Mariotti: Cleared to play, but clear of mind? 

click to enlarge TONY AVELAR/AP FILE PHOTO
  • Tony Avelar/ap file photo

OAKLAND — It's meant as levity, this inside joke around the Warriors that you'd never know if Klay Thompson had a concussion because he's perpetually dopey. "Pre- and post-concussion symptoms, the same," cracked Andrew Bogut, prompting laughter from the growing media throng. But in the hypersensitive context of sport and head trauma in the 21st century, perhaps we should be asking a larger question.

Just what is so funny here?

Is anyone really certain about the actual condition of Thompson's brain on the eve of the NBA Finals? For all we know, his head could feel like a bag of rocks mixed with razor blades and 190 proof Golden Grain alcohol. But when Thompson has dreamed much of his life about playing for a championship, as his father did, why would he be completely forthright with team doctors and trainers about any pain, discomfort or fuzzy setbacks? And with so much at stake for the Warriors these next two weeks — national prestige, Bay Area status, money, legacy, a new Mission Bay arena — it's no surprise those same team doctors and trainers issued nothing but Klay-is-feeling-great updates the last several days, culminating with Tuesday's almost-celebratory announcement that he had completed the league's concussion protocol and was cleared to play in Game 1.

Herein lies the agenda clash that has made the concussion issue so vague and perplexing in football and now in basketball, after successive frightening episodes last week involving the Crash Brothers. If an athlete wants to play and the team that pays his lucrative salary wants him to play, what stops him from playing even if he does have a serious concussion? Are we ever going to get the truth — particularly in a championship setting when everyone, including Thompson, wants the trophy and the ring and the parade so dearly?

"I feel great, honestly," he said Tuesday after his second day of scrimmaging, defensive drills and post-practice shooting. "These past two days, I feel like I've got my wind back. Just trying to stop the nerves and anxiousness, or keep them down as much as possible."

And is he satisfied with the doctors and how they followed the protocol? "I'm just trying to do everything I can to get prepared," Thompson said. "They do have my best interests, so that's how I look at it."

But do they? After he was floored last Wednesday night with a flying knee to the head, courtesy of Houston's Trevor Ariza, Thompson left the floor with blood oozing from his ear and received three stitches. The Warriors' medical staff examined him and cleared his return to Game 5 of the Western Conference finals — a shocking decision when, not 90 minutes later, he wasn't able to drive home and then started vomiting, leading to a diagnosis that he'd indeed suffered a concussion. This came two nights after Stephen Curry took his frightening fall in Game 4 and slammed his head on the hardwood, only to return the next quarter when team doctors ruled he had passed two tests and didn't suffer a concussion.

Basketball players think they aren't nearly as vulnerable to long-term neurological damage as football players because they aren't exposed to constant daily hits to the skull. "The amount of times that that's happened, I don't think it's too prevalent in basketball," Curry said. But basketball players, unlike football players and hockey players, are not wearing helmets. And as evidenced by the Thompson and Curry episodes, they do take vicious head blows that could have lasting effects.

Which is why the union chief who represents NBA players, including the Crash Brothers, is appalled at how the Thompson procedure was handled by the Warriors.

"It mortified me," said Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.

In an Associated Press interview, Roberts echoed what some of us have said about the Warriors rushing their two biggest stars back to game action. If Curry did not have a concussion when he returned — or so they tell us — Thompson clearly did have one when he returned from the locker room and took his seat on the bench, with head trainer JoHan Wang relaying the shooting guard's availability to assistant coach Luke Walton, who then informed coach Steve Kerr. Using a makeshift lineup that was pulling away from the gassed Rockets in the fourth quarter, Kerr elected to stay with that lineup. Not once has Kerr said he kept out Thompson as a precaution. In Roberts' view, that is unacceptable, and she said the union has asked its own neurologists to review the NBA's concussion policy with possible reforms in mind.

"That [instance] is sufficient to make us all look at whether we want to risk a player's health for a game," Roberts said. "To say it happens so rarely or doesn't happen frequently enough to change the rules is not enough. We're talking potentially about someone's life. I don't think we should play an odds game when it comes to a player's life."

But doesn't the union work for the players? And what if Thompson thinks it's his business, not the union's, if he wants to stay in the game and risk his health? When told of Roberts' dissatisfaction, Thompson said, "It's tough, because my adrenaline was high [at the time]. I felt alert. I felt focused."

Which is precisely why Roberts feels the need to intercede. "It's not for them to decide. They're not doctors," she said of the players.

The depth of her concerns aren't shared by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who agrees with the director of the league's concussion program, Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher, that the Warriors were satisfactory in their handling and care of Thompson and Curry. But what are Silver's interests at these Finals? He'd love to have a seven-game series with whopper television ratings, a goal that would be threatened if Thompson had to miss a game or two.

It will be fascinating to see how the protocol shakes down if Thompson or Curry is elbowed, kneed or otherwise hit in the head during the series. Anything is possible when the 18-wheel Mack truck known as LeBron James is on the court. Or Matthew Dellavedova, the reckless Aussie who was termed a dirty player by Cleveland's last two playoff opponents. Or J.R. Smith, always capable of a cheap shot. If you can't beat the the Warriors, rough 'em up.

Then there is the issue of how well Thompson will play, fuzzy or not. He struggled mightily to stay with James Harden in the last series, and if you ask him to defend James, he risks drawing an offensive foul that knocks out every cell in Thompson's brain. His shooting was hot and cold in the Houston series. Truth is, even before his concussion, Klay Thompson wasn't playing like a consistent All-Star.

That isn't to say he's not capable of heating up at any time. Remember, it wasn't long ago when Thompson, after Kerr had scorched his players at halftime for ragged play, created one of the magical 12-minute symphonies in basketball history: 13-of-13 shooting, nine from beyond the three-point stripe, for 37 points. Such memories are why Kerr, who has a deeper perspective about life than most coaches, deflected a question about whether the concussion protocol needs an overhaul.

"It's not my department. I coach basketball," he said. "I'm all for safety."

But at this point, he's mostly all for Klay Thompson being in the starting lineup Thursday evening. The Warriors are fortunate they eliminated Houston without him seven nights ago. If they had to play a Game 6 last Friday night, Thompson likely would have sat. This way, in a league where the average down time for a player with a concussion this season was 8.9 days, Thompson returns on the eighth day.

"He's done everything. He looks fine," Kerr said.

I do get where they're coming from. A team that has won 79 games knows it must win just four more to complete one of the most successful seasons in NBA history. They feel it, taste it. They are so damned close.

But the heart is only as big as the head is healthy.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

About The Author

Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti

Bio:
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.
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