When Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome left leg injury six minutes into the Celtics opener on Oct. 18, the question as he stared in shock, Quicken Loans Arena winced for him and the rest of us watched in horror was not whether he’d play again this season. It was whether he’d ever be the same.
The coming days eased those fears, as surgery revealed a clean break, torn ligaments and no cartilage damage. He would make a full recovery, the team announced after the procedure, and whispers inside TD Garden even hinted at the chance of a return this season, including one source with direct knowledge of both Hayward’s pre-surgery condition and the healing process of similar injuries who told us here, “You never know.”
The team’s announcement, that “no timetable has been set for Hayward’s return,” coupled with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge not flatly ruling out a 2017-18 comeback, opened the door a crack.
But Hayward’s agent seemed to confirm to the Boston Herald what we initially suspected: “expectations for a return this season are unrealistic.”
“I think so,” Mark Bartelstein told the Herald on the morning after surgery.
There are many reasons agents protect their clients from the pressures of the possibility of a return, beyond their personal well-being, most notably the risk of rushing a player’s recovery and risking his long-term viability.
Two weeks later, Hayward ruled himself out for the season in a Facebook post: “It’s hard mentally to watch the games because I’m sitting here thinking, ‘I’m not going to be able to help the team on the court this year.'”
So, that was then. No timetable. No expectations. Just the freedom to heal at his own pace and come to grips with what may well be a lost season.
And this is now.
“Nothing’s changed from where we were the day of the surgery,” Bartelstein told Parquet Post on Wednesday, in the hours before Hayward was on the floor of Staples Center getting up shots with only a brace on his ankle. “It’s about making sure we’re making the right steps every day.”
This is precisely what Celtics coach Brad Stevens said two weeks ago when I asked him on a conference call from London if a poolside photo Ainge shared of Hayward in sandals warranted a medical status update.
“No change in our expectations or from what we thought from the time of the surgery,” Stevens said from England on Jan. 10. “This is the process of the rehab … after the surgery happened and after everything went well.”
Still no timetable. But expectations have been amended.
By early December, Ainge was telling 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher and Rich, “I know that down inside he wants to be back faster than anybody has ever been back from this kind of injury,” and in the weeks to come Hayward himself was publicly warming to the possibility of a return.
“It’s definitely in the back of my mind,” he told The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach on Dec. 9. A week later, he was at the Garden telling reporters, “My mind is open to that. I’m trying to get back as fast as I can.”
In between, Stevens probably summed it up best on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s radio show, “The way we’ve looked at it the whole time is we don’t expect him back this year. But he shoots for all of his goals — week-to-week, day-to-day — to try to expedite it as much as he can because he obviously wants to be back, like any athlete, as soon as they can.”
And as Celtics team president Rich Gotham told Parquet Post last week, “The most important thing is you get him back healthy. The business doesn’t factor into that. … The most important thing is he takes his time.”
They will check all the boxes. The crutches are gone. So is the walking boot. The brace is limited. He’s using an anti-gravity treadmill now. As we learned from Himmelsbach, running comes next. Increased range of mobility after that. Then, non-contact drills, 1-on-1, 3-on-3, full practice.
“I’d say the traveling looks like it could be early March,” when Hayward can do all of his rehab on the road with the team, Stevens told the media in Los Angeles on Tuesday, propping that return door ever so more ajar.
If every box is checked before season’s end, if Hayward is “1,000 percent confident in myself and my leg,” then yes, he will return this season.
But not before then.
“That’s what we’re doing,” Bartelstein told Parquet Post. “He’s doing great. He’s making great progress. I think he’s just getting better week by week, but again, there’s still a long, long ways to go, and we’re not even thinking about that. We’re just thinking about literally taking every day and making it better than the day before. And we’ll just see where that gets us.”
A long way from “expectations for a return this season are unrealistic,” too.