Lube Shop Chronicles: A Rundown of Some Injured Bigs Past

Large men! - USA TODAY Sports

Remember back in January, when Bynum's return seemed imminent? Our current bloglord, Michael of the House Levin, first of his name (known to me, anyway) wrote:

I don't know how this turned into a SIGN ANDREW BYNUM post, but here we are. Locking up a healthy Bynum for 3-4-5 years is the most important task the Sixers have had since they failed at trading Iverson. It's a chance to build a consistent contender like they were through the better part of the 80's. That doesn't happen without Drew.

Why Do Win Shares Hate The Sixers?, Jan. 21, 2013 (emphasis added).

If you look through the comments of a three-month old post, and Lord knows, why wouldn't you, you'll see I didn't like Mike's use of the cute little adjective "healthy". "Healthy" Andrew Bynum ain't an option: only Andrew who missed (at that time) half-a-season Bynum. Thoughts of a possible fanpost on other injured big men danced through my head, but were immediately crushed by one of the typically non-supportive Liberty Ballers writers:

Jerk. Undaunted, I engaged in a race against optimism, frantic to get the post up before Bynum's return enveloped us all in a haze of warmth and joy. Then something good came on TV, or whatever, and the post became something I'd get around to writing eventually. Happily, Bynum never came back, and the warmth and joy I "tried" to outrun were replaced with the familiar stank, stagnant pool that is Sixers. No need to run to catch this bus.

After three months of what could best be described as "sporadic, half-assed research", I'm gonna vomit out the contents of the "Injured Bigs" section of my "Sixers" OneNote notebook. Enjoy!


Step 1 was figuring out who would qualify as an injured big. In one sense, every NBA center qualifies. As Kevin McHale recounted in a BS Report podcast, a player's first day in the NBA is the last time he feels 100%. BS Report, Apr. 16, 2010.(There's a fun part where the good ol' Boston Sports Guy starts rambling about how close the Celtics came to winning 5 titles in the '80s, and McHale floors him by nothing how close they were to winning only one. McHale specifically notes Game 6 of the '81 Eastern Finals as a game won by a fingernail.)

I'm not really sure what would be involved in examining "everyone", but it sounds like wayyy more work than I'd ever actually perform. Instead of "feeling less than perfect", my cutoff was players who missed "a lot" of time. My tolerance for doing things scientifically having been expended, I did not adopt any particularly methodology for determining what constituted "a lot".

Web searching eventually led me to a "Devastating Injuries" thread posted by Robert Bradley on the Association for Professional Basketball Research (APBR) forum. Looking through that list, I saw some familiar names. Unfamiliar ones fell under the rubric of "too much work." You want to research Elmore Smith, go nuts.


While I like to think of myself as a man of reason, when it comes to NBA big-man injuries, I'm prone to fear the absolute worst. My uninformed, unscientific view is that NBA big-men who play through the pain of a prior injury will make subtle adjustments to their playing style that may result in a different and potentially catastrophic injury.

No human body, particularly one 7 feet in height, was designed to repeatedly jump and land on hardwood flooring.

The Players

Bill Cartwright

I'm saving the most horrifying one for first. Did you know Bill Cartwright was once good? How good? Sports Illustrated feature highlighting how the New York Knicks rookie was so overlooked good. Were It Any Other Year, Roy S. Johnson, Mar. 17, 1980.

Before the '84-'85 season, Cartwright broke his foot. Then, while practicing in November, he broke it again, ending his season. He had surgery, and after the team physician predicted a full recovery, the Knicks gave him a long term deal. Remember, this was after Bill had just missed an entire season. How'd that turn out?

Sweet-shooting 7'1" center Bill Cartwright, who missed all of last season with a broken foot, is sidelined until at least mid-December after having fractured—for the third time—the fifth metatarsal bone of his left foot in an exhibition game. But five years and $6 million are guaranteed in the six-year, $7 million contract the Knicks gave him just before the injury occurred. The Knicks gambled—and lost—that the surgery performed last December by team physician Norman Scott would turn Cartwright back into the 17.0 scorer, .561 shooter he was in '83-84. The word is they signed him only after Scott had told them that Cartwright's foot would be able to withstand the rigors of regular NBA play.

