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In Kevin Durant’s recovery, the bottom line was medical science plus ‘bloody, hard work’

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It was a big gamble. Literally days after Kevin Durant blew out his Achilles, the Nets, under their then principal owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, and their incoming one, Joe Tsai, agreed to pay KD $164 million over four years, including $38 million in the first year, understanding he wouldn’t play at all.

What would the future Kevin Durant would look like? Would he be 50 percent of the old KD? 80 percent? 90 percent? NO ONE believed he’d be 100 percent ... but he is. Maybe even better! Okay, maybe two people believed it — Durant and Dr. Martin O’Malley, the Hospital for Special Surgery orthopedist who had repaired Durant’s ankle when he was with the Thunder, and who wore another hat as well, that of the Nets foot/ankle specialist.

“I have this ongoing relationship with him,” O’Malley told Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal. “And his feet.”

Cohen — and True Hoop’s Tom Haberstroh in a separate story — laid out the process that brought Durant back from an injury that in the not-too-distant past meant a player was done.

The Wall Street Journal reporter painted a picture of just how soon and how intensely O’Malley and Durant worked to get things back on track. It started with O’Malley’s son kicking him under the table while they were eating at Rao’s restaurant in Manhattan to alert him to the bad news.

O’Malley walked out of Rao’s and spent the rest of the night on the phone—he took a quick break for dessert—with a hunch that he would soon have the fate of the NBA in his hands. The rest of the week was a blur. Durant had to be whisked from Toronto to the Hospital for Special Surgery without anyone noticing the extremely famous, extremely tall man with a limp. A pack of Knicks fans, desperate for hope and bound for disappointment, waited outside the doctor’s office. But after operating on Durant’s same foot in 2015, O’Malley already had the trust of his patient.

So while pundits were gauging how good Durant might be on return — going back 20 years in some cases, medical doctors, physiotherapists and sports scientists understood things had changed with Achilles issues. As Cohen wrote...

“It used to be the kiss of death,” said Robert Anderson, a surgeon who has treated Durant. “You had an Achilles rupture, your career was done.”

Not anymore. Medicine changed over several decades. Science did, too. Past results would not be indicative of Durant’s future performance.

Then, after the surgery, things changed again. KD agreed to sign with the Nets, meaning that O’Malley now wore two hats, Durant’s surgeon and the Nets foot/ankle specialist. “There was never even a hint,” O’Malley claimed to Cohen.

Now, however, things moved from surgery to recovery and rehabilitation. That’s when Durant’s work began. Dave Hancock was a physiotherapist who worked with Durant.

Dave Hancock’s days with Durant included 90 minutes of tedious morning treatment, a gym workout, 90 minutes of exhausting afternoon treatment and evening poolwork. They ordered an antigravity treadmill. They strapped him with biosensors as they replicated the mechanics of his favorite moves. They focused on his entire body, “from his neck to his toe,” Hancock said, as O’Malley watched by FaceTime. Everything they did was meant to prevent the Achilles from stretching. A long tendon is a weak tendon. They had to keep it tight.

But for all the resources they poured into a few inches of tissue worth a few hundred million dollars, his British housemate said the key to Durant’s rehab was an unpredictable element that varies by patient.

“A lot of this, in my experience, is hard bloody work,” Hancock said.

Later, the rehab moved to Brooklyn and Hancock moved to Brooklyn with Durant. The Nets, with their data-driven (obsessed?) sports medicine and sports science, had an advantage in this last stage of getting things done.

As the process continued in the team’s practice facility, they could track exactly how he was progressing. They didn’t have to ask Durant how he felt. They could look at his data. In that way there has never been a better time to tear your Achilles.

“That last step of return to play has always been a hocus-pocus black box,” said Neal ElAttrache, a surgeon who specializes in sports medicine. “Now it’s much more objective.”

Slowly, but surely, Durant worked his way back. He played one-on-one, played against the “stay-ready crew” three-on-three, then four-on-four ... before COVID-19 hit and the season was suspended. As fans called for him and Kyrie Irving, recovering from shoulder surgery, to join the “bubble,” the Nets were patient. Nope. They’d let the two continue their rehab.

What’s the bottom line for the NBA?

The result is that he’s made a ruptured Achilles look more like a sprained ankle—and his surgeon says he can be a model for athletes with this ruinous injury in the future. “At two years,” O’Malley said, “they should approach a full recovery.”

Two years for Durant is the middle of June. It’s also the middle of the NBA playoffs.

The gamble is paying off, big time.