In the world of sports, there is almost no one who comes with an approval rating at or near 100 percent. Such is life in a business based on wins and losses. One that promotes rivalries and thrives off narratives.
Everyone is someone's villain. Everyone but Klay Thompson.
Perhaps it's the persona of a quiet superstar who doesn't seek the spotlight. Maybe it's that the Warriors star is and has always been 100 percent authentic. He loves nature, his boat, and his dog Rocco. He is one of the greatest shooters ever to play the game who just wants to hoop.
People connect with Thompson whether they know him or just tune into his Instagram Lives when he broadcasts his latest trip around the Bay.
So it should be no surprise that the excitement level for Thompson's first NBA game in 941 days was through the roof. From the Bay Area to Boston and Barcelona, basketball fans were itching to watch Thompson take the court Sunday for the Warriors against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
To see him shoot, yes. But also to see the culmination of a journey that began two-and-a-half years ago when Thompson tore his left ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals and then subsequently tore his right Achilles in November of 2020. To see someone who had been at the peak of their powers and knocked down twice fight to climb all the way back.
Seventeen points in 20 minutes later on Sunday night, after a 96-82 win for the Warriors, Thompson, the unanimously adored NBA superstar, became the perfect emissary to deliver an inspirational message many around the globe need to hear.
"You know, sometimes even the great athletes get knocked down," Thompson said Sunday when asked what he wanted people to take from his story. "And sometimes things are just out of your control, and you just got to -- there's always light at the end of the tunnel. That's what I learned. Take things one day at a time because I really looked forward to this moment, but I didn't skip any steps, and maybe during the first rehab, I was probably overeager, I was playing too soon, and no one is self-made. I had a lot, a lot of help.
"Just lean on your loved ones. Lean on the ones that care about you the most. Tough times don't last, tough people do. That's what I really learned."
As we enter Year 3 of a global pandemic that has claimed 5.4 million deaths worldwide and 836,000 in the United States, and with cases rising due to the Omicron variant, people across the globe are dealing with grief, depression, exhaustion, and isolation.
Any number of athletes, celebrities, politicians or doctors could try and deliver a sermon to lift spirits and hearts during trying times. Most would fall on deaf ears. Few would have the reach of Thompson, which is why his near-universal popularity and his long, grueling journey back to the court are the ideal message and vehicle for this moment.
Not just for athletes dealing with injuries, but for anyone fighting a daily battle.
Thompson would be the first to say his troubles of being a wealthy star athlete and having to rehab injuries pale compared to the struggles going on all over the world.
But the Warriors star has also been open and honest about the mental challenges he faced during the two-and-a-half years he spent away from the game. He's admitted to the dark days he endured, what helped him get through to the other side and how grateful he was Sunday to finally be back doing what he loves.
"Yeah, and that's completely natural," Thompson said when asked if he had doubts that he would return. "It's just you when you tear a ligament or ACL, it just takes so much time to build that muscle back up again. Then you have the thoughts like, "will I have the same pop? Same responsive reflexes?' I feel like myself. It just took a few minutes of jitters, and gosh, it just felt good to play."
It took Thompson 941 days to return to the game he loved.
That included countless hours of rehab and soul-searching— conversations with himself as he searched for answers, for a way back to what he loves.
He found the answer inside himself, in a belief that he would come out the other side and that better days were ahead.
Those days arrived Sunday,
Then, Thompson spoke from the heart about his struggle and journey, knowing he can touch many who need to hear how the Warriors star scaled a mountain littered with doubt, pain, frustration and anger.
It's a message we all would do well to remember. We will need it one day, whether now or in the future.
"There's always a light at the end of the tunnel."