In Game 1 on Monday, the Chicago Bulls will not only have to figure out how to deal with LeBron James, but they will have to do so without their primary James defender, Luol Deng.
It’s possible that Deng won’t play at all during the series, and that’s a massive problem for the Bulls, who may be without Kirk Hinrich (game-time decision with a sore calf) and Derrick Rose, who was already declared out for Game 1. As one of the top perimeter defenders in the league, Deng has exclusively guarded James in 139 of the 150 minutes that James has played against the Bulls this season. That mountain of a responsibility will likely fall into the hands of Jimmy Butler or Taj Gibson going forward.
Deng has been declared out for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and likely for some time due to complications resulting from a spinal tap procedure that was administered on Wednesday after doctors were concerned he may have viral meningitis. Deng has been in and out of the hospital over the past week and he still has not been cleared by doctors to travel to Miami. At Monday morning's shootaround, coach Tom Thibodeau said he spoke earlier in the day with Deng, who said he was feeling better. Still, the team is taking it “day by day” whether he will fly to Miami at all for the series.
On Friday after an overnight stay at the hospital, Deng reported on his verified Twitter account that he had the “worst headache I’ve ever experienced and the weakest I’ve ever felt.”
Let me be clear about this: What Deng is experiencing is not just a headache where you take an ibuprofen and you’re ready to take on the day. And I have a pretty good idea of what Deng is going through. Why? Because it happened to me back in the summer of 2005.
Please pardon me for breaking Journalism 101 rules here while I go into first-person mode, but the complications resulting from a spinal tap procedure are no joke. Whether Deng gets back on the court in this series isn’t about “toughness” or “willpower,” as some fans have claimed.
The pain Deng recently experienced stems from what doctors call a “post lumbar puncture headache” which caused me to collapse in my family’s driveway, prompting my older brother to carry me fireman-style over his shoulder to a nearby bed, where I soon went into shock. As my body jolted wildly from the excruciating pain, I vividly remember the two questions that repeatedly ran through my head while my family watched over me in horror:
“What is wrong with me? Why don’t I have control over my body?”
(Warning: This gets a little graphic, so you might want to skip the next couple of paragraphs if you’re sensitive to this sort of thing. I won’t be offended, promise).
But what was wrong with me -- and what was wrong with Deng recently -- was that my brain was repeatedly bouncing off my skull. This happens in rare cases of spinal taps because the needle-head-sized lumbar puncture sometimes doesn’t heal on its own and the hole can leak spinal fluid. Little-known fact: Spinal fluid also cushions the brain against the skull.
Yes, they are technically headaches, but they felt more like migraines to the 1,000th degree, all because of a tiny hole. I received a spinal tap as a 19-year-old in Connecticut because I had tested positive for Lyme disease that resulted from a nasty tick bite. Lyme disease is easily treated with medication and it is not a terribly uncommon sickness for those who play sports outside in New England; these annoying deer ticks like to hang out on tree limbs and bushes in that part of the country.
But what was uncommon was that the resulting symptoms (back and neck soreness along with splitting headaches) were consistent with meningitis, and my doctors wanted to rule that out. That meant a spinal tap. This is precisely why Deng also received the spinal tap.
Like Deng, I thankfully tested negative for meningitis, but as you can tell, we weren’t out of the woods. Not with that hole. You can’t sit up for three seconds without feeling like you have to throw up from the pain (and I did many times). You can’t even think about standing up. You can’t function as a normal human being because that pesky thing called gravity. When you go vertical, gravity forces the spinal fluid to rush south toward the spinal tap puncture. Your brain effectively loses its pillow.
I was in the hospital for several days lying exclusively on my back as a result and it’s no surprise that Deng has been in and out of the ER as well. To solve the headaches, I received a “blood patch” which, as a source tells ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell, Deng received as well. A blood patch (warning: graphic again!) is a procedure in which the doctor injects a vial of your own blood into your lower back, acting as a natural Band-Aid to seal the puncture. It sounds awful, but it worked, which was all that mattered.
I instantly felt better after the blood patch, but still needed some time to recover not only from the spinal tap aftermath, but the Lyme disease that got me into that mess in the first place. After a couple of weeks, life returned to normal and I went back to college later that summer good as new. Everything’s been fine ever since.
I have no idea whether Deng will be back for this series, but considering what I went through, I couldn’t imagine getting out on the basketball court, much less in an NBA playoff game. With that said, I am not Deng, nor do I play professional basketball for a living. Each case is its own.
But the spinal tap, the temporarily paralyzing headaches and the gruesome blood patch? That’s something that hits very close to home for me, but not for many confused fans around the league. Fortunately, Deng has returned from the hospital, but the concern shouldn’t be whether Deng plays this series. The concern should be for his well-being.