Working Through It

Nov 24, 2021

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This was a very odd game. The PA announcer was talking during game play, the timeout hype man started screaming "let me hear ya KANNNSASSSSSS CITYYYYYY" while Trent Frazier lay on the floor in pain (until enough people shouted at him that he realized that hyping up the crowd while a player is injured probably isn't the best idea), and at one point I though Kansas State was going to finish the first half with one assist and one turnover.

The Illini band wasn't there but a high school band took their place, wearing orange t-shirts, and they attempted the Illini school song. One ref seemingly called 90% of the fouls. Mark Smith was guarding Trent Frazier while Bruce Weber was coaching him. Just a weird, weird game.

But I haven't even gotten to the oddest part. In the second half, I watched 20% basketball and 80% Andre Curbelo. It's taken me nearly five hours after the game to collect my thoughts on all of this and, after two phone calls with friends, I think I'm ready to dive in.

Let's start with some of the facts. Before the Jackson State game it was announced that Andre Curbelo would miss the game with a concussion. He was cleared out of concussion protocol by the Arkansas State game and he's played in every game since. Tonight, especially in the second half, he was in and out of the game a lot. One time - and not sure how much they showed of this on television - he seemed to bury his head into Brad Underwood's shoulder when he came out. Another time, I observed Andre kind of fall into Adam Fletcher's arms (best way I can describe it - a very tired marathon runner crossing the finish line and then hugging someone and putting nearly all of their weight on them).

After the game, the first two questions (from Jeremy Werner and myself) were about Andre. Jeremy asked if there were any updates on Trent or Andre and Underwood said that he didn't have an update on Trent and said this about Curbelo:

"Dre's been fighting all the head trauma. The concussion stuff. But beyond that, it's kind of been a game-by-game deal."

After answering another question from Jeremy about the game, I asked Underwood the following question:

"Coach, it looked like there was a moment when Andre came out early in the second half where he kind of put his head on your shoulder. Is that just him working through these concussion things and you letting him tell you where he's at or how does that process work?"

His response:

"Yes. Pretty much, yes. And we're never going to jeopardize a young man's health or well-being. When he says no, that means no, and we get him out."

This helped make more sense of the second half for me. I'll just make a list of the things I observed as I was watching Andre Curbelo:

  • The aforementioned moment where he came out of the game early in the second half and put his head on Brad Underwood's shoulder as they stood there having a conversation.
  • Him somewhat collapsing into Adam Fletcher's arms as he appeared to be at the point of exhaustion.
  • After making one pass under the basket and letting his momentum carry him out of bounds, he kind of just stood there watching, eight feet off the court, as Kansas State grabbed a long rebound and headed the other way.
  • Towel draped around his neck, face pointed to the ground, as he sat on the bench (at this point I thought he might be sick?). But then, up off the bench with a sprint to the scorer's table and back in the game.

Often, when in the game and a whistle would blow, Curbelo would squat down and put his hand on the ground (again, like he was at the point of total exhaustion, even though his play didn't reflect that). Here's a gif from Illinois Loyalty showing one of these moments. After Plummer hits the three, Bruce Weber takes a timeout. As soon as the whistle blows, Andre Curbelo bends over (he eventually squatted down with both hands on the court).

There are many different ways to discuss this, but let's start with a disclaimer.

I am not saying "is he still concussed or something?". There's no way they would let him play if he hadn't cleared concussion protocol. I mean, there's no way they would let him do this if he hadn't cleared concussion protocol:

So I'm not suggesting he returned too soon or anything. Nor am I suggesting that his erratic behavior in the second half ("erratic" is too strong of a word) was because he's wandering around confused with a concussion. We see sports fans do that from time to time - "he wouldn't normally throw that interception, so he must be concussed" - but that's dangerous thinking (and that's also not where we're going here).

