IT WAS THE kind of play people see once and vow never to watch again.
One second, Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic was flying through the air, trying to tip in an offensive rebound at the end of a double-overtime game against the Brooklyn Nets on March 25, 2019. The next, he was lying on the ground, writhing in pain, his lower leg obviously broken.
For the first month, Nurkic didn’t watch video of the play. He already remembered so many strange events from that night. The baseline referee accidentally kicking his foot as he tried to step over him. The doctor who wanted to operate on him as soon as he arrived at the hospital.
“I was like, ‘Oh, hell no. I ain’t going to be the last patient of the day,'” Nurkic joked. “Like, how many other surgeries have you done today? I don’t want a tired doctor.”
But ahead of Nurkic’s regular-season return Friday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, he was ready to look back on it.
“I’ve probably watched it a thousand times now,” said Nurkic, 25. “And every time, I feel the same way: I couldn’t do anything differently. I’ve done that move probably a million times in my career.”
The Blazers have performed their own analysis of the play to see if something predisposed the 7-foot, 290-pound Jurkic to bone fractures. He suffered a stress fracture in 2017 on his right leg, so it warranted deeper investigation. Nothing jumped out as a red flag.
“When something just randomly happens like that, you wonder what’s going on,” Nurkic said. “But at the same time, I do believe everything happens for a reason.”
And during the 16 months away, Nurkic believes he learned what that is.
FOR AS LONG as he has been playing basketball — which, frankly, isn’t all that long — Nurkic has been searching for a place that feels like home.
He was discovered, the story goes, by a sports agent who read an article in a local Bosnian newspaper about a 7-foot, 400-pound cop in a city called Tuzla who fought off 13 people while on the job. The agent, Enes Trnovcevic, was determined to find out if that cop had any sons because: What better pedigree for a future NBA player, right?
Well, that cop happened to be Nurkic’s father, Hariz. And he indeed had a son, though 14-year-old Jusuf looked nothing like a future NBA player. He wasn’t particularly tall or strong, had never picked up a basketball and knew very little about the game. But Trnovcevic was undeterred. He convinced Nurkic’s family to let him take young Jusuf to a boarding school in Slovenia, where he would study and learn to play basketball.
Just five years later, after several stops in Croatia and a wicked growth spurt, Nurkic was acquired by the Denver Nuggets in a 2014 draft-day trade with the Chicago Bulls. He was barely 20 when he made his NBA debut.
“The basketball stuff at times comes really easy for him,” Blazers associate head coach Nate Tibbetts said. “He’s so talented. But when you’ve come thousands of miles and don’t know a lot of people and are learning a new language, things can happen really fast.”
It wasn’t long before Nurkic, stuck behind Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic and frustrated with his role, asked for a trade. It took some convincing, but the Nuggets finally obliged in February 2017, sending Nurkic and a first-round pick to Portland for Mason Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash.
Nurkic was directly inserted into the Blazers’ starting lineup, proving himself enough to earn a four-year, $48 million extension in 2018. Fans in Portland immediately embraced the “Bosnian Beast,” and he started to feel like he’d found his NBA home.
“He’s become like the team-spirit animal,” said Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations. “Dame [Lillard] is Dame, and that’s just understood. Right. And CJ [McCollum] is CJ. They are much more stoic.
“But Nurk plays with his emotions on his sleeve. I use the tennis analogy: Dame and CJ are [Bjorn] Borg. They’re quiet assassins. Nurk is more Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe.”
Olshey was scouting a college tournament on the East Coast, keeping an eye on the Blazers-Nets game on NBA.com’s GameTracker when Nurkic broke his leg. There was a slight delay, which is normal as scores update. So he refreshed the screen a few times. Each time, no update.
“It was like the game stopped,” Olshey said. “I thought somebody hit a game winner or something.”
Then, he saw the tweets and the texts. Something awful had happened.
Olshey had built this Blazers team to counteract the NBA trend toward small-ball — throwing three 7-footers on the court at the same time — to force teams such as the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets to contend with those matchups. But that strategy works only if you have 7-footers like Nurkic, who are nimble on their feet, know how to use their size and have vision and the passing ability to exploit defensive traps.
It was working, too. Nurkic was having a career season, averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds and propelling Portland to a 45-27 record. The Blazers had a net rating of plus-10.5 with Nurkic last season — a number that would have been tops in the league over the course of a game. It fell to minus-2.2 when he was off the court. He had 32 points and 16 rebounds in just 34 minutes in the game against the Nets before his compound fracture with 2:22 left.
But all of those plans were gone in the time it took Olshey’s GameTracker to catch up to the reality of what had just happened to Nurkic’s lower left leg.
NORMALLY WHEN A player gets hurt, Todd Forcier’s job is to get a clip of the injury and send it to the Blazers’ medical staff on the court so they can make a quick assessment.
But this injury needed no replay.
“We saw it live, and everyone just sprinted, all hands on deck,” said Forcier, a sports performance specialist. “Whatever we need.”
