What if you could do anything you wanted on a basketball court? Curling your fingertips over the top edge of a backboard, leaping as high as you could dream. Redirecting the shots of 7-foot men into the stands. Or just dunking maliciously on an entire league.
That was Antonio McDyess in the first six years of his NBA career.
Until three knee operations in two years stole his incredible physical gifts. Until his Hall-of-Fame path detoured toward the humbling role of a reserve forward. McDyess awoke one day to find himself backing up all-stars, a player once described as the most explosive power forward of his generation relegated to a sub.
If that were you, would you retire? Or resign yourself to never achieving your professional goals?
Or would you work your way back to a semblance of health, be thankful you could play and compete at all -- and cope with the truth that the player you were is gone?
"I could have gone either way," McDyess said Wednesday, on the court of the defending NBA champions for whom he now plays.
"I wanted no part of the game after the second and third surgery. Quit, retire, whatever you want to call it, I didn't want no part of basketball."
The scars from each surgery overlap, a swath of severed flesh the size of a knee patch. McDyess's entire left patella does not look surgically repaired; it resembles a first-degree burn. "They got me pretty good," he said. McNice, they called him, because his game was as pretty as it was powerful. One of the NBA's gentlest souls excavated that player on Tuesday night. He shoveled, dug and found who he once was in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. During a span of almost 12 minutes between the end of the third quarter and the end of the game, he ignited a 17-point turnaround. Between the time he checked in and out for Rasheed Wallace, a two-point deficit became a 15-point lead. The Game 3 play-by-play sheet seemed culled from the last millennium, when he was still healthy.
"McDyess Rebound. McDyess Tip Shot. McDyess Rebound. McDyess Follow Dunk." Ten points, 8 rebounds and 2 steals later, McDyess and his team put away the Spurs and half-recovered from a two-game slumber in San Antonio.
Of all the NBA castaways who have found a home in Detroit, no Piston has come further to salvage his career than McDyess.
He missed just 28 out of a possible 460 games his first six years. But during training camp with the Denver Nuggets in 2001, McDyess suffered a torn patella tendon and had his first knee surgery. He returned the following March and appeared in 10 games before inflammation of the left knee cut his season short. In New York, McDyess fractured his left kneecap and missed the entire 2002-2003 season. In April of 2003, after seven months of four-hours-a-day rehabilitation, he got the worst news of all. The broken kneecap had not healed properly. McDyess would need a bone-grafting operation.
"When you hear they're taking a bone graft from my hip that they were going to put in my knee, I mean, that right there kind of told me that's it's over. I felt like, 'I don't want to play no more if I'm not going to be the player I wanted to be.' "
The comeback, in earnest, began in October of 2002 on the 13th floor of a now-defunct hospital in New York. There were ankle weights from the 1970s, barbells from the 1950s, stationary bikes made by Schwinn. It had the menthol smell of heat balm and frozen Dixie cups full of water were used as ice packs. You half-expected Jack LaLanne to walk into the facility. Physical therapy at the Singer Division of Beth Israel Hospital would humble any elite athlete.
"I used to see people going in there screaming, old people, like 90 years old, 80-year-old people who had a knee replacement," McDyess recalled. "I used to think I had it bad. I saw those people coming in with those kind of injuries; that kind of takes the breath out of you."
McDyess cried in that room, along with Yvonne Johnson, the physical therapist he credits with salvaging his confidence and career. He and Johnson wept over the X-rays that April. "He was just so depressed," Johnson said by telephone from New York. She told him he didn't have to be the player he was at 23 years old. "Three surgeries later at 29 years, he can be that player and it will be okay. There is no shame in that. He can still be great."
"At that point, I was just definitely stunned and thinking, 'I'm not going to go through this,' " McDyess said. "I'd rather just not play if this is what basketball was going to cause for me -- pain and going to therapy.' But Yvonne helped me through that whole thing. She is why I am here today."
He churned his atrophied left knee on the leg press. He walked gingerly before he ran confidently. New York parted ways with McDyess, who eventually picked up a ball again. Eighteen games by McDyess in Phoenix at the end of last season convinced Joe Dumars, the Detroit general manager, that McDyess was worth a modest free agent gamble last summer.
"I accepted what I can do," McDyess said. "If I can go around a player, I go around him. If I can just stand there and shoot, I'll shoot it. I realize I'm not going to be the player I once was -- jumping, dunking and running the floor real fast, being real physical. I just put it in the back of my head that I have to play smarter. I have to revise my game."
The astounding vertical leap and the flexibility in his left knee are gone. When asked where he would be if he had never been injured, McDyess mused, "I know I wouldn't be here playing behind Rasheed and Ben." He laughed and smiled. "If I never had those injuries, I know I wouldn't have been here today. If the injury never came, I know I wouldn't have been here in the Finals."
Antonio McDyess is saying this is not exactly how he wanted to get here, this was not the dream. But he made it. That's enough.