Marquee professional athletes are highly visible public figures, vitally important to the rooting interests of the fans who support them and (for the most part) beloved in the cities they play in. When one of them is injured, particularly in a significant way, there's a simultaneous outpouring of empathy for the player himself as well as concerns about what his absence will mean for the team as a whole.
If losing a certain player hinders or derails championship aspirations, a vague pall covers the fan base. In the aftermath of yesterday's news that Kevin Love will be out for 4-6 months following left shoulder surgery, Cavaliers fans, like the fans of other NBA teams who've had seasons submarined by grotesque injuries, find themselves in a strange spot. The man is fine, long-term, but hopes for holding a June parade are not. Fans empathize with his pain while simultaneously mourning their own dashed hopes.
To be clear, there are worse injuries and graver injustices in the world than Kevin Love having his shoulder dislocated by the reckless action of Kelly Olynyk. But as fans of basketball, particularly fans of Love himself and the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's perfectly appropriate to reflect on who Kevin Love is, the journey he took to his first playoff series, and lament both the disappointing nature of his injury and the abrupt interruption of what was otherwise a beautiful three months of basketball.
To put it in blunt terms: it isn't the end of the world, but it still really f---ing sucks.
Kevin Love entered the league in 2008 as a pudgy post player who crashed the glass with reckless abandon and occasionally flashed the ability to hit midrange jumpers. During his first offseason, he worked on three-point shooting, and hit a modest but respectable 33% of his 106 perimeter tries during his second year in the league. Season number three was when the breakout happened - he led the league in rebounding, sank 42% of his three-point tries, and made his first All-Star team. During the 2011 lockout, which delayed the start of his fourth season, Love re-shaped his body, dropping a ton of weight, which helped push his production even higher (26 points, 13 rebounds, 56.8% True Shooting, a sixth-place finish on the MVP ballot). Love famously broke his hand doing knuckle push-ups prior to the 2012-13 season, which wound up being a total wash. He bounced back last season, reaching the All-Star team for the third time while returning to his pre-injury form.
He's a divisive player for reasons within and outside of his control - he didn't always handle things perfectly in Minnesota - but what cannot be denied is his effort to make himself better. His physical transformation alone is staggering; not only did he drop the weight, he's kept it off. He could've been content to live as a full-figured rebounder but opted instead for the more difficult path, adopting the outside shot while remaining tough enough to play effectively in the post. And while the critical retort may be that doing such things is "his job," there's a multitude of players who settle into a groove early in their careers and never push past it. Love has always pushed himself.
That effort never resulted in Love's ultimate goal (making the playoffs) during his time in Minnesota. Something always went wrong. First, it was the dissolution of the McHale era. Next, the lost Rambis years. The hiring of Rick Adelman (and arrival of Ricky Rubio) provided a bit of hope during the lockout-shortened season, as the Wolves found themselves in contention for the eighth seed in the West. But then David Kahn refused to offer him the max contract he had almost certainly earned, poisoning their relationship. A month and a half later, Rubio blew out his knee, and that was that. Next, the sad saga of knuckle push-ups. And finally, one attempt at a playoff berth with a quality supporting cast, but injuries to Nikola Pekovic and late-game struggles left the Wolves nine games short in the loaded Western Conference.
And then, as any Cleveland fan is already aware of, the summer of 2014 rolled around. Love came to Cleveland, joining LeBron and Kyrie. He had finally escaped Minnesota's cycle of ineptitude and would be part of a winner.
And as we all know, that didn't work out so well, at least at first. He played in an entirely new role from what he was used to, struggled to adapt, and found himself a mixture of unwanted house guest and convenient whipping boy. Nearly 40 games in, everyone on the team started to click - Love included - and what's followed has been three months of some of the most dominant basketball in team history. From January 15th through Sunday, the Cavaliers were 33-3 when LeBron, Kyrie and Love appeared in a game together.
Sunday in Boston wasn't supposed to be the culmination of all of Kevin Love's career efforts to that point. It was supposed to be a stepping stone towards his ultimate goal. Call it terrible luck, or a dirty play, the fact is that Love has another set of unfortunate circumstances to overcome, a hurdle to jump, a rock to shove up the hill. And given his history, it'd be silly to bet against him. He'll bounce back. He'll overcome. He'll work hard, improve, and be ready to play as soon as he possibly can.
But in this moment... it just sucks.