Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Favorite Injured Players: Mike and Chad

There is a soft spot in my heart for the smart, alert, and reckless professional athlete. They are a sign of genius and mortality. I grew up in Miami and for 10 years watched Dan Marino quarterback the Miami Dolphins without getting so much as a hang nail. And then one season, during an unspectacular game in Cleveland it all changed. It was a 2-minute drill and the Dolphins were driving down the field before halftime with ease. Marino was at his finest, throwing a dart to a receiver, then a screen, going over the top to the middle of the field. The Brown's defense looked helpless.

Marino went back to pass and suddenly kicked his leg up in shock. He quickly dumped the ball off to a running back and collapsed to the ground. No one had touched him, the field didn't have any major dents in it. The gesture Marino made looked like someone who had been bitten on their heel by a snake. The announcers speculated as to whether he could've tripped over one of his lineman while the injured pick-up truck drove out to the middle of the field. And that was the beginning of the end for one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time: a goofy-looking kick and collapse to the ground. On a sunny day in Cleveland with no major warning signs, his achilles tendon just snapped.

Marino returned a year later but it was never the same. Injuries came with increased frequency. A player who hadn't missed a game in over 10 years was now MIA for one or two games a year. Then it was extreme soreness, declining confidence, fear of injuries, demands for better protection, better receivers, a better offensive system to protect and shield him. And then retirement. Confidence in the body can leave so quickly.

There are rare great athletes like Marino and Jordan who can play for a decade without a nick. And they're are great athletes who are the IR MVPs. From the moment they enter the league trainers have to treat them like ceramic figurines. Greg Oden is probably the most famous recent example. A tremendously powerful NBA center who keeps getting small fractures which end his season. Yao Ming also fits the description well. But for a Miami sports fan there are two recent favorites that I hold close to my heart: QB Chad Pennington and NBA small forward Mike Miller.

Chad Pennington has glass shoulder while Miller could probably dislocate all his fingers by calling a time out. Pennington came from the New York Jets and was always the smart, conservative passer with pinpoint accuracy and encyclopedic knowledge of opposing defenses. Pennington came down to Miami and had one good year. Better than most QBs. It was injury free, inspiring and a study in how a quarterback should prepare for a game. That year the Dolphins won the AFC East title only field goals and dump passes. Since then Pennington has ended each one of his seasons with injuries. He seems destined to be an astute QB coach, but his days of quarterbacking are almost over.

Mike Miller signed with the Heat last year and promptly got injured in training camp. Freak accident. His thumb got tangled in LeBron's jersey during a scrimmage. Torn muscles and done for several weeks. But there was still hope. By Christmas things would change and Miller was suited and ready to go in 2011. And then his other thumb got injured. And then his hand. And then he got sick with a terrible flu and dizziness, and then he's managed to re-re-injure his thumbs and hands each time he's gone in for significant minutes at the close of the season. And yet when Miller isn't getting taped to look like the mummy or doubled over in pain, he's a glorious player. Strong, tall, wiry, he can shoot 3-points with a feathery touch, use his long legs to break to the basket, goes after rebounds with tenacity, and has sharp court vision. The few glimpses Heat fans have had of Miller are impressive. Dwyane Wade was out a game due to migraine headaches and Miller started in his place. He hit 6 three-pointers in the first half. And he did it while assisting others, playing selflessly, and sticking to his opponent in defensive sets. In the one game Miller started all year, he set a team record for three-pointers in a half.

If Miller has another season like this one, he will be finished in Miami. He will be traded or simply released to make more room under the salary cap. A desperate team will take a shot and probably re-sign him before the fax finishes to NBA headquarters. Yet, he will always be a part of the Miami MVP IR team to me.  

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