Changing of the Guard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baron Davis could be sidelined until January or later--possibly missing all of fall practice and more than a month of the 1998-99 schedule--after undergoing surgery next month to reconstruct his left knee, UCLA's team doctor said Tuesday.

Two days after suffering a tear in his left anterior-cruciate ligament, Davis hobbled to practice Tuesday wearing a large knee brace, dribbled impatiently behind a team defensive drill, and conceded that, even after hearing about the severity of the injury, he asked about Friday's South Regional game against Kentucky.

"Really, his first question was could he play on Friday," team doctor Gerald Finerman said of the explosive Bruin freshman guard. "And obviously, it's not up for discussion."

Davis, who suffered the injury while landing after a dunk during the first half of UCLA's victory over Michigan on Sunday, will fly to St. Petersburg, Fla., and be with the team for the duration of its tournament life.

After waiting a few weeks for the damage to "calm down," according to Finerman, Davis will undergo surgery to repair the damage sometime in April. Beyond that, Davis will walk with crutches for at least several weeks, wear a brace and begin rehabilitating the knee about a month after the operation.

And Finerman made it clear that, with such a serious injury, the prudent plan would be for Davis to skip all summer basketball and not return to action until well after the start of the season.

"I would sort of put it in my mind toward January," Finerman said, adding that it's possible Davis could wear a brace when he returns to action.

Davis said he figured there was a good chance he could make it back by the start of practice in October, but also said he would follow the doctor's orders all the way.

"Basketball means a lot to me and I love the game," Davis said. "If it takes six months, eight months, 10 months of rehab in order for me to get 100% to continue playing, that's what I'm going to have to do.

"I'm just going to work as hard as possible, and we'll see what happens."

Davis said the toughest part--beyond missing out on the Kentucky game and the rest of the tournament experience--would be staying away from the intense summer pick-up games at UCLA.

"A lot of things like that I'm going to miss out on," Davis said. "But I've got to make sacrifices if I'm going to become 100%. . . . There isn't anything you can do about it. You have to look forward to next year."

Meanwhile, both Davis and Finerman agreed that his reentry in the Michigan game in the second half after the injury neither created the tear nor worsened it.

Finerman examined Davis in the locker room during the game, noticed none of the swelling that would be a tell-tale sign of ligament damage, was told that Davis wasn't feeling a great deal of pain, and agreed to let Davis play.

Davis played five minutes in the second half, and didn't jump or push off with his left leg.

"No, not at all," Davis said when asked if going back in worsened the situation. "Because I wasn't pushing off of it, I wasn't exploding to the hole. . . . I didn't reaggravate it."

Said Finerman: "He very clearly wanted to go back in the game. And actually, we had a discussion, 'Baron, if you don't feel right you don't have to go in.'

"He wasn't having too much pain. He didn't swell at all, which is rather atypical for anterior-cruciate tears. They usually swell up very, very quickly, if not within minutes.

"Also, though no one could see it, when we took him back into the locker room, we did tape his knee underneath his sleeve. And, as one could see, he did limit what he did in terms of the game. So I really don't think that he's had any additional damage.'

Monday's magnetic-resonance imaging test also revealed a minor bone bruise, but no other significant damage beyond the ACL tear, Finerman said.

"We've obviously seen a whole lot worse," Finerman said. "In the sense that the MRI does not indicate significant associated injuries, that puts him into a better category--tendon tears, [tissue] tears or other associated ligament tears."

Finerman said the UCLA medical staff knows that Davis' competitive nature is to return to action as early as possible.

"Even though the knee feels well and goes through a good arch of motion, that doesn't mean go ahead and try to dunk the ball," Finerman said. "That's a discussion we'll have to have with him numerous times.

"[Part] of Baron's appeal and charm is his exuberance. If we put him on the court, it's basically full-out basketball."

For his part, Davis said he was taking faith in the relatively quick and complete recoveries from torn ACLs made recently by players such as Derek Anderson and Tim Hardaway of the NBA--and UCLA women's player Erica Gomez and running back Skip Hicks.

And he said he wasn't worried the injury might rob him of his trademark leaping ability once he returns.

"I just have faith in myself and I have faith in the doctors here and the trainer with the rehab, that I'll be able to come back 100% and even a lot stronger," said Davis, who added that he does not feel a great deal of pain even now. "Because I'm not going to stop working."

As far as his NBA draft positioning, Davis said that even before the injury he had decided he would not leave UCLA after this season.

"I knew for a fact that I wasn't leaving this year," Davis said. "The NBA is definitely a dream of mine. [But] next year, with the rehab and everything, I think, is going to be my year."

Mitch Kupchak, general manager of the Lakers, suffered the same injury in 1981, when it was considered irreparable. But he said that, given medical advances, he expects Davis to be back next season as good as new.

"It's going to require several months of inactivity and several months of rehab," Kupchak said. "But my best guess is that they will repair it like they do all of those kinds of injuries now, and he will not miss a beat.

"I'm not a doctor. But if Baron shows a little patience and sticks to the rehab, he'll be fine."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE BIG HURT

Baron Davis' season came to an end when he landed awkwardly after this funk against Michigan on Sunday in the South Regional at Atlanta.

THE INJURY

Anterior Cruciate Ligament (Front view / Bent left knee)

Davis tore the anterior cruciate ligament, a major stabilizing ligament in the knee.

WHAT'S AHEAD

WAITING PERIOD: Three weeks to allow Davis' knee to "calm down."

SURGERY: ACL reconstruction can be performed either as an open surgical procedure or athroscopically assisted. There has been no indication of the treatment for Davis.

RECOVERY: Davis will walk with crutches for at least four weeks, wear a brace and begin rehabilitation about a month after the operation. Davis is expected to be sidelined until January.

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Source: Stone Clinic, The CIBA Collection of Medical Illustrations

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Friday

UCLA (24-8) vs. Kentucky (31-4); SOUTH REGIONAL; St. Petersburg, Fla.; Time: 7 p.m.* (* approximately); TV: Channel 2

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