The non-c0ntact injury is the scariest of them all.

Sure, there have been some humdingers when bodies have collided and joints get twisted in ways that were not meant to be twisted. Think Joe Theismann.

But for whatever reason, the injuries that occur when nary a soul is around the victim, often are among the most devastating.

Dan Marino played 17 years in the rough-and-tumble world of pro football, at quarterback, no less—a position where boys are grown on farms in Iowa and Nebraska specifically to destroy.

Yet I watched in 1993 on television when Marino was felled by…no one.

The game was played in Cleveland. On the sod of Municipal Stadium, Marino did some tap dancing in the pocket, avoiding a pass rush. He did a good job of avoiding potential sackers, but suddenly he collapsed, writhing in pain.

Marino had popped his Achilles tendon. He missed the rest of the season, and nobody had touched him.

Norm Nixon was a whirling dervish of a guard who had starred for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1977-83, and who was playing for the same town Clippers in 1986 when he stepped into a hole in New York’s Central Park during a celebrity softball game.

Nixon missed the entire 1986-87 season, and the only contact he had was his foot in a hole.

Professional basketball players are rough on their knees, ankles and feet. They stop, start and accelerate very abruptly and with violence.

Sometimes a tendon or a ligament gives way, with no contact involved—unless you count sneaker-to-floor.

Brandon Jennings, Pistons point guard whose exemplary play had led his team to a 12-3 run starting just before Christmas, was guarding an in-bounds pass on Saturday night in Milwaukee. No one was near enough to breathe on him, let alone make any physical contact with him.

It was one of those injuries where, when watching on TV, you don’t notice it right away.

But then the camera cut to Jennings, who was inexplicably on the court, in great distress. By the looks of things, something was seriously wrong with his left leg, below the knee.

Everyone wearing Pistons blue, and coach Stan Van Gundy, and the fans watching back home in Detroit, got a sinking feeling.

Non-contact injury. Not good.

You hope for the best and expect the worst when these things happen, and with Jennings, it was the latter.

The worst: a ruptured Achilles.

Prognosis: out for the season and then some.

Jennings may miss a calendar year, if his recovery falls in line with similar injuries to basketball players.

It was a slug in the gut to the Pistons, who’d been prancing through their schedule with unbridled enthusiasm, fun and winning on enemy courts with stunning normalcy.

Jennings was the unquestioned leader of the resurgence, though the Pistons have had many heroes since December 22, when the team shockingly released Josh Smith, which spawned the 12-3 run.

Prior to the injury, Jennings was playing out of his mind, scoring and assisting and defending and growing more comfortable in the idea of the Pistons being “his team.”

The game before the injury, Jennings posted a 20/20 (points/assists), which was the first in the NBA in over five years.

Van Gundy has needed a thesaurus to describe Jennings’ play on a nightly basis over the past month.

The injury is rotten luck for a team that could sure use some good fortune.

So let’s go looking for a silver lining to this latest cloud.

During the 12-3 run, the Pistons have rightly pointed to the host of players who have contributed mightily to the team’s success. It’s not just one guy, they have said over and over.

Despite Jennings’ spectacular play, this is true.

So here’s the Pistons’ chance to prove that they’re not just made of one guy.

Backup D.J. Augustin, who now assumes Jennings’ starting role, is off to a good start in his new job. On Saturday in Toronto, Augustin scored 35 points and dished out eight assists. The Pistons lost, but the pain of the loss was at least partially mitigated by Augustin’s performance.

And here’s where Van Gundy’s dual role of coach and president comes into play.

As a coach, he doesn’t have to petition his GM for a certain player to take Jennings’ place on the roster.

As president, he doesn’t have to convince his coach of anything personnel-wise.

Van Gundy wears both hats, and this is a prime example of why the Pistons thought hiring one man to do both jobs was a good idea.

It’s an unwanted, unplanned example, but here we are.

Van Gundy, like his players, has no choice but to carry on in Jennings’ absence. But with the power invested in him by owner Tom Gores—power that all but a handful of NBA coaches don’t possess—SVG can move on without any hint of disconnect between the court and the front office, which happens more often in the NBA than you think.

It was that disconnect that Van Gundy spoke of back in May, when he was introduced to the media and explained why he took the Detroit job over others that may have been closer to winning.

Those supposedly more attractive jobs were coaching-only gigs, and Van Gundy talked about how sometimes the coach and the front office don’t always see eye-to-eye.

Hence his decision to take the Pistons job, with its direct pipeline from the offices to the court.

Brandon Jennings’ heartbreaking Achilles injury is awful, but at least with one man running the basketball show, and with the players buying into that one man’s message, maybe it will be a little easier to overcome.

 

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