I received a tweet on Tuesday evening from @Jeremy_Ba11 which read, “I saw Noel at the children’s hospital visiting kids with cancer. He didn’t deserve this. He’s a great person.”
The injury gods don’t discriminate.
If you’re a basketball fan a bit like myself – on Tuesday night with 8:04 remaining in the second half of a game between No. 7 Florida and No. 25 Kentucky — you likely tried to cover your eyes or mouth, winced and were forced to turn away from your television when Kentucky’s 18-year old freshman standout Nerlens Noel went down in a heap on the floor with what appeared to be a very serious knee injury. If you’re similar to me, something inside compelled you to change the channel — at least briefly. If you’re exactly like me, when you flipped back to the game only to hear this young man lying on the floor writhing in pain, grabbing his left knee and screaming so loudly that not even the producer in the ESPN truck broadcasting the game to a national audience could shield viewers from the sound of such a terrible scene, you likely felt sick to your stomach.
As an unapologetic Kentucky Wildcat alum and fan, when Anthony Davis left last season to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, I immediately tempered all expectations I had for the skinny 6-foot-10 kid who’d signed with the university and had “UK” scrawled in the back of his head during his most recent trip to the barber. I mean, you’ve seen kids like this come and go, right? You know the look — designs shaved in their haircuts, more arm, elbow and knee sleeves than Meadowlark Lemon. Come on, that kid arrives in one form or another on every campus across the country year in and year out, doesn’t he? Much sizzle until the season begins and then … little steak. Runs like a deer, jumps like a deer … thinks like a deer.
It took me 30 minutes of practice in October at the Joe Craft basketball athletic facility on Kentucky’s campus this past fall to realize that this young, skinny kid named Nerlens Noel — who looked like a Ferrari — was more like a rugged, dependable, hard-knockin’ Chevy truck under the hood. Sure, the sizzle was there, but there was filet mignon for days. This young Noel kid could play for Bobby Knight any day of the week. Heart, hustle, desire — just like the play he was injured on Tuesday evening.
Injuries, in the sports world, are strange things. Serious injuries in sports unfortunately are, as Forrest Gump would say, “like peas and carrots.” They’re like peanut butter and jelly.
Whether you’ve played middle school, high school, rec league, intramural, college or pro sports, the chances are that you’ve been on the court or field when one of your friends or opponents has suffered a bad injury. No matter the level, no matter the person — what you’ve just witnessed is something you know that you’ll never forget. And you don’t.
I’ve seen more than my fair share of horrible injuries over the years in sports. The first one that comes to mind for me and many other folks around my age is QB Joe Theismann of the Washington Redskins, after being hit by the ferocious Lawrence Taylor. The vision of arguably the toughest, baddest player in NFL history (Taylor) screaming, jumping, motioning for help and grabbing his helmet as if to be saying, “Oh my God! What have I done?” after seeing Theismann’s right tibia and fibula both snap in two is unforgettable. That vision of 9:10:53 PM is something that was burned into my memory from the moment I saw it happen on live television Monday night Nov. 18th, 1985. I’m sure I’ll never forget it.
I’ve seen awful injuries happen to opponents right at my feet — such as NBA star Ron Harper in January of 1990, when I cut off Ron from going baseline, but his knee decided to keep on going, leaving him in a crumpled pile grabbing his knee while I’m kneeled beside him motioning frantically for a trainer, a doctor or ANYONE who knows anything more than I know to “get here and get here quick!” I’ve trailed teammates on fast breaks, like Danny Manning, who blew out his knee for the THIRD TIME as I was the first teammate to arrive and hold his hands while waiting for medical personnel to arrive and assist my longtime buddy. Those memories never leave.
And of course, I’ve suffered a few bad injuries myself. Likely the worst happened in a game on MLK Day in 1994 when I landed on Dennis Rodman’s foot after a bucket and fell to the floor grabbing my ankle. A compound fracture and dislocation of my right ankle with a partially torn Achilles tendon. Honestly, I don’t even remember that injury hurting at the time. Not when it happened or even during the two-plus hours it took for the ambulance to transport me to the hospital due to the blizzard happening on the East Coast that day. Nope, what I will always remember though, were the looks of sheer TERROR on the faces of opponents David Robinson and Rodman or teammates Tom Gugliotta and Kenny Walker while I was laying there on the floor. I still have the occasional dream of that injury happening.
But injuries like the ones on Tuesday night to UK’s Nerlens Noel are even harder to process and seem to tug at your heart strings that much more. When a college kid is injured, no matter what school you root for or where your allegiances may lie, your heart goes out to the young student athlete who was injured doing the one thing he’s dedicated his young life to doing and doing it for OUR entertainment.
When a pro athlete is injured, while still difficult to watch, there is a mindset that says, “Well, he was injured on the job and at least he is very well compensated for doing what he does.” But when a young athlete in college suffers a severe injury it’s viewed differently — and it should be.
|KENTUCKY LOSES NOEL FOR YEAR|
|• Noel tears ACL in left knee|
|No. 7 UF makes easy work of No. 25 UK|
I have to give credit to the NCAA for doing something exemplary in the past year. They created a Student-Athlete Insurance Program which allows up to $5 million worth of insurance — financed by the NCAA — for a premium of roughly $40,000 per year which guards against a catastrophic or career-ending injury. While $5 million is a drop in the bucket of what NCAA players such as Nerlens Noel or, for instance, a healthy Jadeveon Clowney — on the football side of the ledger — will likely earn over the lifetime of their respective professional careers, THIS IS A HUGE STEP in the right direction.
I saw a picture of Nerlens Noel late Tuesday night — obviously taken by an out of control Kentucky basketball fan — after he’d just arrived back in Lexington, Ky. from Gainesville, Fla. on the team plane. Noel was on crutches waiting for a team manager to open the door for him so that he could get out of the cold and into his DORMATORY. No entourage. No family members. Just an 18-year old youngster who knows good and well that an entire sports world views him as a consensus top-three draft pick whenever he ultimately decides to leave UK for the riches that await him someday in the NBA. A kid who’s flat-topped head I’m sure is spinning and filled with many more questions than answers right now. The point is, he’s a kid.
I’ve gotten to know Noel a little bit during his brief career proudly wearing the same Kentucky blue and white I spent my college years wearing. And from the little time I’ve spent around him, watched him practice, heard little things coaches and those around the Kentucky program have to say about him — this really is a unique young man.
We all found out yesterday that Nerlens Noel has a torn ACL. If this were years ago, his injury would be considered career-threatening. However, not any longer. Two words big fella, ADRIAN PETERSON.
Not surprisingly, it already appears that young “Noilens” (n’yuk, yuk, yuk. Sorry, can never help myself) already has his head in the right place, as he sent out a tweet just hours after receiving the difficult news about his left knee saying, “Minor setback for a MAJOR comback.” Come on -– where does perspective like this come from? I’m 45 years old and still fall to pieces when I get a sniffle.
Injuries and rehab are every bit a part of basketball as are blocked shots and floor burns. So, Nerlens, take it fast and it won’t last. Take it slow and you’ll go. Try to rest up and enjoy it all — from the rehab itself to the ice baths afterwards. From the tears of frustration and those of pain to every little stride you make between now and the time we get to see you back healthy -– as a bigger, better and badder Nerlens Noel on the basketball court. Take a deep breath and exhale. Look around and take it all in. Because I promise, you’ll be back on the grind before you know it, homeboy.
Rex Chapman played at Kentucky from 1986-88. He was a two-time All-SEC selection as well as an NABC All-American in 1988 before opting for the NBA Draft. He was the No. 1 choice — eighth overall — of Charlotte and played for the Hornets (1988-92), Washington Bullets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-96) and Phoenix Suns (1996-2000). Follow Rex on Twitter @rexchapman.