It was a February night in Toronto when Elton Brand first heard the pop. He knew it was his Achilles tendon. He kept pushing anyway.
You're in a playoff race, he told himself. If you can run, you can play.
When the season was over, and his Clippers had been relegated to the all-too-familiar position of playoffs observers, the two-time All-Star continued pushing, forgoing Team USA's Olympic qualifier in favor of a summer of rehab, a summer dedicated to getting his body right. And it worked.
Brand was feeling as well as he had two summers prior -- the year his broad shoulders would carry the Clippers to within one game of the Western Conference finals -- when in August, during a game of one-on-one, the climax of his typical workout at the Clippers facility, the sweat, the sacrifice, the sliver of hope for a season on the rebound was all but gone with the pop heard 'round Clipper Nation. Brand had torn his Achilles.
Keep pushing. If the Clippers' playoff hopes now rest in one large walking boot, you can bet that boot's walking the Clippers' practice facility where, just days after having his cast removed and six weeks following surgery to repair his Achilles, Brand was back training.
And that's where he was Friday when he spoke to ESPN.com about his recovery, his hope for a season that he feels isn't yet lost, and a future that must lead him to a championship, whatever the cost.
Alipour: Take me back to last season and the history behind the Achilles problem.
Brand: I felt my Achilles pop during a Raptors game [on Feb. 4]. It wasn't as loud and violent as the full tear that happened this summer, but something definitely popped. I went over to our trainer, like, "Yo, I felt my Achilles pop." But I tied up my laces real tight, put weight on it, and it wasn't too bad. I've got a rule: If I can run, I can play.
Alipour: Pundits are quick to point out that your numbers were down last season, but heading into that Toronto game, particularly in the month of January, you were on a tear. Clearly, the Achilles limited you. Was it a mistake to play through it?
Brand: I'm not trying to sit out. I mean, we were in contention, so I'm going to give it my all. We looked at it and the MRI showed that there was something going on behind the Achilles, but we weren't sure exactly what. So I took a cortisone shot. It didn't subside the pain completely, but it did feel better. After the season, my trainer Jason Powell, my doctor in Delaware, along with the doctors here, they put me on a rehab plan. They said no explosion for a month, just skills stuff. Slowly, I'm doing more stuff, like playing one-on-one. Then Chris Kaman comes in
Alipour: And you felt you were good to play one-on-one at that point?
Brand: Yeah, I was cleared. I was asymptomatic. So I played him, and of course I was kicking his butt (Laughs), winning two games with blowouts. Then the third game, he cheated, didn't give me a foul that I called, so the next game, that's when I got hurt.
Alipour: Which one was more painful: Tearing the Achilles, or losing to Kaman?
Brand: The Achilles because I didn't lose. It's to-be-continued. Hey, if the lights go out, you play the next day (Laughs).
Alipour: I was speaking to The Rock recently, who tore his Achilles on his movie "The Game Plan," and he said, "There's no pain like the Achilles pain." Sound right?
Brand: Naw, it's not that bad.
Alipour: Are you saying The Rock is a sissy?
Brand: Yeah, kind of (Laughs). I thought The Rock was a tough guy, but if he says that's the worst pain, I don't know. A Goldberg body slam has got to be worse than that. But it was bad. A deep drum sound went through my body like a bang. I was like, "Oh man, this is serious." I was so disappointed. I put in a lot of work, even in that one-on-one. I was looking good, feeling good, and I had some lofty goals for my team and myself.
My uncle Rob, he's a tough guy, but when the doctor told us the diagnosis, he pulled over the car and teared up. (Laughs) He's not soft at all, so that's how emotional it was. But I'm always positive. It's just another hurdle, no pun intended.
Alipour: Come on, E.B. You sold out your uncle, but you're telling me you didn't shed a tear over this?
Brand: (Laughs) Not one. I was definitely down. I stayed home for three weeks, barely going outside. And I'm thinking like Michael Vick, or any professional athlete who got a prison sentence. Except, I've got TV and good food. But even though I can't run and jump, I can do dribbling drills, form shooting, push-ups, sit-ups. Keeping my legs and arms strong, it's going to be easier when it comes time to get back to it. I get to the practice facility every day around 7 a.m., and with the team trainer, I'm doing an hour and a half of rehab stuff. Then I get with the strength coach for lifting. In six weeks, I'll get rid of the boot and hit the court, doing drills, side-to-side, and after that, it depends on how the body feels.
Alipour: Do you have a goal in mind?
Brand: Oh yeah, I'm confident I'll be back. I'm not going to set a goal for myself, but I think my team is going to surprise some people. People are saying we'll be terrible, but we're not. We're the underdogs. We're going to embrace that role. Sam Cassell, Cuttino [Mobley], Tim Thomas, Chris Kaman, these guys have a lot of pride. You tell us we suck? Well, they're going to show you that we don't (Laughs). We'll fill that void and play well.
Alipour: You're quite an optimist. The Clippers have added Brevin Knight and Ruben Patterson, and Al Thornton through the draft, but they've hardly made waves this offseason. You're thin down low and, word is, Kaman performed poorly in summer league play. What's the cause of your optimism?
Brand: Ruben Patterson is a good fighter, our rookie is hopefully going to step up and Corey Maggette scores at will anyway, so I'm sure they'll increase his role. I think down low, Chris is going to step up. I don't really buy into summer league play. I've heard stories of what's-his-name, the 7-footer, Keith Closs, lighting up Tim Duncan in summer league. That's not a barometer for the season. I also think you'll see some things you haven't seen in the past. I'm not going to give away our strategy, but I think with our athletes, we'll put a fast team out there. I think coach [Mike] Dunleavy will change our strategy as he sees fit, but I can see it changing some.
