Dominique Wilkins details how he overcame Achilles injury

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, grimacing after tearing his left Achilles tendon in April, might be able to resume being the dominant player he was, according to four current and former NBA players who suffered the same injury. Photo by Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, grimacing after tearing his left Achilles tendon in April, might be able to resume being the dominant player he was, according to four current and former NBA players who suffered the same injury. Photo by Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer

Below is a series of Q&A’s with notable NBA players that injured their Achilles career. Underneath his information box is an interview with former Atlanta Hawks forward Dominique Wilkins on how he overcame his injury and his outlook on Kobe Bryant’s recovery.

Player: Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks forward
Injury: snapped right achilles Jan. 28, 1992 at 32-years-old against Philadelphia 76ers
Absence: Missed 40 games in 1991-92 season; missed 11 games in 1992-93 season
Statistics before injury: Averaged 28.1 points on 46.4 percent shooting in 1991-92 season
Statistics after injury: Averaged 29.9 points on 46.8 percent shooting in 1992-93 season; played seven more seasons and made two more NBA All-Star appearances

What do you remember about when you injured your Achilles?

I was running down the court. I wasn’t even running. I was kind of trotting and I just heard something pop. It didn’t do anything. It just popped and I wondered, ‘Who in the hell kicked me?’ I turned around and nobody was there. I looked down and I could see the top of my foot. I tore mine in half. There was no way I could walk off the floor. It felt like someone kicked me really hard and hit me with a bat. That’s what it felt like. It wasn’t a play. It was just me trotting down the court on offense. I wasn’t even running. It just felt pop. It was just a freak incident.

How did you process all of that?

I was thinking how I would come back and if I would come back. AT that time, technology was a little different than it is now. It’s a little bit more advanced. I don’t know if it’s that much more. But it’s definitely more advanced than when I tore it. You hear what all the critics said. I wouldn’t be back and if I come back, I wouldn’t be the same type of player. They saw me as a role player. At that point, I was determined to prove all the critics wrong. I just did that. I worked for nine months, twice a day. I came back and had my best all around season. I almost averaged 30 points a season the next year.

How did you use that as motivation?

My whole career, I’ve been proving people wrong. That was nothing different. I said to myself when people would say I wouldn’t be back. I said, all my life, I’ve proven people wrong. Why should it be any different. It was a motivational tool for me to just push myself. I worked, worked and worked and did water therapy. I did a machine called the Elgin that helps you stretch your ankle in four different directions. It was stuff like that that I did. I slowly got the strength back. I performed ways to get my strength back in my leg. When you tear your Achilles the way I tore it, I had a cast on and I lost some muscle in that leg and I had to build that back up.

When I came back, I was ready. I was more determined. But again, I had to be patient. That’s what Kobe is going to have to do. Just be patient. Even though it feels good, it’s still not feel until you can go 100%. Sometimes you can go out and run and you cut a certain way and you think it feels good, but it’s not quite there yet. He’s got to have some patience.

Based on the comments he made to us and how’s he approaching the rehab, have you seen that patience?

Oh yeah. Hes’ doing the right thing in not trying to rush it. We’re not getting any younger. You want to make sure you do the necessary things to make sure you’re 100%. That patience is going to pay off. The one thing about Kobe is he’s a very very competitive guy. HE has that competitive nature and work ethic. Those two qualities alone will bring him back and play the same.

What machine did you use?

It was called the Elgin. It was a foot machine that stretched my foot in four different directions. This machine you can add weights to it. When I first started using the machine, I couldn’t even move a pound or a half a pound. That’s when I had my doubts. I can barely move this thing. I don’t know if I can make it. That was the early stages. It took me having that patience and slowly building. It got to a point where it had a pound and then a pound and a half and two pounds and I worked my way up. Next thing I know I’m using 20 or 30 pounds. Just like Elgin Baylor.

So it was named after him?

(Laughs) I know he would like to think that. It would be nice for him. He would get some royalties.

What are you thinking exactly when you’re going through those moments of self doubt?

At age 32, you’re in the prime of your career. When you have a devastating injury like that, the one thing you say to yourself is am I really going to be able to make it back from this? This was a bad injury. My ankle was like a shredded mop. That’s what it looked like. They had to cut out the bad tendon structure and tendon out the muscle out of my calf and sew it back in. It ended up being stronger than my other leg because it was thicker. But I had to do a lot of stretching. Once I got that thing healed, I had to do a lot of stretching to get that mobility back. I was doubtful from the beginning. Then that competitive edge kicked in and I thought, I’m going to come back. I’m not worried about it. I’m going to come back on my terms when I’m ready. When I come back, I’m going to be ready as good as ever.

When you look back at the nine month rehab, was there a particular breakthrough in your progression where you felt like you’re moving forward?

