When Lonzo Ball walked off the court in the fourth quarter of a disastrous loss to the Golden State Warriors a year ago today, there was no way for the point guard — or for the Chicago Bulls — to predict what would come next.
It was a quiet moment. Coach Billy Donovan called a timeout with 5:02 on the clock. Then-rookie Ayo Dosunmu replaced Ball, who had briefly exited the game in the first quarter. As Ball moved to the bench, pain flickered across his face.
No reporters asked about Ball’s injury in the postgame news conference. The Bulls had just suffered a third double-digit loss in two weeks. Zach LaVine was due for an MRI on his knee the next day. Against that backdrop, Ball’s faint winces as he exited the court seemed like a minor distraction.
In the 365 days that followed, Ball’s injury mutated from an inconvenience to a crisis to an absolute mystery.
He still can’t jump or run at full speed after two arthroscopic surgeries to address a torn MCL in his left knee. Ball has not been pain-free since that game against the Warriors. And halfway through his second season in Chicago, the Bulls are no closer to determining when — or if — Ball will return to the court this season.
“It just sucks,” LaVine said. “He takes it harder than anybody. It’s his career, his game. He’s having to put in the work every day. We’re just keeping him level-headed and trusting the work he’s putting in.
“He’s going to get back eventually. There’s not a point in rushing it now.”
On Friday, one day before the anniversary of his injury, Ball posted a series of videos of himself on Instagram — hopping on his left leg from a raised platform onto the ground and over a hurdle, running at a fast clip on a curved treadmill and dunking a ball from a standing position under the basket at the Bulls training facility.
Despite these small steps, coach Billy Donovan was wary about voicing any excitement over recent signs of progress from Ball.
“Those were things that maybe six weeks ago he couldn’t do,” Donovan said before Friday night’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “As much as they are little steps, it’s still progress that he’s continuing to make.
“But the idea of running, cutting, sprinting, doing it day after day after day — (from) where he’s at right now to getting to that point, that’s when the time becomes very difficult.”
At a Christmas charity event in December, Ball said he had seen “some improvement” since his second arthroscopic procedure on Sept. 28. But that doesn’t mean an absence of pain, which has been a constant for Ball even in daily activities throughout the last year.
Donovan said Ball is not pain-free while performing any of the exercises in his Instagram post. Instead his progress is measured by how much the pain has diminished in the last six weeks.
“The pain is there,” Ball said. “Pretty sure it’s going to be there. I’m just figuring out how we can get to a point where I can produce on the court.”
Getting Ball back into practice is only the first step toward getting him back on the court for a game. Due to the length of his absence, Donovan emphasized that the process of rebuilding Ball’s endurance will be equally lengthy.
Ball still hopes to play this season — and fans reflect that hope, greeting each minor update with optimism over the prospect of getting back one of the league’s most dynamic point guards. But with 12 weeks left in the season, the Bulls already are scraping up against an ever-shrinking runway.
The Bulls have not set a cut-off date, but they’re approaching Ball’s recovery with the understanding that at a certain point he would have to be shut down for a second straight season.
“Whenever he gets back to playing, missing that much time, no one is going to expect him to pick up right where he left off,” Donovan said. “There’s going to be an adjustment period, there’s no question. How long it is, I don’t know, but there’s certainly going to be a period of time before they allow him to come back to play.”
The Bulls knew the one-year milestone would be an emotional touchstone for Ball, but that hasn’t been visible to coaches or teammates when he is around the team.
Donovan described Ball’s energy as “impressive,” noting that he never has shown frustration or seemed disconnected from the team. LaVine described Ball as “in good spirits” when he’s around the team, cracking jokes and participating in most team events off the court.
“He’s still the same Lonzo,” LaVine said.
Timeline of Lonzo Ball’s knee injury
Jan. 14, 2022: Ball suffers meniscus tear against the Golden State Warriors.
Jan. 20: Bulls announce Ball will undergo surgery and anticipate six to eight weeks of recovery before he can return to the court.
Feb. 21: Ball posts a video on Instagram of himself dancing and playing with his daughter, which falsely appears to signal increased mobility as he nears the end of the recovery window.
Mar 19: Coach Billy Donovan says Ball’s recovery is at a standstill, complicated by a bone bruise incurred before the meniscus tear.
Mar 20: Donovan says Ball will stop attempting to run at full speed for 10 days in an attempt to reduce knee swelling.
April 5: Ball continues to experience discomfort after the 10-day break, but Donovan says the team won’t shut him down yet.
April 6: The Bulls shut down Ball for the season. Donovan says the Bulls medical staff hasn’t suggested a second surgery.
July 12: Executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas says Ball’s recovery is “not at the speed that we would like” but adds the Bulls hope he will be available for training camp.
Sept. 28: Ball undergoes an arthroscopic debridement in Los Angeles, forcing him to miss training camp and the opening of the season. The Bulls set a four- to six-week recovery window, but Donovan cautions Ball’s recovery could take longer after 10 months away from the court.
Oct. 26: Ball is nearing reevaluation after the second surgery, but Donovan says a date hasn’t been set for the next step in the point guard’s recovery.
Nov. 30: Nine weeks after his second knee procedure, Ball is still unable to run, jump or cut. He has returned to the weight room at the Advocate Center for moderate weightlifting and core exercises but hasn’t played basketball or run at full speed since January.
Jan. 13, 2023: Ball posts a series of Instagram videos of himself running on a curved treadmill, hopping over obstacles on his left leg and lightly dunking from a standing position. Donovan warns that Ball still is experiencing pain when performing these exercises, although that discomfort has diminished.