Horror Show in the Big Apple, Jack McCallum, Nov. 18, 1985.

Cartwright actually returned to action in January '86. For 2 games. Then he was shut down for the second straight season. If you're looking for precedent on what can go wrong with giving a center coming off a season ending injury a long term deal, well...this might be the worst case scenario.

Bill Walton

But then again, it might not. If you haven't read David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, read it. His The Best and the Brightest was one of my favorite books, but I had never read any of his sports stuff until Bill Simmons called Breaks, "the perfect book about the perfect team" in a column following Halberstam's death. A tribute to the ultimate teacher, Apr. 28, 2007.

I'm not qualified to say whether the book touches on everything there is to know about professional basketball. But if someone who was told me that, I'd believe it. Aside from some rather jarring use of the word "blacks" (such as the blacks on the team), it holds up well three decades later.

While the book tells much of the Blazers '77 championship season, it does so through the prism of chronicling the '79-80 campaign. By that time, Bill Walton's feet derailed a dynasty in Portland, and destroyed a franchise in San Diego. Not to mention, dramatically shaped his entire life. The Clippers bought in to the belief that Walton's injuries--that had cost him more than an entire season--were manageable. They weren't. As a Sixers fan, it's hard to feel sorry for the '77 Blazers--their glory came at our expense. But the book portrays all its characters so vividly, it's hard not to form some attachment.

Brad Daugherty

Speaking of hard, (how's that transition?), it's hard to believe that Brad Daugherty wasn't always known for his NASCAR commentary. Once upon a time, he went first overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had obtained the pick under circumstances that I somehow can't recall ... what day is this? Where am I? Is that blood?

Though nobody realized it at the time, Daugherty's solid career in Cleveland ended with a back injury suffered "when he bent down to pick up his shoes." SI, Michael Farber, Nov. 7, 1994. (Tanner: my apologies, but I was unable to find a picture of the shoes.)

Foot problems had sidelined him for the opening of the '89-90 season, Injury Bug Has Cavs for Lunch, Bob Ford, Nov. 29, 1989, but the herniated discs cut him down almost five years later. Tough, even for a savage like me to connect those injuries. Chalk this one up to a rare spot of rotten luck for Cleveland.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Let's remain with Cleveland, shall we?

"If Z plays, great, but we can't hide behind his foot any longer," says coach John Lucas, who replaces the fired Randy Wittman. "We've got to uproot the ghosts of bad luck and bad feet and start winning." Adds point guard Andre Miller, "My mind-set is, What if Z's not out there? What can we do? I look at the worst circumstances first."

SI, Daniel Habib, Oct. 29, 2001. How many of those names made you laugh, if only just a little? Another fun snippet from that article: Z-man had missed "all but 29 games over the [prior] three seasons because of a fractured bone in his left foot."

By the way, even in devastating big-man injuries, Cleveland can't win. They are third, behind the Knicks, and Portland--the Montreal Canadiens of this category.

Greg Oden

Sam Bowie

Odds Bynum signs with Portland?

I've never been to Portland, Los Angeles, or Austin, Texas, partly out of a fear that if I visited, I'd want to stay, but, unable to find steady work, would eventually get forced into a choice of leaving in failure or dramatically adjusting my threshold for minimum acceptable living standards. Mostly, though, it's because Rehoboth pretty much nails every one of my vacation needs.

That Oden-Durant, and Bowie-Jordan both involved the same franchise is beyond my comprehension. Toss in the Walton thing, and how it derailed a legendary dynasty "that played the right way" ... poor Portland.

Willis Reed

Speaking of legendary dynasties "that played the right way", hello, New York.

