The day Dante Exum loped into Salt Lake City as a fresh-faced kid, a newly drafted rookie, there was excitement all around him, in the minds of fans, in the minds of teammates and coaches, and in his own mind, too, even in his body parts too, the same ones that shortly thereafter began to betray him.
Latest news from team doctors is that the Jazz’s former No. 5 overall pick in the 2014 draft has a partially torn patellar tendon in his right knee and that he is out indefinitely. Again. The injury was suffered after he had already sat out a large part of this season with a severe ankle sprain.
And you already are more than familiar with the serious injuries of the seasons between — the devastating blown knee he suffered before what would have been his second NBA season, while playing for the Australian national team, and a subsequent shoulder injury that cost him the better part of last season.
Man, oh man.
In an unfair world, this is just one more example of an individual adversely affected by things beyond his control — in this case, a talented athlete unable to escape the misfortune of having the same body that has blessed his life so richly pull a rug out from under him — again and again and again and again.
Sympathy for him, at least in the dark thoughts of some, might end with the fact that Exum signed a $33 million, at its maximum, contract last summer and that, if he takes good care of his resources, will never have financial concerns for the rest of his life. That last part is understood.
But people who think that way have never repeatedly gone through rehab, never faced the pain of getting up early to work a joint — in Exum’s situation, joints — that have been damaged and rebuilt, attempting to make them whole again. It is a lonely pursuit, at times a journey that seems to have no hope and no end, and an athlete like Exum powers on through, nonetheless, grabbing onto the promise that he might, some time, some day, be able to run and jump and shoot again.
He might be able to be what Dante Exum was supposed to be.
Before the 2018-19 season started, the still-young guard was optimistic about his path, convinced that he had learned from his difficult experiences and that bad luck would now leave him be, enabling him to reward himself and his hard work and the Jazz with stellar, consistent play.
“Just being on the court feels good,” he told me. “That’s where I’m happiest.”
“I had a good offseason,” he continued. “I came in, have been healthy and I want to bring energy every time I’m on the floor. Confidence is a matter of getting out there and playing, gaining experience.”
Many have wondered whether Exum would ever live up to his billing, be worth that high draft pick, fulfill his potential, become a regular contributor, if not a star, for the Jazz. As he said, that’s impossible to do without time on the court, without a chance to continue to grow his skills, to meld with his teammates.
Now, for Exum, it’s a matter of more pain, more rehab, more time spent away from his team, more digging deep to find hope.
He’s a wealthy man, to be sure. He’d probably swap it all to be healthy, to make a deal with whoever controls fortune, good and bad, to start over from scratch, and to be left to discover just what it is he could be.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.