The Fate of James Harden's Brain and Ron Artest's Season
[Whether you're a Laker fan or a Thunder hater,
blows to the brain aren't anything to joke about.
An intense game between two Western Conference powers. A hard smack to one player’s head.
The Lakers’ Ron Artest in the middle of it.
But this was February 2011 in Memphis, not yesterday’s Thunder-Lakers game. And Artest was the player getting popped in the head, not the one dishing it out.
Obviously, names and circumstances have changed in the past year. Our understanding of concussion-related risks, too.
So when Ron Artest…er, “Metta World Peace”…threw an elbow into James Harden’s temple on Sunday, I didn’t ponder whether it was intentional. I didn’t quip about “World Peace” committing the most violent act of the season.
I was terrified for Harden’s NBA future.
Dangers of Concussions
As a health care journalist, I’ve spent months learning about concussions — as TAI posts this, I’ll be visiting a premier concussion clinic on the East Coast.
No two concussions are alike, so it’s tough to predict James Harden’s prognosis. He could be healed within days; he also could be out for weeks with symptoms like vertigo, headaches, or even constant fogginess.
A few headaches or dizziness — so what? an average fan might say. Harden’s getting paid millions of dollars to play a game. Take some aspirin and suck it up.
But while we prize warriors who play through pain, these concussion symptoms are the brain’s equivalent of a broken ankle. They’re signals to the athlete, hey, something isn’t working and you need to care for it ASAP — or things could get worse in a hurry.
Some players are outwardly unaffected by concussions; no headaches, no dizziness. But their brain chemistry is usually mixed up for several weeks, leaving them at risk for further damage.
Not just the dreaded-if-unlikely “second-impact” syndrome, where another blow to the head can result in sudden death. Rather the possibility that the player’s more vulnerable to additional concussions — from even minor contact — that could lead to lasting, possibly permanent problems.
When Players Don’t Heal Quite Right
It’s been 18 months, but Carlos Delfino still suffers from photophobia.
The condition — which feels like “knives in [my] eyes,” Delfino told me last week — is brought on in certain arenas, depending on the spotlight placement and how Delfino may be feeling that day.
We talked through Delfino’s ordeal, before the Milwaukee Bucks’ loss to Washington. Delfino has mostly conquered his other concussion-related symptoms, but occasionally suffers a touch of dizziness when elevating for a routine shot or rebound.
Delfino’s symptoms weren’t brought on by a devastating blow to the brain…at least, not at first. He suffered a bad head injury in March 2010 — when Udonis Haslem stepped on him — but was back in action within a week.
It wasn’t until seven months later, after Delfino took a few hits to the head in early-season games, that he started feeling spacy and exhausted. His worsening condition forced him out of action for two weeks…and then another few weeks…and before long, Delfino had missed 30 games.
Delfino spent the time in dark rooms and visiting doctor’s offices, seeking relief and solutions. He went through extensive testing and medical therapy, ultimately needing to work on simple balance and basic coordination. It was frightening, he told me, “one day you’re playing…you get [hit]…and the next day, you don’t feel the same” and can’t get back to normal. It was unlike any injury he’d had in his two-decade-long basketball career.
We didn’t discuss how Delfino’s game has changed since his January 2011 return to the NBA, but looking at the statistics, it’s obvious that he’s much less aggressive at attacking the glass. A guy who used to be an elite rebounder at his position (consistently averaging around seven rebounds per 40 minutes) now ranks among the bottom third of small forwards in rebound rate.
After what he’s been through, can you blame him?
Artest as Flashpoint
When we wrapped up our talk, Delfino told me that the league had made great strides in awareness of concussions and proper treatment. That fans were finally understanding that concussions were serious injuries.
But the reaction to “Metta World Peace” delivering a blow to Harden’s head show how far we have to go.
Replays conclusively show Artest cocking and releasing his elbow, but many fans have accepted the Laker’s defense: He was merely celebrating a dunk and Harden got in the way.
That it was an understandable, if accidental blow.
Other fans acknowledge that Artest’s elbow was intentional, but suggest that Harden somehow invited it — that by stepping up to receive an inbounds pass, he intentionally made contact with an enthusiastic Artest. Or that Harden deserved to be laid out after his chippy defense of Kobe Bryant this year.
Artest as Example
As I’m writing this on Sunday, the league hasn’t announced a punishment. But Ken Berger of CBSsports explains why the appearance of intent means “World Peace” should face a multi-game suspension.
It seems pretty open-and-shut to ESPN’s experts, too. J.A. Adande argues that Artest should sit out indefinitely – and only be allowed to play after Harden’s returned.
Based on the league’s new concussion policy, that could be anywhere from hours to months. The NBA will require Harden to pass a battery of tests…although the policy has been less than ironclad, in the early going.
For Harden’s long-term health, I pray he sits for the next few weeks. For the Thunder’s short-term playoff hopes, I doubt he’ll give himself the luxury.
And for NBA players to learn — permanently — that blows to the head aren’t acceptable, Ron Artest’s season needs to end. Now.
Seven years after the Malice at the Palace, it’s a shame that Artest has to be sacrificed once again to prove a point. But he brought this on himself.
That night in Memphis last year, when Artest got popped in the face, he and Marc Gasol were fighting for control of the basketball. It was an incidental slap, not deliberate contact. It was a basketball play.
There’s no room in basketball for a 250-lb man wildly swinging his elbows. And less than zero room for a player who does it intentionally.