It was one of the craziest scenes in recent sports history.
Warriors guard Klay Thompson, after dropping 28 points in fewer than three quarters of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, crumpled to ground clutching his left knee. Oracle Arena was dead silent, like a graveyard well past midnight, as Thompson hobbled down the tunnel with Golden State's trainer. Then, like a slowly building tsunami, the worried whispers turned to frenetic cheers as Thompson walked back onto the court to shoot his free throws in order to maintain his eligibility to return for the fourth quarter and help save the Warriors' season.
Thompson's heroic return to the court, which included him sinking both free throws to give him an even 30 points and jogging back on defense despite president of basketball operations Bob Myers' instructions, has reached folk hero status since it was revealed he tore his ACL on the play.
The Warriors star has gutted through a number of injuries in his career, so he didn't think twice about walking back onto the court.
“I knew I hurt something, but I’ve just never done an ACL or any type of ligament,” Thompson told The Athletic's Marcus Thompson. “I’ve never torn nothing in my life. So, when I did that, I thought it might have been a sprained knee. Maybe I’d go back … I didn’t even think about it. I just heard that I had to go shoot the free throws and I literally just turned around and walked back like it was …
“Like I had to. I don’t know. It was just something in me that told me to. And, I don’t know, man, it’s The Finals, you know? I don’t want to leave points on the board. Those are hard to get. So many dudes have a whole illustrious career and never even got a sniff of the Finals. I was very lucky to be in that position."
Initially, Thompson didn't think his return warranted praise, but now he sees why it was special to Warriors fans.
“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal after The Finals ended, Thompson said. "But as time goes on and I watch the video and hear the roar of the crowd, I realize it’s a pretty big deal. That’s No. 1 because I think it shows people how much I care, how bad I want to be out there. It showed them that I’m all in with this basketball thing.”
As for jogging back on defense with a torn ACL, chalk it up to instinct.
“I was trying to stay in,” Thompson said. “Not even, like, consciously trying. Just like, my intuition. After you hit a free throw, you just jog back on defense. So I wasn’t really in deep thought or anything about like, ‘Dang this could hurt.’ I just wanted to keep playing. It was Game 6. It was The Finals.”
Thompson's heroics couldn't save the injury-ravaged Warriors as they fell to the Raptors in Game 6 of The Finals, watching their chances at a three-peat evaporate thanks to an injury report that included Thompson and Kevin Durant.
With the offseason departures of Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, DeMarcus Cousins and Quinn Cook, the Warriors have re-tooled their roster, hoping to extend their championship window while Thompson, Steph Curry and Draymond Green are in their primes.
Thompson will be out until at least the All-Star break as he rehabs his knee, leaving it to Curry, Green and new addition D'Angelo Russell to carry the load in the early going against a Western Conference that got a lot better during the summer.
But once he returns, Thompson and the Warriors once again will be one of the most dangerous units in the NBA.