Before we get to Reed, let me ask, have you ever read Freakonomics,a book by economist-Steven Levitt and author Stephen Dubner? If so, then you're already familiar with the concept of "fellating, but with words." The book consists of two mismatched styles crammed together, like an Oreo cookie filled with gum. There are chapters containing Levitt's theories. These are generally interesting. Then, between the chapters, there are excerpts from Dubner's downright discomfiting New York Times Magazine profile of Levitt that are best described as "fellating, but with words." As opposed to, you know, an author actually fellating a biographical subject (SFW Daily Show Link).

That same phrase describes each of the 400,000 books written about the Old Knicks, of which Willis Reed was "The Captain." Now, to be fair, I didn't read all of those books. In fact, I read only one: When The Garden Was Eden, by Harvey Araton. And it's a fine book. There's just something more than a little off-putting about the "best that ever was, or will be" musk that serves as a virtual dust jacket for everything written about those teams.

Reed's injury during Game 5 of the '70 Finals served as prologue to the most dramatic return to action in NBA Finals history. What caused it?

How and why he tore his right tensor muscle remains something of a mystery. [According to Reed], "I think because of the pain in my left knee, I may have instinctively shifted all of the weight to my right side as I made my move around Wilt."
. . .
Once [Reed] pressed play [on a tape of Game 5], the first thing he notices was his limp: faint and unnoticeable to a layman like me. He was certain now that the injury had occurred because he had favored his left knee and leaned too heavily to the right.

Araton, p.p. 143, 145-46.

Reed was 27 at the time of the injury. After several injury plagued seasons (mostly knees), and a second title over the Lakers, Reed retired at the ripe old age of 31.

Both Araton and Halberstam's books illustrate the needle-happy training staff that populated the 70s NBA. Walton famously fell out with Blazer management due to his distrust of the medical staff, likely fostered by stories handed down by players such as Reed, who seemingly paid the price for getting shot up, then playing through pain. Sports medicine has presumably come a long way since 1970 (I'm not remotely qualified to say). It presumably had already come a long way by 1986, when just a year removed from the Knicks decision to extend a recovering Cartwright ...

Jeff Ruland

What day is this? Where am I? That is blood!

As Justin F. effectively wrote back in November, the trade for Bynum was nothing like the trade for Ruland. Re-signing Bynum? ... Well, that comparison is a bit closer, now isn't it?

Ralph Sampson

Re-siging and or trading for centers with major injury history was kind of a thing in the mid-80s. As the first-in, first out of the Rockets' Twin Towers, Ralph experienced both in dizzying succession. First, the Rockets gave him a 6-year extension just before the '87-88 season. Then they tried to move him. Who would be stupid enough to ignore that red flag?

"Ralph's dominance is not going to be like Moses Malone's and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's," says Warriors general manager Don Nelson.

The Center of Their Hopes, Hank Hersch, Jan. 19, 1988.

No argument there, Don. Sampson's knees broke down completely, and the extension outlived his career. In Grantland's oral history of the 80s Rockets, there's a discussion of whether Sampson's knee issues stemmed from an earlier hip injury. The Greatest Team That Never Was, Jonathan Abrams, Nov. 8, 2012. The piece also includes Nelson's take on the trade, which was basically, "We knew about the knees, but we really hated Joe Barry Carroll." Nobody ever called the "wins-but-not-winning-percentage-king" an architect, folks.

Yao Ming

The same can't be said for Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who inherited a star player whose injuries were affairs of state:

When the NBA's Houston Rockets first sought permission from China's sports authorities to sign Yao Ming to play in the NBA, there was one term that was nonnegotiable: Yao would play for China's Olympic team, no matter what.
* * *
He was emotional at a news conference shortly after the injury, insisting that his foot would get better, that he would play. It was as if he were willing it to be so. And so it is — even though various physicians in the U.S. have been quoted as saying that coming back this quickly from his particular injury is pushing it.

