Maimed but Unbowed, He Understands What Lies Ahead for Gordon Hayward

Edgar Sosa, the starting point guard for the New Zealand Breakers of Australia’s National Basketball League, was changing after practice one morning last month when he heard a commotion coming from the coach’s office, where his teammates were watching the Boston Celtics play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the N.B.A.’s season opener.

Sosa soon learned what his teammates had seen — that the Celtics’ Gordon Hayward had crumpled to the court at Quicken Loans Arena with a grisly injury that contorted the lower part of his left leg into the shape of an ampersand. From his safe remove on the far side of the world, Sosa watched the aftermath unfold on television, and part of it was eerily familiar. He spotted the Celtics’ Al Horford.

“I saw Al’s face,” Sosa said in a recent telephone interview, “and it was the same face he made when it happened to me.”

In 2011, while he and Horford were playing for the Dominican Republic in an Olympic qualifier in Argentina, Sosa crashed under the basket and, in clinical terms, sustained compound — or open — fractures of his right tibia and fibula.

Simply put, the two bones in his lower leg cracked and tore through his skin.

“Your leg isn’t supposed to go that way,” Sosa said.

In the gruesome tradition of quarterback Joe Theismann, whose football career ended when a sack snapped his right leg on “Monday Night Football” in 1985, Sosa has accepted his place as a 21st-century emblem of horrifying leg injuries. Before Kevin Ware (2013), before Paul George (2014) and before Hayward (2017), there was Sosa.

“Anytime something like this happens,” he said, “my Twitter blows up.”

As Hayward begins the long process of rehabilitating from a dislocation fracture of his left ankle, Sosa, 29, is the rare athlete who understands the hard road ahead. He has lived out an answer to the question: How does an elite athlete come back from such a mangling?

Every injury is different, of course, and Hayward’s path forward has extra complexity because a dislocation involves torn ligaments.

At a news conference last week, Hayward said that he was still susceptible to dark thoughts — “I have a lasting image in my mind of rolling over and looking at it,” he said — but that he wanted to attack his rehabilitation. An All-Star forward who signed a four-year, $128 million contract with the Celtics in July, Hayward also said he was relieved that his surgeons did not find any cartilage damage, which would have presented another set of challenges.

“I’m putting zero expectations on myself as far as a timetable,” he said.

Sosa, who grew up in Upper Manhattan and starred at Harlem’s Rice High School before playing at Louisville, can relate to it all: the deep desire to recover everything that he lost, the daily bouts with self-doubt, the nightmarish images that linger.

“I thought my career was over,” he said.

In September 2011, Sosa was fresh off his first season as a pro — and it had been a good one. Playing for a team called Angelico Biella in Italy’s top league, Sosa had averaged 14.1 points and 4.5 assists a game. Based on that body of work, Sosa said, the New Orleans Hornets had invited him to attend their training camp.

But that was still a few weeks away when Sosa joined the Dominican Republic’s national team for the FIBA Americas Championship. In the late stages of blowout win against Panama, John Calipari, who was the Dominican Republic’s coach, urged Sosa to stay aggressive. Heeding Calipari’s advice, Sosa drove to the basket and absorbed contact as his defender looked to draw a charge. When Sosa fell, his leg buckled under him.

He immediately knew that something was very wrong: His right shin had broken in half. The lower part of his leg simply dangled, as if the long sock that he wore was all that kept his ankle and foot attached to the rest of his body.

Orlando Antigua, one of the team’s assistants, rushed to Sosa’s side and shooed away a camera operator. Sosa can remember screaming — but not because he felt physical pain. Instead, his mind raced. He thought about his future. He thought about the N.B.A. He thought the worst.

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