Saturday, just after lunchtime
Keith Jones, the Houston Rockets' head trainer of nearly 20 years, was as busy as he could ever recall. It was hours before game time, and it seemed like more players were scheduled for his services than for the shootaround that morning. He had just finished off the lunch he had brought from home -- a "power greens" salad with raw kale that he choked down dutifully -- when Dwight Howard, the first of the walking wounded, ambled into the room.
"What's good, Keith?" beamed the giant, greeting his trusted caregiver with a handshake. The two men exchanged pleasantries as Dwight hopped up onto one of the handful of trainer's tables in the room and laid on his stomach.
Keith began to stretch Dwight's hamstring, as Dwight turned his head away and tried to stifle a giggle. After a moment, the trainer's face transformed from a look of focus to one of despair. "Come on, Dwi-"
The big man exploded in laughter, pounding his fist against the padded table. Keith shook his head. "Can we do this one time, fart-free? Just one time?" His tone resembled that of a parent at wit's end with a youngster who refuses to bathe peacefully.
"Keith, you stretch my knee, fart-free everyday, buddy," Kostas Papanikolaou called out in his fluid-yet-accented English, as he crutched his way into the room and towards the table beside Dwight's, gracefully leaning his crutches against it before swinging up onto the padding.
"No stretching for you yet, Pap, just relax and I'll get you an ice pack." Keith motioned to his assistant, Shep, to take over with Dwight's stretching. Dwight smirked. "And I don't need you ruining poor Shep's day again, Dwight," said Kevin, as if reading the mirthful center's mind.
"Damn, Keith, you gotta loosen up a little," was Dwight's only response. Keith declined the opportunity to point out the physical therapy double entendre. It had been a long month, and he was raising his hands and eyes to the heavens in frustration more often than he could remember.
As the middle-aged trainer grabbed a sack of blue gel from the freezer and placed it in a protective sleeve, the door to his domain swung open with a sudden BANG. As he whirled around, ready to curse out the interloper, Keith saw an outstretched foot in the entrance way, attached to the whirling dervish himself, Pat Beverley.
"LET'S GOOOOOOO," Pat crowed at the top of his lungs, bouncing around the room like human caffeine, slapping his healing teammates on the back with a force just on the wrong side of friendly, causing otherwise stoic athletes to wince in pain like bullied eighth-graders. Keith shook his head for the umpteenth time that day, though he had a begrudging smile on his face in this instance. The irrepressible guard bounced up to him. "Come on, Keith! Turn me loose, I'm ready for blood!" Pat punctuated his boast by running in place, churning his knees as high as they could go, as quickly as they could go.
"All right Pat, just take it easy and we'll see where your hammy's at." Keith had taken Pat at his word twice already this season, and both times the young man had rushed his recovery and re-injured himself. Now the decision was in the more experienced trainer's hands, and Beverley was chomping at the bit. By the time Keith had finished wrapping the ice pack around Papanikolaou's knee, Pat had already begun stretching his hamstring by extending his leg and resting his foot on a trainer's table that sat above his waist level.
"I'm loose as liquid, Keith! Get me out there!" Pat couldn't stay still for more than two seconds. It seemed as if he had been locked in a padded cell for as long as his hamstring had been hurt, and he had begun to test how bouncy his walls were. Keith knew he had a decision to make - let Pat play, or risk a Tasmanian Devil-esque temper tantrum.
To mollify Pat, or at least get him out of a room with lots of valuable equipment, Keith bought some time. "Why don't you get out on the court, and I'll meet you there in a few minutes to see how well you're moving. Then we'll see if you can play," Keith bargained. As the last words of his offer left Keith's mouth, Pat wordlessly sprinted out the door. Keith knew he would be giving the go-ahead, as he couldn't stand the thought of Pat's reaction otherwise, but he still had to do his due diligence.
From outside the room, Keith heard a soft "--the fuck?" Moments later, Isaiah Canaan gingerly walked through his door, still looking over his shoulder as if to consider whether the form that flashed by him in the hallway was indeed human.
Of all Keith's current patients, Isaiah, or Lil' Sip, as his teammates called him, was the most affected by his injury. When Pat went down, Isaiah got his first honest chance at NBA success, and he had taken to it. Now, with his ankle making frustratingly little progress and Beverley ready to go again, he was despondent.
Kostas, still reclining with a rapidly cooling knee, tried to lighten the comparatively little guy's mood. "Hey, Sippy Cup, want some NBA 2K15 action? I fixed, you got all 99's now, buddy."
"Thanks Pap, maybe in a little," responded Isaiah, smiling weakly. "Whaddya got for me today, Keith?"
"Why don't you sit in a chair and do your alphabets to start with," Keith responded, referencing the motions Isaiah was to emulate with his ankle. "Let me know how it feels. If you start to feel real pain, stop."
The trainer turned to his computer and started to log some of his work with the players for the day, with Shep continuing to work on Dwight, who chatted with Kostas, who would occasionally glance at Isaiah, across the room stretching his ankle and trying to conceal his grimace. The Greek forward knew enough about his teammate to keep quiet about it.
After a few minutes on the computer, Keith turned back around to Isaiah. "Which letter you on, Sip?"
"Second 'C'," he responded, drawing the crescent with his toe. Keith pulled up a stool in front of the young man and started to feel around the soft tissue of his ankle. "Let me know if any of it feels tender to the touch," Keith instructed. Isaiah nodded, lips pursed with concentration. 'E' was one of the most difficult letters.
After a while, Dwight and Kostas had gone, Isaiah was almost finished with his physical therapy for the day, and a sweat-soaked Pat Beverley burst back into the trainer's room. "Are you gonna watch me run and cut, or what?" he asked, breathing heavily. "Coach says I look good, I look ready."
"I'm not quite done here, and if you keep that up, you'll tire yourself out too much to play tonight." Keith said, realizing his phrasing mistake too late.
"Did you say I'm playing tonight?" Beverley's eyes lit up, and he started bouncing noticeably, with both feet, up and down.
"Now hold on, Pat-"
"Nah, you said! Coach said I looked ready, you said I'm playing tonight!" Pat burst back out of the door, back down the hallway at speed, yelling "LET'S GOOOOOOOO" until he was out of earshot.
Neither Keith nor Isaiah could suppress a chuckle at Beverley's exuberance, but Isaiah's expression faded much more quickly. Keith looked in the young man's face, and tried his best to reassure him. "You'll be out there with him soon. You proved you belong."
"I know I belong, Keith." Isaiah bristled at Keith's fatherly tone. "I got to be out there though. You gotta let me get out there."
"You'll be out there soon, Sip. How's it feeling?" Keith pressed down on the tender flesh below the ankle bone.
"Good. Fine," said Isaiah, holding his breath to prevent from gasping.
"We'll get you back out there soon," Keith reiterated.
Keith searched for an answer, but nothing was coming easily. Nothing had come easily all year.