Brook Lopez and the fateful next step

Will Nets center recover like Zydrunas Ilgauskas once did, or fall like Yao Ming?

Updated: January 5, 2014, 8:06 PM ET
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

Brook Lopez, Evan TurnerHoward Smith/USA TODAY SportsAfter Brook Lopez went down on Dec. 20, he stepped on a perilous road well traveled by 7-footers.

NEW YORK -- In December of 2009 in a corner of the visitor's locker room at the Toyota Center in Houston, Zydrunas Ilgauskas stood with Yao Ming, put a supportive arm on Yao's shoulder and the two giant men shared a frank conversation.

The Chinese and Lithuanian centers conversed in English, going over the details of a complex foot surgery experience that they now shared. Yao was wearing a protective boot on his left foot and leaning on crutches. Ilgauskas' feet were bare and bright red after getting out of a postgame ice bath routine that had become a central part of his life.

That night, Yao told Ilgauskas, who was in his final season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, that this surgery was it, his last chance. After a series of operations on his feet and ankles, Yao was going to try one more procedure to see if a bone grafting and restructuring of his foot could save his career.

[+] EnlargeYao Ming and Zydrunas Ilgauskas
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhich contrasting fate will Brook Lopez follow: Yao Ming's or Zydrunas Ilgauskas'?

Ilgauskas commiserated and offered support. He'd had a similar procedure in 2001 when he took his last chance when doctors rebuilt his left foot after a series of breaks and failed operations. Ilgauskas, who grew to hate talking about his foot issues, told Yao to keep fighting and keep believing.

It did not work for Yao. He returned for the 2010-11 season, rebroke the foot and soon retired. Ilguaskas played for 10 years after his surgery, made two All-Star teams, played in two Finals and earned more than $130 million.

On Saturday, Brooklyn Nets All-Star center Brook Lopez had a third surgery on his right foot at Duke Medical Center in North Carolina. He broke it for the second time on Dec. 20. In addition to fixing the break, part of the procedure was what is known as a first metatarsal osteotomy.

Essentially, doctors moved bones around in Lopez's foot to better bear the weight. It's taking a human appendage that was not truly meant to carry a 7-foot body that runs miles every day and redesigning it.

The surgeries that Yao, Ilgauskas and Lopez have all had were slightly different. A specialist could probably explain in great detail the facets of the procedures and differences in the bones and the alignment of the heel and ankle, etc. But they also were all the same; three big men whose feet couldn't support their profession having their bones moved around to give them a chance. In Ilgauskas and Yao's case, it was a last chance.

The Nets, who have $60 million invested in Lopez, are not saying that. They are defensive and cautious, and they should be.

"He had surgery. It was successful. And then he'll recover and be back playing," Nets general manager Billy King said. "We can sit here and say, 'last-ditch effort' or whatever, he had surgery. They said it's gonna be a successful recovery, so I mean, we can't sit here today on Jan. 4 and say what's gonna happen when he starts playing again. We can't speculate on that, and I'm not gonna do that."

The Nets believe Lopez will make a full recovery and he'll be back working out in the summer and on the court next fall.

But the reality is that this might be it for Lopez, his last chance on that right foot. If this procedure doesn't work, his career is probably in jeopardy. You don't have this type of surgery unless it is a last resort, as it was for Ilgauskas and Yao.

Ilgauskas was 25 when he had the radical procedure. Yao was 28. Lopez will turn 26 on April 1. He's still a young player and he still could have a very long career, as Ilgauskas did. Before he had the major surgery, he no doubt sought opinions and options from some of the top foot surgeons in the world.

The Nets, who have their future tied up in Lopez and Deron Williams, were likely very deliberate and detailed when deciding on this path. Dr. James Nunley, who did Lopez's surgery, has operated on Grant Hill and, more recently, Lakers forward Ryan Kelly. He's a top man in his field.

It can seem cruel because Lopez was so healthy for so long. He didn't miss a game in his first three seasons. In Yao's first three seasons, the Rockets' centerpiece missed just two games. After dealing with surgery, Yao came back and played 77 games in a season before having more problems. Lopez played 74 games last season after coming back from a broken foot the year before. That's the way these things seem to go.

Lopez was really coming into his own since his last broken foot two years ago. He'd really become a force offensively. Even as the Nets added offensive threats, he continued to be their most reliable option. He was averaging a career-high 20.7 points on a career-best 56 percent shooting in the first 17 games before he fractured the foot again during a game in Philadelphia three weeks ago.

Will he get back to that and be able to maintain it? The answer, even from the best doctors, unfortunately is uncertain.

"It's a break. Talk to me in October, or this summer when he's working out, and that's all we can do," King said. "We can't sit here and make up answers."

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