Forcier had grown close to Nurkic in the three seasons Nurkic had played for the Blazers. Right before the game, they’d been talking about how good Nurkic was feeling physically after getting in top condition and losing more than 25 pounds during his time in Portland. But in that moment after the injury, the best Forcier could do was get to the court and hold Nurkic’s hand.
“He was in shock, of course,” Forcier said. “I still lay awake at night thinking about it.”
When something so traumatic happens to an athlete, keeping them calm is essential.
“You can die from shock,” said Jesse Elis, Portland’s director of player health and performance. “It’s like haywire in your heart. You go into that panic mode. So we had to try to control his emotions and make sure his pulse was under control, because the popliteal artery in the back [of the leg], if that severs, you could die. You could bleed out.”
Nurkic had multiple fractures in his lower leg. So the first task was stabilizing the limb and controlling the shock.
Olshey was able to reach Forcier on his cellphone as Nurkic was being led to the ambulance. It was the first of many times Forcier had to give someone a play-by-play of what happened, trying to find an explanation.
“Obviously, you don’t want to play it back in your head, but there’s just so many things that led to this happening,” Forcier said. “You go back through all of them.”
So many what-ifs, but none of them a direct reason for Nurkic’s tibia and fibula snapping.
Nurkic has gone through all of them many times. It always ends with the same conclusion: There was nothing that could have prevented it. Nothing in Nurkic’s or the Blazers’ control, anyway.
NURKIC SPENT THE first few weeks after surgery at home. His leg was still too fragile to go anywhere, much less go to a game, and the Blazers worried about how isolating the experience was.
Teammates and coaches called and text messaged. Forcier brought his kids over. Elis took his 2-year-old son, Ari, who promptly ate all the fruit at Nurkic’s house.
“Totally cleaned him out,” Elis joked. “I brought him over just to make sure [Nurkic] knew, ‘We’re in this as a team — this is my family.’ We want to make sure we’re all connected.”
Elis cut out the front page of the local newspaper from the day Nurkic was injured, put it on his refrigerator at home and told Nurkic he was leaving it up until they got him back on the court.
A few weeks later, Nurkic couldn’t take being away any longer. The Blazers were losing a playoff game to the Oklahoma City Thunder and he was a wreck, watching it from home, unable to help.
At halftime, he convinced his girlfriend to drive him to the arena. When the crowd saw him enter during the fourth quarter, the Moda Center went nuts. Elis was in charge of making room for Nurkic on the bench in a position that didn’t expose his leg.
“Remember during that postgame, when everyone’s tackling each other and hugging?” Elis asked. “I was by [Nurkic’s] side, guarding his leg.”
It was an important moment for Nurkic and the Blazers. Injuries have a way of disconnecting a player from their teammates. Injured players don’t practice or train at the same time as everyone else. They don’t travel or adhere to the same schedules.
Nurkic got hurt right before the playoffs, then had to stay away from all that shared experience as the Blazers advanced to the Western Conference finals. But he was there and, according to Lillard, played a key role in rallying the team for what will forever be one of the best playoff moments in franchise history. And he has stayed connected since, finally slowing down enough to appreciate the place he’s in after such a head-spinning journey to the NBA.
“For me to be on the sideline for 16 months, watching the team play and just being around them as more of a coach than as a player,” Nurkic explained, “it gives you a totally different perspective for the game, for life, for my team and family.
“I just appreciate it so much more.”
He has had time to sit in on coaches’ meetings and watch how they prepare. He has had time to refine his footwork around the basket. He has had time to work on his outside shooting (he is just 3-for-42 on 3-pointers in his career) and promises to show it in the remainder of this season.
“He just turned 25,” Tibbetts said. “So he’s still trying to figure out who he is as a player, too. … When he first got here, the focus was on slowing down around the rim. He just got — he was off balance, just quick flips instead of taking his time and just knowing how big he was.
“But during this time off, and especially [during the NBA shutdown], it was just one coach, one basketball and one player. So the workouts slowed down some, and I think it was very helpful for him.
“I really don’t see any rust.”
The question now is how big of a difference Nurkic can make for the Blazers (29-37), who sit 3.5 games behind Memphis for the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
Without Nurkic and fellow big man Collins, who had shoulder surgery in November that kept him out until this week, the Blazers’ defense struggled mightily this season, posting the fourth-worst rating in the league. While Portland ranked 10th in offensive rating, it had to work a lot harder for those points without Nurkic’s bruising screens, passing ability and finishing skills. He should also help secure the boards — the Blazers rank 21st in rebound percentage after leading the league in that category last season and ranking fourth in 2017-18. Nurkic led the team in rebounds per game during those previous two seasons.
“We were not really a great team for the 72 games or whatever we played this season,” Nurkic said. “But I think we’re going to play different basketball.
“Now I’m back, Zach is back, and we have Carmelo [Anthony], an older guy who actually can still play. I think we can really use him. So I believe we have a real shot. Not just to make the playoffs, but to do something special again.”
There is a titanium rod supporting Nurkic’s lower leg, which Elis constantly reminds him is stronger than any bone. But that’s not the only thing he’s putting faith in.
“I really believe I’m a better player than I was before,” Nurkic said. “And a better human being.”