A couple weeks ago, I thought I was getting close to a near full recovery from my ACL surgery. I was doing agility and jumping exercises, cutting, and had pretty good numbers on the Biodex machine (shows strength deficiency on injured leg relative to non-injured leg). With all these positive signals, my physio suggested I get back to playing some very light 5-on-5 basketball. It was Thursday morning, and I told myself Saturday is going to be the day I get back on the court.
I took the train out to NYU Brooklyn Athletic Facility at the MetroTech campus. I’ve only been to this facility 1-2 times before, and never actually saw the basketball court. The gym is still new and shows signs of construction around the locker room and weight rooms. I made my way to the locker room and took out my Nike Hyperdunks from my Nike duffel bag which I’ve done hundreds of times. I also took out a compression sleeve I had received a few years back when I had a minor strain to my MCL.
When my Hyperdunks hit the locker room floor, something clicked in my brain. It was a strange sensation, almost like deja vu. This was an act I’ve done time and time again, stopped doing for 9 months, and picked it up again after the break. It feels like seeing your high school friend, no matter how many years have passed, you still feel a sense of familiarity and closeness regardless of time passed.
Akin to a soldier putting on his gear to go into battle, I too felt like I was finally getting a shot at some action. I loosely tied my shoes, locked my duffel bag, and made my way up to the court.
There was already a 5-on-5 game going on and I saw a few people shooting around on one side of the court. An all too familiar feeling. I casually walked up to the guys shooting around and asked if they had next. They said they had 4 guys and I would be the 5th, so I came just in time. I walked over to the sideline and did my normal routine of dynamic stretching and got my legs warm.
I’ve written about my routine before, and the routine of playing a pickup basketball game is no different. The current game finally ends and there’s always a downtime of 5-10 minutes when the winning team takes a break to recover. Our team is waiting to play but no one’s ready and no one wants to be “that guy” who rushes everyone to get back on the court, so I just shoot around some more and get my body ready for what I hope to be a “light” game.
I end up guarding the best guy on the other team who is checking the ball, and in my mind I’m already saying “oh boy, here we go.” We’re at the top of the key and the guy checks me the ball. In this moment of getting passed the ball, I feel a smile come across my face. It was a smile I couldn’t hide because of all the giddiness and excitement I was feeling from actually getting to play again with guys who were semi-decent.
Over the last 9 months, this feeling made up for all the pain the few days following surgery, the helplessness during the first two weeks when my dad and friends helped me with the basics of life, and the rote stretching and strengthening every Sunday morning in my building’s small gym.
If I could bottle up that feeling of checking the ball and getting into a defensive stance, I would take that bottle and chug it every single day to re-live that euphoric experience. Perhaps it shows the influence basketball has on my life, or the satisfaction coming from working towards a goal, I knew that this would be a defining moment in my recovery process.
From that point on, the instincts and training took over. As I ran up and down the court on offense, started shuffling on defense, and jumped with 50% to grab rebounds, an internal voice told me to not give 100% and still guard against injury. I knew it wasn’t worth re-injuring something or trying to get back to the level I was before. I still remember a few moves that as I was doing them, I affirmed to myself that I could still do certain things and “this felt like the old me.”
For instance, I caught the ball in the high post on one play, turned around to the defender and did a quick pump fake to get him in the air, and then dribbled into the lane for a light jump hook. On another play, I went around a screen on the baseline going towards the sideline, caught a pass, and hit a medium-range jumper. As I ran towards the screen and flared out, I remember feeling all the training of pivoting and change of direction coming to the surface, like this was the exact move I was supposed to do at this point in the game. After I sank the shot, a few of my teammates mumbled “nice shot” even though it was just a medium-range jumper on the baseline. That feeling of doing something good, and being recognized for it, is one of the reasons that keeps me going back to this game even though the play was short of extraordinary.
I lost all 3 games I played, but didn’t care since I was able to play full court and was actually contributing on both offense and defense. I remember one play I got a little ambitious, and actually had the ball on a fastbreak with only one defender in view. I passed half court dribbling as fast as I could, and knew the defender had good handles since he was the other team’s point guard. He cleanly swiped the ball from me and I broke my fall as best as I could careful not to injure anything, and as I got up told myself internally that was not the best idea (but I had to give it a shot any way).
Afterwards, we were all hanging out on the bleachers and I noticed a light scar on the knee of the guy who I was guarding. He was a black guy, about 5’11”, and similar build as me. I asked him if he had surgery and he said he had broke his knee back in high school hence the scar. I showed him my relatively fresh scar, and we both commiserated about the recovery process despite my injury happening a decade or so after his. For those who have gone through knee surgery recovery, that experience is fresh in your memory and gives you a perspective on conditioning, sports, and life that only others like you will understand.
The gym closed soon after our last game, and I headed back down to the locker room to pack my stuff. I left the court feeling high on adrenaline, and wish I could’ve played a few more games with these guys since it wasn’t a super serious game but still competitive enough for people to care. The next morning, the reality of what I’ve done set in.
A Hopefully Minor Setback
Long story short, I went a little too hard during pickup, and my knee swelled up a bit so I did the normal REST routine plus some NSAIDs. In all my years playing basketball, I’ve never had my knees swell up before after playing, but I’ve come to terms with the reality that this is my condition and will most likely happen in future games where I play too hard on my knee.
I went on vacation for a week and after coming back, swelling went down and I was ready to get back into strengthening and playing again. The problem was, I couldn’t run on the treadmill past 6.5mph without feeling some pain on my patella. I would try to warm up and stretch as much as I could, but once I started running/jogging at 8.0mph, the discomfort would set in and I didn’t feel like my knee was strong enough to maintain the fast speed.
After seeing my physio last week, the diagnosis is that I may have some light patella tendonitis or patellofemoral pain which is associated with over use of the knee joint. Apparently all ACL recovery patients who have used a patella autograft will go through this type of pain or discomfort at some point during their recovery, but it usually happens earlier in the recovery process, not this late in the game. I’ve never really had any issues with patella tendonitis so my physio said this may just be the syndrome catching up with me after I played those few games of basketball. Additionally, my Biodex measurement went to a 30% deficiency on my injured leg in terms of endurance or “slow” strength on my quad. My deficiency up until that measurement was only in the 10%-15% range.
The prescription, for now, is no agility or jumping, and no running at fast speeds for a week or so for the flare up to calm down. My routine is back to good ol’ strengthening doing squats, deadlifts, and other closed-chain exercises. I’m doing the elliptical now for cardio to avoid flaring up the patella on the treadmill.
Was it all worth it? Were those few pickup games worth the condition my knee is in right now? Absolutely. As irrational as it sounds, recreational athletes beat themselves up, recover, and get back into their sport to have the process start all over again. This constant performing and rebuilding cycle is what keeps you healthy and active to a certain extent, although my performance over time will continue to decrease with age. I’m getting a little poetic now, but I can’t help thinking about the work going into the last 9 months and the goal I’ve set for myself which is getting back to playing in various leagues and pickup ball.