BOSTON -- The realization that his rookie season was over set in for Jared Sullinger when he woke up the morning after taking himself out of a game against the Sacramento Kings in late January. The pain in his back wouldn't even allow Sullinger to walk.
"The only reason I walked was off pure determination to get to the hospital," Sullinger said. "Hopefully that puts an image in your eyes."
Doctors diagnosed the 20-year-old Sullinger with herniated disks that had bulged and had to be reset. Less than 48 hours after the back flared, he underwent corrective lumbar surgery, ending his rookie season after 45 games.
The pain made the decision to go under the knife easy. You could say Sullinger didn't even have a choice.
"No, they didn’t come to me saying, ‘We think you should have this.’ They came in and said, ‘We’re going to have this,’" Sullinger said. "I never thought about playing through it when I woke up that next morning and couldn't even walk."
Sullinger, Boston's top first-round pick (20th overall), had emerged as one of the Celtics' best rebounders and most consistent big men. He averaged 6 points and 5.9 rebounds over 19.8 minutes, while shooting 49.3 percent from the field. Those numbers spiked in January, when he averaged 7 points and 7.2 rebounds over 23.2 minutes per game while elevating to the starting lineup.
Red-flagged before the draft, which contributed to his slide from a lottery pick, Sullinger admitted he was hoping the back wouldn't be an issue until later in his career, but the rigors of the NBA season forced the issue. He hadn't experienced any pain prior to the Sacramento game, but landed awkwardly chasing a rebound in the opening minutes and said his back simply went out.
The long-term prognosis is encouraging and should prevent any recurrences of this issue. Sullinger, reclining in a chair while meeting with reporters before Wednesday's game at TD Garden, suggested having surgery this early in his career was a blessing.
And he has maintained his sense of humor despite the setback.
"I haven’t been doing anything besides Twitter and playing video games," Sullinger said. When a reporter asked if he was worried about a potential thumb injury from those hobbies, Sullinger quipped, "No, no. Arthritis in the future, yes, but no thumb injuries."
Sullinger said he originally tweaked his back on Nov. 29, 2011 in Ohio State's 85-63 dismantling of Duke. Even still, he didn't consider the back an issue until the Sacramento game.
"I wasn’t having back problems, it wasn’t sore, nothing was bothering me," he said.
Sullinger thinks he'll be able to elevate his play next season, in part because he's now familiar with the NBA lifestyle and because he might actually be able to elevate.
"I think I’ll come back better just because, with the back problem, I had limitations and doctors told me the two disks being herniated, it was only making my legs weaker," Sullinger explained. "Hopefully it’s a sign that I might be able to get off the ground more than two inches."
Sullinger is expected to be ready for the start of training camp next season.