TO THE UNTRAINED EYE, Kristaps Porzingis looked fresh and rested as he walked into the Quicken Loans Arena for a late-December game in Cleveland. And for the first three quarters, he played that way.
But even if the 20-year-old rookie phenom looked good on the outside, on the inside his body was surely a mess. For the past three months, it had been systematically trashed by the NBA's silent killer: its grueling 82-game schedule. New York had just come off a three-games-in-four-nights stretch, which had come on the heels of a three-games-in-four-nights swing through Utah, Sacramento and Portland. Not surprisingly, Carmelo Anthony had rolled his ankle late in a game two nights earlier and was now out.
Sure enough, by the fourth quarter, the hormonal, mental and physical aftershock of the Knicks' schedule emerged into full view. With a minute left, Porzingis, who had scored 23 points in the first three quarters, had yet to score in the fourth and was visibly dragging. The Knicks trailed by four and needed a stop. And with the entire arena on its feet, LeBron James -- coming off a luxurious, if rare, two days of rest -- made his move. From the left corner, LeBron darted toward Porzingis before rising up for a sky-high one-handed slam. Instead of challenging James at the rim, Porzingis ducked away, like a matador. The Cavs would win by seven, with the Knicks mustering just 12 points in the fourth, tying their then-season low.
For the NBA, LeBron's slam was the stuff of dreams: A superstar soaring for a game-clinching dunk is the very thing that sells tickets, spikes ratings and launches Vines. But here's the thing: It almost never happens, and for reasons most people don't realize.
As it turns out, the fourth-quarter dunk is a rare phenomenon. From the 2005-06 season through 2014-15, there were nearly 5,000 fewer dunks in the fourth quarter compared with the first, a decline of 20 percent. In fact, dunks become rarer with each passing quarter: from an average of 1.98 in the first to 1.59 in the fourth. More fascinating: The overall frequency falls 24 percent when teams play on zero days' rest versus one day off, dropping from 5.5 dunks per game to 4.2. The upshot: It took a dog-tired Knicks team on the road against a fresh Cavs squad to produce that James highlight.
It's merely one of a hundred signals that NBA players are exhausted and sleep-deprived. In this case it was to the benefit of the highlight makers. But the evidence suggests that, over the course of a season, all players -- and fans -- end up losing.
"It makes no sense to me," says Dr. Charles Czeisler, director of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. "These guys are so extraordinarily talented, and it's a shame that they're being impaired. It'd be like the NBA saying, 'OK, let's see how they do if we starve the players. OK, let's see how they do if we make them all drunk before they play, so everybody has to do six shots before they do the game.' Would anyone in their right minds consider that?"
STEPHEN CURRY DIDN'T know if he'd wake up owning a dead man's tendons.
It was April 25, 2012, and inside the Southern California Orthopedic Institute in Van Nuys, a renowned surgeon hovered over a baby-faced, decreasingly conscious Curry. In the vast majority of the ankles operated on by Dr. Richard Ferkel, who's cut thousands of holes into hundreds of NBA players since 1983, he knew precisely what he'd find well before the anesthesia started pumping -- structural damage, scar tissue, etc. But here in this fourth-floor operating room, something wasn't adding up with his 185-pound patient. As the clock ticked and the Curry family prayed just down the hall, Steph went to sleep a mystery.
Before the drugs hit, Ferkel had explained a range of potential outcomes. Less than a year before, in Curry's hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, a specialist had already sliced open that same right ankle and rebuilt two ligaments that had stretched apart like a rotting sweater. The worst-case scenario now? Total re-reconstruction, meaning that everything rebuilt in Curry's first surgery would be reattempted. If that proved necessary, they'd use better parts -- specifically, tendons from a cadaver -- and the projected recovery time would be at least six months. But such an operation would also be extreme enough that no one would be sure how the new hinge would hold up on the court. One near certainty: With Curry's rookie deal expiring in six months, on Nov. 1, 2012, his future with Golden State would be that much hazier. His agent would likely need to negotiate an extension before the undead ankle could appear in a game.
Understand: The four doctors and two nurses in the operating room didn't know they were endeavoring to save the future of the NBA. Nobody, anywhere, considered that a 24-year-old who was still getting carded at California Pizza Kitchen was the impending nightmare of both LeBron James and Kevin Durant. At this point, Curry's trajectory was just depressing: In his first NBA season after the original procedure, he suffered five ankle sprains while playing in a mere 26 games.
"He was turning his ankle in completely nontraditional, crazy ways," Warriors general manager Bob Myers says. One time, Curry turned it while hopping into a passing lane during a preseason game against the Lakers. Another time, he was dribbling upcourt against the Spurs, with no one around, only to have his right foot fishtail like an old tire on black ice. "It was scary," Myers says. "I'd never seen someone sprain his ankle like that prior to Steph. And I haven't seen it since."
