Thanks to the generosity and creativity of some kindhearted people in the Bucks front office, a couple dozen Milwaukee media types got to play basketball Saturday morning at the Bradley Center.
Displaying varying degrees of skill, savvy and stamina, the people who cover the team for print, online, radio and TV outlets huffing, puffing, hacking each other's arms and jacking up questionable shots.
The basketball may not have been pretty (you can stop rolling over any time now, Dr. Naismith), but everybody had a good time and got a tiny taste of what it is like to play in a National Basketball Association setting.
For one player, the experience was more embarrassing, painful and authentic than any other.
You're reading his story now.
I joined my colleagues on the court Saturday morning. I took part in the early shootaround and some light stretching exercises led by Bucks strength and conditioning coach Tim Wilson and was looking forward to a decent workout and a post-game lunch with friends.
I didn't make it to lunch. I didn't even make it to the game. I did, however, make it to the training room, the emergency room and, sooner than later, the operating room.
How did such a pleasant day go horribly awry? Simple. On my second trip through the layup line, I ruptured the patellar tendon in my left knee.
Not on purpose, of course.
The ill-fated shot began exactly like the roughly 10 million that had preceded it in driveways, playgrounds, parks, school gyms and a few college arenas. Jump. Layup. Land.
It was the landing part that got me. When you land on your feet with knees flexed, the force generated can equal 17 ½ times your body weight.
When I came down, I heard a pronounced "pop" - the kind of sound you hear when you slap your fingertips against a basketball. I felt my left leg give out and I fell near the baseline. For a fleeting moment, I thought I had been hit in the leg by an errant ball. That had to be what tripped me up and caused the "pop." I tried to stand up and figure what caused me to fall.
Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak, who happened to be standing about 10 feet away, extended his hand and helped me to my feet. I put my left foot on the ground. Again, I crumpled.
That's when it hit me: my patellar tendon was toast. I looked up at Krystkowiak, who knows a thing or twenty about knee injuries, and said "I'm done. It's gone." I used my hands and arms to shove myself out of bounds near the same baseline where reporters cover games.
The on-court drills continued, but I was no longer interested. I was too busy flashing back to the time about 10 years ago when my right patella tendon gave way at the point where it anchors into the tibia. It was going to be the same thing, all over again. The surgery. The crutches. The rehab...
Within seconds, Bucks head athletic trainer Andre Daniel and Wilson were at my side. I told them my semi-educated layman's diagnosis. Ruptured patellar tendon. I pointed down at the scar on my soon-to-be-overworked right leg and said "I've been down this road before."
I remember chatting with Wilson and Daniel, who are generally too busy for small talk during the season. Wilson once worked at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas with my former high school classmate Mark Philippi, a world-class strongman competitor (featured in OnMilwaukee.com back in March) who now trains athletes in Vegas.
Krystkowiak, whose career was shortened by a horrific knee injury in the same arena, came over to see what had happened.
"At first, I didn't know what happened," I said. "I thought I got hit with a ball or tripped on something."
"That's weird," Krystkowiak said. "That's exactly what Danny Manning said when he told me about his (injury). I heard the "pop." I think you did everything, man. ACL, MCL... "
I told Krystkowiak I was pretty sure it was just the patella tendon, and that I had done the other one nine or 10 years earlier. "I'm sorry it happened," Krystkowiak said. "Good luck."
As I looked around at the exercise equipment and medical supplies, it dawned on me that I was in a portion of the locker room that is off-limits to reporters; a sanctuary for players recovering from injury, hiding from reporters or, in some cases, both. I looked up at the TV, which was showing ESPN's "SportsCenter." I imagined what it would be for Bucks players injured in the line of duty to watch their teammates on TV from Training Table No. 2.
"How are you with ice?" Daniel asked. "Fine," I said, flashing back to a painful previous experience. During my inglorious one-semester stint with the UWM basketball team in 1988, I sprained my ankle and alternated between a warm whirlpool and one filled with ice. It was one of those experiences that seemed brutally painful at first, but became easier with time.
