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Markelle Fultz and the catch-22 of playing hurt

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USA Today Images

Markelle Fultz and the catch-22 of playing hurt

It’s the start of a new NBA season, so naturally there’s yet another debacle surrounding an injury to a highly-touted and highly-drafted Philadelphia 76ers rookie. Like Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons before him, Markelle Fultz, the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, is hurt, this time with a shoulder injury.

But unlike the others who sat out their rookie years, Fultz attempted to play through the pain, during the preseason and the first four games of the regular season. And the results weren’t pretty: In the first four games, Fultz drastically altered his shot from how it looked in college, did not even attempt any three-pointers, and exhibited an ugly form while shooting free throws that many observers likened more to an Olympic shot put motion than to any kind of basketball shot.

This charade was halted on Tuesday when Fultz’s agent first said that the player had had fluid drained from his shoulder, and later backtracked that Fultz had in fact received a cortisone shot, leading the team to announce Wednesday that Fultz would sit out at least three games.

Much has been said and written, in both the local and national media, about how badly the Sixers have bungled this, and how they have once again both mismanaged an injury and failed to be transparent about it. This is all true. But I want to address another angle that's gotten less attention — the unfair, counterproductive pressure on athletes to play at times when they’re obviously too hurt to do so.

Fultz, it’s clear, has not been healthy enough to play this year, but he's played anyway. According to GM Bryan Colangelo when he met with the media Wednesday, Fultz wanted to play, and there was no diagnosed medical reason for him not to — that is, until it became clear that he was in too much pain to play well.

There’s another reason, I think, why Fultz played: the culture of sports, from fans to media to team management, tells athletes at every turn that they must tough it out and play through injuries, at risk of being labeled as "soft,” or perhaps something worse.

Yes, if you’re a player, you want to play. But too often, when playing through injuries at less than 100%, athletes actively hurt their teams by doing so. No one who watched the first four Sixers games could honestly say that having Markelle Fultz on the court, in that condition, was helping the team.   

Fultz, then, had a choice: He could sit out the start of the season, at the risk of getting the “soft” label right at the outset of his career, at a time when much of the team’s fanbase is already up in arms about Embiid's minutes restrictions. Or he could play, clearly hurt and not especially well, and set off a panic of another kind.

And as a result, four games into the rookie season of a 19-year-old who’s clearly not himself, a lot of Sixers observers are ready to cut bait, or ask why the team didn’t draft Lonzo Ball or Jayson Tatum. This is obviously incredibly premature.

It’s time for the sports world to re-think this attitude. Injuries are not a failure of manhood or of moral character. Toughness may be an important virtue for an athlete, but there ought to be no shame in a player admitting that he’s too hurt to continue, if that’s the case. Fans and media members may question it, but then it’s always a lot easier to be judgmental about someone else’s physical pain than your own.

This change is easier said than done — and it took a concussion crisis for the NFL to even think about moving away from the “rub some dirt on it” mentality — but it’s nevertheless necessary.

This attitude can have longer-term effects, too. When a player suffers a season-ending injury, for a lot of fans they become out-of-sight, out-of-mind, until it’s about time for them to come back the next year. But being an athlete who’s out of action, especially with a long-term injury and uncertainty about the future, can be a depressing, soul-crushing experience, which is something to keep in mind with the multiple season-ending Eagles injuries this week.

We all remember the stories about Joel Embiid’s sad rookie year, the hotel room and the Shirley Temples. And if the player appears in public, and smiles, or even dances? God help him. Top NBA pick-turned-injury-casualty Greg Oden admitted to ESPN the Magazine in July that he fell into depression, and later alcoholism, during his long injury hiatuses, when he rarely left his home because he was terrified of being seen or photographed in public doing anything besides rehabbing.

It’s merely the dawn of Markelle Fultz’s career, and chances are still good that he’ll end having a long and successful career in Philadelphia. Awful as it is to have another prized Sixers rookie out of action for any length of time, it’s undoubtedly beneficial to all sides for him to get healthy before venturing to help the Sixers again. The problem, alas, was that he felt he had to play hurt in the first place. 

Philly won weird Super Bowl bet with Brockton, Massachusetts

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Mayors of Philly/Brockton

Philly won weird Super Bowl bet with Brockton, Massachusetts

Mayor Jim Kenney doesn't seem to fully understand the concept of a sports wager.

The general rule I like to follow: if you win a bet, you GET SOMETHING OF VALUE in return.

Now, the Mayor of Philadelphia won a bet with the city of Brockton, Massachusetts, and he has to SEND THEM STUFF.

Makes no sense.

Anyway, I guess the city of Brockton now has to dress their Rocky Marciano statue up in Eagles gear. Lulz. So Mr. Kenney is shipping them some goods. I hope the people of New England had to pay for it.

