The NBA’s Achilles club: How players prepare each other to return and for life after basketball

While lying on the court in pain after tearing his left Achilles tendon on Dec. 6, Rodney Hood began to contemplate his basketball future.

“The initial thought is like, ‘Damn. Most guys used to retire after the Achilles injury,'” the Portland Trail Blazers swingman told ESPN this month. “Nobody really but Dominique Wilkins has come back to be the same person as he used to be or better; but now, more and more guys come back and they’re healthy.”

In the NBA’s 74 seasons, there are only 44 players known to have torn an Achilles tendon, 10 of whom are active today. J.J. Barea, DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Wesley Matthews have all returned from the injury with varying levels of success, while Hood joins Kevin Durant, Darius Miller, David Nwaba, Dwight Powell and John Wall as players still on the comeback trail.

That small group has turned into something of a basketball fraternity, as players who’ve never been teammates find themselves connected by a shared experience.

“I know guys look at me for advice,” Hood said. “I reach out to Kevin Durant or Wesley Matthews, DeMarcus Cousins … the guys who have been through it, and I just get confident more and more every day.”

Durant will text from time to time, asking, “Hey man. How are you doing? How is your mental [health] doing? Where are you in your rehab?”

Durant tore his right Achilles in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. He has missed the entire 2019-20 season so far and will not play even when the Brooklyn Nets resume their season in Orlando, Florida, in July. Hood also will remain out for the remainder of this campaign, even with the Blazers set to compete for a playoff spot.

Cousins is in a different place. After tearing his left Achilles in January 2018, he sat out nearly an entire calendar year before returning to action with the Golden State Warriors. He played 30 regular-season games before tearing his left quadriceps muscle in the second game of the playoffs, then he tore the ACL in his left knee this preseason.

Cousins, who was on the Los Angeles Lakers bench when Hood got hurt, reached out to offer his support.

“I gave him a few days and I just sent a message,” Cousins said. “I know how tough those times are and your emotions are all over the place, but I just sent him a little message of saying basically I’m praying for him, I’m thinking about him, he’s on my heart, but when it comes to this journey, go through your dog days, it’s OK.”

When Cousins tore his Achilles, he heard from multiple players who had gone through the injury before, including Wilkins, Matthews and the late Kobe Bryant. So it was important to Cousins to pay it forward and do the same for Hood, he said.

Matthews expressed similar sentiments.

“When Rodney reached out to me, I took that as a compliment that the hard work that I put in to coming back on the court had paid off with my play and health,” said Matthews, whose surgery was performed by the same doctor who operated on Hood and Cousins. “It is an extremely tough injury, both mind and body. Kobe Bryant reached out to me after I tore mine, and it was unbelievable, so I felt like I had a chance to not only pass my wisdoms, but his, as well, through what I’ve learned.”

Matthews tore his left Achilles in March 2015 and returned to the court just 7½ months later, the quickest return to action for an NBA player who has torn his Achilles. Matthews has played more than 300 games since the injury, and he had started 62 of 65 games for the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks before this season was put on hold. On average, a player returning from a torn Achilles misses about one year of action, which would put Hood on track to be back on the court for a potential December start to the 2020-21 season.

Hood’s rehab process, though, has been anything but average. Three months after he was hurt, the entire NBA shut down due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Blazers reopened their practice facility on May 8, and Hood is there faithfully each day from 7 to 8:30 a.m. Hood still hasn’t spent much time around teammates due to the league’s social distancing rules, though that could change if he is able to join the team when the season resumes at the Walt Disney World Resort.

“You’re sitting at home in a cast or a boot and it’s tough, because all you’ve got is negative thoughts going through your head,” said Hood, who hopes to be ready for the outset of training camp before the next campaign tips off.

“Once you start to move and run a little bit, the confidence comes back, and then it’s just a matter of time before you come back to be yourself. I’m determined to get back to myself and continue to play good basketball.”

While a torn Achilles is no longer a nearly guaranteed career-ending injury, like it was when Isiah Thomas tore his Achilles in 1994 and never played again, it remains devastating enough to force players to begin to contemplate their careers after basketball.

“It makes you realize that it can be gone with the snap of a finger,” said Cousins, who is currently a free agent after being waived by the Lakers in February. “We get so content with our jobs and our careers, and we just feel like it’s an everlasting thing, but the reality of it is that it’s really a short period of time in our lives.”

Faced with an uncertain future due to the combination of his serious injury and the league’s shutdown, Hood, 27, turned back to his past: Duke University. The school where he played his final college season before entering the NBA draft in 2014 had begun offering online classes during the pandemic. Hood, who was eight credits shy of earning his degree when he left Duke, was urged to reenroll by his wife, Richa, who also played basketball at Duke before earning her degree in 2014.

“When he got injured and tore his Achilles, that’s when I really was like, ‘Yeah, OK. You really need to make sure you try to focus on getting your degree, especially during this downtime,” said Richa, who majored in theater studies, with a minor in sociology. “This was a perfect opportunity to earn some credits and strive to get it.”

Finishing his college education is important to Hood. Both of his parents played basketball and earned degrees at Mississippi State, where Hood started his college career. His mother, Vicky, was a longtime educator and the first female principal at Meridian High School in Meridian, Mississippi. She holds a master’s degree in education leadership, in addition to bachelor’s degrees in business management and special education. Hood’s sister, Whitney, and brother, Ricky Jr., played at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, earning degrees.

“I’ve just got a real thirst for knowledge now, especially seeing how the world is, seeing how the disparity is with African American men, and I want to do something special,” Hood said. “And getting a degree from Duke is special, especially coming from where I come from.”

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said he wasn’t surprised Hood had returned to school to finish his degree.

“An NBA player’s life is a dog’s life, as far as how long it is,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s a lot of life ahead of you — and that transition from whenever you stop playing to whatever that life would be I would think would be a lot easier to navigate with a college degree.”

Hood was one of 14 students in professor Hubert Bray’s online course Game Theory and Democracy. The class met via Zoom two hours per day, five days a week, from May 13 to June 5, with a final exam on June 6. Duke policy is to protect the privacy of student grades and work, so Bray couldn’t comment on Hood’s final grade; but the professor did tell ESPN, “Rodney has written some great papers and given some very nice presentations.”

“He’s terrific,” Bray said. “It is particularly striking how modest, down-to-earth and likable he is. In this way, he fits into the class just like any other Duke student. You’d never know he has one of the highest 3-point shot percentages in the NBA.”

Hood hopes to return to the form that saw him shooting a career high 49.3% from 3-point range this season. But thanks to the support of his peers and the time spent working toward his degree, he’ll be better prepared for life after basketball, whenever it arrives.

“We’ve got a lot of life and a lot of living to do once our careers are over,” Cousins said. “So I think it’s a great approach that he took going through this moment.”

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