Being sidelined for three months as he rehabbed a surgically repaired knee was an arduous but enlightening experience for DeMarre Carroll. Still, that adversity doesn't compare to other obstacles he's faced in life, from liver disease to taking a bullet in his ankle, or overcoming the death of his brother in childhood.
The prized free agent landed by the Toronto Raptors in the off-season is one game into his comeback. At most, he'll have four games before the NBA playoffs start next weekend. Then he'll do his best to help the Raps avenge two successive years of first-round playoff exits.
Rehabbing the knee was a full-time job for three months: days filled with ice packs and sessions of stretching, strengthening, massage and acupuncture. He did pool workouts, ran on an underwater treadmill and practised against Toronto's youngest players. He agonized over swelling – sometimes that knee was the "size of a football" – and he travelled around the United States visiting specialists.
"This injury has been big in a lot of people's eyes, but small to me compared to other things I've been through," Carroll said in an interview last month. "It makes me hungrier, makes me want to prove myself all over again. I want to do what I can to help this team."
When Carroll was 5, the native of Birmingham, Ala., watched his 9-year-old brother DeLonte die of a brain tumour. The two shared a passion for basketball, and he has a tattoo on his shoulder of the boy's face and the words "RIP DeLonte."
"My brother was so big in my life, and [the tattoo] constantly tells me I've been through way worse and to always keep positive," the 29-year-old said. "You have to keep the faith, believe you can overcome anything thrown at you."
Another obstacle came in 2007, while he was playing at the University of Missouri and agreed to pick up some teammates from a bar one night. While trying to pull one away from a fight, someone fired a gun, and Carroll caught a stray bullet in the ankle.
"A bullet wound; that was hard," Carroll said. "Through the grace of God, that bullet hit me a hair away from my Achilles. It helped me to be positive about what I had."
He led Mizzou to the Elite Eight of the 2009 NCAA tournament as a senior and earned the nickname "Junk Yard Dog" for his toughness. A few weeks before the 2009 NBA draft, he discovered that a problem he was having with bothersome itchy skin on his legs was actually caused by liver disease. He still lives with the disease, but controls the symptoms with the help of specialists.
Last summer, the Raptors signed the 6-foot-8 forward with the signature free-flowing dreads to a four-year deal worth a reported $60-million. He was coming off stints in Memphis, Houston, Denver, Utah and most recently Atlanta, where he had impressed while defending LeBron James in last year's Eastern Conference final.
The Raptors loaded him with big responsibilities, such as shooting the three, rebounding and defending the opponent's biggest offensive threat.
Calling himself "JYD 2.0," he was averaging 11.7 points and 4.8 rebounds over 31.9 minutes a game in the 23 games he played before his surgery.
His long-awaited return came Thursday in Atlanta, where he had five points, a rebound and four steals as Toronto eased him in with a 14-minute stint. To be cautious, they rested him Friday against the visiting Indiana Pacers (they also got some pre-playoff rest for DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola).
"He went out and played like he'd never been out and that's the way he has to be to be successful," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said.
Asked if Carroll could be enlisted to defend superstar Paul George if the Raptors get a first-round matchup with Indiana, the coach didn't hesitate.
"No question, that's why we signed him – to slow a guy like that down," Casey said. "[Carroll] is an option we have."
Carroll said he has a singular focus in his return.
"I just care about defence," Carroll said Friday. "No matter what, you can always play defence, and that's what this team needs me to do."