Talking with Chris Mihm, Part I
It's pretty common for NBA players to talk about anxiously awaiting the start of training camp. And save perhaps Kobe Bryant, I'm willing to assume every member of the Laker roster shares such sentiments. But nobody might be champing at the bit more than Chris Mihm. To say the least, dude is making up for some lost time. In March 2006, Mihm suffered a horrific ankle injury after coming down on the foot of then-Sonics forward Rashard Lewis. The original diagnosis was a severe sprain. Eighteen months, two surgeries, two intensive rehab stints and countless bouts with aggravation later, Mihm is finally ready to resume playing. How effective he'll be after missing so much time or how many minutes he can snag from Kwame Brown and Andrew Bynum remain to be seen, but he's willing to put himself to the test. I caught up with Mihm this afternoon in El Segundo during a strength workout break, and we discussed topics ranging from the injury's trials and tribulations, the offseason issues between the front office and Kobe, and his predictions for a season many have already written off as a disaster. Here's Part 1 of what he had to say:
Andrew Kamenetzky: Between the surgeries, the setbacks, a pretty grueling rehab, then having to reestablish faith around the league, what's this experience been like for you?
Chris Mihm: It was frustrating. When I found out the full extent of the injury in November, that I would have to have reconstructive surgery on the ankle and realized the scope of time that it would take me to get back and get this ankle healthy, it was really tough. I've never missed any period of time like that my entire athletic career, whether it was basketball or any sport I've ever participated in. It was a real learning experience and depressing at first, especially the first couple of months when I was basically couch-bound, watching games. But I decided to try and find positives out of it. Try to work on making it make me more mentally tough. Working on other parts of my body, my upper body. That's all I did until I was able to start rehabbing the foot was upper-body weights. I just found a way to be active and stay positive. It's been a learning, growing experience for me.
AK: When you talk about trying to find positives from it, do you mean learning about yourself? Your will?
CM: Yeah. There was a time, the end of November or early December, that was a pretty depressing time for me. Coming in and having the two best years of my career, I kind of proved to the league what I could do and was really ready to have a blowout contract year. I'd set myself up, worked hard, done everything right, and to have a freak injury accident like that. I thought it was impossible for me to hurt my ankle as bad as I did anymore. I'd rolled it so many times, I didn't even think it was possible. Around early December, I was real down, kind of sulking around. And I finally said to myself, "Look, you can either sit around here and feel sorry for yourself or you can get off your ass, find a way to be productive, be positive and work hard, work your way back into the player that you were."
AK: This was pretty soon after you realized your ankle had been originally misdiagnosed?
CM: I found out around early November, and I had the surgery right away. I had the surgery Nov. 14.
AK: Because when you came into camp last season, you were very certain of being able to play.
CM: Yeah, I was. From everything I was told, it was (OK). We'd cleaned up the scar tissue in the ankle. We knew it was going to be a little unstable, but I rehabbed all that summer to strengthen up the foot. The foot felt stable, it felt strong, but the main problem the whole time was that I'd torn the posterior tib tendon in the back of my ankle in two different spots. It was something that wasn't going to heal itself. It would only have gotten worse and eventually could have been something that would have been a potential career-ending injury. I'm thankful the way things worked out. I caught it in enough time that I was able to be healthy, work out this summer and show people that I could still play. If I would have waited any longer and kept trying a way to play, I'd still be in the early rehab stages right now. I've always been a firm believer that things happen for a reason. It's hard for me to understand why this happened last season. (laughs)
AK: I was about to ask. Any clue?
CM: I've always had love for the game, but it really showed me how much I love this game. Going into my eighth season, I still love playing this game. I still want to be out there. I still want to do the training, the hard work, the intense rehab that it took to be on that floor and be a part of a great organization like the Lakers. I took a lot out of it, actually. I'll be a much stronger, mentally tougher player from it, I think.
AK: You mentioned how this could have eventually turned career-threatening. How concerned were you that you might not ever play again?
CM: I never let that creep into my head. That was one focus of mine. I always kept the mindset that my body has always healed well. I knew after that first surgery, the time we'd given it, the amount of rehab I'd done and the intensity of the rehab I'd done, I knew when it still wasn't right that something was dramatically wrong. My body has always healed. I always kept the mindset that if what was wrong was corrected, I'd heal. I'll be able to come back just as strong. That's part of the positive thinking, part of the mindset that I'd kept. Even from the first time I saw the foot after that second surgery. It was pretty frightening, with the foot realignment. It was easy to look at it and think some pretty bad thoughts. But I had a great doctor, Mark Meyerson, out in Baltimore. He's the same guy that did the final surgery on Grant Hill that got him healthy. He got Terrell Owens back to the Super Bowl. He's got a really good track record. He's the top guy in the country for foot and ankle injuries. He was completely confident in the fact that it had to be repaired and I would be full-go and ready to go. It was just gonna take time.
