Dominique Wilkins wouldn't wish a ruptured Achilles on his worst enemy. Where once he was the Human Highlight Reel, after his injury his game was changed forever. Elton Brand was never a highflier, but he felt the same pop that Kobe Bryant described after Friday night's crushing injury. His game changed, too. And Chauncey Billups can relate to the struggles of returning to the game late in his career after a devastating injury. It's a tremendous hurdle, even for an accomplished veteran and athletic freak of nature like Kobe. Wilkins, Brand, and Billups provide three case studies of players who made it back from Achilles injuries at different stages of their careers. The trio recently talked about their physical traumas and difficult rehabilitation efforts, and offered words of encouragement for the 34-year-old Bryant.
For the second year in a row, the Sixers’ season ended awash in the rosy glow of overachievement. It’s still an enchanting narrative, one that might feature Tom Berenger as Doug Collins in Basketball Educator: The Triumphant Ballad of Lavoy Allen. Yet again, the tough-but-golden-hearted headmaster led his plucky band of youngsters to new heights before being defeated by a heavy favorite. Last time it was the Heat, this time it was the Celtics. No shame there.
For Philly, a franchise that has reeked of mediocrity since Allen Iverson was banished to Denver, this has the intoxicating scent of progress. In 2010, they went 27-55; in 2011 they went 41-41 and made the playoffs; this season, they were 35-31 and ventured into the second round.
Superficially, the Sixers’ current trajectory resembles the ascension of the Thunder. From 2008 to 2011, Oklahoma City’s wins rose from 23 to 50 to 55. Both teams made significant leaps from the primordial muck and then gradually developed four-chambered hearts and tufty mammalian pelts. The Thunder are now bipedal, Urkel-spectacles-wearing, fully formed contenders. Philly is sort of like a giant prehistoric meerkat, awaiting opposable thumbs.
During the NBA lockout, the narrative unspooled by the vipers on the ownership side was that the league was in danger of being cleaved into two types of franchises. A small number were big-market teams in glittering, spired metropolises that collected superstars with the craven lust of billionaires taking trophy wives. The rest were clubs in backwater cow towns that collectively acted as a de facto farm system, nourishing ungrateful talent that fled to places with sunny weather and Fashion Weeks. It was heartbreaking enough to make Sweet Baby Gilbert cry.
But as we have seen in Miami, New York, and Los Angeles, a clusterfuck of superstars does not necessarily guarantee dominance. With the current salary cap, locking down three players with princely contracts means the rest of the roster will be fleshed out with unproven youngsters, waiver-wire offal, and veterans with one chipped hoof in the glue factory.
Maybe somewhere, though, between the Parnassian peaks where the haves frolic and the swamps where have-nots lurk, a third path exists. Yes, the NBA’s middle-class dream is alive in Philadelphia.