As Brad Underwood said in his answer to me, "when he says no, that means no and we get him out". Andre Curbelo had an incident of "head trauma", he sat out nearly two weeks, and now he's working his way through it. That's what I want to talk about here. And I'll start with a personal story as a way to get us there.

I've written about it before, but I played tennis in high school. During my senior year, I injured my left knee. I had it evaluated and was fitted for a brace (the kind of brace with a metal hinge on either side of the knee). I practice with the brace, didn't like it very much, but I wanted to return to the court.

In my first match back, we're playing a team we should destroy. But I lose the first set of my match. The knee is throbbing, I keep trying to loosen the brace to give me more freedom of movement, and, perhaps most importantly, I'm playing poorly, losing, and angry. After trying to serve to open the second set and getting broken, I go back to the fence and talk to my dad. I tell him that I don't think I can play on. So I decide to "retire" the match, losing 6-4, 1-0, ret. A JV guy took my spot in doubles and I was done for the day.

That night, and especially the next morning, I questioned myself almost non-stop. Did it really hurt that much? Did I really have to quit for the day? Shouldn't I have pushed through? Walking up the stairs to bed that night - I remember this clear as day - I had this "I don't think my knee hurts a single ounce right now - I probably just made up the pain so I could quit".

I didn't make up the pain, of course. I had an actual injury. My knee was still swollen the next day. It was simply "I'm cleared to play as long as I'm wearing the brace, so now it's up to me to work through it." And I believe that "working through it" is so incredibly complicated.

There is tremendous pressure on Andre Curbelo this season. He has to "take over" for Ayo Dosunmu, who was, you know, the first-ever 1st Team AP All American at Illinois. To make matters worse, in the final exhibition game Belo gets a concussion and misses nearly two weeks. Then, at Marquette, he had the chance to win the game at the end but turned the ball over. If you think you felt awful after that loss, he likely felt 10 times worse.

Now we learn that he's still working through "head trauma" and the after-effects of the concussion. He's cleared to play, but he has to feel comfortable out there. And I'm guessing that it's incredibly difficult to get there.

Just think about all of that. He just turned 20 last month, so he's a month out of his teens. And here's the list of preseason accolades on his player page:

  • Wooden Award Top-50 Watch List
  • Naismith Trophy Watch List
  • Lute Olson Award Watch List
  • Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Watch List
  • All-Big Ten Team, conference media
  • First-Team All-American, Field of 68
  • Third-Team All-American, College Hoops Today
  • Fourth-Team All-American, Dick Vitale
  • No. 3, The Athletic's Top 20 Guards
  • No. 24, CBS Sports' Top 101 Players

After the Marquette game, his teammates have to come to his defense publicly because of some of the hate directed his way on social media. They follow up the Marquette loss with a 20-point loss to Cincinnati and now the pressure is at an all-time high. What's wrong with Illinois? What's wrong with Andre Curbelo?

And within that pressure cooker, he's still dealing with the after-effects of the concussion and is told it will be his call whether he feels like he's go or no-go. Can you imagine trying to make that call in the midst of a game? I can't. I twisted my knee, forfeited a high school tennis match, and then was up all night wondering if I really needed to quit or if I should have just "pushed through the pain".

Through that lens, the second half tonight is no longer confusing. Through that lens, I feel for the kid as he tries to balance "am I ready to go 100% or should I keep it dialed back until I'm fully ready?" Through that lens, I feel like the "collapse" in Adam Fletcher's arms was more like a hug.

We all have different ways of "working through it" when it comes to stuff like this. And it's always this negotiation between mind and body. Thinking through some of those negotiations in my life, Andre Curbelo standing under the basket, out of bounds, wondering if he should run down the court or just take himself out again makes total and complete sense. I'm guessing there will be many moments like that in the next few weeks where he just needs a minute.

We all know the guy who could play golf with a broken wrist and never even wince and we all know the guy who backs out of beer league softball because he stubbed his toe on the coffee table (it me). And now we know a guy with a concussion, some post-concussion symptoms, and the weight of the college basketball world on his shoulders. I, for one, plan to give him a lot of space as he tries to overcome this.

