Struggling through a knee injury in Chicago as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kris Dunn was essentially on bed rest for three months, he said.
Fifteen months and two stubborn, overlapping injury rehabs later, Dunn finally played in an NBA game again, this time his long-awaited debut with the Hawks. After such a tumultuous period, it seemed like that fact hadn’t quite hit him yet.
“A lot of emotions,” Dunn said after Monday’s disappointing loss to the Pistons. “I was nervous, anxious, excited. A lot of emotions going on. I felt good to be back out there. Honestly, wish we could have got the win; it would’ve felt a lot better. But at the end of the day, it’s been a long journey to get to this point, and I’m just blessed to be back out there.”
Dunn can’t be too mad at the loss, he added, because of what he has recently overcome. Prior to Monday, Dunn’s last appearance in a game came Jan. 29, 2020, when he was still with the Bulls.
He never doubted he’d play in an NBA game again, but wasn’t positive he’d be fully himself (known for being a nightmare on-ball defender) upon return — restricted to just 13 minutes of play Monday, though, Dunn already flashed his ability to disrupt the offense, which the Hawks will welcome as they aim for a playoff push. He missed all five shots he took.
Throughout a lengthy rehab process, he tried to stay positive, but had moments of frustration, as well. Several times, he thanked the Hawks for being patient with him as he took time to battle injuries and fully recover, and the training staff for getting him there.
“I knew I would come back but there were doubts of would I come back to be myself,” Dunn said. “I went through every emotion in the 15 months. It’s impossible not to. If you could stay positive for 15 months, kudos to you. You are definitely someone who’s built different. I went through every emotion. I’m happy that I stuck through it. I have a great support system with my family, the team, my teammates, the organization being patient with me, the coaching staff. Everyone bought in to help me get to this point. I stuck through it.”
With the Bulls, Dunn was working through what the team confirmed was an an MCL sprain in his right knee. The league suspended the season on March 11. More bad injury news came for Dunn over the next year, and he switched teams in the middle of it, with the Hawks acquiring him in free agency in November.
“I didn’t have surgery right then and there,” Dunn said of his first knee issues. “I was (in) a brace. With the process, I kind of had to be on bed rest but at the same time, COVID hit and the only thing I could do was literally stay at home. I couldn’t go to the gym because literally COVID was fresh when I got injured. Everyone was staying home. Everyone was on lockdown. The only thing I could do was be on bed rest. I think that was the best treatment for my knee. I can’t treat myself the way it needed to be treated at home. It was definitely tough.”
Shortly after coming to Atlanta, the Hawks found cartilage disruption in that same right knee. Just as he started to steadily improve, his ankle and lower back started to hurt, an MRI revealing loose cartilage in his right ankle inhibiting his range of motion and creating compensations in his knee and back. He underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove the cartilage in late December.
He was in a walking boot for a while and got a PRP injection in his right knee in February. Although the Hawks anticipated he’d be able to play by the end of March, with Dunn traveling on the team’s West Coast road trip from March 20-April 2, it took about another month for him to be ready.
As soon as he felt his knee getting better, his ankle started acting up. As soon as his ankle started healing, more issues sprang up with his knee. It was like a see-saw, with Dunn unable to achieve balance.
“I just felt like different things just kept happening,” Dunn said. “My initial injury was my knee, I felt like I was on the verge of getting better there, then the ankle situation happened. I felt like I was on the verge of getting better there, then the knee kept (having issues), it was just back and forth trying to get back, the alignment all back right.”
The toughest part about the last 15 months, Dunn said, was the little things, the day-to-day. Rehab, after all, usually takes part in the training room and doesn’t consist of the fun stuff, like scrimmaging and playing on the court with teammates.
The ups and downs of feeling good one week and bad the next, also, were tough.
“It was a roller coaster ride,” Dunn said. “Overall, I stayed positive, but there’s definitely times when you get down on yourself. You’re just waiting for, you’re just waiting to get over that hump. Finally all that hard work you’ve been putting in, you’re just waiting for it to pay off, and there were times where I kind of got down on myself and that’s when a great support system would come in, with my family, they came in and kept my head up.
“The training staff, the organization being patient with me, my teammates being there for me, keep pushing me and it was a long journey. It was definitely a long journey. A lot of emotions went through my mind today, as I got back out there on the court, but once I got out there, it felt definitely good to be back.”
When the day finally came for him to play again, it felt surreal. Finally, 15 months of pushing through a challenging rehab process had paid off.
Just because he can play in games again, though, doesn’t mean he’s 100% yet. That’s still ongoing. But, now comes a strong finish to the regular season, the Hawks hope, with Dunn working his way back to being fully himself on the defensive end.
“As these games come, I’m gonna still have to do rehab,” Dunn said. “I’m still going to have to put the work in to make sure I can keep playing each and every game and try to help this team do things that they want to do. The success we want to bring to ourselves, I definitely have to maintain the work. It’s gonna be a lot of work. My body is gonna take a lot of pounding. It’s part of the process. Blessed to be back. I’d rather do this work than rehab. Definitely, definitely feel good.”