriors officials, one of the reasons
that the team hadn't made him available to the national media
until recently is that it feared (correctly) that any interview
would be loaded with questions about Latrell Sprewell. Of
course, there's also the matter of Marshall's blowing off at
least two prearranged interviews already this season.
Meanwhile, Golden State's staff is busy preparing its own
Marshall campaign literature for release this week. (His
stiffest competition for the award: Henderson and Kings forward
Corliss Williamson.) As for those missing jerseys, the Warriors
say they ordered only two uniforms for the store at the New
Arena earlier in the season: Joe Smith's and Sprewell's. After
Smith was dealt to the 76ers and Sprewell suspended, the team
asked for a shipment of Marshall's and Muggsy Bogues's uniforms.
The Bogues jerseys came in, but Marshall's inexplicably have yet
Line of the Week
THE HEAT'S NEW HOT HAND
Miami forward Mark Strickland, March 25, versus the Celtics: 40
minutes, 11-13 field goals, 1-2 free throws, 23 points, 13
rebounds, 4 assists. Although key players such as Alonzo
Mourning and Jamal Mashburn have missed long stretches of the
season, the Heat has always had a stopgap handy. On this night
it was Strickland, the third-year pro from Temple, who filled in
admirably for the injured P.J. Brown.
NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Riley's Battle Plans
The playoffs are fast approaching, which means Heat coach Pat
Riley is sharpening his motivational techniques. He tells SI
that before games he checks the wastebaskets in locker rooms
"for bricks or other heavy items," just in case he needs to kick
a basket to make his point. Riley used to punch blackboards, but
he did that for the last time while coaching the Lakers in the
1990 playoffs. "We lost to Phoenix," he says. "I hit one so
hard, I broke my hand."
AROUND THE RIM
When Damon Stoudamire was acquired by the Trail Blazers in
February, he said that he would "wait and see" before deciding
whether to re-sign with Portland as a free agent this summer.
He's apparently waited and seen enough. "I want to get it done
here," Stoudamire says. "I've told [coach] Mike Dunleavy my
ideal game is to get 17 points and 11 assists and sit down at
the end to enjoy the win."...
If the Rockets want to make a run in the playoffs, they should
stick with the starting lineup of Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Willis,
Mario Elie, Clyde Drexler and Matt Maloney. Houston is 10-0 when
that group starts....
Sam Perkins says he will retire if the Sonics win it all....
The league owners' primary goal when negotiations on the
collective bargaining agreement reopen after April 30: to create
a ceiling on individual players' salaries....
Note to those who have been waiting for Nick Van Exel to create
problems for Lakers coach Del Harris: Keep waiting. Van Exel
returned from knee surgery on March 16 to find that Derek
Fisher, who had started in his absence, would remain at the
point. Said Van Exel, "I'm all for it. It's good for the team."...
Dan Issel is a partner in a Denver printing company with Nuggets
forward LaPhonso Ellis. Now, as the Nuggets' new general
manager, Issel has the task of negotiating Ellis's contract this
summer. Issel may also have some awkward dealings with rookie
Tony Battie. On the Denver radio show Issel hosted until he
became G.M., he repeatedly referred to Battie as El Busto.
CHICAGO AT HOUSTON
The Bulls and Rockets, the title teams of the '90s, battle for
the last time this year. Because Rockets guard Clyde Drexler
will hang up his sneakers after the season to become coach at
his alma mater, Houston, this will be the last chance to see Air
Jordan on the court with Clyde the Glide and fellow Top 50
members Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie
Pippen--provided the teams don't meet again in the Finals. Look
for Drexler, nursing a groin injury at week's end, to make a
timely recovery for this one.