Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Top Ten Most Soul-Crushing Sports Injuries

10.  Andrew Bynum 2008

With some of these star-crossed players, the hard part isn’t deciding to include them on this list but deciding WHICH of their ridiculously disappointing injuries to highlight.  In the case of Andrew Bynum’s injury-riddled career, one stands out:  the dislocated knee he suffered on January 13th, 2008 against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Bynum’s sophomore NBA season in 2006-2007 had been a promising one.  Drafted 10th overall by the Lakers in 2005, Bynum struggled to make an impact as the youngest rookie in league history, but by the middle of 2006-2007 Bynum had started to turn heads with his explosive, athletic play at the center position, something the Lakers had sorely missed since Shaq was traded to Miami for spare parts in 2004.  

Unfortunately for the Lakers they became one of the first victims of the modern era of ubiquitous amateur surveillance when video emerged of Bryant apparently telling persons unknown that he felt the Lakers should trade Bynum.  The embarrassing leak threatened to damage Lakers chemistry just as they were starting to pull things together, but Bynum appeared to take the negative publicity in stride.  He opened the 2007/2008 season on a tear, averaging a double-double and establishing himself as one of the game’s best young big men.  

Then one night it all came crashing down.  Bynum landed awkwardly on teammate Lamar Odom and was helped off the court holding his dislocated kneecap.  Initially it was thought there was little damage, and the Lakers we riding high on their longest winning streak since before Shaq left, but eventually it was revealed that Bynum was lost for the season to arthroscopic knee surgery to repair the damage from the dislocation.   

Those Lakers would go all the way to the 2008 NBA Finals without their seven-foot phenom, losing to the Celtics in six games.  Bynum’s absence was particularly glaring as Laker big men Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom struggled to match the intensity and athletic ability of Celtics all-world power forward Kevin Garnett or the grit of dirty-work specialist Kendrick Perkins.  

The Lakers would get to the promised land in 2009 and 2010 with a healthy (er, healthier) Bynum, which blunts the trauma of this injury somewhat.  But at the time losing to a hated rival without their best young player must have been a bitter pill for Lakers fans to swallow.  

9.  Miguel Tejada 2015

The 2015 New York Mets were in fine shape entering their National League Division series against the LA Dodgers.  Their pitching staff was a who’s-who of rising stars (and Bartolo Colon), and while their offense had struggled for most of the year, they had made a sudden turn midseason when they added La Potencia, Yoenis Cespedes, who upon putting on a Mets uniform had suddenly transformed into Willie Mays.  

They would lose only one game in the NL playoffs en route to a showdown with the Royals in the World Series, but that one loss would prove devastating, not because of the result of the game but because of the result of a slide.  

With his Dodgers having lost Game 1 and now down 2-1 in the seventh inning of Game 2, Chase Utley went out of his way to make sure Miguel Tejada, the Mets starting shortstop, couldn’t make the relay throw to first base in order to complete what would have been an inning-ending double play.  Utley executed a chop block on Tejada, cutting his leg out from under him and instantly fracturing his fibula.  

The play hurt all the more because it resulted in the Dodgers eventually winning the game, but the Mets would win their next seven games to sweep their way into the World Series.  

Unfortunately against Kansas City the Mets’ felt Tejada’s absence most acutely as beloved-but-overmatched backup shortstop Wilmer Flores failed to make an impact on offense or defense in the Royals’ five game dismantling of the first Mets pennant-winner since the 2000 Subway Series.
Further injuries to other crucial players would send the Mets into a tailspin in 2016, one from which they have yet to recover.  Utley’s aggressive targeting of Tejada seems, for now at least, to have derailed one of the more promising young teams in Major League Baseball.

8.  Steve Nash, 2012

The 2012 Lakers, coming off two disappointing seasons since winning back-to-back titles in 2009/2010, decided to overhaul their roster to bring in two of the league’s top stars to complement their MVP, Kobe Bryant.  One was Dwight Howard, a reliable low-post scorer and the best defensive center in the league.  The other was Steve Nash, a man with two MVP trophies of his own, albeit from more than half a decade earlier.  

Despite Nash’s advanced age he was still one of the best offensive point guards in the game, routinely zipping eye-popping passes through tight lanes created by his uncanny ability to score from impossible positions all over the court.  

Preseason expectations for the Lakers were sky-high, as every member of their starting lineup had made at least one All-Star Game.  But in the season’s second game Nash collided with Damian Lillard and suffered a broken left leg, knocking him out for an extended period.  When Nash returned, he was not himself, struggling to run the pick-and-roll (a play he had done more than anyone else to revitalize) and seemingly unable to stay in front of ANY player on defense, even the most harmless of plodding bricklayers.  

