When Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic hears public address announcer Mark Mason call out his name for the first time in nearly a year Sunday afternoon, it won’t be easy for him to hold back tears.
“I want to cry, but I’m not going to cry,” Nurkic said.
Nurkic suffered compound fractures to his tibia and fibula during a March 25 game against the Brooklyn Nets last season and has spent nearly a year recovering from the gruesome injury. He was forced to watch from the sideline as the Blazers made a run to the Western Conference finals last spring, their deepest playoff run in 19 years. He then had to remain patient after suffering a calf strain in January that extended the timeline for his recovery.
But Nurkic is finally gearing up for his long-awaited return. Assuming everything goes as planned this week, Nurkic will take the floor for the first time in nearly a year Sunday when the Blazers host the Houston Rockets at the Moda Center.
“It’s more about the fans,” said Nurkic about his emotions heading into Sunday’s game. “What I expect, what people are talking about, how much positive vibes, mostly from the fan base and Rip City as a city, they just mean a lot to me. So, the hardest part is going to be when they announce my name, for me to get off the bench, that’s going to be the hardest part.”
Nurkic has one more obstacle to clear this week before he is allowed to play Sunday.
The Bosnian center will travel to practice with the G-League Santa Cruz Warriors on Wednesday in order to run through a full-contact practice and get game-like repetitions ahead of his return Sunday. Nurkic has struggled to get in the type of practice sessions that he needs in Portland because injuries and a busy schedule have limited what the Blazers have been able to do in practice.
“It’s an opportunity for him to have contact, to go full court, just get some rhythm,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s been out for a long time… It’s more about him being comfortable being on the court with nine other bodies.”
Stotts said that no decision has been made regarding the number of minutes that Nurkic will play Sunday, although the 7-foot center’s minutes will certainly be restricted. Nurkic said those limited minutes could include only playing in the first quarter, though Stotts reiterated that no decision had been made about the rotation at this point.
Nurkic’s teammates and coaches will be ecstatic to simply see him out on the floor again Sunday, regardless of the minutes he is allowed to play.
“It’s been tough,” Stotts said. “The initial part of it, just having the healing and then having all the work that he’s had to do up to this point, going through a long rehab like that, I can’t imagine it. It’s hard to see the end in sight and you may or may not see immediate benefits of what you’re doing. He’s had a good attitude about the whole thing, he’s worked hard. I’m glad he’s going to have a chance to get back.”
Blazers guard Damian Lillard has followed Nurkic’s recovery closely over the last year. The two friends even vacationed in Mexico over the summer, which gave Lillard a firsthand look at how hard Nurkic was working to return to the floor.
“I’m just really happy for him,” Lillard said. “Obviously, we all know what he means to our team, what he brings to our team. All of us having to see him go down the way he did and then fighting back and bouncing back, I’ve seen him throughout that entire process. Even in the summer, we spent some time in Mexico together and he was training while we was in Mexico and hanging out and just talking about it and him trying to get back on the court. It took a long time, but I’m excited for him to have the opportunity to play again.”