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Victor Oladipo Is Starting All Over Again

Two trades. Two injuries. Too many setbacks to count. It’s been an arduous and winding road to recovery for Oladipo, but the Heat’s former All-Star believes he can still be the same player he once was. “I have no doubt in my mind that I can.”

Jonathan Bartlett

It was a Sunday afternoon in October 2019, and Victor Oladipo had 70,000 Hoosiers in the palm of his hand. Smiling and wearing a white, no. 4 Indianapolis Colts jersey, Oladipo grabbed a hammer and slammed the ceremonial anvil to mark the start of the game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The fans roared with approval. Oladipo, who played collegiately at Indiana and was coming off two All-Star seasons with the Indiana Pacers, had become one of the biggest basketball stars the city had ever known. When Oladipo posted the clip to his Instagram page, he fittingly punctuated the caption with “#MyCity.” It had been only eight months since he ruptured his right quadriceps tendon and, as far as he could tell, his recovery was going well. He’d be back with the Pacers playing in front of his city soon enough.

Only it turned out to be just the beginning of his fall from stardom. Over the next 28 months, Oladipo would get traded twice, reinjure his quad, and be forced to grapple with a stunning tumble into NBA irrelevance. By the time he made his 2021-22 debut with the Miami Heat earlier this month, it had been 333 days since his last game. The celebrity, the promising career, and the anvil felt like a lifetime ago.

“The game and time wait for no man,” Oladipo told The Ringer after a recent Heat practice. “When I came back, it wasn’t the same situation it was when I was in Indy, with fans, with recognition. Everything was different.

“I’m starting all over again.”

Oladipo’s Pacers career came to an end in January 2021, when he was traded to Houston in the four-team megadeal that sent James Harden to Brooklyn. Indiana received Caris LeVert and a pair of second-round picks. Two months later, the Rockets sent Oladipo to Miami for a first-round pick swap, Avery Bradley, and Kelly Olynyk—players Houston didn’t re-sign in the offseason. The market had spoken. Oladipo’s value had plummeted.

Still, the Heat seemed like a great fit for Oladipo, who spends most of his summers in Miami and idolizes Dwyane Wade. Pair that with the Heat’s best-in-class conditioning program and it seemed like the ideal spot for Oladipo to get his career back on track.

And then, another reset. Oladipo was playing his fourth game with the Heat when, in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers, he pushed off his right leg and cut behind the Lakers defense for a wide-open dunk. By the time Oladipo landed, he knew something wasn’t right. He grabbed his surgically repaired right leg and hobbled up the court before a stop in play. Four months after returning from that initial procedure, Oladipo limped to the Heat locker room. He had torn his quad again.

Quinn Cook, who grew up with Oladipo in Maryland, was watching on TV when it happened and knew his best friend needed to talk. Oladipo called Cook the next day and, through tears, told him he needed a second surgery. The last rehab was hard enough. Now he had to do it all over again.

“I remember breaking down,” Cook said. “We cried together.”

It turned out the initial procedure, back in January 2019, had not gone as planned. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jonathan Glashow performed the second surgery on May 13 and was surprised Oladipo had been able to play at all given the state of his tendon.

“The quad wasn’t really hooked up,” Glashow told ESPN.com. “It was torn, and I reattached it. I was amazed he was playing with what he had.”

At first, Oladipo was deeply frustrated. He had trusted the first doctor to get the surgery right, rehabbed for nearly a year, and was hoping to sign a lucrative contract as a free agent last summer. Oladipo, now 29, felt that two years of his prime and a big payday were taken from him.

“I wasn’t happy,” Oladipo said. “I just wasted my time.”

Then Oladipo, a persistent optimist, came to a different realization. In the 56 games he played with Indiana and Houston after returning from the first procedure, he didn’t feel like himself. He was slower, less fluid, and couldn’t jump as high. His shooting percentages were down from his All-Star seasons. When he got out of bed in the mornings, it felt like there was a knife stuck in his knee. He couldn’t even enjoy his hobbies: bowling and dancing.

So to know that the first procedure could be corrected? “It was a relief,” Oladipo said. “Because through that time, that first rehab, it was almost like, ‘Dang, is it me? Is there something wrong with me?’ And then you kind of get that source of relief like, ‘No, it wasn’t.’”

Oladipo and the Heat’s medical staff decided to take a patient approach with his recovery. Oladipo locked in and blocked out the noise. He tightened his inner circle, changed agents, and logged off of social media. Rather than rely on a manager to organize his schedule, Oladipo took a more hands-on approach with his day-to-day. That included the rigorous work and planning to strengthen his injured leg.

Oladipo was starting over completely. He even had to learn how to walk again, according to Stefan Valdes, who has a doctorate in physical therapy and has treated Oladipo for the past two years. Following his surgery in New York, Oladipo worked out at the National Basketball Players Association facility in Manhattan, where he would get steps in on a low-impact underwater treadmill. Only when Dr. Glashow was convinced the tendon was fully attached again did Oladipo begin strength training in Miami.

