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In brotherhood of players who’ve survived achilles injury, Kevin Durant leads

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Brooklyn Nets v Chicago Bulls Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There is a brotherhood in the NBA. Players may be on 30 teams and have differing levels of experience and skills but the number of men who’ve worn an NBA jersey over the past 75 years is in the low thousands.

And within that larger brotherhood are smaller ones like those who’ve gone through traumatic injury, like a ruptured achilles. On Thursday, Alex Schiffer writes about how Kevin Durant has become the leader of that specific brotherhood, encouraging players — and not just NBA players — as they deal with the physical burdens and mental anxiety of a long rehab, with no certainty that they’ll return to form. KD isn’t just the model for the return to form, he’s the father confessor for many similarly injured players.

As Schiffer notes, KD is also repaying a debt to the gods of basketball, doing for others what Dominique Wilkins did for him after he went down in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, putting him out until the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

In 2020, when Durant was rehabbing his own Achilles, Dominique Wilkins, who famously returned in nine months from the same injury in 1992 as the same generational dunker he was prior, said he hoped Durant would become the modern face of the recovery. And he’s done just that, looking just as unstoppable after surgery as he was before it. Now he’s happy to help those who face the same long rehab he did.

“Durant has really taken hold of this and become kind of like the spokesperson for this injury,” Wilkins said. “And so we’re passing the torch. We’re a lot alike in how we share responsibility.”

As difficult it is to believe now, there were a lot of doubters about Durant’s ability to return to the same level he played at before the injury. Recovery from achilles injury was not a sure thing. In fact, Wilkins was the outlier. So, Durant has taken it on himself on spread the word that an achilles injury is not a career death knell. And not just NBA players. Last year, Schiffer recounts, KD reached out to Villanova player Justin Moore who went down in the Wildcats’ 2022 Elite Eight win over Houston.

A few days later, Moore lay flat on his back in a hospital bed at Villanova’s student health center, still feeling the after-effects of anesthesia. As he began pondering the arduous road ahead, he received a text from his coach, Jay Wright, who let him know he’d be hearing from someone important very shortly. Before Moore could process Wright’s text, his phone lit up with an incoming FaceTime call.

Kevin Durant.

“You’re going to come back better, stronger than ever,” the future Hall of Famer told Moore, speaking from the experience of having torn his own Achilles nearly three years earlier. “… These days, it’s not like the older days where you can’t come back from it.”

Moore is now well on his way to recovery although his return is still uncertain.

Durant can now encourage players by pointing to his own example. but he admits to Schiffer that his future was uncertain back in 2019. “I was damn near done with (mine). I could have retired at that point.”

He noted as well that it wasn’t just Wilkins who encouraged him but Kobe Bryant who did not have the return to greatness KD has had.

“Don’t be a f—— crybaby,” Durant said of Bryant’s message. “It’s going to be all right. You’re going to come back and be who you are...

“When my mind was racing everywhere, it was good to hear from him,” Durant said. “Especially him going through it later in his career.”

Durant’s experience became an example for one of his teammates as well. Edmond Sumner missed all of last season with an achilles tear and he too is back. He told Schiffer that he decided to use Dr. Martin O’Malley, the Nets orthopedic surgeon, based on KD’s experience.

“I saw how Kevin Durant came back from it and he’s one of the best players in the world,” Sumner said. “I knew I was going to be all right. I knew how hard I work.”

Similarly, when Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard tore his Achilles in December 2021, he called Durant, who told him to go to O’Malley too.

Schiffer spoke with O’Malley who explained that one reason why there was doubt about KD’s return was a lack of understanding on how medicine had changed over the years.

“When I started, they’d put people in casts all the way up to your thigh,” O’Malley explained. “Now, though, doctors know that when a tendon is immobilized, it doesn’t heal very well, and the calf muscle gets very atrophied.”

“Durant was probably in a cast for 48 hours, and we moved him to a removable thing and started working on his calf. We know that a little bit of motion and a little bit of weight-bearing makes the tendon stronger. That’s all good stuff. … Durant probably has the least change in his game before and after.”

As Schiffer wrote the list of players Durant has spoken with, encouraged, is long, but the message is basically the same. Look at me. I did it. You can, too.