UPDATE: Caris LeVert will not need surgery and is expected to return this season. The following story, written from the scene of his gruesome injury, tells the tale of a player whose resilience has been tested time and time again throughout his life and basketball career.
MINNEAPOLIS — He had been one of the best stories of the first month of the NBA season, a young player who looked like he was developing into a foundational star for one of the NBA’s rebuilding franchises.
Caris LeVert deserved all the accolades he was getting this season. His path to the cusp of NBA stardom had never been straight, his success never guaranteed, his adolescence and young adulthood filled with more pain than any young man should endure. LeVert was a sophomore in high school in Columbus, Ohio when he woke up early one Easter morning to rouse his father from bed. LeVert and his father were more like best friends than father and son, both reserved but both highly competitive. It was his father who put a basketball hoop in his crib when they brought baby Caris home from the hospital, who got him a Little Tikes basketball hoop as soon as Caris could walk, who played basketball under the lights in the driveway with his son until well after dark. LeVert’s mother once told me of a time when his father, Darryl LeVert, beat him in a game of H-O-R-S-E in front of his friends. Caris cried and locked himself in his bedroom for the rest of the day.
On Easter morning 2010, though, LeVert and his younger brother found their father on the couch, unresponsive. They called 911. Their father was dead of a heart attack at age 46. Their mother was out of town at a family reunion. It was Caris who made the phone call: “Mom, Daddy is dead.”
When LeVert signed at the University of Michigan, he was fulfilling his father’s greatest dream. His dad had been an athletic Division III basketball player. Caris, however, had loads more talent. Yet he wasn’t highly recruited; LeVert ranked 239th in the class of 2012, according to one scouting service, and had initially signed at mid-major Ohio University before switching to Michigan. By his sophomore year, though, he’d worked himself into discussion as a potential future lottery pick, averaging 12.9 points and shooting 40.8 percent from 3. After that season, he had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot. Midway through a stellar junior season, he injured the same foot, and decided to skip the NBA draft. His senior year, he suffered a different injury on the same leg — a Jones fracture in the fifth metatarsal of his left foot – and underwent his third surgery in 22 months.
But against all odds, and against repetitive misfortune, LeVert kept getting back up.
The Nets took a risk on LeVert’s upside by using the 20th pick of the 2016 draft on him. By this season, it looked like their gamble had paid off in a major way, as the agile 24-year-old guard appeared to be a star in the making. He scored a career-high 27 points in the Nets’ opener this season, then beat that two nights later with 28 points. On Friday night, LeVert hit the game-winning shot in the final second as the Nets upset the Denver Nuggets. When he walked off the team bus and into the Target Center on Monday evening for the Nets’ game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, LeVert was averaging 19.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists over the Nets’ first 13 games, a primary offensive option and a leader and a two-way player who worked as hard as anyone on the court. It was one of the most surprising stories of the young NBA season, and one of the most inspirational as well.
And then, in a flash, it evaporated.
With just a few seconds remaining in the first half of a three-point game, Timberwolves rookie Josh Okogie grabbed a defensive rebound and dashed headlong in transition toward the other basket. Trailing him by a step or two was LeVert. As Okogie rose toward the rim, LeVert shot in and jumped as he went for the chase-down block. LeVert collided with Okogie in midair and knocked him to the ground. The two fell simultaneously, with Okogie’s full body weight falling on LeVert’s right ankle. The ankle, basically, snapped in two, not unlike Gordon Hayward’s gruesome injury a year ago. LeVert clutched it in pain. Players were horrified and turned away. A stretcher was immediately brought out. Nets’ staffers covered LeVert with a towel. Anthony Tolliver led his Timberwolves teammates in a prayer.
Teammates and opponents knew the outlines of LeVert’s journey, and the inspiration surrounding his success. That story made this awful injury even worse.
“That guy,” said Nets power forward Jared Dudley, “was on his way.”
The arena was eerily silent, only to awaken with a standing ovation when LeVert was wheeled out. The half ended somberly.
“I was on the court for Paul George, (Gordon) Hayward and this,” Timberwolves guard Derrick Rose said. “It’s always in your mind throughout the whole game … You gotta forget about it and be a professional. But it’s sad to see.”
As the Nets filed back to their locker room, several were crying. Inside the locker room was dead silence.
“Just seeing that in person like that, it breaks your heart — it really does,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “There’s no words. We didn’t talk, even when we came in at halftime. There’s nothing really to be said. You could just feel it, the emotions of everybody. Guys were crying. It was really bad, horrific.”
Fifteen minutes later, the second half began just as an ambulance, sirens blaring, left the Target Center loading dock with LeVert inside.
One of the 2018-19 NBA season’s most inspiring stories, from one of the season’s brightest young surprise stars, almost certainly was over, at least for this season.
“He’s the heart and soul of our program,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said after the game. “He’s had a fantastic start to the season. He has obviously made a huge jump. I just know Caris, if anybody’s coming back from this, knowing the human, the character, the person, the player, he’ll come back from this thing.”
Atkinson looked exhausted. He didn’t want to be answering any more questions, and you couldn’t blame him.
“The game didn’t matter tonight,” he said. “That’s it. I just think it’s a devastating blow for us, for him. That’s all I really want to say about this. Our thoughts should be with him and his recovery. I really don’t want to talk about this game, or anything else.”
After 60 seconds, the coach’s postgame press conference was over. And the coach was right. The game ended in a 120-113 Timberwolves win, and the game didn’t matter one bit.
After LeVert was taken from the Target Center to a local hospital, I thought of something he’d said to me when I was writing a story about him toward the end of his college career. He was talking about his father’s death, and about overcoming his injuries, but he might as well have been speaking to the future Caris LeVert, the one who suffered the devastating injury on Monday night.
“God doesn’t make mistakes,” LeVert told me back then. “It’s something I’ve grown to believe. Mistakes don’t really happen in life. Everything really happens for a reason. It’s not what happens to you. It’s how you react to what happens to you. It’s how you grow from that. It’s how you get stronger and smarter from it.”
So here’s to Caris LeVert, and to him making an unlikely comeback once again.
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