Brook Lopez is back with his teammates for the first time since undergoing season-ending surgery to repair his broken right foot on January 4th. Lopez is no stranger to the operating table, as this was his second season-ending injury and his fourth surgery on his right foot. Coming off his best individual season and being named an All-Star last year, Lopez was looking better than ever, averaging career highs in points (20.7) and field goal percentage (56.3%). His defense, which was once a weakness, was becoming a strength for the 25 year old big man, as Lopez’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was the team’s best at 98.7, and he was holding opponents to a 40.3% shooting in the paint, which was second to this year’s favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year, Indiana’s Roy Hibbert.
Out of the bed for the first time since his surgery, Lopez’s journey begins with learning how to walk all over again. Not only did they repair the fractured fifth metatarsal of his right foot, but they also performed a second procedure called a first metatarsal osteotomy. In layman’s term, the surgeons re-positioned another bone in his foot to protect the injured area. This is just the starting point, as Lopez and the Nets will be working with an orthopedist to build custom shoes and sneakers for Lopez so he can have maximum support at all times. This surgery was also preformed on former Cleveland Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who like Lopez missed a couple of seasons in the early stages of his career due to foot surgeries. Ilgauskas was able to bounce back and have a 13 year career in the NBA – that remains to be seen with Lopez.
Lopez is optimistic that it will work out. He sat down with New York Post columnist Fred Kerber, and was quoted as saying “It’s going to work…I’m definitely thinking that way. Some people say, ‘If this doesn’t work …’ I won’t think that. I’m definitely thinking the other way.” While Lopez has the right attitude going forward, history has shown that this is far from a sure thing.
Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton’s career was severely hampered because of foot injuries, as Walton missed two consecutive seasons rehabbing several reconstructive surgeries. Walton was eventually able to return, and even played a pivotal role in the 1986 Boston Celtics, winning Sixth Man of the Year as well winning the NBA Championship – but more injury woes kept him sidelined and forced him to retire shortly after. Former Indiana Pacers center Rik Smits was hobbled with foot troubles throughout his career, which limited his minutes and productivity.
The most recent and worst case scenario of big men and foot injuries is former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming. Only a decade ago, Yao was an up-and-coming star in the NBA, elevating his game every year for his first three seasons, missing only two games during that stretch. It was in his fourth year that things began to unravel for the big man. That season, Yao had surgery on his foot for the first time. Yao missed a substantial amount of time the next two seasons, requiring knee surgery as well as a second procedure on his foot to repair a stress fracture. He returned the following season and was playing at an elite level once again, but in the playoffs a hairline fracture was found in his left foot during an ankle examination, and once again he would go under the knife. Yao missed the entire 2009-2010 season recovering from the injury, and when he did return he was forced into a limited role, playing less than 20 mpg and sitting out the second half of back-to-back games.
The odds may be against the Brooklyn Nets and Brook Lopez, but if the Nets want any chance of competing for a championship in the foreseeable future, they are going to need their All-Star center to return better than ever. The long career of Ilgauskas serves as a silver lining, however, and, at the very least, Lopez has proven to be a hard-worker, and his mind is certainly in the right place.