Over the next two disappointing seasons it would gradually become clear that Nash’s useful life in the NBA was at an end, as nerve damage in his hip and back would worsen and send him into retirement.  

Lakers fans, used to deep postseason runs, quickly started grumbling that Nash was goldbricking, content to sign a late-career deal and then spend his afternoons hanging out on Southern California beaches.

When photos of Nash hiking and playing golf leaked in 2014, the animosity reached such a crescendo that Nash was moved to send a heartfelt letter to Lakers fans explaining that while he was indeed healthy enough to hike and play golf, he could not longer play NBA basketball, as much as he might want to.  Fans weren’t particularly placated, and the entire affair left a foul odor hanging over the franchise in the twilight years of Bryant’s own career.

7.  Joel Embiid 2016

The last time the Philadelphia 76ers had a winning team Allen Iverson was the league’s scoring champion.  If that feels like it was a long time ago, that’s because it was - twelve years, to be exact.  Since then the Sixers have been mired in various phases of what Sixers fans now sarcastically call “The Process” - a vast, seemingly endless rebuilding effort that saw the team go 10-72 in 2015/2016, their worst record since the depressing post-Wilt era in the early seventies that saw them field several of the worst NBA teams of all time.  

No player has exemplified this dark period in 76ers franchise history better than Joel Embiid, the third overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.  Embiid came in with an extraordinary fanfare - the team infamously touted him as possibly the best player ever - but the hype quickly dulled when a series of foot injuries saw The Process derailed for his entire first two seasons.  

Then, in 2016, all seemed to be well as Embiid finally took to the court in a 76ers jersey and instantly showed the world what all the fuss was about.  Embiid’s agility was shocking for a center, but the real story was his shooting - in his first 31 games in the league, The Process shot a quite-useful 36.7% from behind the three-point arc.  In a league where “traditional” big men were quickly being replaced by rangy shooters, Embiid looked like an evolution:  a center with old-school size and post presence combined with a shot deadly enough to draw opposing bigs out of the paint.  With Embiid on the court, the formerly woeful Sixers suddenly looked like a playoff team, and the team even embarked on some lengthy winning streaks.  

Then Embiid started missing games with what the team termed a “bone bruise” of the kneecap.  When Embiid went out against the Portland Trail Blazers in January, rumors began to swirl that Embiid had a more significant knee injury.  The team soon admitted that Embiid had a torn meniscus and would miss the rest of the season.  Ironically, the team’s Embiid-fueled midseason run hurt their chances in the draft lottery and they were forced to trade up into the top 3.  Joel Embiid, the team’s representative at the draft lottery, assured fans without apparent irony to once again “trust the process.”

6.  Kendrick Perkins 2010

Though oft-injured players are allowed only one slot in this list, Andrew Bynum found a way to work his way onto the list a second time when he unintentionally kicked Kendrick Perkins in the back of the knee while going over his back trying to prevent Perk from grabbing an offensive rebound.  

It was Game Six of the 2010 NBA Finals, and Perkins’ Celtics were up 3-2, needing only to win one of two to capture their second championship in three seasons.  Though he was the only starter not considered one of the Celtics’ “big four,” Perkins’ toughness and veteran savvy was crucial to the team’s success.  The instant he went down, the series completely shifted.  The Celtics were blown out on LA’s floor in game six and were forced to return home to try to close out the series on the hallowed parquet floors of the Garden in Boston.  

Even without Perkins, the Celtics played inspired basketball, holding the Lakers to a cover-your-eyes-awful 32.5% field goal percentage.  Unfortunately another ugly stat wound up being the story of the game.  With Perkins out and neither Rasheed Wallace nor Big Baby Davis able to hold his own against the Lakers’ merciless pounding of the offensive glass, the Celtics gave up a shocking and uncharacteristic 23 offensive rebounds on the way to a narrow 83-79 loss.  Securing any of several loose balls - a Perkins specialty - would have undoubtedly allowed Boston to clinch the title.  Instead they watched the hated Lakers celebrate on their home floor.  

It would be the last chance for that version of the Celtics as their core would break up over the next few years without ever reaching another NBA Finals.  The only one of the Big Four to win another title was Ray Allen, who bolted to the Miami Heat before their 2013 title run, a move which irks Perkins to this day.  

