Semi Ojeleye, writhing in pain on the baseline at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse earlier this month, rolled over on his back and looked up to find Marcus Smart staring down at him.
This, Ojeleye figured, was karma.
"Marcus always gets hit, and the funny thing is we always laugh on the bench,” explained Ojeleye. "Like, ‘Haha, he got hit in the nuts.’ But then it’s you and you’re like, ‘Wow. This is rough.’”
Moments earlier, in the midst of his career night, the chiseled Ojeleye had taken a knee from a driving Larry Nance right in the, um, medicine balls. As play continued back up the court, Ojeleye dropped to his knees and tried to collect himself. Eventually, the Celtics called timeout to check on their fallen teammate.
By the time trainer Nick Sang and rehab manager Steve Mount reached him, Ojeleye was still in a world of hurt.
"I couldn’t feel my legs. I was telling Nick and Steve, ‘Yo, I can’t walk. Y’all gotta help me out,’” said Ojeleye. "They were like, ‘You want a wheelchair? I said, ’No, but I can’t feel my legs. I feel weak.’ That was tough.”
The NBA’s 2019-20 season being indefinitely suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic only feels like a kick below the belt for hoops fans. Before the break, we used Ojeleye’s painful experience as a jumping off point for a potential story.
See, while the NBA’s encyclopedic stats archive does not track such occurrences, it seems anecdotally fair to suggest that no team in the league endured as many groin hits as the Celtics this season. Smart alone seemed to make it a nightly occurrence, to the point where he had to make repeated public declarations for opponents to be more careful.
Luka Doncic kicked Smart in his manhood in November, leaving Boston’s defensive quarterback doubled over in pain, and Smart later declared, "I don't know what it is. I keep getting kicked in the groin. … We've got to figure out a solution to stop that.”
Danny Ainge decided to have fun with the moment and suggested via social media that he’d inquire with the Red Sox about having a protective cup sent over.
The same night that Ojeleye got hit in Cleveland, Smart was trying to dribble out the clock in the final seconds of the fourth quarter when a misplaced Kevin Love swipe left Smart sprawled on the court again. He limped down the floor and made a pair of free throws to ice the game.
He probably needed ice elsewhere after given the repeated abuse.
The Celtics official injury at halftime of that Cleveland game declared that Ojeleye (knee to the groin) was questionable to return. And when discussing the injury a few days later, Ojeleye couldn't help but squirm.
“I still feel it,” said Ojeleye. Asked if he’d ever been hit that hard below the belt, Ojeleye didn’t hesitate with his response. “No. Never. Oh, man. Just, oof.”
Ojeleye said he truly questioned whether he was going to be able to get back on the court in the second half that night. He did and capped a performance that saw him finish with a career-best 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting in 30 minutes.
Still, that night will be memorable for reasons both good and bad for Ojeleye.
“[Rookie] Romeo [Langford] was like, ‘You gotta protect yourself,’” said Ojeleye. “I told him, if you’re out there, it just happens.”