The Comeback Trail: Zach Collins Takes Us Through His Return To Basketball, Part 1

The last two-plus years of Zach Collins’ life have been filled with surgeries, rehab, and basketball games that are consumed from the bench while wearing street clothes. Collins, then a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, hasn’t played in a game since Aug. 15, 2020 due to injuries to his ankle and foot, and before that, he spent months on the sideline with a labrum injury that required surgery, too. Now with the San Antonio Spurs, Dime sat down with Collins to hear from him about his road back to basketball.

That labrum injury, the one that you suffered in 2019, do you remember when that happened? What ended up leading to it, and as a guy who had never had that kind of really serious injury, what goes through your mind the moment you suffer it, and the moment you hear you’re going to be out for a while because you need surgery?

So the way it happened was, it was in our third game into the season, we were playing Dallas. And me and Luka [Doncic], were going up for a rebound. He had the position on me, so I was just trying to, like, jump on top of him without getting caught. And I put my arm on his shoulder, and for some reason, when he jumped up, I don’t know, I guess my shoulder was really slacked or something and it just popped out. After that, I was like, damn, I can’t move my shoulder. And I figured once I was locked in this position, I figured that something was wrong and I figured that it popped out.

My first thought was, damn, now they got to pop this thing back in, this is gonna hurt. But I didn’t really know what the recovery was gonna be like, I wasn’t familiar with those injuries. I didn’t automatically think, oh, I’m gonna be out for the rest of the season. I had a lot of questions, I was like, what do we do now? Now that it’s popped, can I go back and play now that it’s popped back in, like, what do we got to do? When I got back there, it was X-rays, and then putting it back in, which, them putting it back in actually felt a lot better than I thought it would. I was really thankful for that, I was really nervous. And once it popped back in, I felt like I was ready to go play.

But they said that there’s a lot more tests that need to be run to just make sure that nothing else is wrong with it. I just didn’t know, and then somebody told me that even if there’s no damage or anything, it might take a couple of weeks just to rehab it and keep an eye on it, make sure that you don’t come back too early, when everything’s kind of weak in there, and still, for lack of a better word, flustered from getting popped out. That way, we can make sure that nothing bad happens to it. And then we got MRIs and a bunch of different pictures and it showed that I had a labrum tear. And that was, like, two or three days after it happened.

Once I found that out, then there was a couple options. You could not do surgery and just take some time off and then come back and wear some type of brace or something like that. You could just go about it that way and deal with the risk of it possibly popping out again. Or you could do surgery, and then it’s like, however many months it was. I was faced with that decision, basically. I talked to a bunch of doctors, and talked to my agent, and people around me, and basically said that the shoulder’s gonna pop out again at some point, and we all just agreed that it was better to take care of it now to make sure that it wouldn’t pop out again, and then be fine the rest of my career.

What goes through your mind when you’re told you’re going to go under the knife? And if my math is right, you got the surgery in November, you would have come back in April. And with no pandemic, I’m guessing this was a move done with being ready for the playoffs in mind.

I remember being in a sling for my birthday. I remember where we were at. It’s funny, because we were actually in San Antonio when it happened, I just thought about that. We were in San Antonio, we’re in the locker room, and our trainer brought me into a room, just me and him, basically told me the results of the MRI was like, you got a torn labrum, so you got some decisions to make and broke it down for me. At that point, I still had questions, I still needed to talk to my agent and see what he thought and talk to multiple doctors and get more opinions. But obviously, I did not want to do surgery. I didn’t, it was a very hard decision. It’s not really a gamble if you do surgery, it’s more of like, it just takes away a lot of your season. And then the other one was a gamble.

I felt like if I did do surgery, I’d be letting my team down. That was the year that I was a starter, that’s my first year as a starter. I didn’t want to give that up. After two years of being with them and coming off the bench, that third year was my year to start and be solidified as a starter in the NBA.

