It would be much better if athletes were the robots that we usually treat them as. If they were nothing more than the lifeless icons that we put into trade machines and fantasy leagues for fun. Assets to be signed, traded and released whenever necessary by front offices. Disposable units of muscle to be yelled at and cheered on by fans whenever they’re on the basketball court and forgotten when they’re off it.
Watching basketball would be easier to deal with if Gordon Hayward’s injury really was as passive and robotic as the injury report made it seem. If all he did was to leave the game with a fractured ankle.
Instead we have the uneasy reality where such a feelingless injury report has a very human story to it. In the place of a cold and unfeeling bot, we have a player who went up for a pass, got tangled up with two opponents, landed wrong on his left ankle, and held his head in shock as he realized that it was twisted in an unnatural angle. The announcer kept shouting “Hayward has broken his leg. Hayward has broken his leg.” Players on the Cavaliers’ bench had to cover their eyes and look away because the injury was so brutal.
LeBron James went to comfort him as he was stretchered off. Later, former Celtic Isaiah Thomas went to him in the locker room as he was evaluated. The crowd was in stunned silence until they gave him a standing ovation as he was wheeled off. Six minutes into a new season and Hayward’s part in it, it seemed, was over.
The beginning of the season is all about hope. Even if we know that the Warriors will win it all at the end, we arrive at the first game in pure child-like happiness. The NBA is back. The fun is back. Everyone has changed teams, the subliminal disses have been sent, and now all the drama and storylines from the offseason gets to be resolved through action. Hayward gets to be part of a team with championship aspirations after years of developing quietly in Utah. This was supposed to be the chapter of his career where he took the next step into being a superstar. It was his coming of age in the limelight.
Then the unexpected happened and that hope was gone.
When questioned about his feeling about Hayward’s injury before the Warriors played the Rockets, Steve Kerr said: “It was terrifying. The whole coaches’ office was just devastated watching it. It just shows the fragile nature of what we do.”
The bodies of the athletes are fragile. No matter how much they train and strengthen it, it’s still just a human body with all of the human weaknesses. It breaks very easily. You can maintain it with ice baths, ice and heat packs, tape, bandages, and stretching routines, but that’s all to delay the inevitable. To hold back the disintegration. Because the stress on it from the constant running and jumping is too much for the body not to break down eventually.
Beyond the body, the nature of basketball is also fragile. The perfect conditions are created by the league in conjunction with the referees and players for the sport to thrive. There are certain actions — like C.J. McCollum leaving the bench during a fight in preseason — that are punished severely because they jeopardize player safety. The same is true of the two types of flagrant fouls. This is all to create an environment where the players can play freely and to the best of their abilities without worrying about their health. They need that reckless abandon. Hayward needs to feel confident in jumping for that pass, otherwise the competitive edge of the game would be gone.
So basketball, like all sports, is fragile because it can’t account for freak accidents. There’s nothing you can do about it. The league tries to ensure safety in the chaos of entangled bodies, but it’s never enough. It can’t protect Hayward from landing wrong this one time after doing a jump that he’s done thousands of times before. All of his strength training couldn’t stop his ankle from breaking.
In the blink of an eye, Hayward’s hopes and dreams coming into this season were shattered. Everything he looked forward to was gone from one jump. Now he’s going to have to rebuild himself. Sadly, the game won’t stop or wait for him to do so. It will move on. His team will change their plans to fit the new circumstance, narratives will be reworked and the engine of the game will continue to churn on without him.
In the darkness away from the game, Hayward has to deal with the pain of being away from the sport that he loves. He has to watch others play on TV as he sits with his leg iced and elevated. He has to endure the endless boredom of rehabilitation all while fighting the persistent self-doubt that comes along with being out for such a long time. He will question if he will be as good as he was before the injury, let alone coming back better and stronger. He’s as human as anyone else and these are the consequences of such a long-term injury.
Above all the sporting aspects and what this injury means for the Celtics and the league, it’s just incredibly sad. Hayward should get to determine the trajectory of his story by his play and individual choices, it shouldn’t be snatched away from him like this. He should be the master of his fate. He shouldn’t be worrying about his future on a day of celebration like the opening night of the NBA. That’s he’s deprived of that happiness and hope is absolutely cruel.