100 Olympic Athletes to Watch: 5 - Yao Ming, Bill Powell, July 24, 2008

Yao had suffered a stress fracture in his left foot that February, while the Rockets were in the midst of a rather improbable 22 game win-streak. It was his fourth leg or foot injury in three seasons. He played in the Olympics, and throughout the '08-09 season until Game 3 of the Rockets second round series with the Lakers, when:

Yao broke his foot. Again. Okay, whatever. So Yao is out for the playoffs. But should he be? Everyone who watched the game on Friday saw that Yao was hurt and hobbling in the second quarter. Everyone also saw that by the fourth quarter, the Rockets simply were not going to win. Yet Yao played another 40 minutes and was not removed from the game until a minute was left. At some point he went from being "hurt" to being "injured." This should have been avoided. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what the f--k was Rick Adelman thinking?!?

Yao is out, grungedave, May 10, 2009

Chalk it up to nationalism, good old fashioned coachin', or feet that just couldn't sustain the unnatural grind, but that was effectively the end of Yao's career. I suppose some big men just weren't meant to play basketball.

Wilt Chamberlain

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Shaquille O'Neal

And then again, some were.

God, the Lakers. Wilt missed most of the '69-70 season with a serious knee injury, but returned in time for the playoffs, where he had a front-row seat for Reed's heroics (a fact discussed in great detail in Araton's book). He didn't miss another game, winning a second ring in '72, and retiring after the Lakers fell to New York in the '73 Finals.

Kareem went to UCLA. Walton went to UCLA. Kareem came out as the no-doubt about it first pick. So did Walton. Kareem was a notorious health and nutrition nut. So was Walton. Kareem led a mid-western expansion team to a title. Walton, a Pacific-northwestern expansion team. Kareem missed a few games due to a hand injury once, but was otherwise arguably the most durable player in NBA history, and retired as the all-time points leader following the '89 season, in which the Lakers fell short of grabbing their 6th title in the 80s, losing in their 8th Finals appearance of that decade. Walton...uh...had red hair...and, uh, came off the bench for the Celtics that one season. If it weren't so darn bike friendly, I might be tempted to move Portland below L.A. on that places I probably will never live in list I was talking about. (Personal note: my girlfriend got me a bike for my birthday so I'd be less of a lazy fat-ass. Also, I may or may not have used being overweight to justify putting off our engagement due to concerns over my triple-chin appearing on a save the date fridge-magnet. I'm less of a Lance Armstrong share-the-road crusader, and more of a "Did that guy just ride into a telephone poll?" curb hugger. Bike lanes and paths are my friend.)

Shaq was neither particularly durable, nor injury prone. I, quite frankly, don't have the heart to head over to Silver Screen and Roll and see if Laker fans discounted Bynum's injuries due to their Shaq experience. But out of love for you, you who have made it this far, I did it anyway:

Mikan was a horse, Wilt was seemingly invulnerable, Kareem was pretty much the same, Shaq rested for half the season until the playoffs, and Bynum gets nicked up a lot. [Bynum]'s going to be here a long time, and we're going to have to get used to this.

Long term reality with Bynum and Injuries, Fanpost by LakersFan2009, Mar. 20, 2010.

That makes me feel pretty bad. But, is there something else on point that could make me feel even worse?

What I have doubted about you[Note: you meaning Bynum, not the Hubie Brown "you"], like just about everyone else in Lakers Nation, is your ability to stay healthy (of course) and your maturity. There's nothing you can do about injuries. You haven't been all fat and lazy like Shaq was. You've just been unlucky, no hard feelings there.
* * *
Recently, you've shown a confidence in your athleticism and skill that should make the NBA shudder. Those post moves and quick spin and dunks you threw down on Darko Milicic and Nikola Pekovic? I had a flashbacks of Shaq. Almost made me understand why Jim Buss is reportedly so in love with you. Your combination of size, strength, and quickness is usually unfuckwitable when all put together.

Player of the Week: Andrew Bynum, wondahbap, Mar. 10, 2012.

Yeah, that made me feel much worse. Which brings us to ...

Andrew Bynum

To be determined ...

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