Al Harrington Opens Up on His Fight Through Knee Hell and His Uncertain Future

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Al Harrington Opens Up on His Fight Through Knee Hell and His Uncertain Future
Courtesy of Al Harrington

Al Harrington's right knee needs a serious vacation, but that's not happening any time soon.

A torn meniscus, prolonged staph infection, multiple surgeries, Regenokine, the future possibility of microfracture and the threat of a replacement—that's what the knee has been through in the past two years, and what it might after this season in Washington, where he's recently emerged as a surprise bench spark for the playoff-bound Wizards.

So how is this man, once the national high school player of the year and now a 16-year NBA veteran, still holding up on a knee that could cause him lifelong problems? Many would have thrown in the towel a while ago, especially after the staph infection in 2012, which he said "wrecked" his knee.

Bleacher Report caught up with Harrington in New York City at the Trump SoHo hotel last week, when the Wizards were in town to face the Knicks. With his consent, his story is presented here from his perspective, edited for clarity and length.

Jon Lopez / Special to Bleacher Report
Harrington in his NYC hotel room.

This past December presented a huge crossroads in my life, yet another one for me in the past two years.

I had been having nagging right knee issues in the first half of the season, leading me to see orthopedic surgeon Dr. Richard Steadman. He was looking at my MRI and said, "Al, you need to really fix your knee. If you want to be able to enjoy your life, enjoy your kids and all that, you need to fix your knee for real." So I asked, "What does fix my knee for real mean?" He said, "What I'm trying to prevent is you having to get a knee replacement." And I said, "I'm 33 years old. What do you mean a knee replacement?"

He explained that my knee was chipping away at a fast rate, and that if it kept chipping away, I'd need a new knee down the road. "Fixing" it would mean microfracture surgery, and at 33 years old, my career would've been done for the most part. But he said, "Your only other option is I can clean it out and you can try to get back on the court, but there are no promises."

That night, my wife, Michelle, and I talked about it. She said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "You know I want to play. I put all this work in. Look at my body. I have a six-pack and all that." But she said, "But what about the kids? You've been talking about how you want to teach your daughters how to play tennis and all that. How are you going to be able to do that if you've got no knee?"

So I'm sitting there, and all I could think about was—and this is who I am—the first game of the season when we played in Detroit. I was talking to the Wizards, and I ain't going to lie, I cried, because I was just trying to tell them what I had been through in the past two years to get to that point. For me, I came into this season all in, like this could be my last season.

I had asked God. I said, "God, you just let me play one more season, and I will be done. You give me one more healthy season and I will give it up." And I told the Wizards that in Detroit. I said, "We're going to make the playoffs. I'll help you all get there." So when I was sitting there with my wife thinking more selfishly about my kids and everything, I thought more about the commitment I made to the team. So I told my wife, "I've got to clean out the knee now and just see if I can get back." And that's just what I've done.

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

***

I first had a tear in my right knee on Jan. 23, 2002, when I was playing for the Indiana Pacers.

It was in Boston, guarding Paul Pierce. I was chasing him off a screen, Tony Battie cut me off, and I tripped through the screen. Paul hit the shot, and me and Paul used to talk a lot of smack back when I was young coming up. He said, "Get up, b---h." I'll never forget that. And I tried to get up and my leg wasn't there. I blew my knee out completely. But I made a full recovery—the following season I played all 82 games—and from that point on, I didn't have much issue with that knee.

Until 10 years later, on April 1, 2012, against the Orlando Magic.

It's funny because I don't remember hurting anything during the game. I walked back to the hotel, went to dinner, my teammates and I hung out, and the next morning when I woke up before practice, my knee was swollen. I'm like, "Damn," because I don't really swell. The team did an MRI, and it showed I had a torn meniscus. It was either I could try to play on it, or get it fixed and I would be ready for some time in the playoffs. I got a second opinion from Dr. Steadman around April 10. He said, "You should have no worries if you play on it."

So that's what I did. I also knew how my body would react. I tend to heal really fast no matter what it is, and I put the work in. So if you tell me I can only work two hours, I'm going to work three. Also, with the adrenaline of the game, I forget about the pain. My offense was actually fine; it was just the jumping part. The only place where it bothered me was being able to box out and jump out of my area.

After we lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games in the first round—I averaged nearly 10 points on a torn meniscus—the Denver Nuggets' orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Steve Traina, operated on me on May 14, two days after the series had ended. When I woke up from surgery, everything was all good and I went home that night. I was home Monday and Tuesday, and Wednesday I went to the Pepsi Center to change my bandages. Then I went straight back home and went to sleep.

