For Quincy Pondexter, basketball nearly turned deadly

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

FRESNO, Calif. -- Quincy Pondexter's spacious six-bedroom house in his hometown of Fresno sits on a few acres. For the past eight months, the 29-year-old forward has spent more time here than ever before while rehabbing his injury. It's a home he's proud of, especially the theater room, which is equipped with a massive screen, theater-style seating, a pool table and a cards table.

On the wall hang NBA jerseys in framed glass display cases. He has collected them from some of his favorite teammates, including Chris Paul, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, and he even has the high school jerseys of two of his former San Joaquin Memorial High teammates, Brook and Robin Lopez.

This is where his family and friends gather for cookouts. It's where his AAU team, California United, flocks for pizza parties. It's where he wanted to do this interview, "because when I think of happy times, it occurs in this room," he said.

After being sidelined the past two seasons, Pondexter is ready to make his comeback on opening night for the Chicago Bulls, who acquired him from the New Orleans Pelicans this summer. He is finally healthy after multiple surgical procedures -- and major setbacks -- on his left knee.

It's been a longer journey than many people know about. While his knee problems have been public, Pondexter revealed to ESPN that his health issues were much grimmer. He was dealing with a life-threatening infection. He thought he was going to die.

The New Orleans Pelicans acquired Pondexter from the Memphis Grizzlies in January 2015. They needed a 3-and-D player who could help them make a playoff push, and Pondexter excelled at hitting spot-up 3s and chasing the team's best perimeter player around.

Soon after joining the team, however, Pondexter began limping laboriously to his car after games. He can't pinpoint when his knee began to bother him, but he grew concerned at the end of February. The pain worsened in March, and the team sent him for X-rays and MRIs, which failed to reveal any issues. Pondexter continued to play. If it was just a matter of tolerating the pain, then that's what he would do. He would take pain medication and drain his knee on occasion. He didn't want to let his team down by sitting.

New Orleans earned the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs and met the Golden State Warriors in the first round. Although they were swept, the Pelicans had a bright future with a budding superstar in Anthony Davis and a young supporting cast.

Pondexter was excited about the team's potential and desperate to solve his knee issue so it wouldn't linger into the next season. The day after the season ended, he had another MRI and then sought out a few doctors outside of the organization. The Pelicans told ESPN they were in consultation with Pondexter but didn't make any recommendations on a physician. The doctors came to the conclusion he would need his knee scoped, with the outside chance he might require microfracture surgery.

During the May procedure, the worst-case scenario was realized.

"It was just supposed to be a cleanup," Pondexter said. "The doctors were really positive about it. They didn't really think we were going to need to do [microfracture surgery], and then, you know, you wake up from surgery, and it's done. I was kind of in shock. I didn't know what to do, but everyone was pretty optimistic that I would be able to return to play in the beginning of the season."

Pondexter worked hard with his personal trainers to return to the court, but his knee didn't respond well post-surgery. Opening night of the 2015-16 season came and went. Months passed, and he was still nowhere near playing condition.

Questions arose as to what, exactly, was going on with his knee and what stage he was at in his rehab. But Pondexter and the team didn't have answers. Behind closed doors, Pondexter was struggling to cope with it all.

"I tried to do everything possible to play, and my knee felt really, really bad," he said. "I couldn't even walk upstairs or do anything, let alone run, jump or anything like that, but I wanted to sacrifice everything for the Pelicans."

Midway through the season, he decided to consult other specialists, who concluded that his microfracture procedure had failed. He was infuriated by the news but had no choice but to go through with a second procedure in January 2016 that involved inserting cartilage from a cadaver. It was a season-ending decision to ensure he would be ready for the start of the 2016-17 season.

New Orleans' season was also very much over. The team did not take the next step forward as expected and lost 15 more games than the previous year. Pondexter felt responsible for the Pelicans underperforming.

"When I was in the hospital, I would look on Twitter and see all the nasty comments saying, 'He's stealing money. He's at home chillin' and all this s---. Nah, I'm fighting for my life."
Quincy Pondexter

After the second procedure, Pondexter was aggressive with his rehab in the hopes of being ready for next season. But the season tipped off, and Pondexter was in street clothes yet again. He would remain sidelined for months.

Some fans began turning on him, questioning if he was just mailing it in. In reality, it was the exact opposite.

"[My knee] wasn't making progress, but then there was this pain in a certain area that we couldn't get over," he said. "Again, I tried to do everything possible to play. I tried to pass physicals, I tried to do everything, and, a year of rehab, we didn't know what to do.

"We didn't know if my career was over. We didn't know where to go from there, and then we tried to find an answer because we didn't know if we could see it in the MRI. I was trying to play, and a few days later, it just took a real turn for the worse, where I woke up and my knee was swollen like a watermelon."

Pondexter traveled to New York on Jan. 1, 2017, to get his knee scoped again. But on this trip, his health suddenly began to deteriorate. While in his hotel room, he became nauseated and started breathing heavily. His temperature shot to 104.

He walked to a Duane Reade pharmacy to pick up a prescription for the pain. But while waiting in line, his vision blurred, and the 6-foot-7 forward collapsed onto the floor.

Customers and employees tended to the NBA veteran, giving him a chair and some water. Paramedics were called to the scene, as was his physical therapist. Pondexter was drenched in sweat. He was terrified, bewildered and in excruciating pain. He didn't have control over his body and feared he was dying.

