NBA players face constant adversity throughout their careers both on and off the court. One of the greatest hardships an athlete can face is serious injury and failing health. Injuries present especially unique trials and tribulations, as they bring a multitude of both physical and emotional burdens. It’s one thing to suffer through the many stages of recovery and return to full strength, but to return to former (or greater) glory is an accomplishment like no other.
First, there’s the pain of the ailment itself. Whether on the court, during practice, or unrelated to the sport entirely, no athlete is tough enough to brush off the physical agony from serious injury. Then, there’s the rehabilitation: surgery, rest, physical therapy, and more. It’s an arduous process that puts all eyes on the athlete to critique the player’s road to recovery every step of the way. Then comes the final step – the comeback. Will the player be a shell of his former self; can he compete; is his career over? The questions are unending and the fingers are never stop pointing, yet still some of the truly great NBA players are able to overcome all odds and continue to compete at the highest level.
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15 Tony Parker: Scratched Retina
Labeling Tony Parker’s injury as a “scratched” retina doesn’t even begin to do justice to the severity of what happened to the San Antonio Spurs’ star point guard. Simply put, Parker’s eye injury in June 2012 was super gross. The situation was a freakish one – Parker was at a NYC nightclub when a brawl broke out between the entourages of two stars in the world of music, Chris Brown and Drake. Bottles started flying and it predictably didn’t end well.
Parker was caught up in the barrage of bottles when a shard of broken glass got lodged into his left eye. After getting surgery to remove the glass from his eye, Parker made a miraculous recovery. Just a month later, Parker was back on the court, competing with France in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Two years after what could have left the NBA All-Star blind, Parker was holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy as member of the 2014 NBA champion Spurs.
14 Jabari Parker: Torn ACL
Jabari Parker was off to a hot start in his rookie year with the Milwaukee Bucks and had high expectations riding on his shoulders, as he was the second overall selection of the 2014 NBA Draft. Parker was coming into his own, earning the October/November Eastern Conference Player of the Month before things took a drastic turn for the worse. Parker’s left knee buckled on a coast-to-coast drive to the hoop against the Phoenix Suns. The diagnosis was originally a sprained knee, but turned out to be a worst-case scenario torn ACL.
After Parker underwent surgery to repair his ACL he endured a long, grueling recovery that left the young star unable to go even at the start of the next (2015-16) season. It wasn’t until November 4th that Parker finally saw some court time. All eyes were on the Bucks’ lottery pick and question marks flooded in, wondering if he could overcome the injury to be the player they invested so much in. Before midseason those doubts were in the distant past, as Parker has wowed on every level with athletic displays while posting great numbers.
13 Anderson Varejao: Blood Clot
12-year NBA veteran Anderson Varejao had a life-threatening scare during the 2012-13 season. Varejao suffered his fair share of injuries during his tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers. 25 games into the 2011-12 season, Varejao suffered a season-ending broken wrist that required surgery. 25 games into the next season, Varejao suffered a split in his quadriceps that required surgery. It was back-to-back seasons of disappointment, as Varejao was averaging double-doubles that were both career highs in points and rebounds.
A week after the quadriceps surgery, Varejao felt pain in his chest and back that turned out to be a blood clot in his left lung. This is the same health issue that has infamously kept Chris Bosh sidelined since late in the 2015 season. Fortunately, Varejao was able to return to play the next season. Not only did the veteran center manage to make a full recovery, he just earned an NBA Championship this year as a member of the Golden State Warriors.
12 Derrick Rose: Knee Issues
Derrick Rose was a star-crossed superstar point guard that has endured a career of injuries. After a stellar season with the Bulls that earned him the MVP in 2011, Rose suffered a number of ailments the following year. In the first round of the playoffs in 2012, with less than two minutes left in the game, Rose went down with what turned out to be a torn ACL in his left leg. After missing all of the 2012-13 season, Rose was again sidelined in November 2013, this time with a torn meniscus in his right knee. In February 2015, Rose suffered another torn meniscus to his right knee. While it’s easy to look at “the Derek Rose that could’ve been,” it’s actually been miraculous at how well the injury-riddled point guard has managed to play through pain. In the 2015-16 season, Rose was able to start 66 games, averaging respectable numbers while playing 31.8 minutes per game. Though he hasn’t been able to put up the same performances he could before his legs gave way, Rose has still impressed enough to be a centerpiece in a trade with the Knicks where he should be keystone to New York’s starting five in the 2016-17 season.
11 Amar’e Stoudemire: Right Eye Injuries
Amar’e Stoudemire sustained not one, but two injuries to his right eye in the same season. The first injury occurred in October 2008, before the season even began, when Phoenix Suns teammate, Boris Diaw, accidentally poked him in the eye. Stoudemire suffered a partially torn iris. Stoudemire wore goggles to start the season, but found them to be a hindrance to his game and decided to stop wearing them. February 2009 (the same season), Stoudemire suffered a detached retina to the same eye that forced him to miss the remainder of the 2008-09 season.