Alipour: So, you're saying that by getting your slow [posterior] off the court, the team will be more exciting?
Brand: (Laughs) Naw, naw, can't say that. But they can speed up.
Alipour: There's a feeling in the NBA that the Clippers had their window, and now it's closed. Do you buy into that?
Brand: We heard about that window talk, but go ahead, say we're going to be terrible. Say that I'm never going to be the same, blah, blah, blah. Then watch me come back even better. I really believe that. Last season's problems had a lot to do with injuries. We started off pretty good, No. 1 or 2 in the West, but Sam and Shaun [Livingston] got hurt. Jason Hart did a serviceable job, and we had Danny Ewing, but it's tough coming into the system as a point guard. That would hurt any team.
We came within half a game, but missing the playoffs was very disappointing. I was hoping to come back strong and get that taste out of my mouth. Before this injury, I felt just like I did when we made the playoff run, when I played really well. The fire was even stronger than that. The drive was there. I can't wait to get to get that taste out of my mouth.
Alipour: When you're watching teams like Boston and Denver make big moves to surround their all-stars with other marquee players, do you ever think, "Man, when will it be my turn?"
Brand: I used to think that. But you've got to make the best of your situation, push the players that you're with to improve, and improve yourself. From what I've seen with the Rockets and Barkley, or the Lakers with Gary Payton and Karl Malone, that doesn't exactly lead to championships. We may not have the stars, but I still think it can be done without that. I don't know. We'll see.
Alipour: You're a loyal dude, but so was Kevin Garnett. Do you feel that your loyalty has its limits?
Brand: I'm 28 now, you know? I'm 28. I'm not going to be playing ball forever. Definitely, my ultimate goal is to win a championship. The money has been great, but you give your heart and soul to your goal of winning a ring. You've got guys with four or five rings, guys with two. Know what I mean? It's like, you want one (Laughs). Just one. So you definitely have to look at those decisions when your contract is up. You have opportunities to shape your chances at a championship the best you can.
Alipour: You watched your boys with Team USA bring home the gold. Jealous much?
Brand: Yeah, I was jealous watching those guys. I had to address my injury. The NBA, the team comes first. But I was so proud to see them win gold. The way they executed, played defense, they didn't take their opponents lightly, it was exactly what we talked about for this summer.
Alipour: When we spoke last fall, you said you wanted to see more zone, pick-and-roll defense, and size for the national team. While they did dominate, there were a few instances when the same problems cropped up, like when Mexico used the pick-and-roll and dropped 15 3s. How did they do in addressing your suggestions?
Brand: There'll be better competition next year, but we've got the formula down. We've got guys like Carmelo, Kobe, LeBron, Michael [Redd], who can score, but the key is defending that perimeter. I was definitely impressed with Kobe's D, locking up [Leandro] Barbosa, his intensity out there. I know [Kobe] did a lot of hard work, watching tapes. I was proud. I wish I could've been a part of it. I don't know if I'll get an invite next summer, but if I do, it's something I'll have to look at.
Alipour: Your movie "Rescue Dawn" was released earlier this year. While you're on the shelf, do you plan on investing more time into your movie career?
Brand: "Rescue Dawn" was great, but right now, the movie career is on hold. I don't have cable, so I'm just keeping busy with NetFlix. I've mainly been watching the old Academy Award winners, going back to like 1929. I finally saw "In the Heat of the Night" and "Rebel Without a Cause."
Alipour: That's cool and all, but what self-respecting man doesn't have cable?
Brand: (Laughs) The kind that has reality TV.
Alipour: "Rescue Dawn" was critically acclaimed, but last I checked, it had grossed just over $5 million. Are you disappointed in its box-office performance? And will you see a profit?
Brand: Yeah, definitely. I thought it would do better, but we came out against "Bourne Ultimatum," "The Simpsons" and the summer blockbusters. But the DVD is coming out Nov. 22, and MGM might rerelease it in theaters this fall for Oscar season. So we're not done yet (Laughs).
Alipour: That rerelease means the studio must like its award potential. And if it wins Best Picture, as the producer, you'll be accepting the award. So, let's get you ready. Give me your Oscar speech. Go!
Brand: "Um, first of all, I'd like to thank the Academy. And my family. And I'd like to thank Sam Alipour for writing about 'Rescue Dawn' and actually acknowledging my movie career. Believe in your dreams. Thank you." (Laughs) It'd be a great honor. I dream about that. But I dream about a championship much more.
Alipour: You're also moonlighting as an owner. What inspired you to finance the ABA's Westchester Phantoms?
Brand: It's a community outreach thing that my mother wanted to do. They say I invested in it, because I give her the money. Which, you know, I really did. (Laughs) But yeah, she invested her money into that. She saw the opportunities I've had because of basketball, so she wanted to give the community that opportunity, the chance to play something other than streetball, other than just hanging out. My brother is the GM and my mom is the owner. Remember that Cincinnati Reds owner [Marge Schott]? She's like that. She's not going to say any racist statements, but she'll be tough.
Alipour: You just passed your one-year wedding anniversary. Give me the good and the bad of being married.
Brand: I learned that when I'm at the gym or wherever, I'm not even allowed to look anymore (Laughs). But one good thing is, it really helps having a wife at home when you're hobbling around. When I first got injured, I used to feel like, "I don't need your help, just give me my crutches and I'll do everything." Now I know how elderly people feel. I do need help.
My wife has been great, but even though she loves me, she's not always helpful. I actually miss my crutches because I used to boss everyone around and have them get everything. But now, my wife says, "Naw, you can walk. Get it yourself."
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.