Amir Coffey hopped out of bed on a Friday morning and saw the New York City streets bustling far below his hotel room window. Everyone seemed like they were busy going somewhere that January day.
Coffey had to get going, too. He threw on his Gophers sweats and headed for a meeting with Brad Nelson, the men’s basketball team doctor.
In a corner of the lobby near teammates assembling for a ride to shootaround, Nelson began Coffey’s shoulder stability test. At Madison Square Garden, the test continued. Nelson pressed his thumb down on the upper shoulder. Once. Twice. Three times. No pain, Coffey told the doctor.
“There were just some things he put me through to test stability and all that, making sure the shoulder isn’t popping in and out of place,” Coffey said. “He said everything ‘felt good.’ ”
Injured Gophers combined for 53 missed games last season. Coffey’s shoulder. Dupree McBrayer’s leg. Nate Mason’s hip and ankle. Eric Curry’s knee. Injuries defined the season, one that crumbled from a 13-3 start to a 15-17 finish.
Health is still the headline for this program, and the lack or abundance of it will shape a season that begins Tuesday against Nebraska Omaha. They will tip off again without Curry, who is out for a month or more after swelling led to another surgery last week on his left knee.
If Curry returns as expected and no other Gophers end up on Nelson’s charts, Pitino soon can use a full roster for the first time since the 2017 NCAA tournament season.
“My opinion: We would’ve had two NCAA tournaments in a row, and we’d be talking about three in a row, if we had stayed healthy,” Pitino said. “But it didn’t happen. We’ve got a great opportunity in front of us now.”
After flying to New York for that impromptu, long-distance house call, Nelson surprised Coffey and others by giving the guard the thumbs-up for the next day’s game. Coffey’s father was surprised to hear that, too.
“Amir was seeing a doctor at the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion, and she said he wouldn’t be ready until after a checkup with her in early February,” Richard Coffey recalled earlier this fall. “So I was wondering how he got cleared.”
Doctors flying to road games show the lengths the Gophers will go to get a player back in action. Nelson’s visit with Coffey is also an example of who is present for that final decision. Not the coach. Not the parent. Not an outside doctor. The play-or-rest decision is made between the U’s medical staff and the player.
‘I’m not a doctor’
On display in Pitino’s office are various awards and accolades — from his 2014 NIT title and 2017 Big Ten Coach of the Year hardware, to a piece of net from the 2012 Final Four he reached as a Louisville assistant.
You won’t see a medical degree.
“I’m not a doctor or a trainer,” Pitino said. “I’m just a basketball coach. So you leave that up to the medical staff. I never ever make those decisions. That’s good. That’s the way it should be.”
Pitino does have medical information at his disposal — Gophers athletes sign waivers allowing head coaches access to some health records, to avoid HIPAA violations — but “he’s pretty hands off,” Gophers trainer Ben Felz said. “The only time where he’s really involved is when a guy is close to coming back.”
Following center Reggie Lynch’s suspension last season, Pitino lost two more starters in Coffey and McBrayer. Coffey suffered a ligament tear at the front of his right shoulder Jan. 3 vs. Illinois. McBrayer, who had missed two games early because of an infection, was limited because of what was described as a near stress fracture in his left leg. At times, the Gophers were down four of their top six players.
The Gophers could have been desperate to get anybody back, as the losses piled up. But Pitino said he wouldn’t risk the long-term health of a player to get a victory.
“There wasn’t any pressure that they have to play through pain,” he said. “Everybody is going to be tired and under duress. For me, it’s always: If you’re going to further damage something, I don’t want them playing.”
Coffey and McBrayer went in and out of the lineup. McBrayer missed five games. After getting hurt, Coffey missed five games, returned for two and then was out the last nine.
“What was really, really hard was Amir trying to come back when we were on that Penn State, Maryland and [Madison Square] Garden swing. It’s obviously easier when you’re in your own facility to rehab and those things,” Pitino said. “That was challenging.”
Who makes the call?
Mark Coyle and every other athletic director Nelson has worked for has made this clear across all sports: “The medical staff has absolute and final say with medical issues,” said Nelson, who specializes as an orthopedic surgeon.
As Gophers medical director, Nelson oversees football and men’s basketball, and like the sports they work with the medical staffs are a team. In men’s basketball, Nelson’s running mates are Felz and Dr. Dave Olson, who has been the team’s primary care physician since 2006 and also handles primary care for the Vikings. Nelson has been with men’s basketball since 2007, and Felz came five years ago to handle the day-to-day needs and rehab.
“Depending on the injury or illness, I can either handle it myself or, if it gets more serious, I can get some [team] physicians involved,” Felz said.
