WALTHAM, Mass. – When Paul George went down with a broken leg injury in Team USA’s intrasquad scrimmage in 2014, Gordon Hayward was in the building.
He saw first-hand how painful such a devastating injury could be, not knowing that just a few years later he too would be at the starting block on the road to recovery following devastatingly painful injury.
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And one of the more constant voices in Hayward’s ear since the opening-night injury?
That would be George, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder who will host the Celtics on Friday night.
Hayward, speaking to Boston media on Thursday for the first time since the injury, said George texted him right after the injury.
“Paul and I had a good relationship since we were drafted in the same class,” Hayward said. “I was in the gym when he did what happened to his leg. I know he knows first-hand what it’s like, what’s it gonna take to get back to 100 percent.”
George missed all but six games in the 2014-15 season, a testament to how he attacked his rehab program to do what so few thought was possible and that’s return that season.
Although Hayward said in his blog posting earlier this week that he wasn’t coming back this season, he doesn’t seem quite ready to completely shut the door on a possible late-season return.
“I’m putting zero expectations on myself as far as a timetable [to return],” Hayward said on Thursday. “For me it’s...I want to get better today. Right after this [press conference], I’m going to do some rehab and chair shooting.”
Medical officials have told Hayward that a full and complete recovery is likely.
Still, recovering mentally may be the greater challenge.
And that’s where George comes in.
In their communication with one another, George has stressed the importance of being both physically and mentally back to where he was prior to the injury.
“He’s someone I can lean on because the mental side is what he says is the toughest part,” Hayward said. “If you can’t get out there and play, it doesn’t go as fast as you want it to go. That’s something that’s going to be a challenge.”
Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations, has dealt with players in the past who suffered injuries which kept them out for an extended period of time.
While each player has dealt with their own individual injury, there are some common approaches he takes to help them navigate their way down the road to recovery.
“Just keeping them involved with the team and having them feel they’re a part of us,” Ainge told NBC Sports Boston. “It’s easy for them to be distant, just like it is with a player that doesn’t play who is healthy. It’s hard enough keeping a player like that involved. A player that’s injured, not traveling, doing rehab, sometimes and oftentimes away from the team, just keep them feeling like they’re a part of our team.”
The Celtics are in the process of doing those type of things with Gordon.
In addition to shooting while sitting in a chair, Gordon has also involved himself in video study while passing along what he sees to his teammates and the coaching staff.
But Hayward admits there are times when the emotional toll of what happened to him just five minutes into his career as a Celtic.
“Daily I still have negative thoughts,” Hayward said. “It’s hard not to, especially when you watch the games. It’s something I’m trying to work on. I don’t think I would be human if I didn’t have those thoughts. But there are definitely positive things I can take from this. There’s no reason to continue to sulk and wallow in some self-pity; it happened. You can’t take it back. As much as I want to rewind it and go out the other way on the pin-down, it's something I’m going to have to deal with. Might as well deal with it now.”
And yes, Hayward said he has seen the incident on replay since it happened.
“It’s kind of hard not to see it with the social media we have today,” Hayward said. “The first I saw was a picture of it. I have a lasting image in my mind to begin with. It was just an unfortunate play.”
As tough as it will be, Hayward knows he must move forward with his rehabilitation both physically and mentally with many offering a helping hand or words of encouragement – including Paul George.
“It’s extremely helpful,” Hayward said. “Especially when you go through something, to talk to someone else who has been through the same thing and also come through this successful.”
George, who, like Hayward, is 27, has been selected to the Eastern Conference All-Star team in the two seasons since getting hurt.
“Paul is still having a tremendous career and came back better than ever,” Hayward said. “Have someone who’s willing to talk to you about it and willing to take his time to help me out, is big for me.”