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 Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas on why he chose retirement following his Achilles injury and his outlook on Kobe Bryant’s recovery.
Player: Isiah Thomas, former Detroit Pistons guard
Injury: tore right Achilles tendon April 19, 1994 with Pistons at 35-years-old with 1:27 left in third quarter in 132-104 loss to the Orlando Magic
Absence: Retired after injury
Statistics: Averaged 19.2 points on 45.2 percent shooting and 9.3 assists through 13 NBA seasons; won two NBA championships (1989, 1990), one Finals MVP (1990) and became 11-time All-Star.
Can you take me through your memories of the play that led to your Achilles injury?
I remember I was driving left on the baseline and I went to push off and it felt like someone kicked me right in the calf and I remember pulling up and stopping and hopping. I looked at the referee as if to say, ‘Didn’t you see that? Didn’t you see that?’ (laughs).
Of course, there was no one who kicked you. As I went to put my foot down, I knew something was terribly wrong. From that point on, you hear all the stories at least back then about the Achilles and so forth and so on. I had already decided I was going to retire. I don’t know if mentally I had checked out already. Maybe that’s why I hurt myself. So I don’t know. But I do know where technology and surgery and nutrition is at today and where it was then and it’s drastically different.
Can you expound on that a little bit more in your uncertainty on whether you had medically checked out at that point?
I had already announced I was retiring. That was kind of the end. I don’t know if the last couple of weeks I mentally had a letdown and physically and everything else. You just don’t know. I don’t know if that led to my injury or not.
Looking back at that night, I would imagine it was already emotional because it was your last home game and they were honoring all that. How did you process those events and then the injury that night?
Actually, it was kind of a joyous moment for me knowing that as an athlete I had given my all and I had left it all on the court. I wouldn’t have wanted to go out any other way than having my body break down and knowing that I didn’t have anything left to give. I wouldn’t have wanted to leave the game still questioning if I had more to give. Clearly, you can look back and say I had more to give. But on that night and in that period of time, I knew I pushed my body to its limit and I couldn’t have pushed it any further. As an athlete, you want to get the most out of your body. I believe I did.
Later on, you were quoted as saying you thought you retired too soon and that you still felt like you had a lot of basketball left in you, but you didn’t want to play for any other team. When did you start feeling that?
Probably a year or so after. I started seeing everybody was playing until they were 40 (laughs). I didn’t wonder what i was doing. I think I was just amazed. This is probably where if I was to wonder what’s going to go through Kobe’s mind when he comes back. Can you dominate? I don’t know if or if the fans that I had would’ve ever been satisfied with me averaging 14 points and seven assists a night. I had played at such a high level. I don’t know I would’ve ever been satisfied with that. You always want to be able to dominate. When you dominate at your position and dominate in the game at such a long time, can you accept mentally being dominated?
What is it about that from a competitive standpoint such as yourself, that variable was so important in leaving an image of a representation of who you were throughout your career as opposed to a diminished form of that?
That’s one of the curses of the great player he has to deal with where other players who haven’t achieved that type of greatness can relate to. There’s a mental piece and happiness that they can have for their career of just being average. But the guys like Kobe who have ascended to such a level, being average is very distasteful. It’s very distasteful.
What is your overall expectation with what you think you will see with Kobe once he comes back?
I, like he and everyone else, hope and believe he can still go out and be his dominant self. If he can’t, mentally how would that affect him?
How do you think Kobe will handle that?
I haven’t met one great player that has ever accepted being dominated gracefully (laughs). I have never met that guy.
How did you process that night when Kobe injured his Achilles, shot the free throws, walked off on his own and then showed his emotions afterward?
I thought the same thing when I watched him shoot the free throws and walk off the court. I didn’t want anybody to help me walk off the court. Bill Laimbeer and I used to talk about this all the time. We don’t want anyone carrying us off. If we’re leaving the court, we’re walking off on our own or we’re limping off on our own. When I saw Kobe limping off the court on his own, that’s the athlete and the great player’s lonely walk and journey off the court.
What’s going through your head as you’re making that walk?
