NBC Sports

Klay thrives in his return: 'I'll never forget this night'

NBC Sports

SAN FRANCISCO – At the end of the evening he had visualized for months, feeling gratified and whole, Klay Thompson finally could exhale and scroll through the journey, his journey, one no athlete ever wants to experience.

He was back on the basketball court on Sunday, in a game, wearing a Warriors jersey for the first time since June 2019.

He got the loudest cheers from the sellout crowd at Chase Center, which was entirely predictable.

He took Golden State’s first shot, making it, even though it was not scripted for him.

That, too, was entirely predictable.

“I should have known better,” coach Steve Kerr said, grinning after the Warriors’ 96-82 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

On a night unofficially dedicated to Thompson, he scored 17 points, taking 18 shots, over 20 minutes. He also grabbed three rebounds, blocked one shot, and had another block taken away by a questionable foul. He had one assist. So much for his numbers, though, because this game and this night were about so much more.

Yes, even more than Klay’s daredevil drive to the rim that concluded in a dunk of seismic proportion, surprising everyone in the building, including himself. 

“I threw it down with authority,” he said, “and that really felt good.”

This was about a man coming off a 941-day absence due to a torn ACL and a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, rediscovering his natural habitat and thriving in it.

 

This was about taking away the mystery of what would happen to someone who had been away for so long. About shedding any apprehension about going back into competition, getting on the court and taking shots and bumping and grinding with nine other men without a worry about rust or timing.

Just playing.

“I’m just so happy right now,” Thompson said.

“I did not shoot as well as I wanted to, but I’m just so happy I could even look at the stat sheet and see my name there and see my shot attempts, makes, and all the stats again. Minus-2, that’s no good, but at least I’m here.”

There were, Thompson acknowledged, moments when he wondered. His desire never wavered, but his belief occasionally bumped into the wall of skepticism. That’s the quiet, lonely, malevolent component of 31 months of surgery, recovery and rehabilitation.

“It was a very special moment, so I’ll never forget,” he said. “I’ll never forget this night. I’ll never forget the reception the Warrior fans gave us, especially myself. Gosh, it was fun. It was worth every single day of being away and in that squat rack or on that shuttle board and all the conditioning days. It was worth every single moment. I was so grateful to just compete again.

“It’s been a long road, but I’m also just proud of myself for persevering . . . I’m not going to say it was the equivalent to winning a championship, but man, it was pretty freaking close.

“There were times, in the past, where you second guess yourself. You think if you are going to be the same player or have the same explosion or whatever term. And just to be able to go out there and shoot the ball and play defense and compete, man, it was special.”

Thompson’s teammates, even Stephen Curry, were relegated to supporting characters on "Klay Day" (and Night).

“It was special, just being set up for the love that I know he's been waiting for, just that moment, hear the crowd, know that he's gone through so many highs and lows over the last two years,” Curry said. “That was the moment that he could celebrate that journey and just go hoop. It delivered. That moment delivered for sure. I got goosebumps on the outside of the court just watching the smiles and all that. He's earned, deserved, all that welcome-back-to-the-court moment.”

RELATED: Warriors loved Klay's 'vicious' dunk in victorious return

Draymond Green, who injured his calf in pregame warmups, was so desperate to play that the Warriors asked if the Cavaliers would let him come out for the opening tip, after which he would commit a foul and immediately return to the bench for the duration.

Draymond saw enough, probably felt even more. We all saw it, including the shocking dunk, and how could it not be felt?

 

Klay’s road back to the court, to the Warriors and their fans, seemed to evaporate over the course of the evening. There is more work to do, and plenty of games to play, but the debut was such a rousing hit that it was appropriate to see him walk out wearing a smile.

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