Jul 24, 2020
Royce YoungESPN Staff Writer
- Covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for ESPN.com
FOR ANDRE ROBERSON, it’s been two and a half years. It’s been 30 months of rehab and recovery. It’s been 180 games since he went down with a devastating left knee injury, and 180 games since he last played.
“I get it. I get it,” he said from inside the Orlando, Florida, bubble. “It’s just tough to talk about.”
The defensive specialist for the Oklahoma City Thunder has walked a journey few in NBA history ever have, in a baffling amount of time between games.
There are players who have suffered terrible leg injuries and made it back. Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo was back in a year from a ruptured quad tendon. So was Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward after a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia. Then-Pacers forward Paul George returned in a shorter time than that from his broken leg. Shaun Livingston was out 610 days after his gruesome knee injury before becoming a key reserve for the Golden State Warriors.
Not many players have gone this long, stuck in the cycle of setbacks, surgeries and rehab, as the 28-year-old Roberson has.
If he takes the court for the Thunder’s restart opener on Aug. 1, Roberson will go 916 days between games. According to ESPN Stats & Info research, it would be the longest span between games — for a player who did not play in any other league — since Quincy Pondexter went 917 days from April 15, 2015 to Oct. 19, 2017.
For Roberson, the time away from the court has been “a whirlwind.”
“There were great times, happy, sad, depressed, ecstatic, mad,” he said.
Roberson has spent his career on the periphery, an accessory to the star-driven teams of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and George and Carmelo Anthony. But he has become a Thunder fan favorite, a link between the franchise’s past and present, one of its longest-tenured players and a source of pride in their scouting and development.
After being on the cusp of a return only to fall back down three separate times, Roberson is finally on the verge of completing his comeback as the NBA prepares to resume its season at the Walt Disney World Resort.
The Thunder open their restart scrimmaging the Celtics on Friday, and Roberson will likely be available.
“Basically a big roller coaster of emotions,” Roberson said of his rehab process to get to this point. “Just being so close, and then something else would happen. Setback after setback. I don’t know man, it was just tough. …
“[There were] definitely a lot of times I was ready to give up.”
IT WAS JAN. 27, 2018, and Roberson had just made a baseline cut off the right corner in the third quarter against the Detroit Pistons.
Westbrook lobbed a pass toward the corner of the backboard, an example of the non-verbal connection the two shared on the court. Roberson planted to elevate, but both feet went flying out from under him.
The crowd gasped, and Roberson fell hard onto his back. It looked like a slip, an embarrassing play that Roberson would laugh about the next day in film sessions after shaking off a bruise on his backside. Instead, it was serious.
He rolled onto his stomach and put both palms onto the floor, dragging himself off the court. Seconds passed, and finally, Roberson mustered the resolve to look down at his left knee. It was caved in.
“I was basically like, “What the f—?” he said. “What do I do now?”
After the swelling went down, he had surgery to repair a ruptured patellar tendon.
“It’s s—. It’s real s—,” Thunder center Steven Adams said after the injury. “He’s a huge part of our team and why we win.”
Roberson is a defensive specialist, a quintessential role player, originally drafted to fill the job of stopper alongside Westbrook and Durant, and then Westbrook and George.
He has been a natural target for critics and fans because of his shooting deficiency — he is a career 25.7% 3-point shooter — but as the leader of a swarming defense, he was generating Defensive Player of the Year buzz. The recognition was coming.
After his injury, the Thunder lost five of their next six, wandering on the defensive end.
The original timetable had Roberson eyeing opening night 2019 as his return. He had a scope on his knee in May 2018 to relieve some inflammation, but everything was on track. In early October 2018, he started feeling discomfort. He had a loose suture causing irritation and needed a procedure.
He would miss another two months.
IN NOVEMBER 2018, Roberson was progressing — running, cutting, jumping. He was going through high-intensity individual workouts in front of media members when he went up for a dunk, landed awkwardly and started feeling discomfort in his knee.
He had an MRI, and Donnie Strack, the Thunder’s team doctor, wanted to come to Roberson’s house to deliver the results in person.
“I just kind of felt like bad news was coming,” Roberson said. “I almost didn’t want them to come over. I just kind of knew it wasn’t good.”
