With all due respect to Lowell George and friends, the plague on the lower extremities of critical Duke basketball players has struck again, as senior co-captain Ryan Kelly has suffered a foot injury that will have him sidelined “indefinitely.” Nobody knows what this means. What is the nature of the injury? How long will Ryan be out? How will Duke adjust on the court in the absence of Kelly? This information is, per usual, being shared on a need-to-know basis, and very, very few people truly need to know.
Many Blue Devils fans have been lamenting over the last 24 to 48 hours the litany of foot injuries suffered by Duke players over the years, and what the impact of those injuries has been both on the player suffering the injury and the team. While the sheer number of them has certainly been frustrating, Duke actually has been pretty lucky with a lot of these injuries, as with major assists from the top doctors at DUMC, a number of Blue Devils have made it back quickly with minimal long term impact on the team.
On February 5, 1992, star point guard Bobby Hurley broke a bone in his foot against UNC, just as the stretch run for a possible repeat national championship was beginning. Hurley missed only five games, and actually came back earlier than expected, against Virginia on February 26. Tony Lang moved into the starting lineup, Marty Clark got some more minutes, and Coach K shortened the rotation. Duke won all five of the games, including beating Shaquille O’Neal and LSU, in Baton Rouge, and when Hurley returned, the Blue Devils were on their way.
On December 27, 1997, freshman sensation Elton Brand broke a bone in his foot in practice. Coach Krzyzewski said he did not expect the big man to return the rest of the season. Brand missed six weeks and 14 games, 13 of which the Blue Devils won. (The loss was a blowout in Chapel Hill.) During that stretch, Coach K started either Chris Burgess or Taymon Domzalski down low, but that team was so deep and so stocked that they were able to continue to roll using all sorts of different combinations, and usually winning very comfortably even without Brand. Duke easily re-integrated Elton for the last few games of the regular season, which included the epic beatdown of UCLA and a payback win over UNC before making the run to the Elite Eight.
Everybody remembers Carlos Boozer breaking a bone in his foot in the second-to-last game of the regular season in 2001, against Maryland, and the “it’s over” sobs emanating from all points in Blue Devil land. Casey Sanders stepped in for his 15 minutes of fame, Matt Christensen and Reggie Love helped some down low too, and Coach K completely altered the way Duke played basketball. Despite ’Los missing the regular season finale against UNC (a 14 point win in the Dean Dome) and the ACC tournament (Duke won that too, including a 26 point thrashing of UNC in the finals) he came back strong for the run through the NCAA’s which culminated in the championship game win over Arizona in Minneapolis. So that worked out pretty well.
Duke largely stayed out of the podiatrist’s office for the next decade, but when lightning struck again, it struck hard. That would be the 2010-11 season, when Kyrie Irving jammed his toe against Butler in December and was deemed to be out “indefinitely.” I know, it was a big toe, not a broken bone in the foot. But still. “Indefinitely” turned out to mean the rest of the regular season and the ACC Tournament. This was a team that was really rolling with Kyrie, a team that Coach K later said he thought could’ve run the table. They were that good. They were so much better than the rest of the field that even without Irving they were arguably the best team in the country, going 22-4 in his absence and winning the ACC and a #1 seed. Unfortunately, Kyrie’s return, brilliant as he was, may have rocked what had become a very smooth boat by that time. The team just couldn’t get in sync in the tournament, with All-American guard Nolan Smith in particular seeming to be unsure of his role, and when Arizona played the game of their lives in Anaheim, Duke was done.
Ryan Kelly was the next Blue Devil to suffer a foot injury, this one being hurt in practice before last year’s ACC Tournament. He missed both of Duke’s games in that tournament as well as the Lehigh game. In between the ACC’s and the Lehigh game, Ryan was said to be improving, and he supposedly was going to try to play in certain specific, limited situations, but he never took his warmups off despite Duke needing him badly. The team really suffered, as it missed Ryan’s smarts, savvy, leadership, and passing, as well as his ability to space the floor and open opportunities for others with his outside shooting. It should be noted that this game was a mere ten days or so since the injury occurred, however.
Then of course redshirt freshman Marshall Plumlee suffered a foot injury in pre-season practice this year, keeping him off the court from mid-October until mid-December. It was two months. Although Marshall obviously missed the opportunity to play in a lot of early-season games — which it’s far from certain he would have anyway — in any event, the team seemed to do pretty well without him, going unbeaten.
Lessons from all of this: none, really. Just that none of these foot injuries (not toes, feet) have resulted in the derailing of what looked to be a championship season. Last year’s team was obviously weakened by the loss late in the season of Ryan Kelly, but let’s be honest. That team wasn’t winning a championship anyway. As to the rest of these injuries, those were all broken feet, which we don’t even know that Ryan has at this time, and in any event every one of those players came back relatively quickly and the team flourished both in their absence as well as as with them upon their return.