DURHAM — It looked like a routine play.
When Ryan Kelly drove through the lane with less than a minute remaining against Clemson on Jan. 8, he was fouled, and he fell to the floor. He got up, made his two free throws and went to the bench as Josh Hairston came onto the court.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” Kelly said. “I didn’t exactly know what happened. I actually went back into the game and tried to jog, but it just didn’t feel good. I told (trainer) Jose (Fonseca), and at the time I was just like, we’ll tape it up or something and I’ll be fine.”
Because of Kelly’s injury history – he had surgery on his sprained right foot last March – Fonseca and his assistant, Nick Potter, recommended that Kelly not play the rest of the night. So he cheered from the bench as Duke won 68-40.
Before the next day ended, Kelly had the grim news – he had re-injured his right foot and needed to undergo the same physical therapy regimen he used last spring and summer to have a chance at playing again. That meant spending about an hour a day for eight weeks in the training room, which is tucked into Cameron Indoor Stadium. While there, he made good use of Duke’s underwater treadmill.
Since spending nearly $1 million to upgrade the training room after the 2010 national championship, players such as Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry and Kelly have made it back after season-threatening injuries. The treadmill in particular has helped ease the transition from not playing at all to making an immediate impact, like Kelly’s career-high 36 point-performance in a morale-boosting win over Miami earlier this month. Kelly had only practiced once for about 20 minutes before the Miami game, but was able to play 32 minutes because he had been working on the treadmill for weeks.
“That’s high-quality stuff,” Kelly said of the treadmill. “That’s one of the reasons why I was able to step in and play extended minutes when I came back. It put me in a position to be in some semblance of shape.”
When asked why he decided to spend the money, Mike Krzyzewski was direct.
“It was old and decrepit,” he said of the training room before its renovation. “Part of us being with all the pro players and the pro trainers, we knew we could be better.”
So when Fonseca, who has been with the team for nine years, and Potter, in his seventh year, came to Krzyzewski with a plan to completely redo the two training rooms for approximately $950,000, he agreed. The walls were painted, new carpet and cabinets were installed, the training tables were reupholstered, and three pools were put in: a hot and cold tub and the underwater treadmill that’s nine feet long, six feet wide and six feet deep.
Duke had a previous treadmill that the trainers used to drop into the one and only pool, but it was inefficient and arduous to set up at best.
“It was always breaking,” Fonseca said. “I’d say every two months something else would go wrong with the treadmill or the pool, and we’d spend 5, 6, $10,000 to fix it. It was just this recurring expense, and we just decided to go ahead and move forward.”
The new treadmill is built into the floor of the pool, which can move up and down at the push of a button. Kelly could stand a few inches lower than the pool deck and work on his lateral movement, or he could be submerged up to his chest and run sprints with jet-fueled resistance. There are cameras installed behind the front wall so Fonseca and Potter can monitor the players as they move.
“The biggest benefit is to unload the athlete,” Fonseca said. “We’re able to unload the athlete by, say, 75-80 percent of their body weight and allow them to start doing activities sooner than on dry land.”
The treadmill was ready in December 2010. The timing was fortunate, as Irving injured his right big toe Dec. 4 against Butler. After spending eight weeks in a cast, he started working on the treadmill that February and returned in time to average 17.7 points in 24 minutes per game in three NCAA tournament contests.
Like Irving, Kelly spent an extended period of time on crutches and off his foot. During that time, he focused on strengthening his hips and his core. And once he started in the pool, he and Potter went slow, progressing from Duke’s version of a squat series and band work to walking, jogging and running.
“We’ve said it a million times but it’s very true, I didn’t know whether I was going to be able to go back and play at a level to help my team and help myself,” Kelly said. “I’ve had to figure out how I can play at a high level and not be running down my body. Both the coaching staff and the medical staff have done a great job of talking, and with their experiences with Seth, they’re very well prepared for figuring out how I’m going to do that.”
Curry also had serious doubts that he would return from his right shin injury that was diagnosed in September. After about a month off his leg, he began his rehab and hopped into the pool starting in November. While he had little practice this year – one or two times a week, normally – the second-team All-American has kept in good enough shape.
“It’s huge because at the end of games I feel like I haven’t been tired, and that’s translating from being able to do conditioning without having to put too much pressure on it,” said Curry. “The pool has been huge for me.”
Underwater conditioning and treatment to the specific injured area are just part of the school’s rehabilitation program.
“We try to look at each injury and identify what kind of forces may have been in the body that made the injury occur,” said Potter, who has a doctorate in physical therapy. “And what kind of forces might prevent this injury from healing efficiently, and also what might not allow him to get back to proper movement on the court. Often those things coincide or overlap, so we make sure there is proper joint motion throughout his whole body, really, which will take the stress off the injured area.”
For Kelly, that meant focusing on using more of his hips and less of his quads in a defensive stance over the summer. While he couldn’t run or play basketball after his surgery, he could work on correcting his stance and strengthening his hips.
“I became a better defensive player because of that stuff, even when I was injured,” he said. “And I think I had surprised people with how well I had increased my lateral movement. Even when I wasn’t able to move a lot, we worked so heavily on those other aspects of my body and made those at a high condition.”
Curry has focused on strengthening his core and tweaking the way he cuts to the basket during games. As a result, his shin condition has improved, with less pain the day after games.
The trainers work with the video staff to make sure players don’t slip back into bad habits. Potter reviewed film from the most recent UNC game and showed Curry how he was pushing off more effectively for his cuts. His efficiency in movement led to 18 first-half points.
When Potter looked at the replay of Kelly’s injury against Clemson, he didn’t notice any strange movement. What he saw was that the grind of the season had made Kelly’s body tired and less efficient.
The time away from the court allowed Kelly to refocus on the work that made him one of the country’s toughest matchups.
“I’ve been relatively pain free,” Kelly said. “There’s always going to be some soreness and different things, but I’ve been able, for the most part, to do what I can do.”
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley