Shoals Unlimited: Embrace NBA Injuries For the Necessity That They Are

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week.
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↵In a perfect world, no athletes would ever get injured. Games would be played between teams at full strength, with the outcomes that much more absolute. All players would have long, productive careers, never leaving us asking what could have been. And no dream seasons would be hijacked by a blown-out knee, strained abdomen or broken bone. ↵

↵But that's not the way it is. Injuries, as we've been recently reminded by the NBA, are a basic fact of sports. This week, All-Star point guards Chris Paul and Jameer Nelson went down in the line of duty. Paul escaped with only a minor groin strain, and should be back in time for the All-Star Game. Still, once he left Monday's game, his Hornets went from blowing out the Blazers to helplessly giving up the win. Nelson and his Magic weren't so lucky; he could miss the rest of the season with his shoulder injury. This young squad on the rise is now left scrambling just to fill his position. ↵

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↵Or what about Andrew Bynum's 8-12 week sprained knee hiatus, the second year in a row that the Los Angeles big man has lost a huge chunk of time to knee issues? Over the last few weeks, Bynum had begun to look like the monster his fans had promised us. Now, the first-place Lakers are suddenly without their most intimidating inside presence since Shaq. ↵

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↵Tracy McGrady returned to the Rockets on Tuesday, offering a rare glimpse of a healthy T-Mac/Yao/Artest combination. ↵

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↵At the bottom of the standings, the Golden State Warriors got a shot in the arm with the return of Monta Ellis. ↵

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↵And as LeBron James takes the Cavs to another level, let's not forget that the team has had to deal with the extended absence of Big Z and then Delonte West, two players key to the team's new look. ↵

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↵All of this would seem to hammer home the obvious: injuries ruin sports. For hometown fans, they're a disappointment. Connoisseurs are denied the best possible basketball. On a human interest level, they're frustrating. Yet injuries, maddening as they can be, are an unavoidable part of sports. In fact, they're so ingrained in the experience of fandom that we wouldn't know what to do without them. They're a source of emotional highs and lows, constant twists and turns, and surprises that inject a sense of fate into games. Injuries aren't just bad luck. They remind us that players are mortal, outcomes contingent, and sports, like life, not always fair. ↵

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↵Unless a player gets a reputation for being soft, injuries have all the pathos of losing, minus the stigma of sucking. We relate to sports and athletes better because of them, and sometimes, yes, we're as much fans of injury as we are sports -- if it even makes sense to separate the two. Take Bynum and the Lakers. No one likes to see a young, promising player suddenly frozen in amber, even if he does wear one of the more hated uniforms in the league. But now, we'll get to see just how important he's become; whether Kobe will panic and revert to some of his pre-MVP bad habits; if the Lakers team that made the Finals last spring was shaken by its loss and needed Bynum to symbolically regain confidence; and if the bench has matured enough to pick up some of the slack. From an emotional and technical standpoint, that's an awful lot of storyline to swallow. ↵

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↵With the Magic, there's the heartbreak of Nelson -- college stud who fell in the draft, then struggled, lost his father, and only this year came into his own -- possibly having to watch from the sidelines all season. But just as last season's on-court problems helped set the stage for Nelson's breakout 2008-09, this will be a landmark in Nelson's career. As the old cliche goes, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Look at Monta -- when he returned to the Warriors' lineup after missing half the season, he was given an electrifying hero's welcome and seemingly cemented his previously shaky place in the franchise. On paper, the Cavs haven't missed a beat with Ilgauskas and West out. But it's been fascinating to watch them try and approximate their new, integrated team game with two key pieces missing, and we've learned a lot about LeBron's resourcefulness and ingenuity. ↵

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↵And then there's McGrady, who has spent much of his career wrestling with various physical maladies (and a few psychological demons). Plenty of people have lost patience with T-Mac, seeing an unfortunate waste of talent, lack of spine and, most of all, coward in the face of physical adversity. But just as many see him as a tragic figure, someone whose successes and failures -- even those first-round exits -- are hard to untangle from his consistently mottled bill of health. His former teammate Grant Hill lost out on a Hall of Fame career because of injury, to such an extent that he's universally pitied. With Hill now healthy and, while greatly diminished, a capable contributor, he's found some form of peace. Let's hope that McGrady finds that before he hangs them up. ↵

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↵But at the same time, we can't pretend that (not) watching McGrady hasn't made it more interesting to root for (or against) him. In the same way that no one really wants to live forever, and "good die young" martyrs become instant cultural icons, none of us really wants an injury-free sports, where no stars ever spend time in street clothes. It would be so ... uneventful. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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