But I woke up around 8 that night and my knee had swelled up, and it was like throbbing to my heartbeat.

I took some more medicine and it made me go to sleep, but I woke up at midnight and my knee hurt so bad. It was the worst pain I've ever felt, ever. The pain I felt in my knee nearly brought me to tears. The only reason I did not cry was that my mother and my wife were there. I didn't want to break down in front of them. I'm sitting there and now it's like 2 in the morning and I'm sweating, I'm shaking. So I said, "I need to go to the hospital." My mother said, "Let's just wait until we talk to them."

During all this time, I didn't know it but I had a staph infection from the surgery.

Courtesy of Al Harrington
Harrington's right knee two weeks after surgery, with the staph infection.

I finally spoke with the surgeon at about 7 in the morning on Thursday, and I told him what I was dealing with. He said, "I'm heading to the office right now. Meet me there." So we met him there, and when he drained my knee, there was dark red blackish blood coming out of it. He said, "You've got a staph infection." So I had to go straight to the hospital, and they put a PICC line in my arm. They run a tube through a vein in the arm, and it reaches a larger vein close to the heart. And I had these long syringes with IV fluids that I had to inject myself—a nurse did it at first—into the tube twice a day.

The thing with the PICC line is that it's dangerous because it goes so close to your heart. So you have to keep the tube clean, because if that gets infected, it could lead to problems in the heart.

Courtesy of Al Harrington
A nurse inserting the PICC line.

The same day I got that in my arm, I had surgery in my knee to clean out all of the blood, wash all of the tissue and get all the infection out. I also had another one done on Saturday. Then I left for Las Vegas, where I live in the offseason.

I was in Vegas for two weeks, and the swelling in my knee kept coming back. I saw a doctor there, and it turned out that the medicine I had been taking wasn't strong enough to clear out the staph. It had sat in my knee for those entire two weeks. The doctor changed my medicine, and I ended up having that PICC line in my arm for six more weeks—eight weeks total—until the staph finally left my knee. It's crazy because when I had the infection, it made me lose 25 pounds because I was sick and couldn't really eat much.

During those eight weeks in Vegas, I was going to therapy every day. I would go on the CPM machine that moves your knee back and forth, and I would get soft-tissue work. I couldn't lift weights. I couldn't sweat. I couldn't do anything. In fact, I didn't take a shower for eight weeks because I couldn't chance any water getting into the PICC line. I had to take bird baths because of my arm. You can just imagine. It was crazy. One day, I woke up and the PICC line was bleeding. It was the scariest moment of my life.

Courtesy of Al Harrington
The PICC line full of blood.

It was very tough, but I've got cool friends, like Jermaine O'Neal, Stephen Jackson and Gary Forbes. They would all come by and check on me, man, and kick it with me for four, five hours in Vegas—just sitting with me in my new home theater I built during that time. It's funny because I learned a lot about myself, about my marriage. The experience taught me patience because I've always been like a get-it-done-right-now person. And I couldn't do nothing because I was stuck.

Later in July, after the staph was gone, I got my knee cleaned out again, this time by Dr. Steadman. At this point, the Al in me is still thinking, "I'll be ready for training camp." But my knee was not ready. The damage that infection did—not only from the first time, but the two weeks of me not knowing that it was still sitting there—wrecked my knee. It never really got right—even after I was traded to the Orlando Magic in August.

The Magic actually never expected me to play, to be honest. After I got that surgery by Dr. Steadman, the word was I was not going to play again, like my knee was that messed up. But I'm looking like there's no way I'm done playing. So it took for me not to fall for that because I could've easily just been like, "I'm done. Let me go earn this money now. I ain't got to do nothing." But I said, "I'm leaving this game on my terms. I'm not going to go out with a staph infection and nobody never hearing from me again." So when I was ready to play, the Magic were like, "Wow, he actually can still play." They thought it was over for me.

Courtesy of Al Harrington
Harrington's oldest daughter, Amaya, checks his temperature.

I played the 10 games last season for a couple reasons. The main reason was because of my contract; it wasn't fully guaranteed. And I wanted to show them through my hard work, I made it back to this point where I can play. Other than that, they didn't want any part of me in Orlando. I wasn't allowed to be around the team, I wasn't allowed to travel and I didn't go to games. They just told me to rehab. I would come in the morning, rehab, and because of who I am, I would come in again at night and rehab again. Then when the game started, I would go home and nobody said anything.