Following Coffey’s Jan. 3 shoulder injury, Nelson and Felz met with Amir and Richard Coffey in the training room down the stairs from the Williams Arena court. Nelson prescribed a few weeks of rest. Richard wanted a second opinion.
About 10 days later, Amir went to the Mayo Clinic with his father and Felz. A doctor advised rest until the first week of February and a follow-up visit then. Coffey missed five games during this stretch but returned to the court before a return to Mayo, after that surprise thumbs-up from Nelson in New York on Jan. 19.
Nelson can’t talk about specific cases but said the medical staff works closely with outside doctors.
“There are times when a player has had a relationship with a physician, maybe in high school, or his parents have a relationship, or they feel more comfortable getting another opinion,” Nelson said. “… We work closely with those physicians. We’re going to want those physicians to agree first. But at the end of the day, if it’s an orthopedic problem, I have the final say.”
Surprise in the Coffey family became frustration two games later, when Coffey reinjured his shoulder in his second game back, against Northwestern on Jan. 23. The Coffey family’s concerns quickly became known to Pitino and top university officials. An agreement was soon reached: Coffey should have surgery and miss the rest of the season.
Richard Coffey eventually paid a $6,000 deductible for Amir to have surgery at Mayo instead of at the U. The Gophers’ policy on second opinions is that an athlete pays for outside care, unless he or she is referred out by U staff.
Amir Coffey said recently he just wanted to play, before and after each injury, but he ultimately decided it was best to have surgery and heal.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “I felt like it wasn’t fair to my teammates if I kept playing” at less than 100 percent.
Playing in pain
Warmups for Big Ten games were boring for McBrayer. Sitting on a chair watching teammates go through layup lines isn’t how a player gets ready.
Just before tipoff, McBrayer would take a few shots and jog slowly, often with a slight limp. He was trying to get into a rhythm, somehow, since he wasn’t practicing and wearing a protective boot on his left foot all week to alleviate pressure on his leg.
“They told me, ‘You’re not going be able to walk sometimes,’ ” said McBrayer, now a senior guard. “I said, ‘I’m cool with it. I’m going to just try to help this team as much as I can’ — because of the situation with Reggie and Amir and Eric were out.”
Pitino called McBrayer a warrior for playing on one good leg. McBrayer’s exploits were similar to Wisconsin’s Brad Davison, a Maple Grove native who had to play most of last season with a chronically separated shoulder.
Nelson said his staff would never clear a player who was in too much pain.
“We would never put somebody back if the player says, ‘I don’t think I’m ready. I don’t think my [injury] feels good enough,’ ” Nelson said. “The player usually says, ‘I’m ready to go.’ And they’re not always. That’s just in their makeup. Although a player says, ‘I want to go,’ we look at factors like strength, their ability to move on the court, all that kind of stuff.”
Health and hope
Curry’s mother, Audrea, loved hearing her son’s voice filled with excitement last month. The 6-9 redshirt sophomore started in a scrimmage against Creighton and experienced game action for the first time since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in his left knee in August 2017.
“I pray that God has mercy and let him use his gift without any more injuries,” Audrea said after that scrimmage.
The praying continues in the Curry family. In the days after the scrimmage, Eric Curry’s knee swelled up, and he had his second surgery with Nelson — this time arthroscopic — to clear up damaged cartilage. The swelling had been a lingering concern, and Nelson and Curry discussed the second surgery earlier this year, but Curry chose to see if his knee would heal without it.
“There are times we sit down and make the decision together,” said Nelson, again speaking generally. “In my experience in the last several years with men’s basketball those decisions are not made in a vacuum. It’s the kid, sometimes the kid’s family, me. … Unfortunately, sometimes guys have problems that no matter what you choose, the end result is not giving you a perfect knee, a perfect hip or a perfect shoulder.”
Felz is focused on helping Curry, eventually, and the rest of the Gophers stay out of his training room in the first place. His goal: “Be proactive and preventive, and stay positive in every situation.”
With the summer winding down, Coffey and McBrayer were the first recovering players to be cleared. Freshman Daniel Oturu, who will start in Curry’s spot Tuesday, had his surgically repaired right shoulder cleared a few weeks later.
“I put a lot of time into it this summer with Ben Felz,” Coffey said. “Lot of rehab and strengthening it in the weight room. Had to get it back right and it feels good now — like a normal shoulder.”
McBrayer has big goals for his senior season, but even in expressing those goals the injury asterisk that has defined this program now for more than 12 months is attached.
“This is the year we feel like we can do something special,” he said. “As long as we’re healthy, we think we can get it done.”