5.  Ken Griffey, Jr.  2005

Another player who has plenty of injuries that could be candidates for this list, Griffey, Jr. is undoubtedly an all-time great whose career is full of impressive accomplishments.  He won ten gold gloves, seven silver sluggers and an MVP award, and is sixth on the all-time home run list.  To call his career a disappointment would be an absurd insult to one of the best players of his or any era in baseball history.

Yet Griffey could have been so much more.  Having come down from his amazing peak in the late 90’s when he hit 50 home runs with 1.000 OPS seemingly every year. Griffey was still putting up solid numbers despite a series of nagging leg injuries gradually slowing him down.  Then in 2005 he won Comeback Player of the Year, playing in 128 games for the first time in several years and looking something like his old self.  2006 saw Griffey slowed again by nagging injuries, and during the 2006 offseason the team got terrible news:  Griffey had broken his wrist while vacationing in the Bahamas.  Wrist injuries are notoriously difficult for hitters to recover from, as timing and bat speed is highly dependent on strong, supple wrists.  

In 2007 Griffey returned to the league and played well, but having been moved to right field to hide his declining range, it became clear that he was well past his best.  He had lost too much time to injury, and his body had been prematurely aged by the litany of recoveries and surgeries that he had endured.  His beloved Seattle Mariners resigned him in 2009, hoping he could revitalize his career in The House that Griffey Built, but when an embarrassing scandal erupted over Griffey allegedly napping during games, it was clear that The Kid was gone, and a tired old man was all that was left of him.  Griffey left the team and abruptly retired in the middle of a series with the Minnesota Twins.  

4.  Allan Houston 2004

It is a term that modern fans have come to dread - “microfracture surgery.”  But in 2004 it was a relatively unknown procedure until Allan Houston unwillingly vaulted it into the mainstream consciousness after he underwent microfracture surgery in an attempt to resolve problems with his knee stemming from injuries sustained during the 2003-04 NBA season.  

Houston had become one of the league’s highest-paid players after the 2001 season when he signed a max extension that paid him over $20 million per season.  It was no mystery why Houston was considered so valuable - in 1999 he had helped carry a gimpy Patrick Ewing to the Knicks’ first NBA Finals since 1994 and only their second since they last won the title in 1973.  

Unfortunately Houston would never live up to the expectations that were placed on him after signing his huge extension.  In fact, the signing of that contract would prove to be the Knicks’ undoing.  Houston would never fully recover from the surgery.  Neither would the Knicks; in part because of the burden of Houston’s massive contract, New York has won only one playoff series in the twelve seasons since first announcing Houston’s injury.  A single knee injury derailed one of the premier franchises in basketball, and the end of the dark days that resulted do not yet appear to be in sight.

3.  Tom Brady 2008
It’s easy to scoff now that Brady and the Patriots have cemented their legacy as the greatest football team of modern times, but Patriots fans could have been forgiven in 2008 for thinking their franchise was suffering from some bizarre curse.  

After completing a perfect regular season in 2007, the Pats had entered the 2008 Super Bowl as massive favorites over a Giants team that had suffered a near-fatal collapse in the second half of the season, sneaking into the playoffs as a 10-6 wild card after losing a tough game to the undefeated Patriots in Week 17.  
Then the Giants defeated the Patriots in what can only be called one of the most improbable upsets in sports history, with several crucial plays being decided on against-all-odds mishaps and coincidences, culminating in an almost indescribable play that has come to be known simply as The Helmet Catch.  The best team in NFL history won the least-coveted crown in sport - the best team not to win the championship.  

Undaunted, the Pats entered the 2008 season knowing they were far and away the best team in the league - they had the league MVP in Tom Brady, seemingly at the peak of his powers, and few if any of their rivals in the AFC looked prepared to challenge them en route to a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Then, it happened - in Week One against the Kansas City Chiefs, a pass rusher who had been blocked to the ground lurched forward to hit Brady in the left knee just as he planted it to deliver a long pass down the sideline.  Postgame MRI confirmed the team’s fears - Brady was out for the year with a torn ACL.  

Though the Patriots went on to a fine season with the underwhelming Matt Cassel at the helm - there was plenty of talent, after all, on a team that had just gone 18-1 the previous season - they suffered yet another unlucky break when they failed to make the playoffs despite an 11-5 record.  The Patriots, who just a year before had appeared to be on their way to the first 19-0 season in NFL history and the league’s first undefeated championship run since the 1972 Dolphins, were now facing an uncertain future, out of the playoffs with their 31 year-old MVP quarterback looking at a long recovery from a serious knee injury.

