By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009
DeShawn Stevenson could not have imagined that the sharp back pain he felt while stretching last October would cause him to slide out of the Washington Wizards' starting lineup, endure his worst season in six years and require season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disk.
But questions about his return next season have been compounded by uncertainty about his role with the team after Ernie Grunfeld, the team's president of basketball operations, made a pre-draft trade to bolster the back court with the additions of Mike Miller and Randy Foye. Stevenson said he wasn't upset or insulted by the move, even when he heard that the Wizards tried to include him in the trade with Minnesota before the Timberwolves balked and asked for Darius Songaila instead.
"My reaction was, 'Step your game up,' " Stevenson said in a recent telephone interview. "You can't get mad. It's a business. We had the same team for three years and didn't get out of the first round of the playoffs. They had to make a move.
"I feel that they felt that they wasn't strong at the 2-guard spot. I've been in the league for 10 years. When people make moves like that, I understand what you got to do. I don't take it as disrespect."
In order to step up his game, Stevenson first has to get healthy, which is why he is in Vancouver, B.C., completing a week-long training session with renowned physical therapist Alex McKechnie, who is the athletic performance coordinator for the Los Angeles Lakers and has helped players such as Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill, Pau Gasol and Mo Williams come back from serious injuries.
Stevenson maintains an offseason home in Orlando, and his financial planner set up a meeting between the two when the Lakers were in central Florida for the NBA Finals. After a 45-minute conversation, Stevenson agreed to train with McKechnie, one-on-one, for a full week. Wizards head athletic trainer Eric Waters observed Stevenson in Vancouver, taking note of his routine so that Stevenson can continue the exercises when he returns to Washington.
"I felt it was best for me to come here and get back to where I needed to be. Especially, you know, having the year that we had, winning 19 games, and me being out since January," said Stevenson, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard who played a career-low 32 games and averaged just 6.6 points last season while shooting a career-worst 31.2 percent from the floor and 27.1 percent from three-point range. "I'm the type of person, I'm going to come back and I want to come back with a bang. I know this is a big year for me, so I'm going to take it seriously."
Stevenson, 28, said he thought the back pain he developed in training camp would subside over time if he came in earlier to stretch or spent more time in the hot tub, but it kept getting worse. He claims he had four epidurals to allow him to play over the course of last season.
"People don't understand how much I did to go out there and play for this team," Stevenson said. "I was going through an injury and I normally play through injuries, but this injury was like a shock. It was a pain I never had before. I couldn't play like I used to play. I couldn't play defense. I couldn't shoot and I think that took away from the things I bring to the team. I think some people knew that."
Ed Tapscott, the Wizards' interim coach after Eddie Jordan was fired 11 games into the season, noticed Stevenson's struggles and sat down with him in late December. Stevenson said Tapscott gave him three options: to simply rest, take some time off to get his back checked out or accept a role coming off the bench. Stevenson agreed to the latter and said Tapscott told him he would cover up the benching by telling reporters it was Stevenson who suggested the move.
"I didn't ask to come off the bench," said Stevenson, whose streak of 275 consecutive starts ended on Dec. 23. "Tap came to me out of respect, because he knows how hard I work and what kind of guy I am. With me, I don't quit on my team. Even if we 2-15 or 2-32, I didn't want to quit on my team, so I sat on the bench."
The injury forced Stevenson to end his season in late January and he had surgery in March. He said that with the back injury limiting his mobility, he ballooned to 250 pounds. But Stevenson said he has lost 20 pounds this summer and expects to be down to 225 -- his playing weight his first two seasons in Washington -- before training camp.
Even with the new additions and a new coach in Flip Saunders, Stevenson is not ready to concede the starting shooting guard job.
"Everybody that knows DeShawn knows I'm going to compete. I'm going to be -- I don't want to say arrogant -- but I'm not one of those people that's going to let my job go," Stevenson said. "In life, you get pushed and I just think I'm getting pushed right now. If I don't start, I'm going to be a helluva backup and if I start, I'm going to be a helluva starter. It's all about winning."