I think the first point was when I first started shooting again. I went up to shoot and went up to dunk and I came down wrong. I fell. Immediately, I grabbed my ankle. It wasn’t hurting. But it was the instinct to grab it to make sure it was okay. That was a turning point. I came down pretty hard. I didn’t have any pain. I didn’t do any harm. Then I said okay, Now I’m having some progress. Now I’m getting it out of my mind that I had been hurt. It took me a while to get out of my mind that I was hurt. Now I’m rehabbing and I’m getting better. I can’t have it in my mind that I can’t go 100% because something bad would happen. I had to get that out of my mind.

Tracy McGrady went through that with his knee. I talked to Tracy a couple of times and they asked me a couple of times, what did you do when you had your injury? He said, I feel good. But I can’t get it out of my head. I’m afraid to do certain things. The thing I told him is you’re good as a player and you have to go full speed. You have to go all out. You have to deal with whatever happens, it happens. But you’re not going to be happy with yourself at the end of the day if you don’t go all out with that leg.

What do you think is the importance of that?

Like most great players, first of all, they try to find every edge they can to be successful. When you have an obstacle in front of you like a torn Achilles injury, that’s when that greatness kicks in. It pushes you to work harder than everybody else. That’s what I did. Kobe has been doing this a long time and that’s no secret. He works outside of the court on his game and on his conditioning. If anybody can come back from that injury and do well, it’s him.

To get your timeline right, when you were talking about shooting, dunking, do you remember when that was?

That was probably about five or six months out in the rehab.

When you had the moments of self doubt, were there things that triggered it or did it just happen randomly?

It was the slow process. That’s what it was. I felt like it was moving slow, I wanted to work even harder to speed up the process. That’s what I did. Sometimes it was a little overkill and I exerted myself more than I needed to. But I felt like I was making progress at that point. Then I started doing twice a day every day and I just went at it.

What did the twice a day stuff entail?

It entailed water therapy, running in the water, that takes a lot of stress off your body, running in the water, I would do something on a machine to work with my upper body with my arms. You’d roll it like a pedal just sitting there on a stool. I would do some leg extensions of eight or nine sets, low weight, high reps. I also did a lot of toe raises with weight. That’s putting weight on my shoulders and going up under the machine and doing a lot of toe raises. That’s all that I’m doing, strengthening that ankle and that Achilles.

How challenging was it to do that every day?

It was time consuming. But at that time, I didn’t of it that way. Now I look back, I’m wondering how I did that. But I was trying to look at the goal at the end of the road. If I stayed on track. When I saw some progress about that fourth month after having that Achilles tendon tear, I started seeing a small amount of progress. Man, it definitely helped. It took at about a year to get back to full form.

When you came back, your statistical output was pretty good. I think you two All-Star appearances after that and you obviously played well before retiring. But did you feel your game being any different?

It was different in this way. I learned how to play the game on the ground more than in the air. What I mean by that is I learned to become even more fundamentally strong. When I was shooting and stuff like that, it made me appreciate the little things more. Back to the basket moves. Jump hooks. Fadeaways. Bank shots. All that kind of stuff made me appreciate that stuff more. When it got to the point where I needed to play above the rim, I could do that. It made me appreciate playing on the ground more.

How much do you think that will apply for Kobe with his footwork and post game?

That part won’t change. Those things I did. I was a great post player. That’s something I always had. I felt like I could do more of it now because I didn’t know if I could come back and play at that level again. It made me appreciate the little things, shooting fadeawAys, bank shots and that stuff, getting to the free throw line more. With Kobe, it’s the same situation. He already has those things. But having that Achilles tendon tear is going to make him pace himself a little bit more and appreciate the fundamental side even more and not relying on that athleticism that he had. I went through that. It makes you a better player. Not that he needed to be better. It’s a different way to stay effective.

Do you expect him to be dunking last year?

He’ll have to pick his spots. When you’re a competitor and play with emotion, you don’t think about that stuff. You just want to play at your potential and play at the level you want to play. Your competitiveness always takes over especially on the situation with who you’re playing against. You lift your game accordingly. He’s a guy who plays the same way all the time.

How did you process last year where even with the age and mileage that Kobe was playing at such a prolific rate and using a lot of his athleticism?

Kobe is a freak of nature. He’s a throwback player. He’s an ‘80’s type of player. To put it mildly, he’s a monster. To do that his age, there’s a lot of guys younger who still wish he has the talent he has.

Did you get a chance to talk to him at all after the injury or at some point during his rehab?

I didn’t get a chance to talk to him after his injury. But the thing is, in talking about this, it’s not about basketball or competitors. It’s about human nature and how people deal with it. If I can give anyone, our players, the Hawks or anybody who is going through a career-ending injury, if you can give someone advice, I’d be more than willing and happy to. At the end of the day, it’s about people. Athletics and competing have nothing to do with it.

What went through your mind when you saw Kobe’s injury?