It would all turn out fine for Brady and the Patriots, of course, which is why he loses out on the top spot in this list.  But in terms of how it looked at the time Brady’s injury must be one of the most demoralizing a fan base has ever experienced.

2.  Kawhi Leonard 2017
With so much ink having been spilled in this hot-take era over whether Zaza Pachulia is a dirty player for sticking his foot into Kawhi Leonard’s landing zone on a jumpshot in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, we may not have yet properly had time to digest the enormity of the misfortune that has befallen these Spurs.

For a team that just saw Tim Duncan, its greatest player ever, ride off into the sunset, the 2016/2017 Spurs certainly didn’t miss a beat.  They rolled to a sterling 61-21 record in an extremely tough Western Conference and managed to hold off a spirited challenge from a plucky Memphis Grizzlies squad before dismantling a Rockets team that some analysts thought was preparing to inaugurate a new era of analytics-based dominance, supplanting teams like the Spurs that still operate on old-school basketball principles.  

The Spurs are alive and well, thank you, and in fact looked well on their way to doing what many thought was impossible - challenging the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.  The Spurs were cooking on Golden State’s home floor in Game One and looked to be about to easily take a 1-0 lead and put the Warriors, who had been expected to cruise into the NBA Finals, into a situation where Game 2 already looked like a must-win.  

Instead, the tables turned when Kawhi Leonard, who has struggled with ankle injuries for much of his career, took off for a contested jumper in the left corner as Golden State center Zaza Pachula hustled to close out on him.  Pachulia, looking to cause maximum discomfort to the shooter, tried to snake his body into a small sliver of space - too small, it turns out, as Leonard landed on Pachulia’s foot and was lost for what appears at press time to be the rest of the series.  

It was a devastating blow to Spurs fans, but what makes this injury all the more devastating is its effect on the NBA Playoffs as a whole - with the Cavs putting a historic beatdown on the overmatched Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Leonard injury seems to have derailed what probably would have become an all-time classic Western Conference Finals between two of the best teams of the modern era.  Instead it’s a walkover for the Warriors as the Leonard-less Spurs just don’t have the firepower or the perimeter defense to stay with the Warriors for 48 minutes.  

What should have been a long, thrilling series was turned, with one awkward landing on one giant-sized sneaker, into a dull, predictable probable sweep.  All Spurs fans - and fans of any NBA team other than the Warriors and Cavs - can do is wish Kawhi the best in his recovery and hope he can return at full strength next year.  If not we could easily be looking at a fourth straight installment of Warriors/Cavs in the NBA Finals.  

1,,  Plaxico Burress 2008

What could possibly be worse than your MVP candidate going down for the count while you’re blowing out the championship favorites on their own floor in Game 1 of the conference finals?  What about having your title defense derailed by your star receiver blowing a hole in his own leg while illegally carrying a pistol in a crowded New York nightclub?

That’s right, it’s somewhat forgotten now, but the 2008 Giants were TEARING up the league after their amazing run to defeat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.  Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Steve Smith were open on seemingly every play as the Giants pasted opponents en route to a 10-1 record.  

Then, a few days before a game with their division rival Washington Redskins, Plaxico Burress was hospitalized after accidentally firing a loaded handgun while it was inside his pants in a New York nightclub.  The bullet grazed Burress’ leg, injuring him, but the physical effects of the injury turned out to be the least of the Giants’ worries.

Burress, licensed to carry a concealed weapon in Florida, was not licensed to possess a handgun at all in New York, making his discharging of a firearm inside a club in midtown Manhattan into much more than a painful embarrassment - it was a felony.  Instead of leading the Giants to another Super Bowl, Burress would spend the next two years unsuccessfully fighting felony gun charges, eventually agreeing to a plea deal that saw him serve 20 months in prison.

Such was the bad blood between Burress and the Giants - who fell apart down the stretch without their best receiver, losing in the first round of the playoffs - that Burress had to sue the Giants in order to collect a portion of the bonus he had earned for signing his contract with the team prior to the season.  Burress did eventually collect, but his days on the Giants payroll were over.  After his release from New York state prison, he would attempt a comeback with the crosstown Jets, but he would never again make a significant impact for an NFL team.  He was out of the league by the end of 2013.

The Giants, for their part, did go on to win a title without Burress, but Burress’ extraordinarily boneheaded self-inflicted career-ending injury must go down as the most depressing sports injury of the modern era.