Despite the horrifying injury, the star power forward returned to earn two straight All-Star appearances with the Suns and Knicks. Stoudemire accepted the goggles look, smartly deciding that the protective eyewear was a worthy sacrifice to keep both eyeballs in tact. Stoudemire went on to play seven seasons in the NBA and now plays professionally in Israel.
10 Jamal Crawford: Torn ACL & Meniscus
Jamal Crawford had a devastating injury that many may not remember after such a long career. Way back at the start of the seasoned veteran’s NBA run when he played for the Bulls, Crawford went down in an offseason pick-up game with some pros (like Michael Jordan). It was a devastating injury that took kept him off the court for significant number of games. Crawford spoke about more than the physical struggles required to comeback from such a significant injury – the mental struggle… Seriously, imagine going down in front of the great MJ.
The hardest part for Crawford was the angst of possibly blowing it out again. Any wrong step or move could be the wrong one that could do him in; it can go just like that. For a player to return from such an overwhelming psychological hurdle and be awarded NBA Sixth Man of the Year three time is amazing. Even more incredible is that he was most recently awarded the honor in the 2015-16 season at the age of 35.
9 Chris Paul: Torn Meniscus
Chris Paul may have posted his best statistics in his years with the New Orleans Hornets before suffering a meniscus tear in his left knee, but that doesn’t mean he’s slowed down. In 2010, Paul underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus, forcing him out for almost half the season. Even though CP3 played 80 games the next season, he developed a reputation amongst critics as an injury-prone player. While true that Paul has missed some time due to various ailments since joining the Clippers in 2011, the superstar point guard’s knee trouble has been a thing of the past.
CP3 didn’t miss a beat in his comeback from surgery. Paul maintained his All-Star status that began in the 2007-08 season, earning nine straight appearances through 2016. In that time, Paul led the league in steals per game four straight seasons (2010-14) and assists per game for two straight years (2013-15). For any player to average about 20 ppg, while bringing so much more to the team in other categories, it’s really remarkable that CP3 has managed to stay as healthy as he has all these years.
8 Mirza Teletovic: Multiple Blood Clots
It looked like Mirza Teletovic was finally coming into his own during his third year in the NBA when his career came to a screeching halt. Teletovic was experiencing career highs in nearly every category with the Brooklyn Nets through the 2014-15 season, when, halfway through the season, he was taken to the hospital after experiencing some shortness of breath. After taking a number of CT scans, Teletovic was diagnosed with bilateral pulmonary embolus. That’s the medical term for what turned out to be multiple blood clots in the lungs.
As a result of the blood thinners Teletovic was prescribed, he was forced to call it a season. That didn’t stop the versatile forward from returning to the floor the following season, playing all but three games for the Phoenix Suns as a key member off the bench. Teletovic’s contributions didn’t go unnoticed, as the Milwaukee Bucks took advantage of the forward’s free agency, signing him in July 2016 to a three-year deal worth $30 million.
7 Tracy McGrady: Back Spasms
Tracy McGrady infamously suffered a laundry list of injuries and ailments, but it was his back issues that arguably posed McGrady’s biggest challenge to continuing greatness. It was in the 2005-06 season with the Houston Rockets that T-Mac first experienced back spasms. McGrady missed some games due discomfort in his back, but it wasn’t until a January match in ’06 that we realized just how serious that pain was. T-Mac went down in a game against the Nuggets with back spasms and wasn’t able to leave the court without being carried off in a stretcher.
The chronic pain didn’t stop T-Mac from earning his sixth straight All-Star appearance. While the spasms continued, so did McGrady’s dominance, taking control of the team with incredible stats (and earning a seventh All-Star) after Yao Ming’s season ended with a leg injury. It wasn’t until an injury to his left knee resulted in multiple surgeries over his remaining seasons in the NBA that led to the potential HOFer’s demise.
6 Tony Allen: Torn ACL & MCL
It was a long road before Tony Allen came to be the player he is today. Before Allen was known as the "Grindfather" as his teammates in Memphis call him today, he was constantly on the grind rehabbing from knee problems. In the 2005-06 season Allen’s season was cut short after getting arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right knee.
The next season was far more devastating. Well after the ref blew a play dead, Allen, who had the ball, continued to drive to the hoop for a flashy dunk to please the home crowd in Boston. Allen landed on his left leg in an awkward fashion and immediately went down in a heap. The injury turned out to be a torn ACL and MCL, which forced Allen to play in a giant leg brace, missing the explosiveness that the athletic swingman was so heavily reliant on.
Despite such a major setback in ‘07, Allen helped the Celtics win an NBA Championship in in ’08. He since shedded his knee brace and has gone on to earn three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team and two-time NBA All-Defensive Second Team selections in five of his six seasons with the Grizzlies.
