During the chase for Dwight Howard, one recurring theme that kept popping up was how would Dwight’s back surgery affect his game?
Last season was not pretty for Howard. Though he had surgery in April of 2012, he spent most of the 2012-2013 season looking off, mainly in his timing as well as his athletic ability. Before the injury, one of Howard’s strengths was his help defense, particularly in cleaning up his teammate’s mistakes near the rim. Though he showed sparks towards the end of the year, the 2012-2013 season left us with more questions than answers as he headed into free agency.
I, for one, wrote any concerns off. I thought his disinterest in playing with Kobe Bryant and for Mike D’Antoni resulted in his less than stellar play. I assumed his injuries were in the review mirror. But, having just had the same surgery performed on Dwight Howard, an operation called a microdiscectomy, now I’m not so sure. Here’s ESPN’s injury expert Stephania Bell with more* on the procedure we both underwent:
The procedure, a microdiscectomy, is a minimally invasive procedure designed to cause minimal trauma to the surrounding soft tissues… Howard was up and walking through the hospital the day after surgery. He will undergo a structured, supervised rehab program directed primarily at training the core abdominal musculature that supports the spine. If all progresses well, Howard should be able to return to basketball activities within the next three to four months.
In short, doctors went into Dwight’s spine and trimmed off the disc that was pressing into his spinal cord, in an attempt to relieve the pressure. An injury like this doesn’t just happen in one moment, instead it’s the combination of time, impact, and movement of a body that wasn’t intended to run up and down a hardwood surface for tens of thousands of hours.
Now, after having gone through the procedure myself this week, I believe that Dallas may have dodged a bullet in not signing Dwight Howard to a cap killing contract. Allow me to back up a bit.
At the start of 2012 I made it a mission of mine to lose some weight. Years working in political campaigns meant that I had slowly built my weight up to about 250 pounds, which is just too much for a 6’3″ guy. I started playing basketball again for the first time in years and combined with a better diet, I lost about 30-35 pounds over the course of the year. In January 2013, I upped my basketball playing from two times a week at about two hours each, to three times a week totaling about seven hours. In April,of 2013 my back started to tighten up badly and my legs were hurting. I visited an orthopedist who thought I had sciatica, which is basically nerve irritation, and sent me to physical therapy in an attempt to build up my core muscles while loosening up my legs and back.
By mid July, I hadn’t improved much, but kept going to PT. Then I went to NBA Summer League. I got off the plane in Vegas and the strangest thing happened: I couldn’t feel my right leg, with the exception of the occasional burning pain up my thigh. I kept having to sit and rub the pain out. One morning after sleeping on the floor, my back and legs hurt so much I had to ice them down to get the burning to stop. After coming home, my orthopedic surgeon sent me to get an MRI and set me up with a pain management doctor. The MRI showed a disc near my L4-L5 lumbar region blocking my nerve bundles in my spine. I received three steroid epidurals over the course of six weeks with the hope that the disc would shrink some and I could resume some of my daily life.
Last week I went to a wedding after getting my third and final shot. My back was tender most of the weekend and I avoided sitting because my lower back started to tighten up to the point that I would have trouble trying to stand back up. During my flight home, my back began spasming so badly that I had to bite down on a blanket to keep from screaming on the plane. If you’ve never had a back spasm, it’s when your muscles tense and lock up for minutes at a time. I had a layover in Houston and Marcus Camby saw me crying on the ground. I got off the flight back home unable to walk without assistance and actually bought a cane to help keep me stable while standing.
I finally got surgery on 9/17 and had most of my disc removed. This will probably mean more surgeries later in life if I want to resume an active life style. Right now I’m sitting here with a back brace on, drugged up, but in less pain than before. I still need a cane to walk and my wife has to help me stand up and put on socks. I hope to be better enough to play basketball a little by the new year.
Why do I think my story matters? I’m not an NBA player. I don’t have access to top of the line medical facilities and care like Dwight Howard does. His disc problem may not have been nearly as bad as mine, since from what we know of the injury timeline, he simply went from being uncomfortable and ineffective to having the surgery in a matter of weeks instead of months like I did. Dwight Howard might be a superhero compared to me, but we still share the same basic physiology.
I’m not certain I’ll ever be able to play basketball again. If I do, I won’t be near as able as I was before. My doctor informed me that despite the good outlook, this is the kind of injury that can happen again with a single wrong movement. Degenerative discs simply don’t repair themselves fully. I can’t help but think that the Dwight Howard who lives in highlight reels and our collective memory may be gone forever.
That makes me sad as a basketball fan, and sad for him. But as a Mavericks fan, I think we may have missed out on a ticking time bomb.
Kirk is a member of the Two Man Game family. Follow him on Twitter @KirkSeriousFace for ranting about Dallas basketball, TV, movies, video games, and his dog