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WHEN A SPARTAN GOES DOWN, HE STEPS UP

by | Mar 26, 2010 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

He gets the news before everybody. He sees it. He touches it. For a fleeting moment, he is ahead of the entire sports world. The information in his hands, literally, could change the game, heck, even change the course of the NCAA tournament. You’d think he might do something with all that power …

Except the kid in front of him is often crying, and he must try to soothe his broken heart. And, that, for a doctor, is the most important power of all.

“Be honest with me,” Kalin Lucas told Jeff Kovan in an empty locker room last Sunday in Spokane, Wash.

“OK,” Kovan said, looking up from squeezing Lucas’ left calf just above the ankle, a squeeze that told him all he needed to know. “You tore your Achilles tendon. You’re done for the season. You need surgery. And it’ll be four to six months.”

Lucas looked at the floor. His eyes welled up. It was silent. In a few minutes, his Michigan State teammates would come through the door for halftime. Kovan, the team’s head physician, acted quickly.

“Let’s go through what’s going to happen,” he said. He spoke about keeping a good attitude during halftime. He spoke about reaching Kalin’s parents. He spoke about what they would say to people after the game.

And then, as Kovan has learned to do after years of consoling athletes at their worst moments, he spoke about the future. Optimistically.

“You’re gonna hate the summer of rehabbing,” Kovan said. “But you can play again at full level. And next year, in Houston, when you throw your arm around that NCAA championship trophy, you better throw an arm around me, too.”

He looked for a smile.

Outside, a buzzer sounded. Tears from the MSU coach, too

For every injury that befalls a team in March Madness – and the Spartans have endured a barrel full – there is a team physician like Kovan who has to break the official news. You’re out. You’re done. It’s a different kind of single elimination.

It is also Kovan’s job to tell the coach. Team doctors hate this part. Many coaches don’t take it well. They curse. They snarl. Some insist on an alternative. A few may demand a kid be taped up and put back in.

Tom Izzo, thankfully, isn’t one of those. Izzo has said that when he sees Kovan coming, he gets nervous. Last Sunday, in Spokane, he had good reason.

“I told Tom that Kalin was done for the year in the hallway,” Kovan recalled Thursday. “He was more devastated for the kid than anything else. If there were tears, there were as many from Tom as from Kalin.”

Kovan, 48, has been through this drill before. Many times. An MSU grad himself, he joined the basketball program in 1996. He was there when Mateen Cleaves broke his foot at the start of the 1999-2000 season -“that was so hard on the team”- although Cleaves came back in time for a national championship. Kovan also was there nine years ago when a swimmer died after a run.

“Talking to the rest of the swim team about that,” Kovan said, “was maybe the hardest thing I’ve had to do.” Injuries are a part of the game

So Kovan – and others on MSU’s training staff – takes the current Spartans’ injuries in stride. Yes, Chris Allen is battling a foot injury. Yes, Raymar Morgan had a tooth knocked out. Yes, Delvon Roe is playing with a torn meniscus in his right knee. And, yes, Lucas is in street clothes, awaiting surgery.

“On the bench, when we asked him what happened, he said he thought one of the cheerleaders kicked him,” Kovan said. “That’s a classic explanation for an Achilles. ‘Somebody kicked me.’‘It felt like I got shot.’ I knew right then what it was.”

Imagine knowing bad news before everyone. Imagine having to deliver that news to coaches and parents. Imagine holding an athlete as he or she weeps for a lost season or a lost college career.

Nobody wants to see a doctor. But you see them anyway, and you see them first, and it’s a good thing when they’ve done it before, because they can say the right thing, like a joke about a trophy and next year, that begins, in the smallest of ways, to make it better.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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