5 Kevin Durant: Broken Foot
Calling Kevin Durant one of the best players in basketball isn’t even a controversial statement, which speaks worlds to how talented he really is. In 2014, KD earned the ultimate individual honor of MVP. It was well deserved, as Durant dropped a staggering 32 ppg to go along with 7.4 rpg and 5.5 apg. The sharpshooting forward proved he was far more than a one-trick pony with his contributions to every aspect of the game. After reaching the top of the mountain, KD hit rock bottom when it was revealed that he had a broken bone in his foot.
There’s never a “good” bone to break, but the Jones fracture Durant suffered is the most notorious foot injury in sports. Due to poor blood supply to the area, the bone often takes very long to heal and can lead to complications. KD was a textbook example of a worst-case scenario, requiring a ridiculous three surgeries in six months. As bleak as KD’s future began to look, he made a miraculous comeback to earned his seventh straight All-Star appearance and is playing as if his foot never had a problem.
4 Paul Pierce: Stabbing
Amongst a long list that contains many of the greatest names in NBA history, Paul Pierce’s name is right at the top of Boston Celtics legends. "The Truth" was a fan favorite in his 15 years with Celtics, yet the future HOFer’s career, and life, almost ended after just two years in the league.
In September 2000, Pierce reportedly tried breaking up a fight in a Boston nightclub when he was stabbed 11 times in the face, neck, and back (and even had a bottle smashed over his head). The attack put Pierce within an inch of his life, but thanks to the fast actions of teammate Tony Battie and Battie’s brother, Pierce was rushed to a nearby hospital in time to save his life.
Not only was Pierce still able to play that season, he was the only Celtic to play all 82 games. After that season, the world learned who "The Truth" was, as he’s been named a ten-time NBA All-Star and helped his Celtics win NBA Finals MVP when he led his team to a championship in ’08.
3 Kobe Bryant: Torn Achilles
Kobe Bryant is an aberration that has rejected the calling of Father Time. In his 17th season, the 34-year-old shooting guard was playing vintage Kobe basketball despite a heavily depleted Lakers team. Being the fierce competitor that he is, Kobe literally played nearly every single minute of his final seven games of the season to help the Lakers secure a playoff spot. With just three minutes left in the 80th game of the season, Kobe suffered a torn Achilles in a moment that reminded the world why his nickname is the "Black Mamba." Kobe’s unparalleled drive and desire to win that made him so lethal, was enough to ignore the pain and shoot his free throws to help his team win (by two points) before walking off the court under his own power. After his heroic performance, Kobe suffered two injury-plagued that everyone was certain would force Kobe to retire. He refused, playing one last season at the age of 37 and earning his 17th straight of 18 total All-Star selections before retiring in the glory he deserved, going out with bang as he led his team to a win scoring 60 points, a season high across the league.
2 Paul George: Compound Fracture
Paul George was playing in a 2014 August scrimmage with his fellow superstars on the USA Olympic team. George went down with a horrifying injury when George went up to foul James Harden and his leg stuck into the basketball hoop stanchion. George’s lower right leg essentially folded in and was immediately clear that the injury was a devastating one. George suffered a compound fracture, officially labeled as an open tibia-fibula fracture.
The injury was so gruesome and severe that the NBA couldn’t accept it as unlucky chance, pushing basketball stanchions back an entire 2.5 feet (very telling of how bad the league wanted to prevent such a horrible injury from happening again). George missed all but a few games the following season. When George returned in the 2015-16 season, George came back with a vengeance. The 25-year-old small forward earned his third All-Star appearance and was hands down one of the best players in the league. George has proven that his gruesome leg injury is a thing of the past, and should be an All-Star for many years to come.
1 Shaun Livingston: Everything in the Left Knee
When people talk about devastating injuries in basketball or sports in general, it’s a lock that Shaun Livingston’s name will be mentioned. The 6-7 guard with size and handles was expected to reshape and change the game at the point position until he went down with one of the most stomach-churning injuries imaginable.
In his third year, when he was still only 21 with the Clippers, Livingston came down from a layup the wrong the wrong way on this left leg. Livingston’s knee dislocated beginning one of the most graphic televised injuries to date. The tall guard’s long leg snapped inward, tearing his ACL, PCL, lateral meniscus, spraining his MCL, and dislocating his patella and tibio-fibular joint.
Livingston missed the remainder of the 2006-07 season and all of the next year. After a long road to recovery, Livingston became a journeyman, battling the stigma that he couldn’t return to his former self. It took years of hard work, but Livingston climbed his way back up the ladder and had a career best year (since prior to his injury) at the age of 28 with the Brooklyn Nets. The following year, Livingston was a member of the 2015 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors and made a second straight appearance to the NBA Finals in ’16. It was a long journey from the bottom, but Livingston’s unfathomable return brought him all the way to the top.
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