Meet the All-Stars who coached Jamal Murray back from ACL surgery: “It’s a fraternity”

Jamal Murray didn’t want the wheelchair. Moments after his left knee buckled on a drive at Golden State last April, Murray chose to hobble off the floor, arms draped over two staff members, rather than roll off it.

The toughness invoked memories of the strength Warriors star Klay Thompson used when he limped back onto the court after tearing his left ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals.

In the grim postgame locker room, as Murray grappled with the magnitude of his injury, his knee burned. There, inside the visiting locker room at the Chase Center, was Thompson — one of the few people who could empathize.

“I told him that I felt for him, first off,” Thompson told The Denver Post. “… I can tell by how competitive he is. If he channels that competitiveness into his daily tasks he has to do for his knee, he’s going to be an All-Star level player again.”

Thompson said the moment was wrenching for him, bringing back memories of his own devastating knee injury.

“I hated seeing it,” he said. “He’s so important to their team, him and (Nikola) Jokic. I really felt for him in that instance, because I’ve been there, and it’s kind of uncharted territory. He’s in the prime of his career. It just sucks, not just for the Nuggets but for the whole NBA.

“… It’s so hard to win without one of your best players. It’s been evident for us the last couple years,” Thompson added. “I felt for him. I love his game. I think he’s a great lead guard, can do everything. I know he’ll bounce back because his skill level is so high. Great athlete, too. I’ve seen him catch a lot of bodies. He’ll gain that back because I did in my jumping knee, too.”

Thompson came back from his extended absence Jan. 9, an absence made longer by a torn Achilles suffered while rehabbing his ACL. Murray, who’s now more than nine months removed from his ACL tear, made a point of watching Thompson’s return.

During a late December visit to Denver, the Warriors star was strolling Cherry Creek and stumbled upon a mural that provoked a “surreal moment,” to use his words. The mural was a coiling black snake that reminded Thompson of a black mamba.

“That mural was titled, ‘All things must pass.’ That resonated with me so much, especially the last two years,” he said.

“Just like Jamal’s time off the floor, my time off the floor, there’s an endpoint. Those tough times will pass, just like Cherry Creek was flowing, the water keeps flowing. That’s what I tried to tell Jamal that moment after he did it.”

Jason Garcia, Courtesy photo

The “All Things Must Pass” mural on Cherry Creek Trail in Denver. Art by Jason Garcia (@_jason.garcia_)

Heat guard Victor Oladipo was there for Murray, too. In the midst of his own seasons-long rehab for a quad injury, Oladipo first reached out to Murray on Instagram. Phone calls followed and then a chance in-person encounter.

“Been a fan of his for quite some time,” Oladipo told The Post. “We have mutual friends in the league. Just wanted to reach out and give him my two cents on the rehab process and what goes into it. Just showing him how much a lot of it goes into the mental aspect of believing that you can come back better than you were.”

Oladipo told Murray the mental parts of rehab can be much more daunting than the physical: Wondering if you’ll ever have the same athletic ability. Oladipo reassured Murray that controlling those aspects — heeding the patience, tempering the progress — could ultimately speed up the recovery process.

“At the end of the day, we compete against each other, but there’s only 400 of us in the world,” the two-time All-Star said. “Gotta have each other’s backs somehow.

“We understand that, especially when you get older in the league. You understand the dynamic of the league and what goes into it. Just do your best to understand we’re the rarity. If we don’t look out for each other, who will? No one understands us better than each other.”

Perhaps the most interesting revelation from their exchanges was how eager Murray was to consume whatever advice he could find. A tireless worker and antsy competitor, Murray had to channel his energy somewhere the past nine months.

“He was very open to learning, which you could see from him when he first got into the league and how much he’s grown, and how much better he’s gotten since he’s been in the league,” Oladipo said. “He’s that type of player, who’s open and willing to learn. When it came to rehab, it was no different. He asked me, and I gave him the best advice I could give him.”

A few weeks after Oladipo reached out to Murray on social media, the two happened to run into each other at a restaurant. They sat down together and the conversation continued, with Murray asking and Oladipo answering.

“I’ve been a fan of Jamal’s for a while, especially him playing under Coach (Michael) Malone, who’s one of my favorite coaches in the league just to watch,” Oladipo said. “He’s grown under him. When I saw he was let down by that whole situation, I felt it was my duty and obligation to reach out.  … Without adversity you can’t truly grow and be better.”

Houston Rockets' Victor Oladipo, front, drives ...
Tony Dejak, The Associated Press

Houston Rockets’ Victor Oladipo, front, drives to the basket against Cleveland Cavaliers’ Isaac Okoro in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Cleveland.

Chicago Bulls star Zach LaVine’s soaring ascension has rendered his 2017 ACL tear a footnote in his blossoming career. A few years removed, LaVine is on the verge of his second consecutive All-Star game.

In truth, there may be no better example of a player regaining his burst than LaVine.

So, when LaVine reached out to Murray in the aftermath of his injury, texting him, “You’re gonna be fine,’” it wasn’t the same type of encouragement as what he heard from everyone else.

“I’ve known Jamal for a while,” LaVine told The Post. “We were both with Adidas for a little bit. We got to know each other, got respect for each others’ games, obviously. Just checking in, seeing where he’s at at six months.

“I remember the process, asking him, like, how much he’s lifting because all I know is that you eat and you lift. That’s all you do. So obviously maintain your weight, obviously telling him, ‘I know you’re doing nothing but form shots’ and getting his left and right hand right. If he feels something funny, I went through the same process, so just let me know if you need anything. Not from a competitive standpoint but from a friendship.”

Before Murray entered health-and-safety protocols this past week, he’d progressed to one-on-one work against player development coach Stephen Graham. Ahead of last week’s home game against the Clippers, there was Murray inviting contact, pacing and dancing with the ball, searching for a window to get his shot off. Though there remains no timetable for his return, the steely confidence that has long been a trademark of Murray’s never left his face.

But according to LaVine, it’s impossible to know where Murray’s head is truly at.

“I know I put on a smile half the time just to let everybody know around me, ‘I’m OK,’ even though you have some up and down days,” he said. “It’s tough to deal with. It makes you a stronger person, it makes you really mentally tough.”

Not that Murray needed much help in that department.

“It’s a fraternity, man, it really is,” LaVine said. “There’s only so many of us and especially for guys that have some type of friendship and respect for each other, I’m always there for that.”

Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) ...
Matt Marton, The Associated Press

Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) dribbles against Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and forward Aaron Gordon (50) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in Chicago.

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