Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls was unable to make a return for the NBA playoffs despite being medically cleared to play in March. The star point guard and the former MVP, who hadn't played in a game in over a year, took heat from the media and fans for his absence. In contrast, Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks averaged over 28 points per game despite suffering a partially torn labrum in his left shoulder. Anthony was hurt worse than most people knew, and we have now found out that the All-Star gutted throughout the playoffs with a severely injured shoulder.
As a nation, we have become accustomed to seeing star athletes deliver with gutsy performances to overcome injuries, particularly in championship games. We often consider athletes invincible and immune to pain. Fans have become less tolerant of injuries especially when so many players have produced despite having serious injuries. There is also the unwritten expectation that athletes should play since they are paid such incredible amounts of money.
Sidney Crosby has taken criticism in the past for being a “soft” player. His return to the ice during the playoffs despite recovering from a broken jaw reveals anything but softness. The Penguins captain required surgery, and the injury forced him to miss a chunk of the regular season. Upon his return, he made his presence felt instantaneously and resumed scoring goals. He has propelled the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Hockey players are their own special breed. It is not uncommon to see a player get a big gash stitched up in between periods and return to finish the game. Players who have been hit in the mouth are known to pick up their teeth off the ice, return for their shifts, and then deal with the dentistry after the game.
Willis Reed’s gutty performance in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals is the stuff of legends. The Knicks center outplayed Wilt Chamberlain despite a torn thigh muscle that he suffered in Game 5 of the series. Although Reed only scored only 4 points, his participation inspired the team and helped secure the franchise’s first NBA title. Walt "Clyde" Frazier led the Knicks in scoring with a game-high 36 points, yet this performance is often overlooked because of Reed’s unlikely and awe-inspiring comeback.
One of the most memorable events in World Series history transpired when Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers hit his famous home run off closer Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Down by a run with two outs and a runner on in the bottom of the 9th, Gibson was called upon to pinch hit despite having two injured legs. Gibson quickly fell behind 0-2 and then hit a walk-off home run of the seemingly unhittable Hall of Fame reliever. The Dodgers would go on to stun the heavily favored Oakland Athletics in five games. Gibson did not have another at bat in the series.
Despite enduring a severe ankle injury in the 2004 playoffs, Curt Schilling helped pitch the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years. Schilling underwent an unusual surgical procedure on his ankle to mitigate any ill effects of the injury. The big right-hander responded by pitching two of the gutsiest performances of his career. His career-defining victory in Game 6 of the ALCS over the Yankees helped force a Game 7. Schilling also pitched well enough to earn a victory in Game 2 of the World Series as the Red Sox ended their long championship drought.
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus late in the 2011 season. Despite a grim prospect of recovery, he returned in 2012 even better than he was before and earned Most Valuable Player honors. Many others have been unable to return from such injuries.
When star athletes ignore the pain and play to win, they inspire others to play their hearts out as well. This warrior mentality helps teams develop a sense of common purpose that seems nearly impossible. They are not always able to do it; fans were surprised this spring when the seemingly indestructible Derek Jeter was not able to overcome a broken ankle and play at his usual high level. Many overlooked the fact that surgeries, such as Jeter's, require significant recovery time.
At some point, every athlete reaches a point where he is unable to perform. The great ones know when they are ready to return (or not) and how hard they can go without hindering team performance.