Orlando was more about rebuilding, but they could've been more professional about my situation. In fact, the general manager, Rob Hennigan, told my agent that I was done, saying I "cannot play." Those were his exact words. And I was like, "He has some nerve." He's a 32-year-old young executive, and I've been in the league longer than him, I probably know more than him, and he's going to tell my agent I'm done and not think my agent is going to tell me that. So, to me, it was like he told me that pretty much to my face. That motivated me—in addition to not being healthy enough in those 10 games I played—heading into last summer.

April 26, 2013, I'll never forget the day. I got to Vegas and I went straight to the Impact facility, run by my longtime trainer, Joe Abunassar. The first thing I did was I got on the scale. I already knew I was heavy, but I didn't think I was that heavy. I was 287 pounds. I'm like, "I cannot go out like this."

The first step was seeing if I was a candidate for Regenokine, and I was after meeting with Dr. Keith Pyne in New York. He recommended that I fly to Germany to see the famous Dr. Peter Wehling. After five shots and $40,000 for the entire trip, my knee felt brand new in early May. It was the first time I felt no pain in 18 months. While I experienced some soreness after, which can happen after Regenokine, I was finally ready to get to work.

Courtesy of Joe Abunassar
Harrington and Abunassar.

I worked out six days a week until training camp. I did not miss one day. This was my schedule: I would wake up at 7 in the morning and lift from 8 to 10 a.m with Mark Philippi, one of the world's strongest men. Then I would work out with Joe—I wasn't doing court stuff at the time; just on the bike, elliptical and Arc Trainer—from 10:30 to noon. After that, I would eat a spinach salad for lunch, rest at home and then work out with Joe again at like 4 p.m. At night, I was going to bed with my kids at like 11 for the most part. I had that routine every day until I started playing basketball six weeks later, when I had lost 27 pounds.

Later in July, NBA summer league started and veterans like Rasual Butler and Cuttino Mobley came to Vegas to work out for teams. I knew that was an opportunity for me, but my pride at first held me back. I'm like, "I shouldn't have to try out for these teams, man. My body of work should speak for itself." But Joe wanted me to work out. He said, "Al, you'll probably get a bigger deal and all that stuff." But I said, "I'm not going to do it because I want a team that's going to believe in me. I want a team that wants to sign me because they know who I am. And if nobody signs me, then that's on me."

Around that time, Washington had heard about my recovery—I was back dunking and dominating during scrimmages at Impact. Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards' senior vice president of basketball operations, came to Impact to watch me play. He said, "Al, we want you around these guys even if you can't even play. We just know how valuable you are as a veteran."

Even with the Wizards, I surprised them the way I came into training camp. I was keeping up with everybody. Talking to the trainers here, they were telling me when they signed me that the team's biggest goal was for me to play at least 50 games. That didn't happen because I still had right knee pain in the first few months of the season. If I had to do last summer all over again, I probably wouldn't have done so much on-court stuff. I was literally on my feet all day, but I just felt like I had something to prove.

Jon Lopez
Harrington has remained positive throughout his entire ordeal, saying, "Nobody can't tell me I can't do nothing."

***

Now look at me. Even though I'm playing on a bad knee that probably has loose bone fragments right now, I'm contributing. I'm feeling better; I'm now 258 pounds with 7 percent body fat. Nobody can tell me I can't do anything, man. The only person who can tell me that is God. Nobody else in this world can tell me I can't do something. I think I can play next year if I want to. I haven't even made up my mind if I'm going to play next year because I've got to see where my knee's at. I'm going to try Regenokine first this summer. But my commitment was to the Wizards to make the playoffs and we did that, and now we're going to try to make some noise when we get there.

It's funny because Thomas Knox, the Wizards' director of player performance and rehabilitation, even admitted to me a couple weeks ago, "When you first got back, I ain't even going to lie, in my mind there was no chance in hell you were going to play again this year." He said, "But the way you work and the commitment you made, I'm blown away. If all the rest of these dudes had your commitment, these dudes would be amazing."

Looking ahead, I would love to stay in Washington—even working in their front office or joining their coaching staff. Randy Wittman loves me. I've already had conversations with the team. I ain't going to lie, what would really be ideal for me is if they would sign me at the All-Star break next season. So let me have that time to take care of my body and get my leg strong. I can do 30 games; that's nothing.

Obviously I don't have a Hall of Fame legacy or anything like that, but I just want to go out on my own terms and I feel like the opportunity is right here in front of me. By me being a part of a playoff team after what I've been through and knowing that people wrote me off and told me I was done, I'm ecstatic. I put a lot of work into this. A lot of people just think that I just showed up to the games. At the end of the day, I'm just living up to a promise I made to these dudes on Sept. 29 that I was going to be right here fighting with them. And I'm here.

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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