As Daniel applied the ice bag, I looked down and noticed that my knee was swelling and starting to burn a bit inside. It wasn't a searing pain. It was more like I had just applied a bunch of icy hot. It was enough to let me know that something was wrong, but not enough to feel queasy.
"This is like the ultimate fantasy camp experience," I told Daniel. "I shot a basket, got hurt and now I'm being treated by you guys. I wonder what people would pay for this."
Bucks guard Charlie Bell came in, looking for a whistle to use in his role as a referee. Seeing me on the table, Bell shook his head, wished me well and said: "It's the curse of the Bucks."
Unable to focus on baseball highlights, I took a quick mental inventory of what had transpired. I had just blown out my knee warming up for a pickup game with a bunch of out-of-shape colleagues on an NBA arena. No longer tethered by a tendon, my kneecap was floating three inches above its usual resting spot. I was looking at surgery, at least a month on crutches and two or three months of long, painful rehab workouts.
Under the circumstances, I should have felt mortified, embarrassed and depressed.
Instead, I felt lucky.
Years of use and abuse from high school high jumping, pickup basketball and beach volleyball led to bouts of tendonitis and bottles of ibuprofen. My knee probably was due to give out. It could have happened at the health club. It could have happened at the family picnic. It could have happened during a jog around the neighborhood, in which case I would have had to drag myself to a neighbor's doorbell or hope that a passing motorist would find me in a ditch. It could have happened while playing with the 6-year-old daughter and 10-month old dog in the front yard.
If it had to happen, at least it happened when I could be under the care of a big-league trainer in a big-league facility. Daniel has been with the Bucks for seven seasons and worked for the Packers before that. Blowing out my knee in his presence was like having a heart attack while taking a tour of a world-class cardiac care center.
Daniel offered to arrange a ride to the emergency room at Sinai-Samaritan, which is where players injured during games are taken. He gave me the business card of the team doctor John Heinrich. He gave me a pair of crutches and a large brace / immobilizer that gave me some mobility.
As I was getting ready to head back into the arena to collect my gym bag, Cheri Hanson - who is stepping down as the Bucks public relations director to take a vice president's job with the Portland Trail Blazers -- walked into the training room. After asking about my condition and expressing sympathy, she hit me with a haymaker.
"There a few people in the media we probably wouldn't have minded seeing get hurt today," she said. "But, you aren't one of them."
After joking about whether that comment was "off the record" (sorry, Cheri, but it was just too good), we talked about providing intentionally foggy, unclear details in the mythical press release announcing my injury -- and subsequent retirement.
As we walked out the door into the runway of the arena, the games were in full swing. One of the first people I bumped into was Bucks announcer / icon Jon McGlocklin, who offered condolences for my misfortune. "I saw it happen," he said. After absorbing the initial shock that McGlocklin had watched me shoot a layup in the first place, I flashed back 30 years, when I attended Bucks basketball camps at Carroll College. McGlocklin's enthusiasm for the game was infectious at the time and the guy looks almost exactly the same today as he did then.
I talked to a few reporters who waiting on the sideline, said goodbye to my former Journal Sentinel boss Garry Howard and his daughter, Jennifer; and gave a blow-by-blow replay to my good friend and radio partner, Channel 12 sports director Dan Needles, and his co-worker, Stephanie Sutton.
I could see the concern on the faces of my friends and colleagues. In nearly every case, it seemed like my pals were more depressed by my plight than me. I can't say I look forward to an hour-long surgery, a month on crutches, the chore of getting in and out of a car (or using the bathroom) with a straight leg, the thrill of encasing my leg in a garbage bag in order to take a shower or the pain produced by range-of-motion exercises and the struggle to complete one revolution on an exercise bike.
The next few months aren't going to be a lot of fun, but a trip to the emergency room - where X-rays confirmed what I already knew - reminded me that there are a lot of people in more dire straits. I missed out on some bad basketball and a nice lunch, I've got a great story to tell and an iron-clad, no-excuses reason to work out this summer.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.