It's No Time for Games : Wilkes, Career in Balance, Goes to Work on Rehabilitating Injured Left Knee

Times Staff Writer

Jamaal Wilkes had a big day Thursday. It was the first morning in five weeks that he hadn't awakened with a cast stretching from his left hip to his ankle.

Now the 31-year-old Laker forward can start looking for the answers to some important questions that will affect not only his career but also the future shape of the Lakers.

Wilkes began therapy Thursday to rehabilitate the ligaments he injured in his left knee when he collided with the New York Knicks' Ernie Grunfeld in a game on Feb. 1. Wilkes completely tore one ligament and partly tore another.

Three days after the injury, Wilkes learned that he was out for the season.

"It was a significant injury," said Dr. Stephen Lombardo, the Laker team orthopedist, who performed arthroscopic surgery on Wilkes.

Not only had two of the four ligaments in Wilkes' left knee been damaged, Lombardo said, but the worst one was a Grade 2 tear of the medial collateral ligament. Grade 3 is the most serious.

There was also a partial tear of the anterior cruciate ligament, which is one of the main stabilizers of the knee.

Lombardo said that he probably won't know for at least three months whether Wilkes will need additional surgery. If Wilkes does need more surgery, that could seriously affect his chances of extending his 11-year career, which is already in some jeopardy.

"If a football player had this injury, there would be a 100% chance he'd be back," said Lombardo. "They have to have agility and mobility, but not on the same level as a basketball player.

"This is a much more significant injury for a basketball player, and he'll have some limitations if he doesn't have good healing."

With that in mind, Wilkes said he isn't as concerned about whether he'll have a place on the Lakers when he's healthy, hopefully by next training camp, as he is about rehabilitating his knee.

"At first, I thought about it a lot," Wilkes said, "but now I'm dealing more with the present and helping myself heal, because that's what is going to affect the future."

But when he's ready to play again, does he think the Lakers will be just as ready to have a place for him?

"I think so," he said. "I really don't know. I've wondered about it, but it's not foremost in my mind now. That will have to be dealt with, I'm sure."

Until last season, Wilkes had a reputation for durability. Then a mysterious gastro-intestinal infection hit him in February and reduced him to a part-time player, when he played at all.

The illness was eventually diagnosed as having been caused by a parasite. Wilkes suffered severe headaches, nausea, fatigue and weight loss. He missed the first round of the playoffs, and when he came back, probably too soon, he was still in a weakened condition. He appeared in 14 playoff games but averaged only 4.5 points.

When training camp opened this season in Palm Desert, Wilkes was back in the starting lineup. But he lost his job after the first eight regular-season games and was sent to the bench.

Laker Coach Pat Riley had just revived him as part of a regular substitution pattern when Wilkes was injured.

"On the one hand, it couldn't have happened at a worse time," Wilkes said.

"But on the other hand, it could even extend my playing career. That's my situation, and I think it's a rather interesting one to be in."

Wilkes had never been injured, never worn a cast and never used crutches until that night he got in Grunfeld's way and found out just what he had been missing.

"There was the suspense of not knowing how bad it was," Wilkes said. "That was another dimension."

He spent the first week after surgery doing nothing, then began a pre-rehabilitation program of weight training for his upper body and right leg. Lombardo said that the muscles in Wilkes' left leg atrophied somewhat but that the early workouts prevented that in his good leg.

"He's highly motivated and intelligent," Lombardo said. "He's very responsive and open to any suggestions. In fact, he's been just excellent."

When the Lakers played Golden State Wednesday night, Wilkes was not at the Forum in his usual spot in front of the television monitor in the Laker locker room. It was the first game he had missed since the injury, he said.

He said that his leg had been stiff and sore when the cast came off and that he hadn't felt like dragging around on a sore leg.

Teammates James Worthy, Mitch Kupchak, Bob McAdoo and Magic Johnson, all of whom have worn casts, offered advice on how to prepare for the rehabilitation process, Wilkes said.

"They all told me it was the toughest part, which I'm about to find out," he said.

Wilkes said he doesn't necessarily feel that he does not belong anymore or that he has no place on the team. That's not why he hasn't been around very much, he said.

"You have to have a certain mentality when you're playing, and I don't have that mentality right now," he said. "In that sense, it's difficult. I'm not an outsider now, I'm just injured.

"I know there is a tendency to feel not part of team. We've just got different priorities. My priority now is to heal and their priority is to win games."

In the meantime, Wilkes continues his therapy three days a week and keeps up on the TV game shows.

Lombardo said that Wilkes would need no further surgery on his knee if, after four to six months, the ligaments remain strong and the knee doesn't loosen up.

Wilkes, who has been cheered by the volume of fan mail he has received, is upbeat when he talks about his recovery.

"I've taken this as a challenge to try and overcome this thing, hopefully," he said. "I'm optimistic, whatever that means."

In four months, maybe six, he might know for sure.

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