The ruptured Achilles tendon that took Golden State Warrior Kevin Durant out of the NBA Finals is a devastating injury that usually requires up to a year of recovery after surgery.
“Basketball’s the most stressful sport for the tendons, with all the jumping,” said Dr. David McAllister, Chief of the Sports Medicine Service at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.
Durant had just returned to playing after being sidelined by a calf injury when the Achilles disaster played out on screens around the world during Game 5. The two-time champion was scoring basket after basket—and then suddenly he was sitting on the side of the court, clutching his leg.
As a slow-motion video of the event began to make the rounds on the internet, Golden State General Manager Bob Myers held back tears during a press conference—highlighting the severity of the situation.
A healthy Achilles tendon, which connects the calf muscle to the heel, is essential for basketball players.
“It’s very important in jumping and in activities where you walk on your toes. Even landing from jumps can put stress on it,” said Dr. Edward Laskowski, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at the Mayo Clinic who was not involved in Durant’s treatment.
Surgery for an Achilles rupture, in which the ends of the tendon are sewn back together, is an outpatient procedure that can be accomplished in an hour or two. “The tissue needs to be healthy and strong to be sewn back together, but for an athlete that shouldn’t be a problem,” said Laskowski.
Durant was flown to New York for surgery, which went as planned. “I’m hurting deeply, but I’m okay,” he wrote in an Instagram post that included a picture of him in his hospital bed.
Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, of the Hoag Orthopedic Institute, says Achilles ruptures happen more frequently to athletes, with basketballers being the most common victims. “This kind of injury often happens in weekend warriors who don’t work out often enough, or don’t warm up, or whose calf muscles are tight.”
Ten percent of people with ruptures have a history of tendinitis, an inflammation of a tendon. “But some do tear their tendons with no history,” said Kaplan.
Patients have told McAllister that an Achilles rupture feels like getting kicked in the calf. “But they’ll turn around and no one will be there,” he said.
Recovery generally takes between 9 and 12 months and includes physical therapy. Doctors are divided on how long a patient must wait before putting weight on the foot. Some have patients walking right after the surgery, some wait for days or weeks. “It depends on the quality of repair and what the surgeon’s beliefs are,” said McAllister.
After months of physical therapy and having to use a walking boot, will Durant be in any shape to lead the Warriors? “There’s a chance he won’t, but it’ll take a while for us to know,” said McAllister. “But the prognosis is good.”
Durant, of course, is not the first player to tear an Achilles and those who have done it before have had mixed fates. According to a 2015 CBS Sports analysis, 18 NBA athletes with the injury never returned to the league, while 14 did. Some of those who made it back didn’t regain their full strength—like the Warriors’ DeMarcus Cousins, according to SBNation. After Kobe Bryant’s rupture, he spent eight months away and was plagued by injury upon his return.
Durant expressed confidence he will return to the NBA in top form.
“My road back starts now,” he wrote in his Instagram post.