"Quincy never complains," his sister Myisha Pondexter said. "He never complains about pain, swelling or anything. So when he first called, he never let on about how much pain he was in. He didn't ask for help. He's an introvert. I'm telling him it must be the room he's in. I'm just giving motherly advice, not thinking it's anything serious. But by the end of the night, around 1:30 in the morning my time [California], he called begging us to get to New York and saying, 'I'm about to die.'"

Dr. Riley J. Williams, a New York-based orthopedic surgeon specialist, was enlisted to help.

"Quincy was demonstrating some serious symptoms that required us to act immediately," Dr. Williams told ESPN.

"At first it was to survive for your family and everything, but I didn't just want to survive. I wanted to overcome."
Quincy Pondexter

Pondexter said fluid was drained from his knee and, after a few days, it was discovered he had MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a skin infection that is difficult to manage and, if not treated properly and promptly, could lead to death. Nobody knew when he developed the infection.

He was immediately taken to surgery to try to flush the infection out of his system. Dr. Williams explained to Pondexter and his family that MRSA tends to cause complications to the healing process of a significant injury.

Following the third procedure on his knee, he was hospitalized for a month.

"I was getting checked on every two hours in the hospital," he said. "I was doing three full bags of liquid antibiotics, which took close to two hours each time. There was a point where I was connected on both sides, whether it was antibiotics or IVs or all types of other medicines to keep me alive. It was pretty crazy. It's a full day, 24 hours, around-the-clock watch over that recovery. You're trying to eliminate an infection that's deadly."

Myisha and family members were by his side in the hospital for the first two weeks.

Meanwhile, the Pelicans were suffering their second abysmal year in a row and were on the verge of missing the playoffs again. The DNPs piled up for Pondexter, and some of the team's fans directed their frustration his way without any clue of what he was facing.

"My condition was really hidden because we didn't want anyone to know, and I didn't want anyone to feel sorry for me," he explained. "And when I was in the hospital, I would look on Twitter and see all the nasty comments saying, 'He's stealing money. He's at home chillin' and all this s--. Nah, I'm fighting for my life. I was close to dying."

"My only energy is to go on Twitter to check the score of my team's game, and then I look at my Twitter account and you see people bashing you. That was my only energy for that day and, you know, that really motivated me."

When Pondexter was released from the hospital in February, he couldn't walk and weighed 192 pounds, down from the 224 pounds he weighed when he was admitted. Six weeks of rehab and bed rest were prescribed to keep the MRSA under control. It would take him three weeks to relearn how to walk.

Davis and Holiday knew the severity of what he was going through and checked on him frequently via calls and texts.

And Pondexter continued to put in the work. His Fresno-based physical therapist, Mike Martinez, pushed him harder and harder. His trainers Josh Norman and Dave Standifer, of Fresno-based Athletic Performance, worked him out six to seven times a week.

Pondexter's day started at 4 a.m. Pilates in the morning, spin class near 10 a.m., weightlifting after lunch, followed by on-court work, running on a track in the evening and physical therapy to finish it out. Most of the time, his day ended around midnight.

"A year ago, I questioned if he would be able to go again," Standifer said. "There were days we just didn't know, but his work ethic is unmatched. He wants to show everybody that he can still play at that level."

"He's ready to go," Norman said. "Anything I ask him to do, he's a full go."

But on Sept. 1, he received bad news of a different kind. General manager Dell Demps had traded him along with a 2018 second-round pick to Chicago for the draft rights to Ater Majok.

"It was a shock," Pondexter said. "I was tired of letting the organization and fans down the last two years, and I wanted to do my best to help the Pelicans return to the playoffs. It was definitely a gut punch. But you know what? It was also motivation in this process."

Pondexter and the Pelicans didn't always see eye-to-eye during this process. In the fall of 2015, months after Pondexter's first surgery, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry told an audience at a meeting held by the 3-Point Club of New Orleans that Pondexter was fined repeatedly by Demps for skipping scheduled MRI exams on his knee out of fear the team would shut him down following the detection of a significant injury.

Pondexter said it was a "false narrative," noting that he was never fined or missed an appointment.

"I sacrificed a lot of my body to play in that Pelicans uniform," he said. "Every day I spent countless hours with the team's trainers trying to get right. I did all that was asked of me and then some."

Through all the heartbreaks, the pain, the fear and the doubt, Pondexter has worked himself back to NBA-level health. He isn't experiencing pain in his knee and routinely posts videos updating his progress. There's even a clip of him exploding for a windmill dunk.

"Quincy looks great, physically and mentally," said Dr. Snehal Patel, a physical therapist who treated him in New York. "I can't predict anything, but I think he's primed to make a great comeback in the league."

Holiday, too, is rooting for his former teammate.

"Quincy is one of the hardest working teammates I've ever had," Holiday said. "Being injured, I understand how hard it is to come back. I have seen Q put in the work needed on a daily basis. Through setbacks and tough times, he has been positive and still has been a great teammate, which at times can be really hard.

"We need more professionals like him."

Pondexter believes his best days on the court have yet to come. With a new outlook on life that comes from almost having it taken away, the Bulls are getting a more determined, driven person and player.

"I have a lot of faith, and I believe in God's challenges," Pondexter says. "I just looked at these last few years as, 'Damn, God is really testing me to see what happens.' Basketball is such a part of my life that it was the motivation for me getting back. At first it was to survive for your family and everything, but I didn't just want to survive. I wanted to overcome.

"It's been an unbelievable and remarkable recovery. All the doctors, they can't really explain how I've been able to recover and do so well, but we've had a great team of people that have really mended me back to health. A few months ago, it was almost over. I'm alive, and I get to play basketball again. It's a miracle."