Roberson had an avulsion fracture: a small portion of bone attached to a tendon was pulled away from his surgically repaired knee. His leg would need to be immobilized again, the rehab process starting over for at least another few months.
His quad muscle atrophied because of it, and he would need to build it back up. He hoped he could maybe get back for the postseason, but returning for the 2018-19 season never happened.
Roberson thought he’d be ready for this season and said at Thunder media day he was “full go.” But by the opening practice, he wasn’t.
He wasn’t playing full 5-on-5 contact basketball, and as the preseason opened, he still wasn’t ready. Roberson missed opening night. He missed the first month.
“When you suffer an injury there are going to be setbacks, and in his case there were more than you would’ve hoped. But that hasn’t deterred him.”
Thunder GM Sam Presti, on Andre Roberson
In December 2019, he stepped away from the team, taking his rehab to Los Angeles. He explained he didn’t want to be a burden on the medical staff or a distraction to the team. He needed a new environment, and his girlfriend, Rachel DeMita, was mostly in L.A.
“There were times after I would get home from practice and I’d just be alone with my thoughts,” Roberson said, “so I just needed somebody to be with me.”
Roberson is known to be the “ultimate teammate,” as many in the organization describe him. He spent the summer of 2018 in New Zealand at Adams’ basketball camp, in Iowa City at Nick Collison’s retirement party and in Barcelona for Alex Abrines’ wedding. He showed up to Chris Paul‘s documentary premiere in September, even though they’d never played a game together. He tutored the Thunder’s younger defensive wings Terrance Ferguson and Luguentz Dort, sitting in on film sessions.
“Dre is about everything that’s right in sports and in teams,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “The way you know that is when things are not going right for you, you can be totally invested in the team. And I think that’s a real form of mental toughness.”
THIS SEASON LOOKED like it too was slipping away from Roberson, but the league’s hiatus and restart presented the opportunity to start anew.
He has confidence in his knee and his body. He added about 10 pounds of muscle in the past year and built up his left quad. He is preparing to scale up and play some minutes at power forward during the Thunder’s eight-game seeding schedule and into the playoffs, where Oklahoma City currently sits fifth in the Western Conference.
How much of a difference-maker he might be will be determined by how well he responds to actual game minutes and where the opportunities are for him to impact matchups. But his institutional knowledge and experience are valuable components.
“Every practice has been good in terms of my timing, getting a feel for everything,” Roberson said. “I feel like I’m finally ready.”
The Thunder are being careful not to add pressure to his return. They’ve stood by Roberson since the moment he was first injured in Detroit. For a small-market team sitting in the luxury tax, moving off his $10 million salary was an option.
“Sam [Presti] was a big factor,” Roberson said. “The constant communication and the reassurance just to keep going is what this organization is all about: being resilient and keep fighting no matter what.”
Roberson rattled off a list of names important to his comeback — Strack, trainer Tony Katzenmeier, PR director Matt Tumbleson, teammates including Adams who lives two houses down from Roberson and routinely brought him food during his rehab, and Westbrook who called to offer encouragement and talk about his own struggles in recovering from knee issues.
“His quest is a testament as to why he’s a great defender,” Presti said. “When someone scores on him, it doesn’t deter him from the next possession. He doesn’t get disrupted when things don’t go his way.
“You can play great defense on one of these great players in the NBA and they’re going to score on you. It’s the same thing with this. When you suffer an injury there are going to be setbacks, and in his case there were more than you would’ve hoped. But that hasn’t deterred him.”
Roberson concedes he’s probably not the same athlete he was before, but he’s making up for it in awareness and intelligence.
“He’s the smartest defender I’ve ever been around,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said.
Roberson said his shot feels better than ever, discovering confidence in his jumper that escaped him for most of his career. Teammates are raving about him looking like himself again.
“Dre, he’s still got it on the defense end,” Thunder guard Dennis Schroder said. “We’ve played pickup a little bit in OKC. He looks pretty good. On the defensive end he’s a threat.”
Roberson feels the support. He knows his team, his coaches, his trainers, his fans, his family are pulling for him to play in a game again.
“He’s had low moments. He’s had moments when you thought he was right there,” Presti said. “But nothing makes you happier than when you see him on the floor.”