When the 76ers selected Joel Embiid with the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft last week, Jeff Van Gundy reacted with the same serenity of mind and acceptance of risk that his friend and former colleague had exhibited in making the pick.
As the Houston Rockets' head coach from 2003 to 2007, Van Gundy had worked alongside Sam Hinkie, a member of the team's front office for the final two years of Van Gundy's tenure. The two bore witness to the rise of Yao Ming into basketball's most dominant center and the game's greatest global force, and before the Rockets fired him, Van Gundy saw how Yao's career began to crumble because of the same injury that Embiid suffered just before the draft: a navicular stress fracture, a break of a weight-bearing bone in the foot.
Nevertheless, Van Gundy understood why Hinkie, the Sixers general manager, was willing to bank on Embiid's recovery. It's the same reason that Hinkie will never regret his decision and that - despite the Bill Waltons and Greg Odens and other big men whose feet and legs broke down and betrayed them - no one should criticize him for it. If your aim is to push your franchise from irrelevance to greatness, then you take a chance on Embiid's singular combination of size, skill, and coordination. You take a chance on the player who had been the draft's consensus No. 1 pick, and you don't second-guess yourself.
"Overall, the risk isn't in taking him - to me. The risk would have been in not taking him," Van Gundy said in a phone interview. "Here's my thing: Even if you knew this going in, would you take seven years of greatness or 12 years of mediocrity? It's not just longevity. It's longevity, but it's also: How great can you be?"
That question cuts to the core of Hinkie's plan for rebuilding the Sixers, and after news leaked out that Embiid had broken his right foot and would have surgery, Hinkie couldn't help but remember the promise and disappointment of Yao's years with the Rockets. He started his staff on a crash course in navicular fractures, tracking down surgeons and specialists and studies, gathering information on why they happen, which athletes have healed and returned to form, and which haven't.
"The sad truth is you don't find big samples for any of these things," Hinkie said. "Look for studies of 7-foot, 20-year-old basketball players from Africa with a particular break in their foot. That's challenging. There aren't a lot of those. So you end up trying to triangulate from lots of different areas."
So how much importance should Hinkie have attached to his and Van Gundy's experience with Yao, or to Michael Jordan's recovery from his navicular fracture in 1985? Those are the two most familiar cases to study in the NBA, but which one is the better model for what might happen to Embiid, for how coach Brett Brown should handle Embiid's practice and playing time, for how Embiid can minimize the pounding and damage that his 7-foot, 250-pound body might inflict on his feet? Does such a model even exist?
Take Yao. At 7-6, he took care to keep himself between 300 and 305 pounds and at 3 percent to 4 percent body fat so that he carried as little unnecessary weight as possible. And for a six-year stretch, he averaged 20.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a game, meeting every measure of the hype that accompanied his arrival from China in 2002. In retrospect, Van Gundy lamented his inability to quell Yao's unflagging work ethic, to rest him even more than he did. Maybe then Yao would have appeared in more than 48 games in '06-07 - Van Gundy's final season with the Rockets. Maybe then, he would have lasted longer than nine years in the NBA.
"But then, he wouldn't have been the player he was, either," Van Gundy said. "You have to keep him in rhythm so he can play well. That's the fine line you're always trying to walk."
Jordan's was an altogether different situation. His fracture was diagnosed in an era before the MRI had become a common sports-medicine tool, and it was treated without surgery, his truncated 1985-86 season just an early rite of passage in his ascendance into legend. Jordan was also shorter and slimmer than either Yao or Embiid, but Stan James, one of the orthopedists who examined him, said that although body type might play a role in a navicular fracture, "we really don't know what causes it."
That truth can hardly be heartening for anyone who wants a guarantee about Embiid's future, but those kinds of assurances don't exist and may not for years. Hinkie and the Sixers made an educated bet on an incandescent talent, and now all they can do is stay patient and perhaps hang on to one small reason for hope.
James, who is based at the Slocum Center for Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Eugene, Ore., is in the early stages of a study that, he said, might reveal how "dysfunction in the mechanics of the foot" leads to navicular fractures. If James and his colleagues confirm their findings, they could determine which athletes might tend toward the injury and how best to treat it.
"That would be the ultimate goal," he said.
It's too late, of course, to save Jeff Van Gundy's career in Houston or Yao Ming's in basketball. But on behalf of Sam Hinkie, Brett Brown, and the rest of the Sixers organization, here are two words for James and his research team: