Len begins his workout flat on his back in Maryland’s basketball performance center. His eyes are closed during this visualization exercise. He pictures his favorite low-post moves. Up-and-unders and dribble-drives. Something Tarp calls “the Tim Duncan,” a shoulder-to-shoulder sweep in which Len arcs the basketball over his head, or “the Kevin Durant,” in which the ball moves linearly, sharply across the chest.
Tarp bets big on the mind’s power.
“The ankle is the least of our concern,” he says. “We need to make sure the rest of the system stays where we need to be.”
‘Alex is a worker’
After several sets of seated medicine ball slams, pull-ups from a prone position and exercises involving a weighted bean bag to strengthen his grip, the workout moves to the gym upstairs. Len won’t shoot today, but on days that he does, they lower the backboard to simulate to the normal distance between his shoulders and the rim so the transition will go smoother once he can stand.
For now, Len is perched atop the stacked mats and fielding chest passes. Behind him, a student manager slaps his shoulders, offering token resistance. Len’s legs occasionally kick forward when the passes arrive, as if he just wants to say boot-be-damned and return to midseason form. But the recovery process takes patience. It takes restraint.
Every drill is designed to cure a weakness. Twenty minutes of corrective exercises are designed to prevent the body from overcompensating in other areas because of foot immobilization. Len needs ballhandling work, so he palms and pounds basketballs into folding chairs. Sometimes, he counts the number of repetitions out loud to practice communicating in English, a language Len first started studying less than two years ago. When Maryland women’s assistant David Adkins peppers Len’s lower-left quadrant with tennis balls, it’s because a vision training machine showed Len reacted slower in that specific region.
Len’s injury precluded him from working out at the NBA draft combine last month, but he still conducted interviews with most of the lottery teams and came prepared. The binder Len shared with executives contained workout schedules and nutrition plans — anything to show teams that once he reaches the last page of that book, the boot will be gone and he will be himself again.
“That’s Alex,” Turgeon said. “Alex is a worker. Alex has been a pro since he stepped foot on campus. That’s just the way he approaches it. You have to dial him back because it’ll work.”
A little bit of pain
The scar crawls up his leg like a splotchy caterpillar, the raw remains of 12 stitches bisected by the incision mark. Removing the walking boot, Len leans back on a cushioned training table, propping his good leg up onto a towel rack.
Trainer Matt Charvat approaches and works his toes from side to side, bending forward at the ankle and applying slight pressure. Len grips the table edges for balance. It hurts but only a little.
For two years Len has lived with teammate John Auslander, a forward who is one of Len’s best friends. Last year, Auslander dealt with the same partial stress fracture, the specificity of which Len says is relatively uncommon among basketball players. Len ponders this oddity for a moment, wondering about the coincidence.
Yet Len doesn’t appear much burdened by fate or circumstance. He sees the problem and acts, like with the 38 marbles Charvat just dumped onto a white towel. Len must return them to a plastic container using only his left foot. He struggles initially, curling his second toe around the glass and bending the marble into the open space. Several fall. One rolls off the towel. But soon Len hits his stride, completing the task twice before grabbing the black crutches and calling it quits.
Len has been in control all day, each second of the nearly three-hour workout scripted for maximum efficiency and oversight. But there’s something on his mind, an unanswered question he asked Charvat about the next step: June 27, when Len hears his name called at the NBA draft.
“You think I’ll be able to walk on the stage?”