So all those things are on my mind, it was just very frustrating to have that opportunity and then to have it go south within three games. It was just very frustrating. But ultimately, I got the right information from a lot of people and we decided to go surgery. And once that happened, I’ll repeat it probably throughout all the talks about surgeries, but once you have a plan and you decide what you’re going to do, then it was much better for me. I just kind of was like, okay, get surgery now, it sucks, but it’s not gonna help me being sad and upset all the time. So now we just got to attack the rehab, and that’s what we did.

Were there any guys on the team who, either while you were making the decision or while you were going through rehab, were really good listeners, and gave you really good advice and guidance on how to go about things?

Everybody was really cool about it. When you talk to players, it’s always look out for yourself and be smart about it, and don’t get pressure from other people, and don’t make a decision based off that stuff. You got to make an educated decision based off the facts and what your doctors and your agents are telling you. Everybody pretty much gave me that same advice.

I think guys were kind of upset. I think guys were kind of like, ah crap, we lost our starting forward, now what do we do — so early in the season, especially the way we were going, it was just going to be a good, like, getting into a good spot. I don’t know, it was just kind of bad timing, so I think a lot of guys were kind of upset, and not upset at me for going to do the surgery, but just upset that it happened. But a lot of guys were very open to talking to me, and they were just like, at the end of the day, you got to look out for yourself and what’s best for your career. That was pretty much the consensus from everybody I talked to.

If the timeline is about four months, and you got it in November: December 2019, January, February, March of 2020. Do you remember when you were supposed to return and how long after the league shut down that was supposed to be?

I’m pretty sure I was supposed to be back in March. I don’t think I was back … I don’t remember if I was back playing yet. I think I was back doing some contact. But I don’t think I had been playing against players. I think the plan was for me to go down to a G League team. Portland didn’t have one, so we would have had to pick one. So I think I was coming back in March. And then everything shut down, and then we had to deal with that. It’s a horrible situation, but it gave me a lot more time to really get ready, get my body right, and get the shoulder right. Guys weren’t allowed in the facility, but the NBA, because I was injured and going through rehab, they allowed me to be in the facility like three times a week. So, I just had a lot more time to get my body ready for the comeback instead of, I wouldn’t say rushing into it, but it was just a luxury of having more and more time to get ready. But yeah, the plan was to come back in March, and then it just got extended.

At that point, like you said, there’s all the unfortunate stuff that comes with it, but from your perspective, it’s, “Wait, now I know I’m not going to be coming back until my body is 110 percent ready.”

Exactly. It was all that. It’s terrible that that’s the way it happened, but I definitely feel like it’ll help in the long run with my shoulder and it being stable for the rest of my career, we just were able to put a lot more time into it and really just focus on that and getting it more than ready. I think it’ll be a good thing looking back on it that we just kind of waited, because when you cut back, I probably would have continued to do the rehab on the shoulder even though I was playing, but it wouldn’t have been as focused, it would have been more about basketball.

zach collins
Getty Image/Ralph Ordaz

Collins did, eventually, get a chance to play basketball again during the 2019-20 NBA season. At the time the league suspended operations on March 11, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Portland was 29-37, good for ninth place in the Western Conference. For that reason, they were one of the 13 squads from the West that earned an invitation to the league’s Orlando Bubble at Disney World.

They announce the Bubble, you’re going to be coming back during that. What do you remember going through your head when they announced the Bubble, both from the perspective of being an NBA player and also being an NBA player for whom this is going to be your first chance to play basketball since November?

I was very excited. I was excited that the NBA was going to come back, I think it was important for everybody to get that going. And the fact that the NBA found a way to get that all set up was pretty big time. And I hadn’t played in so long that I was just very excited to finally get back out there. And considering where we were as a team, in the rankings and all that, it was kind of like we had to really go out there and focus, and every game was just of monumental importance when we went up there. So, the intensity of our team, the focus we had to have, it made everything really fun.

