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Wednesday, February 13, 2013
It's about a kid and a torn-up knee

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

A little before 2 p.m. ET, Kentucky officially announced what everyone suspected late on Tuesday night: Nerlens Noel is done for the season, his freshman year and likely his entire college career cut short by a torn ACL.

Within about three minutes of the news, everyone did what we do these days.

We projected and analyzed. What does it mean for Kentucky and the Wildcats' NCAA chances? What does it mean for the NBA and its one-and-done rule?

Nerlens Noel
Kentucky announced Wednesday that Nerlens Noel's injury in the Florida game was indeed a torn ACL.

Fair questions both.

But how about this one: What does it mean for Nerlens Noel? You know, the person, not the commodity?

He's 18.

Instead of prepping for a game against Tennessee, he's now prepping for surgery and a long and lonely road of rehab.

I've interviewed and spent time with two guys done in by the cruelty of ACL injuries (both twice, in fact). Robbie Hummel and Curtis Sumpter said the same thing: It is the most difficult and at times demoralizing process they've faced. You go from being a prime athlete, a walking Adonis, to grimacing as you try to coerce your leg up the equivalent of a one-stair riser.

Fans aren't there to cheer you on. There's no game tomorrow to prepare for. It's you, an athletic trainer, your own threshold for pain and a dim light at the end of a very long tunnel.

That's what lies ahead for Nerlens Noel.

And it stinks. Yes, it stinks for Kentucky. Yes, it stinks for NBA general managers. But mostly it stinks for him.

He won't return to Kentucky because he will be drafted. The NBA is all about potential and his is limitless. So eventually he'll make his money, too.

But think about how he was injured.

He was doubling back to try to block a shot in a game that was already all but in the books as a Kentucky loss.

There has been plenty written about Noel's arrival at Kentucky, about the less-than-honorable people affiliated with his prep school and the NCAA investigation he had to wait on before playing. So no one is setting out to canonize him here.

He's not a saint, nor is he a martyr. It's a blown-out knee, not the end of the world.

But if you've watched him even a little bit, you know he is a basketball player who is every bit as committed as he is gifted. He plays hard -- not with a showboater's preening, but a player's focus.

In 1999, I was at a Princeton lacrosse game when a defender by the name of Kurt Lunkenheimer tore his ACL in the second game of his senior season.

I was about to marry his athletic trainer, so when we carted Lunk, as he is called, back to the training room in the back of my soon-to-be-husband's car, I learned how bad the situation was.

Lunkenheimer wasn't going to go pro in anything but law. Still, he elected to avoid surgery and rehab so he'd have a slim chance to play again before his senior year ended.

Noel
In the pressure-cooked world of UK basketball, Noel has been first class. Now he faces the biggest challenge of his young career.

And he did, albeit gingerly, returning to the field for the Tigers' run to the NCAA tournament. He didn't have to. He was going to graduate with a degree from Princeton, head to law school and do just fine for himself.

But he wanted to.

And I think in times like this we tend to forget that. Nerlens Noel isn't Kurt Lunkenheimer. There is a lot more riding on his knee than there ever was on Lunk's. But really the two aren't all that different.

They're athletes first and last, guys who grew up playing their sport, who consider going to practice as much a part of their daily routine as brushing their teeth.

So imagine what it feels like when -- poof! -- it's gone.

Noel knows what his injury means to Kentucky. Noel knows what it could mean to his draft status.

But right now it means one thing: He can't play basketball for the foreseeable future.

For the past two years, the NCAA has been all but torpedoed by people demanding that college athletes be paid. We've lampooned and criticized the organization for treating its student-athletes as little more than the means to a very profitable end.

Are we any different?

Noel is the interchangeable part of the moment, just like Kyrie Irving was two years ago and Kenyon Martin many years before that.

Gone and though not forgotten, being processed like a piece of meat through the grinder.

So maybe in between dithering over his draft stock and fretting over Kentucky's NCAA tournament hopes, we can pause for a moment and think about Nerlens Noel.

Not Nerlens Noel the commodity or even the player.

Nerlens Noel the person.