Maimed but Unbowed, He Understands What Lies Ahead for Gordon Hayward


In the gruesome tradition of quarterback Joe Theismann, whose football career ended when a sack snapped his right leg on “Monday Night Football” in 1985, Sosa has accepted his place as a 21st-century emblem of horrifying leg injuries. Before Kevin Ware (2013), before Paul George (2014) and before Hayward (2017), there was Sosa.

“Anytime something like this happens,” he said, “my Twitter blows up.”

As Hayward begins the long process of rehabilitating from a dislocation fracture of his left ankle, Sosa, 29, is the rare athlete who understands the hard road ahead. He has lived out an answer to the question: How does an elite athlete come back from such a mangling?

Every injury is different, of course, and Hayward’s path forward has extra complexity because a dislocation involves torn ligaments.

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Members of the Panama and Dominican Republic teams watched as Sosa was taken away on a stretcher after his injury. “I thought my career was over,” Sosa said.

Credit
Martin Mejia/Associated Press

At a news conference last week, Hayward said that he was still susceptible to dark thoughts — “I have a lasting image in my mind of rolling over and looking at it,” he said — but that he wanted to attack his rehabilitation. An All-Star forward who signed a four-year, $128 million contract with the Celtics in July, Hayward also said he was relieved that his surgeons did not find any cartilage damage, which would have presented another set of challenges.

“I’m putting zero expectations on myself as far as a timetable,” he said.

Sosa, who grew up in Upper Manhattan and starred at Harlem’s Rice High School before playing at Louisville, can relate to it all: the deep desire to recover everything that he lost, the daily bouts with self-doubt, the nightmarish images that linger.

“I thought my career was over,” he said.

In September 2011, Sosa was fresh off his first season as a pro — and it had been a good one. Playing for a team called Angelico Biella in Italy’s top league, Sosa had averaged 14.1 points and 4.5 assists a game. Based on that body of work, Sosa said, the New Orleans Hornets had invited him to attend their training camp.

But that was still a few weeks away when Sosa joined the Dominican Republic’s national team for the FIBA Americas Championship. In the late stages of blowout win against Panama, John Calipari, who was the Dominican Republic’s coach, urged Sosa to stay aggressive. Heeding Calipari’s advice, Sosa drove to the basket and absorbed contact as his defender looked to draw a charge. When Sosa fell, his leg buckled under him.

He immediately knew that something was very wrong: His right shin had broken in half. The lower part of his leg simply dangled, as if the long sock that he wore was all that kept his ankle and foot attached to the rest of his body.

Orlando Antigua, one of the team’s assistants, rushed to Sosa’s side and shooed away a camera operator. Sosa can remember screaming — but not because he felt physical pain. Instead, his mind raced. He thought about his future. He thought about the N.B.A. He thought the worst.

After spending two days at a hospital in Argentina, Sosa was flown to the Dominican Republic, where surgeons put a titanium rod and several screws in his leg. Then came the hard part.

Unlike Hayward, who will have a small army of specialists caring for him, Sosa was essentially unemployed. The Dominican national team covered the cost of his surgery, he said, but he returned home to New York without health insurance. He had only his savings from the season in Italy and a bonus from the national team as support for his indefinite future.

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Sosa’s Dominican teammates after his injury.

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Martin Mejia/Associated Press

Knowing that his rehabilitation would be a do-it-yourself project, Sosa became a self-taught expert on compound fractures.

“I’ve never read up so much on anything in my life,” he said.

Robinson Frias, his personal trainer and a childhood friend, found books on the topic. They made the Vanderbilt Y.M.C.A. on East 47th Street their unofficial headquarters. Sosa began spending six hours a day there, six days a week. (“Every day except Sunday,” he said.) He swam. He lifted weights. He got massages.

“We just took the mind-set that if you feel better today than you did yesterday, or you can do something this week that you couldn’t do last week, then you’re doing it right,” Sosa said.

After two months on crutches, he graduated to a walking boot. After four months, he wore sneakers again. But he had hang-ups. Walking down staircases terrified him. For weeks — months, even — he was afraid to put weight on his right foot. So he would grip the railing on both sides and hop down the steps.

“It was all mental,” Sosa said.

After six months, Sosa took his first tentative steps back onto a court and attempted some set shots. Frias suggested that Sosa take a dribble before shooting.

“No, I’m not ready,” Sosa recalled telling him.

“Come on, man,” Frias said. “Just try it.”

Sosa found the courage to take a pull-up jumper. He landed.

“And nothing happened,” he said.

If that was a huge milestone, Sosa experienced setbacks, too. About nine months into the process, he was still having trouble flexing his right ankle. So surgeons removed two screws from the base of the titanium rod, which seemed to help.

By July 2012, some 10 months after breaking his leg, Sosa had returned to competition for the Dominican Republic. But then, while bringing the ball upcourt in an exhibition against the United States, he planted and felt a sharp pain in his left foot.

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Sosa soaring in a Breakers game last month. He lacked health insurance during his recovery, he said, and did rehabilitation work at a Y.M.C.A. in Manhattan.

Credit
Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images

“Chris Paul might have been putting a little pressure on me, but nothing crazy,” Sosa said. “And then I just felt like, ‘Yo, what the hell?’ And I’m on the floor.”

Sosa had fractured his fifth metatarsal, the long bone on the outside of the foot that connects to the little toe. He suspected that it had happened because he had overcompensated for lingering effects of the injury to his right leg.

His plan to play for the Sacramento Kings’ summer league team? Gone.

“At that time in my life, I was just out of it,” Sosa said. “I decided not to get surgery. I was tired of surgery. I was tired of seeing doctors.”

And he was tired of rehab, but he stuck with it. By 2013, he was back (again), playing for professional teams in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. A few months later, he secured a contract with Ratiopharm Ulm of Germany’s Basketball Bundesliga. He was thankful.

“They gave me an opportunity,” he said. “I was able to get my career back on track.”

Sosa’s career has since taken him to Iran, back to Italy and now to New Zealand, where he leads his team in scoring. And as the Celtics hoped for the best with Hayward, Horford said he took some solace in Sosa’s comeback.

“It does make me feel good about Gordon,” Horford said in an interview. “I think his whole thing is just to make sure he doesn’t try to get ahead of himself. If he does the rehab process the right way, he should be able to come back and be ready to go.”

Sosa has never summoned the nerve to watch the entire video of his fall. He can watch the first part, as he leaves his feet, he said, but then he has to turn away. He also cannot help but wonder how his life might have been different had he not gotten hurt. He once dreamed of the N.B.A.

“I try not to think about it,” he said. “I speak about it with my family and they’re like, ‘You know, it was part of God’s plan.’ But I felt like I was so close.”

Still, Sosa said he was grateful to be playing at all. He runs and jumps and hardly remembers his injury, he said. Just last week, he drained a game-winning 3-pointer to lift the Breakers to a last-second win against the Cairns Taipans. After a tough break, his game is whole.

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