I jumped ahead there, but when I first heard of the NBA starting up, I was shocked. And I was very excited. It kind of felt like we were getting back to a little bit of normalcy, even though the Bubble was far from a normal situation, it was just cool to have sports back. It was cool, and obviously, the fact that we were one of the teams that were able to make that cut and go was big time as well.

You start playing, the team does pretty well while they’re in there, getting that spot in the playoffs, and then you end up getting hurt again. What happened the moment you got hurt, and again, like the last time I asked this, what goes through your head when it now has this added thing of “I just got back” on top of it?

So it wasn’t really a moment where I got hurt, it was just over time, the fracture was caused from a bone spur that just kept getting bigger and bigger and causing more agitation to the ankle and to that spot. The first time I felt it, it was either the Dallas game or the Brooklyn game that I started to feel it, and it just kind of kept getting worse. We kept getting pictures on it and nothing really showed up. I think we were getting X-rays and MRIs and they were all looking good, we were cool with that.

And then I think going into Memphis, the last game, I was not practicing, I was just kind of laboring the ankle, I was not doing anything. We were just hoping that I could just be ready for game time. I think before the Memphis game, I didn’t even do a pregame workout, just because we wanted to save it. All I did was mobility in the weight room, and I felt good. I hadn’t ran yet, I can’t remember if I did a workout, I don’t think I did. But I hadn’t ran yet, and I hadn’t really jumped that day. And walking around, the ankle actually felt pretty good.

And then, I go out for warmups for the Memphis game, and I take my first few strides, and I’m like, this is not good. I took my first few strides and it was just painful as hell. I remember telling one of the guys, one of the other power forwards, I think Wenyen Gabriel, like, “Be ready today, bro, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to go.” The game starts and I’m limping from the first possession. Again, there was no I went for a dunk, or I went for a rebound and I came down and twisted it. None of that happened. It just, over time, it got worse and worse and worse. I think towards the end of that first quarter, the trainers just noticed that I wasn’t right. And if you watch the film on that game, you can clearly tell that I’m just laboring up and down the court, trying to get stuff done, but I just couldn’t do it. I could have labored my way through the game, probably, but I would have been really slow and kind of a liability, so they just pulled me.

After that, that’s when we got better images of the thing, and we saw that there was a fracture — I think a couple practices into the Lakers preparation, we found out. They had shut me down, I wasn’t practicing, I was just doing cardio on a bike. I did my CT, I think before practice, I came in, I did cardio, and then after practice, I was sitting down and they told me there was a fracture. And then after that, everything went how it went.

You’re a basketball player, you’ve surely done things to your ankle a million times in your life. Was it in that warm-up against Memphis where you were like, “Oh, no, this is something different from the ankle rolls I’ve had”? Or did you feel before those other games against Dallas and against Brooklyn that something might have been up?

It was weird, because we didn’t know what exactly it was. It wasn’t really keeping me up at night, it wasn’t super swollen. There was a little bit of swelling, but it wasn’t blown up. And it wasn’t really on a typical ankle spot. You know what? Now that I’m thinking about it, it was the Clippers game that I felt something. And it was after the Clippers game, I had taken my shoe off and the area of the fracture, I didn’t know at the time, it was just really achy and really sore. I remember for a while, I was just telling the trainers and we would treat it, we’d stretch and they would do massages on it and all that.

I didn’t think there was anything crazy, like a stress fracture. But I definitely knew that something wasn’t right. I’d walk around and it was fine, but the moment I started pounding on it, and you know, jumping and running, that’s when it was really, really painful. So, I don’t know, I think at the time, I was just like, something’s definitely wrong, maybe there’s something wrong with the tendons in there, or the ankle’s just really inflamed for some reason. Maybe being back and playing again, the ankle’s kind of shocked and it’s just telling me to relax, I don’t know. But I definitely didn’t think it was a fracture or anything.

zach collins
Getty Image/Ralph Ordaz

Collins originally underwent surgery in Sept. 2020 after the Blazers were eliminated from the postseason by the Los Angeles Lakers. That ended up being the first he’d receive on his foot and ankle, and nearly three months later, he’d get his second. Collins underwent “a refresher” on Dec. 30, 2020, four games into the Blazers’ 2020-21 campaign. He was ruled out indefinitely and would not play again that season.