I wasn’t really thinking about the World Games and all that stuff until weeks later. I didn’t have any desire to really rehab and physically go through therapy. My body was so worn out. I just didn’t have anything left. Now what I see in Kobe is different. He still has a burning desire to rehab and work. He’s still doing the things that has made him a great player and will continue to make him a great player if his body doesn’t fail him.
I imagine your recovery was different simply because you weren’t rehabbing to return to the court. But just to get a sense of what that recovery entailed, can you take me through what you had to do to get the Achilles fully healed?
Well, the decision that I made was that if I was going to rehab and go into therapy, which I didn’t, to try to get back and play and everything, I didn’t want to have a cast on after surgery. Most doctors when they hear that will think that’s not a good idea. The atrophy that would have occurred around your cast and quads and the loss of strength, I didn’t think if I was going to play in the World Games that I would have enough time to still build those muscles back up.
I was under a pretty strict workout program. I couldn’t put any weight on my right Achilles because any weight on it would totally ruin the surgery and everything else. I was careful not to do any weight-bearing exercises and so forth and so on. The thing I didn’t want to deal with was the atrophy. I don’t know what Kobe’s situation was. But again, the casting and everything else is so different than it was back then. The use of plastics and everything else and air pressure casts. It’s not the concrete mold we used to get.
How do you see the technology with Kobe specifically and the trainers he’s working with go into play with that?
Clearly, he’s got the best people that are available to him. Not only in the States, but he has the best people in the world attending to him. He’s got doctors in Germany. He’s got doctors here. He sought out the best people in the world to work with him. That’s a good thing. The equipment helps keep your stamina up and getting on the treadmills that they have, you look at the way he can run and the balloons right now where you’re not putting any weight on it. There’s ways you can run in the water and do deep water running and stuff like that. Just therapy. All of that stuff is so advanced that they’ve taken it to a much higher level than what we had back then.
How quickly did you have surgery?
I think I waited maybe three or four days.
How long did it take to recover?
Six to eight weeks, you’re out of the cast and you’re walking. I wasn’t trying to play so you can’t talk about my recovery and compare it to his recovery. My body was so physically hurt that I literally needed a year just sitting in ice to let the swelling get out of my body that accumulated over the years. I don’t think I started playing pickup basketball for a year after that. That wasn’t because of the Achilles. That was because of just how beat up and bruised I was.
What do you think Kobe can take away from how Dominique Wilkens recovered from his injury?
Dominique, his game changed. He wasn’t a high flyer anymore, but he knew how to score in the post. He knew how to get to the foul line. His jump shot became better. Kobe has all those things anyway. He’s going to be able to score because he’s going to be able to still post. He’ll be able to get to the foul line. His jump shot is always going to be money. That’s like riding a bike. People will still be saying when he’s 55, don’t leave Kobe open. Don’t leave him open. Will he be as explosive as a dunker as he was last year? That I don’t know. But will he be able to score? Absolutely. He’ll be able to score. The question I think for him will always be, ‘Can I dominate?’ Most people who have played at his level, yeah you can get 20 or 25. But if the other guy is getting 40, it doesn’t sit well.
If you look at the stat sheet at the end of the day and you got 20 and 12, and the other guy has 20 and 12, you’re thinking that’s not good. If you got 20 and 12, and the other guy has 8 and 10 and struggles that night, you want to be able to dominate your opponent at his level. I think the thing that he, like most of the great ones, you really pride yourself on stopping the other guy. Most people don’t really talk about that. But when you look at Kobe, the thing I’ve seen over the years that he has really taken pride in was shut that other person down. Scoring on the other guy, you can still do that. He’ll always be able to do that when he’s 60. Would he be able to stop that other guy. That’s the thing. That’s where the dominant mindset comes in.
Do I take away correctly that Kobe is a case study on his hope to balance his competitive juices. Using that and his talent to help with his recovery and adapting his game, while also not trying to go overboard with returning too quickly and then trying to do too much on the court?
Well, you could say that. But not doing too much is averaging 14 points. Statistically and everything else, that looks good. But can you be satisfied with being a 16 to 18-point scorer after being a 29 to 30 point scorer?
If anybody can come in this league off of that injury and from that age and still get 25 to 30 a night, he’s probably the only one that you would bet on that could do that. His mjndset is strictly to dominate and so he will push his body back to the point where he can dominate. Then he knows how to score.
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