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When Should Professional Athletes Play Through Injuries?

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Ex-professional European basketball player Brian Freeman breaks down the process players go through when dealing with injuries and handling the decision to play or sit, and how it applies to Jusuf Nurkic in the Blazers-Warriors series.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers
“If you play, we won't even ask you to play defense. Just help us rebound. You can do that right?”
Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: This is the debut article in a new series from former professional basketball player Brian Freeman, who will be providing insights into a player’s perspective and approach to the game every other week for Blazer’s Edge. Brian can be found via email (Bfreemo24@gmail.com) or on Twitter (@BrianFreeman24) for questions or future topic suggestions.


I’ve been asked by more than a few different people, “What’s the worst part of being a professional basketball player?” It wasn’t the travel, the pressure, media, or even the referees. I believe most athletes would agree with me when I say the worst part about being a professional basketball player is dealing with injuries.

I played in Europe professionally for the last eight seasons before retiring last December, experiencing my share of injuries throughout my career. The massive season-ending injuries are—of course—the worst, but the most frustrating injuries are the ones that have the player toeing the line between healthy and too injured to play; no player wants to sit when they are physically able to play, but the risks of playing when they are not ready could be even greater.

Why is Jusuf Nurkic Sitting Out?

The Blazers’ star big man, Jusuf Nurkic, is going through that decision process right now. After a game against the Houston Rockets in late March, an MRI revealed a non-displaced right leg fibular fracture that would need to be reevaluated two weeks later. Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Nurkic could be available to return by the playoffs as long as he feels “fully functional and pain-free.”

After the two-week evaluation, it was still undecided whether Nurkic would be suiting up in Game 1 of the playoff series between the Blazers and Warriors. It was not until an hour before tip-off when the media learned that the “Bosnian Beast” would not be playing. On Tuesday, Nurkic revealed that he’d miss Game 2, as well.

It was positive to hear Nurk was not rushed out on the court for Game 1. Coming back too early could end up costing him minutes later in the series, or even worse, create more injury complications for him long-term. However, it was just as concerning to hear he is still not healthy enough to play. Nurkic would have never sat if he were healthy—athletes at this level are not wired to sit when they feel they can play. They would not have made it this far if they were wired differently.

Playing Through Pain for the Fans

Fans love an athlete willing to battle through injuries to help their team win. Many of the best moments we have in sports are stories about overcoming massive physical odds: Tiger Woods in the 2008 US Open, Keri Strung in the 1996 Olympics, or Michael Jordan in Game 5 of 1997 NBA finals. Fans and the media eat that up.

As players, we know this. We eat it up too. We’re aware of the risks, but want to be that player who won even while he was hurt. That is what makes the decision to sit or play so hard. During my tenure as a basketball player, I experienced all that goes into making that decision.

In short, I was never very good at it. I felt like my reputation was on the line, and that the team and the fans were counting on me. I wanted a stage to show my toughness. If I could play, I played. The consequences were often devastating. One season, I became extremely ill before a game and refused to sit out. I spent the next two nights in the emergency room with an infection near my heart.

A few years later, I tried to come back early from a small tear in my calf that was supposed to keep me out one week. I came back early, re-tore it the next game, and set myself back three more weeks. I was then faced again with an option to play or take another week of rest. Naturally, I played and tore it again, costing myself six more weeks. The following season I tore my achilles. I worked as hard as I could to get back on the court as soon as possible and was back playing just five months later. As soon as I was cleared, I refused to ever sit out another drill.

A Pro Basketball Career Cut Short

Multiple compensation injuries followed and I was never able to get anywhere close to being the same player I was. Once I realized this, my permanent retirement followed. Every time I played through an injury, the team was grateful, the fans applauded my toughness, and my reputation grew. I thought that mattered. In reality, my poor judgement not only hurt my team, but it shortened my career.

I never went into a game believing I would get hurt. When I played, I played believing that I was healthy. The reality is that after the first few weeks of the season, no player is pain-free. Basketball is a physically demanding sport and no player at that level escapes the aches and pains that pop up throughout a season. It gets to a point that players play through so many little injuries, they become numb to the pain. It happens in all sports.

Those aches that become overly bothersome or stick around too long get reported to the trainers or medical staff. The smaller ones are expected to just go away with time and general treatment (ice, massage, stretching). Distingushing the difference between the two can be tricky. Players are not doctors and doctors do not have the ability to feel what a player is feeling. I cannot count the times I’ve heard a member of the medical staff ask a player, “Why did you not disclose this to us earlier?” The player’s response is almost always, “I didn’t think it was big deal, at first.”

Throughout my career there were many times I tried to diagnose myself. I often wondered if I was feeling a typical ache or if I needed actual medical attention. Even when I tried to describe the symptoms to the trainers, I felt like I was trying to describe a suspect—whom I saw from a distance the night before after a few too many beers—to a police sketch artist. It’s tough to gauge exactly what you feel while describing it accurately. When I tore my calf, the pain level was zero when I was jogging, cutting or lightly jumping. It wasn't until I really pushed it that I felt it wasn’t healed.

By that time, it was too late.

Is Nurkic Playing in the Playoffs Worth the Risk?

That may be where Nurkic is at right now with his leg injury. The Blazers’ medical staff knows the progress he’s made and they understand the risks. He has participated in a few light, non-contact, pre-game workouts and has been staying in shape and getting ready for the postseason. But even if the doctors see that Nurk is “fully functional and pain-free,” there will definitely be a risk.

Considering the Blazers are the No. 8 seed and already down a game against the NBA’s best team—the Golden State Warriors—there’s but a tiny chance the Blazers could win the series even if Nurk did play. There’s not likely much upside in risking further injury.

Either way, if Nurkic does not end up playing at all in the postseason, it will have nothing to do with his toughness or desire to be on the court. It will only be because he A) couldn't play, or B) was smart enough to accept some good advice.

—Brian Freeman | Bfreemo24@gmail.com | @BrianFreeman24