June 12, 2019 | News | No Comments
The Achilles tendon is a thick, elastic band of tissue that stretches from the heel to the calf, connecting muscle to bone. It lets a foot flex off the floor and onto the toes; it lets a body walk, run, and jump. It’s named after the mythological Greek warrior who was invulnerable everywhere except his heel, where, according to the Iliad, at least—there are multiple versions of his story—he was shot with a poisoned arrow. His mother, Thetis, who was immortal, had told him that he had two possible fates: he could go to war, and be killed, in which case his glory would last forever, or he could live a long, quiet, uncelebrated life. He chose to fight and die.
When Kevin Durant took the floor on Monday for Game 5 of the N.B.A. Finals, between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors, it was a welcome sight—and not only for the Warriors, who were facing a 3–1 deficit. The series hadn’t seemed right without him. The Warriors were clearly depleted and in disarray. Durant creates shots, warps defenses, and frees the other Warriors to wreak maximum havoc. His appearance on the floor also laid to rest irritating debates over whether he was really committed to the team, whether he was sufficiently “tough,” and whether the injury was more serious than had been reported. (This last bit of speculation was largely based on the low placement of ice packs on Durant’s leg.) Finally, with Durant on the court, the focus of all discussion was the game itself. The two best players in the world for the past few months, Durant and the Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard, were facing off, fighting for immortality.
Leonard defended Durant at the start. Durant moved smoothly, blocked a shot, and showed his elegant range from deep. In eleven minutes, he had twelve points. Then, with not quite ten minutes remaining in the second quarter, Durant, squaring off against the Raptors’ Serge Ibaka, just above the three-point line, took the ball low, dribbled between his long legs, and started a sharp drive with his left hand. His leg buckled; he threw away the ball; he hopped to the sideline, sat down, and felt his heel. Afterward, replay after replay (after replay) showed his calf rippling in slow motion.
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Durant was gone from the arena before the game was over, on crutches and in a large boot. Golden State won without him, 106–105, surrendering a fourth-quarter lead, improbably regaining it, and surviving when the Warriors forward Draymond Green nicked a last-second three-point attempt by the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry. After the game, the Warriors’ general manager, Bob Myers, sat in front of the media. He did not speak for a few moments, looking down and twisting his mouth, trying to compose himself. “Um,” he began, uttering what sounded like a cross between a throat-clearing and a strangled cry. He adjusted the microphone, buying time. “Um,” he said again, and took a breath. “Kevin had a—it’s an Achilles injury.” They didn’t know the extent of it, he went on to say. And then he emphatically defended the team’s decision to let Durant play.
“I don’t believe there’s anybody to blame, but I understand this world, and, if you have to, you can blame me,” Myers said. For weeks, he said, Durant had been closely evaluated, having “multiple MRIs” and being seen by “multiple doctors.” “The people that worked with him and cleared him are good people,” Myers added. It might have seemed an odd thing to say—not an account of events so much as a plea. But it was understandable given the circumstances. Myers looked haunted. He was concerned for Durant as a key member of the team he runs, and also, presumably, as a person whom he cares about and who had got hurt. But there was something else—something he could see in the faces of the media members, who were his real audience in that moment. The point wasn’t to explain what had happened. The narrative was not fully in his control.
Before, the chorus had second-guessed why Durant wasn’t on the floor. Now, the criticism would run the other way. Of course, they would say, Durant should not have played. Of course his Achilles was vulnerable. He hadn’t been healthy enough to fully practice, let alone play, let alone play at full speed, with the burden of carrying his team, facing elimination, without any restriction on his minutes or what he might attempt to do. Injuries, like wins and losses, are the result of many decisions—some difficult, some unconscious—and a lot of luck, and they look, in retrospect, foreordained. If Durant had made it through the game and led the Warriors to victory, that would have seemed predestined, too. But fate is for myths. Much as we may talk about athletes as gods, they are mortals, and they live by their choices.