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It's impossible for Klay Thompson's Achilles injury to not make your heart break

Seerat Sohi
·6-min read

Here’s how a story can make your heart break — even for a multi-millionaire who, on the surface, has accomplished the elusive, American tightrope act of “having it all.”

First, make him impossibly likable, not in a sanitized way, but in a how-could-you-not-like-him way.

Second, give him everything: money, talent, a championship, a great city to live in, respect and adulation — from his peers and the public, the perfect amount of fame, and a wonderful dog named Rocco.

Then, make sure the viewer knows what he really wants. Have him play through injuries. Have him randomly pop up on courts halfway across the world and spawn a hashtag. Make him like the kid in high school who takes a basketball everywhere and gets it taken away because he can’t resist the urge to practice his form in the middle of class. Make him the guy that just wants to hoop.

Cool. Now take it away from him. And then, when he’s right on the precipice of coming back, take it away again.

Thanks to an ACL tear, Klay Thompson hadn’t played in an NBA game in 526 days. Just weeks away from putting on a Golden State Warriors jersey again, he tore his Achilles tendon. So tack on another 300 or so. And here’s one final, cruel twist in your gut: Thompson got hurt playing pickup. He just wanted to hoop.

Mission accomplished. Hearts: broken. And why wouldn’t they be?

Injured Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors reacts on the bench after the Warriors made a basket against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chase Center.
Klay Thompson hasn't played in an NBA game since June 2019. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Sports are how we watch other people live. Klay is an everyday inspiration for everyone who’s lucky enough to follow him closely. You learn so much from watching him.

The best way to watch him is to watch his feet. From the waist up, Thompson shoots the same shot every time. A perfect shot is a distillation of what I admire about professional athletes, and even more about basketball players and even more about legendary shooters and even more about Klay: the ability to do the same thing the same way over and over again and to keep loving it enough to master it.

With each shot, you can be a little quicker, a little smoother, a little swish-ier, a little more perfect. Refinement, shedding who you were in favor of who you’re becoming.

Thompson’s signature performances build up as he finds more interesting ways to get open or open-ish, shuffling back and forth like someone you just ran into in a narrow hallway. Toward the end of his 37-point quarter against Sacramento, he stood at the 3-point line and pointed to the floor pretending to want a screen, which brought his defender closer, but into a crouch. Bang.

Klay’s footwork is both immaculate and, at times, beside the point. Unnecessary. The first time I realized he was different was when he started regularly nailing shots without his feet set.

Since then, we’ve watched him contort more and more. No stance too wide, no angle too ridiculous. It culminated in that playoff shot against Oklahoma City. You know the one. Thompson is not the best spot-up shooter of all time because his shot is perfect. It’s because even when it’s not, it is.

The upper half is perfection. The bottom half is what comes after it: invention.

After he scored 60 points on 11 dribbles in three quarters, TNT reporter Rosalyn Gold-Onwude asked Thompson how he didn’t cool off at the half. “Not get caught up in having 40 [points],” he said. “Just trying to play every possession like it matters, and it did. We’re trying to build great habits.” And what does he think would have happened if he played in the fourth quarter? “Who knows? Hopefully, hopefully … I don’t know, Ros,” he said. “That’s a great question. Who knows?” You take one shot, over and over. Some stand out. Hopefully, they accumulate. Regression isn’t guaranteed. Neither is continuation. Neither is anything else.

Thompson seems to have the ol’ zen-like shooter’s psychology on and off the court. To borrow from Ted Lasso, the goldfish is the happiest animal because its memory is only 10 seconds. The truth is, a lot of shooters go to great pains to achieve this state. They rid themselves of anxiety, one shot at a time. Ray Allen did the same thing every gameday:

From Jackie MacMullan in the Boston Globe:

“His pregame ritual does not waver: a nap from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., a meal of chicken and white rice at 2:30, an arrival time at the gym at precisely 3:45 to stretch. Allen will shave his head, then walk out to the court at exactly 4:30. He will methodically take shots from both baselines, both elbows, and the top of the key.”

For Ray, every day was as meticulously crafted as his shot mechanics. He shot himself clean.

Hacking your routine so your body, brain and surroundings don’t conspire to keep you from being in the moment? In 2020? Who among us can’t relate? Meditation apps, exercise, social media blockers, tips on how to reduce screen time, tips on how to do nothing — a multibillion dollar industry gets its wings from the fact that we just can’t chill out.

But Klay seems to wake up like this, fully alive, active and without expectation. When we see him on the court, he’s living everyone’s dream.

Fake stories about athletes have been trending lately. During the 2019 NBA Finals, this tweet went viral.

(I totally fell for it.) And then there’s this.

Our absurd fan-fiction is Klay Thompson’s music: man-on-street turned scaffolding expert, eating pizza in the middle of a press conference, showing up to the Hamptons during the first recruiting pitch for Kevin Durant a few days early to bike to the beach, play tennis and kick the soccer ball around with the gardener. Life is his playground.

The world shifts around him, defenders encroach, but Klay has always just been Klay, Klaying around. There’s something, right now, that’s inspiring about that. Or at least relieving — the idea that somewhere out there, someone is handling life. I was looking forward to watching him do that.

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