By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006
Washington Wizards guard Jarvis Hayes did not want to go to the locker room. He knew the moment he left the visitors' bench and limped off the floor at Staples Center that he was saying goodbye to his teammates and to basketball for a couple of months. Problem was, Hayes really had no choice.
Less than five minutes into a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 16, Hayes took one step trying to defend Kobe Bryant in the post and felt his right kneecap crack -- again. He grabbed his knee and tried to keep going, but while attempting to chase down Bryant on a fast break moments later, all Hayes could do was stop, grimace and say to himself, "Oh, my God."
The same kneecap he fractured almost 10 months earlier and spent all summer rehabilitating. The same "freak injury" that robbed him of the final 28 games of the regular season and the playoffs had come back a second time. So, there he sat on the bench for most of the first half, ignoring pleas to go back and have the knee X-rayed. Hayes, spirits sinking by the minute, didn't need a picture to confirm what he already knew: His third season in the NBA was over after just 21 games.
"Twenty games and five minutes of game 21," Hayes corrects. "For the same thing to happen again, it's like, 'What else can happen?' The first two or three months [afterward] -- that was the toughest time of my life. Everything was in limbo. A lot of stuff was going through my head, like, 'Can I get to where I need to be?' "
With the Wizards set to open training camp in Richmond on Tuesday, Hayes is close to where he wants to be. Entering the fourth and most important season of his career, Hayes said he is healthy for the first time in almost two years, following surgery on Feb. 14 to repair his broken kneecap and extensive rehab in his home town of Atlanta and in Washington. Hayes will fight for the starting shooting guard position with the newly acquired DeShawn Stevenson when camp begins and said he is anxious to get back on the court to help the Wizards advance further in the postseason by being the consistent fourth option the team has lacked in each of the past two seasons of "Big Threes."
"When I look back at our [past two playoff series] losses against Miami and Cleveland, I'm not saying that we would've beat them, but I could see myself as being a difference maker, being a real threat," said Hayes, who has averaged 9.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in three injury-plagued seasons in Washington.
Hayes will be a restricted free agent next summer and is serious about having a big season -- so serious that he hired power agent Dan Fegan to negotiate his next contract. "This is going to be a big year for me," Hayes said. "Not a lot of people know what I am in this league, because I haven't played any consistent amount of time. My career has never really took off . . . but I don't doubt my ability."
Neither do the Wizards, who hope that Hayes can remain healthy and become the perimeter weapon they believed he would be when he was selected 10th overall in the 2003 draft. The Wizards thought enough of Hayes that they decided to let Jared Jeffries sign with the New York Knicks in free agency in part because they have high expectations for him -- even when Hayes hadn't fully recovered from his injury.
"Jarvis was one of the factors in the decision," said Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld, who joined the team a few weeks after Hayes was drafted. "When he was healthy, he was a very good NBA player. He was a significant contributor. Very athletic. An outstanding shooter. He can play two positions. He can stretch the defense, and he's a good defender. There's a lot that he brings to the table."
Hayes, however, has struggled to stay on the floor ever since he bumped knees with San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili on Feb. 2, 2005, a collision that caused a slight crack in his kneecap. Although he initially thought his right knee would be X-rayed, Hayes said he didn't question the team's doctors and training staff when they informed him that an X-ray wasn't necessary at the time.
Despite the nagging pain, Hayes never stopped practicing and playing, especially because Coach Eddie Jordan had inserted him into the starting lineup when Larry Hughes was sidelined with a broken finger. Plus, Hayes had promised himself that he would play all 82 games his second season, and he had no intention of sitting out. Hayes played in pain for almost three weeks -- until he drove for an uncontested dunk on a fast break against Sacramento, landed awkwardly and his kneecap split completely.
Hayes compares the injury to a small crack in a windshield that grows worse over time. He opted not to have surgery and tried to let the kneecap heal through rest and rehab. Hayes thought he was fully recovered, although he ended up missing part of last preseason because of soreness. When the regular season started, Hayes played well enough to snare the starting shooting guard job from Antonio Daniels, but it wasn't long before his kneecap cracked again.
When asked about the decision not to have surgery initially, Grunfeld said: "That was the advice we had from our medical staff, and we don't second-guess that. At the time, it was a very uncommon thing to have happen again."
Looking back, Hayes said he wishes he had surgery the first time he was injured. He said he harbors no resentment toward the organization for not X-raying the injury right away. "Maybe we should've got [an X-ray]. Maybe I wouldn't have missed last year, because it wouldn't have been a complete fracture," Hayes said. "Hindsight is 20-20. The team doctors, I look at them with no animosity. They didn't know. They're human. I don't look at them with an evil heart. It's something that happened, and we all will get through it. I was feeling good about last season. I was at a point where I didn't think I'd get injured again, but it happened."
Hayes said the second injury was tougher to deal with, because it forced him to spend more time away from the game and left him feeling disconnected from the team. With his knee brace prohibiting him from bending his leg, Hayes couldn't sit on the bench to cheer on his teammates and often had to watch home games from the locker room and road games from his home in Virginia. "I knew my name was on the roster, but I really didn't feel like a part of the team," Hayes said.
Hayes spent a lot of time by himself, playing video games and finding inspiration listening to the song "Butterfly" by R&B singer India.Arie. Hayes considers the past two seasons as his time in a cocoon. The surgery, which included having two screws placed in his kneecap, kept him from running until June. He played five-on-five basketball for the first time in early September, an experience he said nearly moved him to tears. During his rehab, Hayes said he received the best encouragement possible when he crossed paths with Jordan -- the man responsible for selecting Hayes -- who told him, "If I had to do it again, I'd still draft you number 10."
"I'll do anything for Coach Jordan. I'll do anything for this organization," Hayes said. "I hadn't played in a couple of years. They could've easily put me on the back burner, but they still have confidence in me and that means a lot. At the end of the day, it's a business, but that's not what it's all about. That they have confidence in me, it means the world to me."
Hayes was completing a workout on the team's practice court at Verizon Center recently, knocking down a series of three-pointers from five spots around the arc. After his final shot splashed through the net, Wizards assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. wouldn't let him leave without one more drill. Hayes needed to sprint down the court, sprint back, catch a pass from Unseld and explode toward the basket for a finish.
Five times up, and five times down, Hayes couldn't dunk and barely had enough lift to drop in finger rolls; his weary legs feeling as if they were attached to 20-pound sandbags. "That was tough, buddy. Tough. Tough. Tough," Hayes said of the exhausting workout, shaking his head. "But you know what? I wasn't hurting. I wasn't in pain."
Hayes, sporting an eight-inch-long scar down the middle of his right knee, has been through enough in the past two years to know the difference. "This league is 'What have you done for me lately?' And I hadn't really played to my capability," Hayes said. "Not using an excuse, but I always look at it as, 'What if I hadn't gotten hurt?' I kind of use it as motivation now. Long as the Wizards keep their confidence in me, I'll bounce back."