The gym sound was muted, all the noise vacuumed away by the fear of paralysis, a normal level of concern considering the way Marquis Daniels had fallen. Daniels laid on the ground like a parked car, his teammates kneeling around him as if at an altar. He had bumped his head against Gilbert Arenas’s shoulder, collapsing to the ground like a felled tree. The collision had combined with Daniels’ abnormally narrow spinal canal to cause a potentially career-threatening injury.
Daniels arrived at the hospital a short time later, with numbness in his body and an NBA future that was very much in doubt. A few months later, after being traded to Sacramento but never actually traveling there since he couldn’t have played anyway, Daniels awaits word from doctors, awaits a June 28 meeting that will determine whether he’s cleared for non-elliptical machine workouts. All of his numbness now gone, Daniels is confident he will return to the court soon.
“Everything is looking good for me to play again,” he said, adding that agent Mark Bartelstein told him “to do what I normally do to get ready, and then we’ll see. It feels real good right now. It’s still healing, but it feels great.”
I attended that game against the Magic, the last one Daniels played this season. We can talk about what his injury meant to the team (it likely resulted in the Green-Perkins trade, for one), but the injury extended far beyond basketball. The lifeless gym, as loud as an empty room, can attest to that. Daniels’ life as he knew it was threatened. He not only feared for his basketball career, but initially, he probably feared he might never walk again. Sitting in the crowd, watching Daniels’ teammates kneel and stare at him with love, anguish, and concern, I know that’s what I feared.
Thankfully, the worst is over. Daniels no longer feels numbness in his extremities. He believes his return to the court will come soon, and appreciates that Celtics Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Avery Bradley, Tyronn Lue (assistant coach) and Mike Longabardi (assistant coach) visited him in an Atlanta hospital during the late season. He feels for the Celtics and the way they lost, and I imagine a small part of him wonders if the season could have ended differently, if only he had been healthy.
Sure, there are things in life a lot more important than basketball, but basketball is the game Daniels loves. I heard Mark Herzlich give a speech earlier this season. Then a linebacker at Boston College (now trying to find an NFL home after going undrafted), Herzlich was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer shortly after being named a First Team All-American. Even though there was so much else to live for, so much else to fight cancer for, Herzlich gives credit for his survival to one goal: he wanted to play football again.
“Once I got diagnosed, I said a prayer every morning and night to be cancer-free and play football again,” Herzlich said in February. “That goal was what got me here. I’ve talked to a lot of people going through cancer right now, or are battling through something, and the biggest problem they have is not having that light at the end of the tunnel. My goal happened to be running out of the tunnel with my team. It got me through a lot of things.”
Since Daniels went down, I’ve read dozens of stories about Russell Westbrook’s tendency to over-shoot at the end of games. I’ve read multiple times about Dirk Nowitzki’s attempt at immortality and Lebron’s suddenly-heroic clutch efforts. I’ve read (and written) about the Green-Perkins trade more times than I ever wanted to. Meanwhile, Daniels awaits his June 28 meeting in relative media silence, one of the most powerful stories in sports going mostly untold.