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Caris LeVert’s story and why it’s deeper than you think

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New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The bench was quiet. Guys were sitting in their seats with blank stares in a state of shock, disgusted and heartbroken at what they’d just witnessed. It was the longest 3.7 seconds of their careers, where they’d rather run to the locker room and hide their emotions.

If you haven’t heard or seen video, then you have no idea what I’m talking about. If you haven’t read or watched Caris LeVert’s journey to get where he is today, then you won’t understand how deep all of this really is.

... And why it’s so devastating.

LeVert jumped to contest Josh Okogie’s attempt at the rim on a fastbreak. He skied high for the block and came down awkward. Right leg. Wrong way.

Ryan Ruocco’s voice fades out on the YES telecast. The arena gets quiet as if somebody sucked the air out of the place. Several Nets players are in tears with their hands on their heads.

Their star player or their “brother”— is down and it’s really bad.

LeVert entered the night averaging 19 points, four rebounds and four assists. Just 72 hours prior, he was the hero for hitting the game-winning shot against the Denver Nuggets in Brooklyn’s third win in a row. He undoubtedly became the team’s leader and an early candidate for Most Improved Player.

This was his year.

Year three.

The year that Sean Marks’ first draft pick, Kenny Atkinson’s first project, and Brooklyn’s cornerstone, would blossom, in hopes that the team they constructed the past three years would blossom behind his lead, too.

The Brooklyn Nets drafted Caris LeVert after trading Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers for the rights to the 20th pick. LeVert was projected much lower after having three foot surgeries in the span of 22 months. Jonathan Givony told Woj that teams had him in the late second round and planned to stash him overseas for two years.

But Marks loved his potential. It wasn’t just the 6’10” wingspan or the length he possessed that made him so valuable in Marks’ eyes. It were the things people can’t see. He possesses good character, good work ethic and he’s just an overall good person to be around.

After interviewing LeVert —while still on crutches— Marks was reported to have said, “That’s a Brooklyn Net.”

When Marks and Atkinson took over, it was understood that they were going to form a culture that possessed the traits that Caris LeVert exemplifies by just being himself. With drafting LeVert came patience. He was the chosen one, or as Kenny Atkinson said after the game, “The heart and soul for our program.”

“His diligence, his work ethic, his character, all the stuff we believed in when we drafted him has shown,” said Atkinson back in December of 2016 after LeVert’s first game.

They knew he was going to be the epitome of a Brooklyn Net.

Players and coaches couldn’t stop raving about LeVert’s work ethic this past summer. It was Brooklyn’s most hyped-up summer since Marks took over because the young core had shown signs of improvement and Caris LeVert was at the center of it all.

Another thing Sean Marks preached when establishing the culture was the importance of family and valuing each individual in the gym as family. They made HSS Training Center like a five-star resort so the players would want to spend time there. Alas, they end up spending a ton of time there... together.

The family thing is what sticks out the most with all of this. With the small bits of triumph they lived through, to the pain they felt when they saw their poster boy go down. It’s all real.

A lot of people just don’t get to see it.

***

I’m walking to Barclays Center to cover the first preseason game of the 2016-2017 season. I’m one of the youngest guys in the media room and I have a chip on my shoulder, a bump to my walk. It’s year three for me and I have a different demeanor as to how I’m going to cover the team.

I have my headphones in as 50 Cent is blasting in my ears. I see the rusty Barclays Center coming in the view as I cross the street from Atlantic Terminal mall.

A hand hits my back. Like, a really big hand.

I turn around and it’s the always jolly Rondae Hollis-Jefferson with a huge smile on his face. He asks me how I’m doing and how my summer went. He looks like he’s enjoying Brooklyn with the new kid on the block. Like, one of those friends you make right away and you just know it’s a real friendship.

That new kid was Caris LeVert. LeVert was in a walking boot and shook my hand and introduced himself. I said, “Welcome to Brooklyn.” He smiled and answered, “Thanks man, I’m so happy to be here.”

***

Three years go by. The same kid that was in a walking boot is still the same person, only bigger, stronger and more confident.

It’s the one and only preseason game and a few media members are in the locker room before the game. LeVert, as always, says hello to everybody before he heads out to warm up. He’s stopped by one coach, then a teammate.

He’s the most likeable guy in Brooklyn, and something special was brewing around this guy.

It was his year.

As the 6-7 Nets charged into Minnesota, there was a different feeling in the air. Things were starting to click and the guys were rallying behind LeVert. And, of course, who’s happier than Rondae Hollis-Jefferson – LeVert’s best friend and Brooklyn’s longest tenured player.

The team had its best start through 13 games since 2012-2013 season. Rondae had never seen it. They charged into Minnesota with momentum on their side. Then… Bam.

The YES camera show the stretcher coming out. It’s quiet. They show D’Angelo Russell, Ed Davis and other Nets’ players. They show the Timberwolves in a circle, praying for the 24-year-old.

But then the game resumed and the cameras hit Hollis-Jefferson, who got his first start of the season with Jarrett Allen out due to an illness. Hollis-Jefferson was fighting back tears as Okogie shot his free throws. He was right next to Caris when the play happened.

Heartbreaking.

Rondae and Caris developed a friendship that was inevitable from the day I saw them walking on Atlantic Avenue.

“We’re definitely brothers,” RHJ told me when I asked about his friendship with LeVert. “That’s something we say all the time if you hear us talking, we always call each other brothers. We always try to say, ‘brother, brother, brother!’ you know, put that bug in each others ears just so each of us know that we’re always here for one another.”

The same stands three years later, only it’s a full roster of players and coaches that feel this way about one another.

... How Rondae described it when it all started.

***

Kenny Atkinson diligently meets with a small group of media members after Brooklyn’s 120-113 loss to the Timberwolves. Kenny looks like he had seen a ghost but held it together before ending any further questions.

“He’s the heart and soul of our program,” said Atkinson. “I really feel for him, he’s had a fantastic start to the season, he’s obviously made a huge jump [this year].”

Then, he expressed his confidence in Caris. The same way he did when he was just a rookie.

“I just know Caris, like if anybody’s coming back from this [it’s him]. Knowing the human, the character, the person, the player… he’ll come back from this.”

He overcame three foot surgeries when he was barely of age to drink – a recovery that took more than eight months. That was nothing. When he was 15-years-old, he ran downstairs to his father lying on the floor, dead from a heart attack. A few years later, his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

An injury never stopped LeVert from becoming who he is. There’s no saying how or when he’s going to return. Perhaps, the one thing that is certain with this entire situation is that Caris LeVert is going to fight to get back on the court.

Because no injury ever stopped him.

“An injury… that was always minor for me,’’ LeVert told the New York Post during his rookie year. “I was never really worried about that, because, life [toughened me]. I’ve been through things in life that are way worse than a foot injury.”