The season started on Christmas in 2020. You just missed however many months the year before, you came back and you get hurt. And now this entire next season, nothing’s gonna happen. What’s it like getting that bomb dropped on you?

It was definitely a low point. It was tough, because I felt like I had put in a lot of work to get back. It’s frustrating with this thing because I didn’t do anything. It was just a bone spur in my ankle that was continuing to grow. So it just felt very much out of my control. I thought that during the rehab process, I did a decent job of eating correctly, and working out, and taking it seriously, and it just didn’t work out. It is a tough area for blood flow, and that’s why it’s such a bitch to get to heal.

But it sucked, man. You put in a lot of work, and the team is waiting on you to come back. I don’t think our team was struggling at that point, but I know that I could have helped them. So, that plays into it as well.

And then you feel like you’re the guy who’s just always injured now, and you feel like that’s your narrative around you, and that just pisses you off, too. And then there’s the thought of, well, damn, now we got to get another surgery, and then we got to start over again. I got to be non-weight bearing for a while, I got to be rolling around on a scooter, all that plays into it. It was just a shitty situation.

You talk about all that hard stuff that comes with it regarding what you feel, the feeling you’re letting your team down, actually dealing with the injury and feeling like you have that reputation around you. How do you push on and persevere and convince yourself “I’m gonna come back stronger than ever” when you’re in those really dark places? Like, is that a light when you’re surrounded by all that darkness?

I always come back to it, and I’m probably gonna repeat it a lot, but you can either be a sad sack and just not work hard and just give up and give up on your career and just say, “You know what? I’m done rehabbing, it’s too much, I don’t want to continue to push.” You could do that. Or you could turn it into a positive and say, “Well, I have all this time to work on other stuff. I’m still in the NBA, I still have a job, I’m still getting paid lots of money to do a job, and there are people out there whose problems are a lot worse than mine.” And I think perspective helped with that.

At the end of the day, I was just like, this basketball stuff is what I want to do. This whole situation just feels like somebody’s got like these chains on me, and they’re holding me back from doing what I want to do. And in my head, I’m just like, I’m just gonna keep showing up, I’m gonna keep doing the work, and eventually, this whole painful situation, it will subside, and I will be a basketball player again. So, that was my view, just keep showing up, keep being positive, and make the most of this situation and make the most of your life, and that was it for me.

What’s it like rehabbing and going through all of that when you’re basically doing it with the understanding that, “I’m just going to be sitting here watching this season”? What was it like being a spectator who has pretty good seats to Portland Trail Blazers games for a year?

It sucks, bro. You get to watch basketball all the time, but you don’t get to be out there and have that competitive spirit, that competitiveness with your teammates. You’re now the clapper on the bench. You can try to hype your guys up and talk trash, but now you’re that guy who doesn’t play and just talks trash on the sidelines. It’s just not fun, there’s nothing great about it. It’s fun to be out there and watch, I tried to take advantage of it and tried to learn from a lot of guys out there, and tried to watch the game from a different perspective, being on the bench — again, take advantage of the negative situation.

But it’s not what you want to be doing. You want to be out there playing. It gets boring — you don’t want to just go to the gym and just watch more basketball, you want to actually play. I say that, I was like, “I’m gonna keep showing up, keep being positive.” But every day wasn’t sunshine and rainbows. That was my mindset, but I don’t want to be that guy that was just always positive all the time, because it wasn’t the case. You just got to push through a little bit of that stuff.

As far as being a fan of the game, I’ve had my time of watching it on the sideline. More than I’ll ever need, I think.