There was good reason for the abundance of caution. Among basketball players, quadricep injuries are relatively uncommon. According to InStreetClothes.com, only Tony Parker, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, and Malcolm Brogdon are among the few players to have missed extended time in recent years with quadriceps tendon injuries. “There was nothing from a quad tendon aspect to go off of,” said Valdes. “Previously, tendons were thought of like, once they become degenerative, they’re basically dead tissue.”

Not anymore. Science and medicine have changed since Parker’s 2017 injury essentially ended his career as a starter. Not only can the tendon heal, but it can also become stronger and more resilient when trained at the right intensity.

At Movement Lab in Miami Lakes, Valdes’s days with Oladipo included at least 90 minutes of lifting and another two hours of basketball drills. They brought in force plates to analyze imbalances in Oladipo’s body and utilized blood-flow-restriction training to isolate the muscle without putting stress on the joints. Valdes said it can make a 20-pound goblet squat feel like 300 pounds. “When utilizing this method, it allows you to train at [a high] intensity while still protecting the surgery,” Valdes said. Everything they did was meant to make Oladipo stronger than ever, which meant pushing his body beyond its limits.

“It becomes more of a mental thing,” Valdes said.

In August, Oladipo agreed to re-sign with the Heat on a minimum deal, and then returned to training camp in October. He still wasn’t sprinting at full speed, nor was he ready for full-contact drills. Together, Valdes and the Heat’s strength-and-conditioning team would relay Oladipo’s rehab assignments to the coaching staff.

“Give him 20 minutes, get him spot shots, get him 45 minutes, make him run, get him tired. Stuff like that,” said Heat assistant coach Anthony Carter.

Although Oladipo was making progress, missing the start of the season was agonizing. The Heat had added Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker in the offseason and jumped out to a strong 6-1 start, with wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets. The on-court product was impressive, but Oladipo couldn’t be part of it. He’d text Cook, “Man, I miss hooping.” Sometimes they’d FaceTime and he would vent about missed games piling up.

“When you’re at your low point and you’re trying to figure out what to do and you decide to take it head-on,” Oladipo said, “that’s pretty much what I did.”

November, December, and January came and went. The Heat kept winning and Oladipo kept working.

“I think it made him stronger,” Cook said of Oladipo’s experience. “You can play the Why Me game, ‘Why did I get injured? Why did I get traded?’ He never did.”

Then came the breakthrough. In mid-February, the organization sent Oladipo to its G League affiliate in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for a pair of five-on-five scrimmages. After the All-Star break, Oladipo was evaluated again.

“He’s way stronger now than he had been in the last few years,” Valdes said. “Like, 150 percent stronger.”

Oladipo and the Heat circled March 7 against the Houston Rockets for a potential return. That night, nearly a year since re-tearing his quad, Oladipo began what he hopes will be “one of the best comeback stories ever.”

Within the first minute of checking in to a standing ovation from the 21,000 at FTX Arena, Oladipo drew a charge on Rockets center Alperen Sengun. Later, in the fourth quarter, he drove around a Bam Adebayo screen and threw down a right-handed dunk in traffic, earning another roar from the crowd.

“Everybody could feel it, just how much he’s had to endure,” head coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s been a very frustrating three years. … He had to set a different course on three different teams, and he’s just so excited to be here and to be able to contribute, however it may be.”

Added Tucker: “He’s been at it for a couple of years now. Trying to fight through it and play, for it not to be right … in your head it’s like, ‘Am I good?’ And you could see him go through that in every progression of every step all the way to this point. So it’s just a beautiful thing to see him back out there.”

In four games, Oladipo is averaging 5.5 points on 45 percent shooting and 2.8 assists in 16.3 minutes per game. It may be just a small glimpse of what he can do, but the potential is clear.

“Physically, he’s in a much better place than where he was last year,” Spoelstra said.

Only a handful of games remain before what the no. 1 seed Heat hope is an extended postseason run. That isn’t much time for Oladipo to ramp up to a bigger role. Oladipo missed Monday’s game due to back spasms and the Heat are publicly insisting on keeping expectations low. After all, the All-Star is returning to a team flush with depth after the emergence of Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, and Max Strus. Tyler Herro, the leading candidate to win Sixth Man of the Year, is the first option off the bench. Minutes are not guaranteed.

But the Heat also didn’t make a major move at the trade deadline or in the buyout market because they viewed Oladipo as their key midseason addition. There may be no greater X factor in the Eastern Conference playoffs than a healthy Oladipo, who can provide the Heat with the lockdown defense, slashing, and shot-making that landed him on consecutive All-Star teams.

“I’m still that guy,” said Oladipo, who made third-team All-NBA in 2018. “Now I just got to get my body back to feeling like it’s at an All-Star level, which takes time. I have no doubt in my mind that I can.”

Until then, Oladipo will still be sweating through his jersey and staying late after practice for extra shooting drills. Each minute, he says, is precious. As he reflects on what could have been in Indiana and the ripples of what was supposed to be only a blip in an All-Star career, he points out that he could have shattered his knee altogether. That his career could just as easily have been over. Instead, no. 4 talks about how, for the first time in a long time, he’s enjoying playing basketball again.

“This,” Oladipo says, “is a rebirth for me.”

Wes Goldberg has written for the Miami Herald, Mercury News, Bleacher Report, Forbes, and more. You can hear him on the Locked on NBA and Locked on Heat podcasts.