The thing I recollect is him shooting the free throws and then walking off the floor. I said immediately then, even though he tore his Achilles, he’s ahead of the game because he walked off the floor. A lot of people who tear those Achilles tendons, you can’t even walk or get off the floor. With the way his injury was, he’s ahead of the game. Even repairing that injury, at least he didn’t have the struggle that you see guys like myself and others who tore it completely and wasn’t able to get up and walk away from that. For him, that was a fortunate thing.

Do you think that was the toughest thing he did in his career with hitting the free throws and walking off on his own?

Like I said, he’s a freak of nature. He does what he does.

One of the things the Lakers’ training staff said was significant was that Kobe had surgery the next day. Were you able to do that?

I had surgery the next day. They put me in an aircast. When I tore my Achilles, I came back to the game in my uniform on crutches. I don’t know why to this day why I did that. The next day, one of the owners now is named Mike Georon Sr drove me in the back seat of his car to have surgery in Columbus, Georgia. I’ll never forget it. That’s why he’ll always a special place. He didn’t have to do that.

What emotions were you going through when you came back on the floor on crutches?

It was tough. I felt I needed to show support for my team. I remember when I walked back in and I didn’t think about it. It’s like everything stopped. The game stopped and people just stood up in disbelief. I had teammates in the locker room that were crying. It was the most emotional time I ever experienced.

Does your want to do that and Kobe speaking to us right after the injury reflect a sense of both of you guys wanted to face this issue head on no matter how tough it was?

Yeah, and the questions you get from the press on if you think you can come back, you get asked these tough questions, it makes you feel emotional. I understand what he dealt with, especially being at that age. People always doubt you. They always have an opinion in what they think or quikc to call you an old man and all that crap. But it’s that old wisdom that keeps you on top of the rest. That’s why he’s been successful for so long.

And ESPN just released their rankings where Kobe is 25th in the league.

25th in what?

They did a player ranking, and they ranked him 25th

They’re out of their damn mind. I don’t know what those people look at, how they rank or they’re going statistics. If it’s statistical, it’s not even close. I have no idea what people look at. That’s when I get really angry because when people think they know the game and they don’t. To rank this guy 25th, are you kidding me?

And they say the ranking is a tad complicated because each panel is asked to rank a player 1-10 and then it’s averaged out. But no one is ever actually ranking and comparing a player.

What are you ranking them on? Team production? You can’t rank them on individual talent, or he would be there 1-2. He would be a top 4 or 5 guy if your’e ranking by statistics. I went through that. I went through the same crap. It’s all the people who think they know they game, and they really don’t.

And then they say, this reflects on the uncertainty of when Kobe will return. But they’re ranking him on him being hurt instead of ranking for when he actually returns to the game when he’s healthy

Right. They’re premature with their rankings with an individual player. If you’re going to rank him, rank him when he comes back and see what he does. Ranking is garbage when you rank individual players. You rank it on team production and on what he’s done. Look at what I did. I don’t think people really appreciate what I did as a player. I never had a great player to play with in their prime. I never complained. And we were still a very successful organization. This organization, we won a lot of games. I don’t think they realize that. When people look at my highlights, the first thing they see are the slam dunks and the high wire act. It’s hard to score 26,000 points on dunks. I was a flat out scorer in many many different ways. So that’s why I’m saying this to say Kobe is the same guy. He scores in many different ways. Not only that, he makes your team tons better. He makes who the Lakers are. Kobe didn’t get five championships for nothing. Just out of respect, you rank him in the top five in the league. People kill me. It’s almost laughable. It’s laughable.

Even if you were playing well the last few years of your retirement, do you think you would have played longer than you did if you hadn’t hurt your Achilles? Or was that not even a factor?

Yes and no. When I retired, I could’ve played two or three more years. At that time, it wasn’t about winning anymore. It was about embracing the young guys that were coming into the league at the time. It was not about winning. I remember Chuck Daly. Bless his heart. He’s gone now. But I remember I was leading the league in points per minute in Orlando as a starter. I remember him telling me, I’m going to start Matt Harpring because we need more scoring. I’m looking at him like, Huh? I remember saying to him, Chuck, I understand you have young guys and you need to play young guys. But I ‘ve been in this league a long time. Don’t bullcrap me. I said I know the game. I understand. So if you need to start him, do it. But don’t give me that the reason is you need more scoring. I was averaging 22 points a game and seven or eight rebounds in 18 minutes. I’m like, Really. Again, I was very productive. When I got to Orlando, I thought it’s time to do something else. Even though my heart was into playing another year or two, it was almost like I was being pushed out.

So your decision to retire had more to do with wanting to leave on the note that you usually played than just prolonging your career and having a reduced role?

Right. I was having fun, still playing well and still jumping out of the gym. So I was still doing my thing. But again, it was still about they have to play these young guys. Nothing against Matt Harpring. Matt is a solid player and I love Matt. Matt Harpring is a very good friend of mine.

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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@dailynews.com

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