As Eagles fans know all too well, the official Eagles gear is not cheap.

Did the Sixers Really Win That Game II: The Portis vs. The Process

Did the Sixers Really Win That Game II: The Portis vs. The Process

Geez, if you only watched the ends of the last two Philadelphia 76ers games, you'd think they were owed years' worth of good karma from getting perpetually screwed in the fourth quarter or something. That's right, the basketball gods may have finally approved the Sixers' line of credit: One game (and eight days) after Brett Brown's squad came back from 20-plus down to squeak one past the Miami Heat, the team again pulled out a miracle last night in Chicago, coming from five down in the final minute against the Bulls to win 116-115. 

And boy, did this one feel like a loss, too. After surging out to a 25-7 lead in the first, the Sixers quickly relinquished the majority of their lead to the Bulls, who pulled even in the third and kept the Sixers from ever running away with it. They hit an absurd 18 threes, tying a season high, and two role players posted career highs: starting wing David Nwaba (21 points on 9-14 shooting) and bench forward Bobby Portis (38 points on 15-26 shooting, including a stupefying 6-9 from three). 

Meanwhile, the Sixers went cold down the stretch; Robert Covington missed a clean look at a three, Ben Simmons missed two of two from the line, Joel Embiid dribbled the ball off his foot. When Zach LaVine hit a tough pull-up three to put Chicago up five with a minute to go, and then Cov missed an open baseline two, it almost felt a merciful end to our suffering. 

But somehow, that wasn't it. Portis shot a long two a little too quickly at the other end and missed, and Simmons put back his own miss at the other end for a quick two to cut it to three. LaVine bricked a tough jumper with 17 to go, and J.J. got fouled at the other end to prevent a possible tying three. He made both, and then good ball denial on the ensuing Chicago inbounds led to an Embiid steal and pass to Simmons, who got fouled. 

After going just 4-9 from the line to that point, Simmons calmly nailed both his free throws to put Philly up one. Embiid stonewalled a Portis attempt near the basket at the other end with seconds to go, Denzel Valentine's putback attempt missed, and the game was over, with the Philly outscoring Chicago 6-0 in the final minute to seal the W. 

It was beautiful, man. There aren't going to be many games in this life where you give up 18 threes, allow two opposing players to go for career highs, miss 14 free throws and go down five with 60 seconds to go and still somehow manage to win the damn thing. 

But there also aren't gonna be many teams in this life with a one-two punch as potent as Simmons and Embiid. The latter picked up where he left off at the All-Star Game, scoring 30 (on 11-17 shooting, including 3-3 from deep) with 13 boards, five assists, three steals and two blocks -- just a few box score tallies away from his first 5x5 game. And the former picked up where he left off before the All-Star Game, scoring a career-high 32 (13-18 shooting) to go with seven boards, 11 assists a steal and a block. And maybe most impressive of all? The two had just three turnovers between them in 69 combined minutes. 

Ben and Jo were nothing less than dominant on offense all night. They couldn't turn the faucet off on the Bulls defensively for most of the game -- though aside from a couple slow-ish rotations in the first half, I'm not even sure they played all that badly, rather just paying the three-point defense regression to the mean that Liberty Ballers writer Sean O'Connor had long been warning fans about

But in any event, Embiid finally got the best of Portis in the final minutes, shutting him down on a couple crucial possessions (including the final one), and he made the play of the night on that inbounds steal. When you have two transcendent talents -- as Embiid and Simmons undoubtedly have proven they are, even this early in their careers -- you win a lot of games you probably shouldn't, and gravity was finally on the Sixers' side tonight. 

Of course, the Sixers might not've needed such combined brilliance from their two best players if their supporting cast was able to pick up the slack a little. But no one else was really cooking for Philly last night, and as is becoming a distressingly frequent occurrence this season, Covington hit a couple shots early and then went flat for the rest of the game. Even on the Bulls broadcast, they were talking about how Cov was gonna have to hit shots in the playoffs for the Sixers to have a chance, and they're probably right: We need Rock's defense and smarts out there, but if he's gonna routinely brick open looks in big moments, he's gonna be a liability -- and he's now 6 of his last 29 from deep. 

But that's a concern for another day -- one that seems more and more likely to actually be upcoming at this point. In the meantime, Philly is 31-25, having won six in a row, and with a creampuff game coming up next at home against Orlando, before a three-game roadie against East playoff teams (Washington, Miami and Cleveland) that represents the only really tough swing remaining on the Sixers' schedule. The playoffs seem increasingly probable, and with Simmons and Embiid playing at this level, just about anything seems possible if we get there. Pity the foolish rival execs who still don't trust the process at this point.