Timing of Alex Len’s partial stress fracture remains a mystery


(Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

The mystery and scrutiny over Alex Len’s partial stress fracture climbed to new heights last week, when Grantland released an 11-minute interview, conducted at the NBA draft combine in mid-May, between Len and analysts Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons.

Len’s injury, which has kept him from pre-draft workouts and will sideline him in a walking boot well through the summer, was addressed in the segment. Here are the two exchanges in question, spaced nearly nine minutes apart:

Simmons: Were you playing with it and it didn’t feel right, or you knew right away that something was wrong?

Len: I played like half of the season on this.

Simmons: You were playing hurt?

Len: Yeah, but I didn’t know that. I just found out after the season.

Then…

Simmons: So like the last month of the season, you were playing hurt.

Len: Yeah.

Simmons: Did you tell anybody?

Len: Yeah. My trainers, but we treated it like a regular ankle sprain. We did a lot of treatment. Icing, steam. But we decided to do MRI after the season, so after the season we found out I had a problem there.

Rose: Bill, when you’re in college they don’t want you to get [the MRI] during the season. It benefits them for you to finish the season.

Simmons: I don’t love that idea. I mean, the MRI should have happened before.

This, in turn, spawned some headlines like “Did the University of Maryland do wrong by former center Alex Len?” and “Why did Alex Len wait to get an MRI until after the season?” that explore what Len brought up in the Grantland interview, and wonder whether the Terrapins should have identified the injury earlier.

Len’s English obviously isn’t perfect, so it’s possible he couldn’t fully explain himself during the Grantland interview, although his “yeah” answers are pretty cut-and-dry. However, a Maryland spokesman told several outlets that Len underwent an X-ray in March, which came back negative, and that the pain began to decrease after this. It wasn’t until the Iowa game, Maryland’s season finale in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden, when the pain cropped up again. This is likely where the stress fracture occurred, though it’s impossible to pin down an actual date.

During the reporting for this rehabilitation story about Len, Coach Mark Turgeon talked in-depth about the injury and its timing. In an interview, Len had said he believed the pain began against Boston College in late February. Turgeon took umbrage with this, noting that he could have experienced ankle pain, just not so severe as to label it a stress fracture.

“I disagree with that,” Turgeon said. “The first I heard about his ankle hurting was at the ACC tournament. When we came back from the ACC tournament, we got it looked at. Now at first we thought it was a bone bruise and stress reaction-type thing. There was not a fracture. We thought he had a stress reaction or a bone bruise, so we weren’t practicing Alex.

“After the ACC tournament, the rest of our season went on for another three weeks, Alex maybe practiced one or two times. We just played him in the games. I think he was definitely hurt in the ACC tournament.

“If Alex says the Boston College game, that’s when it happened. I don’t think our trainer was too concerned at the time with what it was. I think the wear and tear and I think the game it really, really bothered him during the game was the Iowa game. That’s the story I’ve been told. We wouldn’t have played him that he was hurt. It actually took a second opinion for us to find out that it was a fracture. Those things are really hard to find. I thought our doctors did a great job of one finding it for Alex instead of an NBA team finding it, right before the draft. I think my doctors and my administration did a great job of making sure.”

This matches up with what Len said, that the pain increased during the ACC tournament, to the point that he needed ankle treatment just to walk around the team hotel. But there’s some communication disconnect happening, somewhere along the telephone line. Len was limited in practice as a precautionary measure and subsequently received an X-ray, which came back negative. Whatever injury surfaced in Greensboro probably either resurfaced or worsened against Iowa.

After Maryland’s season ended against the Hawkeyes, Len consulted with Robert Anderson, the renowned Charlotte foot doctor responsible for many high-profile NBA surgeries, and decided to undergo surgery.

As for Turgeon’s opinion?

“He did not have a stress fracture when he was playing,” Turgeon said. “I think Alex was just trying to win as many games as he could down the stretch, and be successful. Never one time did the kid come to me and say he had a really bad injury. I thought Matt [Charvat], my trainer, did a tremendous job of staying on top of it, then in the end getting the second opinion. The Iowa game was when I finally got the word that Alex was playing through a lot of pain, and it hadn’t hurt like that before.”

If you haven’t checked out my story on Alex Len’s long journey from Ukraine, please take a look.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.

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Alex Prewitt · June 25, 2013