It happens so, so fast. In the blur of the game, that flow that is equal parts thought and muscle memory, there is a certain expectation. We operate between parameters, in our day-to-day life and in the midst of a basketball game, and anything outside of those parameters can bring us to a crunching, painful halt.
It also happens without warning. It has to be without warning, because otherwise we would simply move our head out of the way without thinking twice and continue to play. In a game of sudden, violent moves, such as cuts to the basket or step-back moves, this may be the most sudden and certainly the most violent. Getting hit in the face is not a fun experience, and it’s always confusing, at least at first.
The first thing you notice, assuming you’ve been hit hard enough (like RJ Davis was in the waning seconds of Tuesday’s game against Syracuse), is a flash of light, after which you suddenly find yourself on the ground. This is disorienting. You can feel the sting of the impact, sure, but the split-second between running and laying down is still a mystery in this moment. The immediate thing that springs into your head, even before it begins to ache, is the wish that you could be somewhere else. Hardwood floors aren’t the most comfortable thing to lay on, and regardless of how you ended up there, you’d like to not be there anymore. There’s an impulse to get up, to walk it off or to run away from the pain that you’re sure is coming, but that impulse is quickly overwhelmed.
As the pain starts to blossom in your face and behind it, you begin to remember what happened. You were playing defense, your man made a move with the ball, and you ended up on the floor. The interim details, the particulars, are still hazy. Was it a shoulder? An elbow? Did that fool just punch you? The quiet roar of the blood in your ears, the sound that you don’t even hear when you’re focused on the game, begins to subside and you can hear the noises of the gym. The crowd, if there is one, not cheering or jeering but just generally rumbling, as if they too are a bit confused about what just happened. Your teammates, checking on you softly even as you wish you could respond, but you’re not at the vocalizing stage yet. The best you can offer is a grunt or a groan as you roll to try and find some position on this hardwood floor that alleviates the pain coming from inside your head. The footsteps of the training staff, not as squeaky as basketball shoes on the court, seem louder than normal as they rush to your side to provide care. You can suddenly, and slightly self-consciously, hear the noise you are making, a weird kind of groan that feels like it’s coming from somewhere outside of yourself.
You start to become more aware of your surroundings, taking a handful of seconds that feel like minutes to reorient and collect your thoughts. Again, you’re working outside of your normal parameters here, and it sucks. The pain is getting worse, the swelling has just begun, and if you’re particularly unlucky you can start to feel an uncomfortably wet warmth on the side of your face that took the impact. At least now you can begin to articulate your thoughts to the training staff to explain that yes, it all hurts, but the left side hurts worse.
This has all taken somewhere around thirty to forty-five seconds, and as you sit up you can begin to contemplate the ways your status has changed from the last minute to this one. You miss the time when you were not dizzy, when you felt like all your limbs were obeying your mind without question. Now, there seems to be some hesitation, and you need to lean on your teammates and the trainers as you retake your feet.
As you slowly walk off the court, there are still questions to answer. Are you concussed? Is your nose broken? Worse, are your orbital bones fractured? These will be answered in a frustratingly slow and achey round of testing and imaging. For how sudden the actual impact was, these tests will last an interminably long amount of time.
Now, you have a choice to make. If you’re like me, this is a good time to pivot to writing about sports instead of playing them. If you’re an incredibly tough D1 athlete like RJ Davis, you’re likely planning to get some shots up within a day or two, once the swelling subsides. The difference in response is a fundamental one, and at the risk of leaning into cliché; some folks are just built different.
Here at Tar Heel Blog, we celebrate the toughness of Davis and the rest of this year’s Tar Heel squad, and we’re proud to get to watch players who display such toughness. It’s no secret that drawing this particular offensive foul may well have sealed the game for Carolina. It’s always a good day to cheer for this team, and a great day to be a Tar Heel!