Can't wait to see what's waiting for him on the other side.


IlliniJoe81 on November 24, 2021 @ 02:29 AM

I’ve never seen that before. I assumed if you were out of the protocol you were 100%.

Sending some love to Trent too. I’m hopeful but there’s a chance his Illini career is over tonight. Praying for the words “no structural damage.”

My outlook on this season has changed. If we can salvage any kind of success I’ll take it.

rml on November 24, 2021 @ 06:47 AM

I bet he regrets the headstand. Please no more of those for awhile, Andre!

danielb927 on November 24, 2021 @ 07:11 AM

Good take on the game, Robert. Concussions are a weird injury that we really don’t understand all that well. While “concussion protocol” is great, and I’m extremely glad we have it, I’m also sure clearing the protocol will never mean a guarantee of being 100%.

I had a concussion from a bicycle crash back in 2014. It was a pretty mild injury, a few stitches and a scraped up face, but nothing that even merited a head CT in the ER. The initial symptoms (confusion, fuzziness) faded away over a week or so. Then about 10 days after the initial knock, I was out on an uphill hike (first real physical exertion) and started to feel dizzy, fuzzy. etc. again. That was the start of a much longer, much harder stretch of. Some combination of what they call “post-concussion syndrome” and anxiety it really did a number on me — brutal insomnia, headaches, the same feeling of only being able to do things for short spells. I will never forget singing in Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 — I had a couple of small solos but by the end, I had to sit down even while the rest of the choir stood. Felt just like Curbelo looked last night. Now that’s one of my favorite concert recordings, but it was about two years before I even enjoyed listening to it… before that things were still too fresh.

TL;DR — concussions are weird, and recovery can be very non-linear. I hope we’ve got someone with experience in that realm helping Curbelo through things. In my experience it took over a year to feel really “right” again.

phytynlini on November 24, 2021 @ 07:51 AM

Very solid LAM!

danielb927 on November 24, 2021 @ 10:35 AM

Thanks (I think?), but you'll have to help me out with the acronym...

Robert on November 24, 2021 @ 11:35 AM

It’s a very old IlliniBoard acronym from The Deuce 15 years ago. Stands for Look At Me.

It started as a callout for someone who would bury something brag-y in a post. “Had to park in the driveway last night and when I went outside this morning there was a thick layer of ice covering my Mercedes S-Class”. But then, like all things internet, it kind of morphed into its own inside joke. Any reference to any details about anything became “nice LAM”.

danielb927 on November 24, 2021 @ 11:55 AM

Got it ;) you're right, more about me than the team in that post... just hard not to share when seeing something so relatable. The most important point -- hoping Curbelo has the quickest of recoveries from whatever's still bothering him.

phytynlini on November 26, 2021 @ 11:26 AM

No hate! Great story!

O&B4life on November 24, 2021 @ 07:20 AM

Looking big picture, Cincinnati might be a pretty good team. They were leading Arkansas 30-26 at halftime before running out of gas in the second half. Doesn't explain a 20pt loss, but makes it a little better.

Altgeld88 on November 24, 2021 @ 09:40 AM

Thanks for writing this. I was appalled at how fans treated Dre after the Cincy game. A concussion is serious and he's obviously struggling. The fact that he's on the floor for long stretches is impressive. I hope he gets past this soon, for his own well-being most of all.

Douglascountyillinifan on November 24, 2021 @ 11:22 AM

The way some "fans" turn on their teams is absolutely appalling. Social media gives some the stones to say really stupid things, and i think it sucks. Throwing in the fact that a lot of the team is playing in front of hostile crowds for the first time has given me a new perspective, and i'm going to try not to be such a doosh, even in the comfort of my own man cave. on November 25, 2021 @ 09:29 AM

Could this be related to the eniccav? Micro-blood clotting in the lungs and / or brain? I certainly hope not.

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