AK: Where do you consider yourself at now physically?
CM: Somewhere at 90-100% right now. My main focus these last couple months has been crushing my legs in the weight room, really trying to get my leg strength back. My explosiveness. My pop. That was a big part of my game. My first step. My quick leaping. My explosiveness. Even when I was doing those workouts in July, it was the biggest thing that I noticed. Fifteen to 20 minutes into a workout, my legs were the first thing to go. I felt like I was running in sand. So along with working on conditioning, we've been trying to get my legs to the point where I can sit in the post and smash and bang and go at it full speed.
AK: Before the injury, and even in the midst of these career seasons, one of the problems you did experience was a fair amount of foul trouble. Are there any concerns in terms of mobility or strength, any carry over from the injury that might affect that issue?
CM: Right now, I feel like I'm moving just fine. We'll see. Training camp is certainly going to be big for me. I'm sure I'm going to have some little steps, some little hurdles that I gotta get through. But I feel like I'm moving great. I really feel like I've got my explosiveness back. I feel like I'm jumping as well as I ever was, so I don't really worry about that. The foul deal, I think it was more stubbornness on my part than anything. We weren't playing good team defense. We were letting a lot of guys have free drives to the hoop, and I've always been stubborn in the fact that I have a hard time giving up a free lay up to anybody. So I was challenging a lot of shots that I shouldn't have been. At some point, I had to realize that I can't block everything. If a guy's got a direct line basket drive, I've gotta make it tough on him, but ...
AK: The injury happened in the first place because you were trying to block (Seattle forward) Chris Wilcox's dunk.
CM: Yeah, and Rashard (Lewis) walked me under. That's true. So it's something that I'll just concentrate on. That was something I was trying to work on and was getting better at toward the latter part of that season. Just realizing that I can't cover everything.
AK: And as far as the strength required to body up in the post, no concerns?
CM: Not a problem at all. I have no worries about the foot. It really has been amazing. Even a month or two ago, when we started going full-speed basketball work on the floor, I was really amazed. I kind of expected to be a little bit cautious on the foot, a little bit hesitant on certain stuff, but I was just so ready to go after the amount of time that I was out. I really haven't thought of the foot. I haven't been having pain in it, so it hasn't been a mental issue for me.
AK: Having been off the court for so long, are you thinking about specific aspects of your game to improve? Or is it more about showing that the entire package is back before you focus on specifics?
CM: You know, basketball is basketball. I've been doing it for so long. I know what I'm capable of and I know where I'm going to have my game back. I don't worry that I'm not going to able to do stuff I used to do. This season I got a chance to watch a lot of games. Sometimes when you're in the games, you watch video and stuff, but you don't really get to see the way things flow on the court like you do sometimes watching it. I watched every game last season. I watched the offense a lot. I really tried to study where I could find openings, get shots, that kind of stuff. Where balls came off when other guys were shooting. Where rebounds were coming off. That kind of stuff. Like I said, I tried to find a way to find any kind of positives in a way where I could try to better myself. That was one of them. I'd sit in the video sessions with the guys this year every once in a while, just to feel like I was still part of the team, but also to keep a fresh understanding of the triangle and what we're trying to do.
AK: Do you think you might understand the game itself a little better now as a result?
CM: Yeah, I think so. I've been a real visual person. As much as running through the physical aspect of learning something, I've always done well learning visually. So watching those games, watching what were good plays, what were bad plays, when guys were in position, out of position, it kind of allowed me to watch and understand how the triangle flows a little better and where I need to put myself.
AK: When you worked out for these other teams before re-signing with the Lakers, did it feel like auditioning? Especially for a guy about to enter his eighth season in the NBA.
CM: It was frustrating. I had two big-time years, set myself up, proved myself, and to end up where I was in July this summer, a lot of it reminded me of before I was drafted, coming in as a rookie. Teams knew what I could do. I was a proven player in a lot of aspects, but at the same time, no one was real sure what was the deal with the ankle. No one really knew what was the full story with the ankle. No one knew the full extent of the damage or how well the surgery had gone. I don't know if (the feeling) was as much auditioning as really just showing people, "Hey, I'm still here. I'm going to be a hell of a player. I'm not worried about myself being back out on the floor. I'm not worried about making it through a season."
AK: Don't bury me just quite yet.
AK: Is it a humbling experience?
CM: More than humbling, it was frustrating. I was frustrated, a little bit pissed off that I was having to go through that whole process again. It was something that I never figured I'd have to be doing again. So it was definitely frustrating. But at the same time, looking at this from the other side of things, I had a major ankle injury, and in this business questions arise in a lot of ways. I've got to go and prove to people that I'm still out there, that I'm still going to be a force in this league. I just took it as another challenge. Nothing's really ever come easy for me in my whole career. I've had to work for it. I've always set goals and risen to challenges, so this is just another one that I had to fight through. It's nothing new.
PART II TO FOLLOW SOON.