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Journal 37: When the reward outweighs risk of injury

My potential as a wage earner is dependent on my body. As a basketball player, it's kind of important that all my parts work correctly. (Although I suppose I could do without my nose. One's sense of smell is not all that important in sport.)

Because of my nearly permanent status as an unattached free agent, I am especially sensitive to bodily malfunctions.

I played fairly well in my second summer league game with the Timberwolves. I made a few shots and contributed nicely in our win over the Phoenix Suns' summer entry, scoring a modest-yet-respectable 12 points along the way.

I guarded Amare Stoudemire for much of the game -- doing an acceptable job -- and absorbed the not-so-complimentary use of my name by my quasi-colleague Marc Stein in his veiled reference to Stoudemire's struggles to attack the basket against an ESPN.com columnist. (Me.) All in all, it was an acceptable performance.

Unfortunately, the next day brought some bad news. Something had gone awry in my left knee. I've been dealing with a couple of minor knee issues for a few months, the details of which do not rate a discussion here. Because I spent the month before summer league torturing myself in preparation for the trip to Las Vegas, I was forced to seek treatment for an occasional flare-up.

But with the help of the fine souls at ARC in Kansas City, I kept any pain under control. (I reference ARC because they take such good care of me ... and because they are poised to take over the rehab world of Kansas City and I would like to be remembered when I need treatment on the five bulging discs I am sure to develop when my basketball career ends and I take up employment at U-Haul.)

When I came to summer league, I knew I probably would need to ice my knee after every practice, but I assumed I would survive. However, I wasn't prepared for any real problems.

I often am faced with injury quandaries. As I mentioned -- and as should be fairly evident by now -- I am rarely anyone's employee for long. I spend a lot of time taking care of myself. Because I am a fairly well-trained athlete, I am both more resilient and more sensitive to pain/discomfort than most.

I am both tough and a complete sissy at the same time. Tough because I will often play through an injury, if only because I need to find a job for the year ... and a complete sissy because I am forced to pay close attention to potential problems because no one really gives a damn if I get hurt. Team X is perfectly happy not to have me on its roster next year. Therefore, my best plan is usually to address any injuries early.

The problem is magnified in summer league. The Timberwolves don't really care whether I play. They'd rather me be here than not, but no one is going to lose any sleep over my absence. I need to play to find a job, but I don't want to ruin myself in the process, thereby negating any job I might find. Under normal circumstances, I would put any decisions in the hands of the trainer. So that's what I did with regard to my knee.

I am constantly amazed at the proficiency of the average training staff in the NBA. (I realize it seemed as if I were going in a sarcastic direction with that opening. I am not, however. I'm serious. They are almost always really good.)

As I have mentioned many, many times, most of my friends in the NBA are trainers or strength coaches. They just seem to be my kind of people -- smart, funny, unimpressed by the circus that is professional sports. They are a welcome change from most of the players, who take themselves entirely too seriously, and from most of the coaches, who are often former players. (Read into that statement as desired.)

Minnesota's training staff is no different. Great guys, starting with the man in charge, Greg Farnam. But Greg doesn't really know me. I'm just another guy on a summer league roster. I'm a far cry from rating Kevin Garnett treatment. In fact, I'm a far cry from rating Mark Blount treatment. I'm not on the regular-season roster. I haven't even been invited to training camp in the fall.

Because of this, when I told Greg about my knee, he approached the situation warily. He wants me to get better, but he doesn't much care what happens to me -- not because he's a bad guy (in fact, he's a fantastic human being) but because it's not his job to care that much. Not yet, anyway.

He told me that he thought something was wrong and that I should have my knee examined when I get home. Unfortunately, regarding my quest to find employment as a basketball player in the immediate future, that information helped me very little.

I played in our third game in Las Vegas on approximately one and one-third legs. Considering my handicapped status, I performed admirably. Under normal analysis, my four points in 17 minutes would raise no eyebrows -- except, perhaps, in a negative way ... like when a fat lady carrying an oxygen tank lights a cigarette for herself. But I was glad to survive. (Really striving for excellence ... )

And now I don't know what to do. Do I not play and risk being forgotten? Do I play and potentially wreck my knee? Am I overreacting? What if, by playing but playing badly, I hurt my own chances more than I would by resting? These are the questions that do further damage to my tenuous hold on emotional stability. It will be a miracle if I am not someday either insane or an alcoholic.

The good news is that all my friends are trainers, so I should have plenty of available second opinions.

As I write all this, I realize just how trivial my concerns must appear. However, in the middle of the fight for a basketball job, something as innocuous as the decision to sit out a practice seems like the most important choice I could be forced to make. Such is my life as a mercenary.

It probably will turn out to be nothing. If I had more experience with normal injuries, I probably could tell. But I usually sustain the freakish, catastrophic ones -- lacerated spleens and blown-out nerves -- so I know nothing of a simple knee injury.

If it does turn out OK, I will feel a little idiotic for making such a big deal out of nothing. But I guess that's part of the job description.

Paul Shirley has played for 12 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams -- the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His journal appears regularly at ESPN.com. To e-mail Paul, click here.