NBA Preview: On Valuable Knees And Building Legacies

Just when you thought the sports calendar couldn't get busier — the World Series, NFL regular season approaching half-way point, the NHL season underway — it can. Ahead of the new NBA season, which begins Tuesday, we'll look at a couple of valuable knees and a couple of legacies. Derrick Rose in Chicago and Russell Westbrook are both coming back from injury and surgery — and their performances could determine whether or not Miami wins a third straight title. Meanwhile, Lebron James tries to build his legacy, and Kobe Bryant tries to retain his.

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The NBA begins a new regular season today with three games. Among the match-ups, the two-time defending champion Miami Heat play the Chicago Bulls. That game features the regular season return of Bulls' all-star point guard Derrick Rose. He hurt his knee badly a year and a half ago. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, knee injuries are just one of the storylines of the new season.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Chicago's preseason began 24 days ago with a game in Indianapolis, and with Bulls fans holding their collective breath.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTSCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Rose took the hit - no - follow, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK. He looked like he's got his explosion back. He went right into the chest of Hibbert, and then the quick hops to get the offensive rebound back. That's a good sign.

GOLDMAN: The signs kept pointing up Derrick Rose's return was not a toe in the pool, but instead a full-on cannonball. What a splash. In seven preseason games, all victories, Rose scored over 20 points a game, passed five assists per game and rebounded 3.3 a game, as if the ACL in his left knee never ripped in April of last year. Of course, this was just preseason. There are so many games and rigorous moments to go before Rose can fulfill a destiny many think is inevitable: leading the Bulls to an NBA title. But at least he's back, which is something Boston's Rajon Rondo...

RAJON RONDO: I'm probably about 87 percent.

GOLDMAN: ...and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook...

RUSSELL WESTBROOK: You know, the rehab process is a tough process.

GOLDMAN: ...would love to be. Rondo, ACL, and Westbrook, torn meniscus, are recovering from their knee injuries. They, along with Rose, are three of the best at the NBA's new glamour position of point guard. They dazzle with their explosive speed and jumping and stop-on-a-dime quickness. All of that, of course, taxes the knees, which often are forgotten in a player's early years.

TIM GROVER: You know what? It can become a problem.

GOLDMAN: Tim Grover is a well-known personal trainer.

GROVER: These individuals, from a high school and even the few years that they spend in college, they're so athletically gifted that training really isn't a part of their program.

GOLDMAN: Grover has worked with some of the NBA's greatest: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade. His book, "Relentless," details a holistic approach to sports training which he says young basketball players should embrace. As proof, he points to Derrick Rose's newly strengthened knee and Rose's claim that he's added five inches to his vertical jump.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTSCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Rose explodes to the goal and puts it in. What a move by Derrick Rose. He's got 13 points.

GOLDMAN: The health of Rose's and Westbrook's knees, in particular, are important factors in this NBA season. They are key players on contending teams that have a better chance than most of derailing LeBron James and the Heat. It's been a pleasant off-season for James. He got married. His critics have backed off. Two straight titles did the trick. And his legions of followers are primed for this new season.

KIWI GARDNER: Oh, man. I'm definitely a fan. LeBron James, I feel like, is the best player to ever walk our planet.

GOLDMAN: But unlike most fans, Kiwi Gardner of Oakland, California, is trying mightily to walk in that same world. As the new season opens, he's got his sights set on the NBA through its minor leagues.

GARDNER: I want to be able to make a D-League team this year, you know. I feel like I'm at that level or above that level right now.

GOLDMAN: Twenty-year-old Gardner is about 5'8", quick as a water bug and has offensive skills that made him a YouTube sensation a couple of years ago. He recently went to open tryouts for the Santa Cruz Warriors, the D-League affiliate for Golden State of the NBA, and he did well. According to a Santa Cruz spokesman, in the last three years, 125 players were invited to D-League training camps straight from the local tryouts.

Last season, 31 D-League players were called up to the NBA. So the door is there. As the new NBA season begins and fans focus on LeBron's legacy and Derrick's knee, guys like Kiwi Gardner will try to push that door open. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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