The league had once envisioned Curry as a sharpshooter with a close-up magician's gift of misdirection. But now, as the Warriors guard rested atop Ferkel's operating table, his career resembled a crossover in reverse: a case of ankles breaking a man. "People started saying, 'Steph's got glass ankles. Steph's Grant Hill 2.0,'" recalls Bryant Barr, Curry's best friend and college teammate at Davidson. "He didn't hide his emotions, his frustration, for anyone." In college, somehow, Curry had no history of right ankle trouble. As a pro? The sight of the guy chucking his mouth guard, punching a padded chair or slapping the floor in existential agony became more memorable than any highlight.
When Curry eventually blacked out on the operating table, however, a rather remarkable thing happened. A recent battery of strength tests, nerve tests, X-rays, MRIs and CAT scans had all failed to resolve why his ankle kept buckling. But a set of stress X-rays conducted midsleep, when pain can't impact motion, formally ruled out any structural damage to the ligaments. A 1-ounce HD camera snaked into Curry's subtalar and ankle joints produced images of thick, sticky bands of scar tissue -- "like crab meat," Ferkel says -- as well as inflamed tissue, bone spurs and chips of cartilage. To anyone else, orthopedic seafood might be revolting. To Curry, "it was good news," he says. "The least intrusive outcome." A motorized device called a shaver scraped and vacuumed all of it away in less than 90 minutes. No zombie tendons necessary. Projected recovery time: three to four months.
Easier said than done, of course. Three months later, in July 2012, Curry was rehabbing with his personal trainer, Brandon Payne, when he made a startling confession: "I feel like I've been doing nothing but rehabbing for two years," Curry quietly told him. "I feel like I'm never going to be able to play again."
He looked exceptionally miserable. And everyone could see it.
"Steph was sick and tired of it," Myers recalls. "He said, 'This ankle thing is not gonna be my life.'"
Kobe Bryant and LeBron James play each other Wednesday night, Bryant's final game in Cleveland.
Their matchup over the years has been one of cross-conference shadow boxing; injury and circumstance have prevented them from having an epic playoff showdown. One or the other played in every NBA Finals from 2007 to 2015, but never against each other.
There is another piece of history the two share, one mostly hidden until now. According to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the event, the Lakers once contacted the Cavs to investigate whether Cleveland would make James available in a possible Bryant trade.
INDIANA PACERS COACH Larry Bird wasn't even sure which play his team was running because his damn heart was kicking out again. He wondered if anyone noticed him sweating profusely, his shirt drenched under his suit and tie, an all-too-familiar symptom whenever his heart started rattling around his chest like a basketball in an empty trash barrel. The waves of nausea and dizziness overtook him next, muddling his concentration and leaving him feeling light-headed. When the sudden arrhythmia would occur during his training sessions in his playing days -- long before he'd informed any medical personnel about it -- he would always lie down immediately and nap for several hours, because if he didn't, he risked losing consciousness.
But on March 17, 1998, the 41-year-old coach of the Eastern Conference-contending Pacers, in the thick of a hotly contested game with the defending champion Bulls, could hardly recline and sleep it off. "Oh god," Bird thought as he tried to steady himself on the Indiana sideline. "Please don't let me pass out on the court."
Instead, the referees whistled the customary television timeout, allowing Bird to sink into the chair his team dragged onto the court for him during stoppages in play. When Bird had been hired in 1997, he'd made the unorthodox decision to entrust assistant Rick Carlisle with drawing up offensive plays in the huddle. Now, as Carlisle diagrammed Indiana's next move against Michael Jordan and the Bulls, Bird wiped the sweat from his brow (and his wrists and neck) and tried to regain his composure.
He finished the game without further incident, avoiding detection from anyone on his staff. Bird, who has an enlarged heart, was diagnosed in 1995 with atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heartbeat resulting from electrical signals being generated chaotically throughout the heart's upper chambers. With proper medication, exercise and diet, atrial fibrillation can be controlled, but Bird abhorred medication and was prone to skipping his pills. Part of the reason, he admits, was his own fatalistic view of what the future would bring.
"I tell my wife all the time, 'You don't see many 7-footers walking around at the age of 75,'" says Bird, who's 6-foot-9. "She hates it when I say that. I know there are a few of us who live a long time, but most of us big guys don't seem to last too long. I'm not lying awake at night thinking about it. If it goes, it goes."
It's a macabre outlook for Larry Legend -- but he's hardly alone in harboring it. Ask a bunch of NBA big men and the consensus is that their atypical size and the strains placed on their bodies during their careers cause them to deteriorate more quickly and die younger. The bigger they are, the younger they fall -- or so they think. Is it possible they're right?
Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton assess Steph Curry's All-Time #NBArank. Watch TrueHoop TV.