Much of the 119-year history of professional sports in the Bay Area is defined by the spectacular and miraculous, from DiMaggio and Budge in the 1930s to Steph and Buster in the 2020s. In between, we’ve had Willie and Willie, Reggie and Rickey, Jerry and Barry, Snake and Catfish.
We watched Joe Almighty Montana return to the 49ers eight weeks after back surgery.
Well, Sunday at 5:30 p.m. PT, we get something totally new and foreign: A comeback unlike any we’ve seen in the Bay Area or perhaps anywhere in the highest levels of American sports.
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Klay Thompson’s 941-day gap between NBA games, required by two separate injuries, both severe, blazes an entirely new trail. The five-time NBA All-Star returns to the Warriors after tearing his left ACL in June 2019, rehabbing and recovering – and then sustaining a torn right Achilles tendon in November 2020, forcing an altogether different rehab and recovery.
Moreover, Thompson and his surgically repaired legs will be immediately inserted into the starting lineup in midseason for a Golden State team that for most of the first three months has owned the best record in the NBA.
“I’m not going to mess around and bring him off the bench,” coach Steve Kerr said.
Thompson has spent the last month on edge, awaiting this moment. He is reuniting with longtime teammates Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, the three of them forming the core of teams that made five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, winning three. All are are destined for the Hall of Fame.
Golden State Warriors
If poetry has any justice, they’ll be enshrined together.
For the moment, though, Curry and Green, like every card-carrying member of Dub Nation, just want to see Klay back on the court.
“It's exciting,’ Curry says. “It's not about anything other than him getting back and playing basketball, and that's what we're all looking forward to.”
Green, drafted by the Warriors one year after Thompson, took it a step further.
“He’s extremely excited and anxious to be back out there,” he said. “(Media) are feeling the same way. We’re feeling the same way. This fan base is feeling the same way. And most important, the world of basketball is feeling the same exact way.
“Everybody is looking forward to Klay Thompson being back out there on the floor.”
We’ve seen many Bay Area stars return to their team after a “long” absence, but nothing close to this calendar scale.
Most recently, Giants catcher Buster Posey opted to sit out the 2020 season to heal his body and stay close to his growing family, rather than gamble on the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. One season.
Jerry Rice tore an ACL in the 1997 season opener and returned to the 49ers, mistakenly, for the penultimate game, during which he was reinjured. Doesn’t come close.
Curry missed most of his third season and nearly all of his 10th. That doesn’t compare.
Eric Chavez missed most of four consecutive seasons with the Athletics, but never an entire season – much less two and much of a third.
We’ve seen career-ending injuries, most notably the concussion that forced Steve Young into retirement.
We’ve seen players go elsewhere and later return to their original team, as Willie McCovey did with the Giants, as Reggie Jackson did with the A’s, as Charles Woodson did with the Raiders. As Rick Barry and Chris Mullin did with the Warriors.
All comebacks, yes, but of an entirely different kind.
So, too, is that which Thompson is about to attempt.
Which is why there is such an elevated level of mystery. Athletes often repair and rehab and resume productive careers after torn ACLs and ruptured Achilles tendons. This is one of each, 17 months apart, in different legs – with the athlete in his prime.
“I don’t want to come back and be a shell of myself,” Thompson said during a November news conference. “I want to come back like I was playing before, and that was one of the best players in the world.”
There is at least example that should be encouraging to Thompson, and indicate there is reason to believe that he can get back to All-Star level.
Kevin Durant, who missed 552 days after tearing his right Achilles tendon in the same 2019 NBA Finals in which Thompson tore his ACL, looked terrific in his return and is an MVP candidate in his second season back.
The sight of Thompson announced in the starting lineup Sunday will challenge the foundation of Chase Center. The standing ovation could last longer than the national anthem. The moment will refresh the Warriors and their fan base.
There will be lumps in throats, hairs on end, goosebumps across skin and maybe somersaults inside a few bellies. Witnessing history in real-time has a way of making itself felt.