Klay’s darkest days are behind him. What waits ahead is chance to return to glory

For 941 days Klay Thompson knew nothing but the grueling rebuilding of ligaments. The dark times of hurt and helplessness. The annoying self doubts. The gnawing impatience, eating up the good days and the positive vibes. The constant questions.

Sunday, the worst part of his journey was put to death, as Thompson checked into a NBA game for the first time since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals.

Blanketed by the cheers filling Chase Center, a spotlight on his face, he sat peacefully. Inhaling the affection of a roaring crowd. Exhaling more than 940 days of longing.

“Heeeeeeee’s baaaaaack,” Franco Finn, the Warriors’ longtime hype man, blared through the sound system and amped up the volume of the ovation.

“Just, wow,” Thompson said, recalling his thoughts during the intros. “I can’t believe this is here. Like, wow. That’s all I could really think is wow.”

Thompson envisioned such a moment, such a privilege, for the better part of three years. Finally, his name could be called. No. 11 could, once again, grace the court.

“It was worth every single day of being away,” Thompson said. “It was a special moment. I will never forget. I’m not going to say it was the equivalent to winning a championship. But, man, it was pretty freaking close.”

This is coming from a core member of an NBA dynasty, a future Hall of Famer with three rings in his career, putting a January regular season game on par with the clinching win of a title. But that underscores the difficulty of the journey and how much this meant.

He’d endured two rehabilitations, a layoff longer than Michael Jordan’s baseball hiatus, and the anguish of having his passion stripped from him.

For further context, Ja Morant had not yet been drafted.

Brooklyn was being led by D’Angelo Russell.

LeBron James was still scouting out his younglings in Los Angeles to see what package he could put together for Anthony Davis.

The worst was over. What remains is the reward.

“I’m just so happy right now,” Thompson said. “I did not shoot as well as I wanted to. But I’m just so happy I can even look at the stat sheet and see my name there. And see my shot attempts. Makes. All the stats again. And minus-two — that’s no good. But at least I’m here because the work it took to get here, it was incredible. So I’m just very, very happy right now.”

Sunday, in the 96-82 win over Cleveland, Thompson did what he does, get up shots. He scored 17 points on 18 shots in 20 minutes.

His conditioning needed work. His rhythm would take time. But he wasn’t moving, behaving, like a player who’d sustained two traumatic leg injuries.

His shot was a bit ashy Sunday. Yet his presence elevates Golden State’s prospects. The common thought is if Thompson is a reasonable version of what he once was, the Warriors’ title window is wide open.

But for now fans are just happy he is back doing what he loves to do.

“He’s been here since the beginning,” Kerr said. “He’s homegrown. He’s won three championships. He’s provided some of the biggest thrills for these fans over the last decade they’ve ever experienced. And he sort of feels like one of them. Everybody connects with him because he’s just authentic. He’s just Klay, and I think everybody appreciates that. They see him with his dog or on his boat. You know, Klay is Klay. And everybody loves that.”

But when he tore his right Achilles in November 2020, just when he was about to return from the ACL tear, the ear joyful, free spirited Klay faced his darkest days.

The invincible, idealized figure was suddenly wounded in a way once unimaginable.

The deliverer of epic moments, the bringer of joy through basketball, was down bad.

“Bay Area people are very loyal,” Thompson said. “They’re loyal to their players. They’re loyal to their teams. And luckily for me, I’ve only been in one uniform my whole career. That’s so rare in pro sports, and the Warrior fans feel that. And I love them for it. We’ve been through the highest of highs and lowest lows, whether it’s losing Game 7 (of the NBA Finals in 2016) of a record-setting season or winning three championships. We’ve done everything together, whether that’s celebrate or hurt from the losses. So they feel for me and I feel for them.”

So Thompson didn’t take this journey alone. He dealt with the worst parts, the private parts. But perhaps the significance of Thompson is how he personifies the struggle, and the hope of bouncing back, felt by the very fans who adore him.

Thompson’s low jibes with the low felt by many. For all the wealth here, these parts are familiar with rough times, downturns and seasons of adversity. The pandemic has been an Achilles’ heel for many. It has altered the Bay Area’s way of life, harmed the health of loved ones, impacted finances, heightened anxiety. While Thompson was laboring through the squat rack and shuttle board, residents were laboring through virtual school and diminishing jobs.

The Warriors, especially in the last six or seven years, have been one of the Bay Area’s favorite sources of escapism. They are an obsession millions use to inject some fun and entertainment into their lives. And for two years, the Warriors weren’t quite the Warriors without Klay Thompson.

But on Sunday, the Bay Area got back one of its treasures. Thompson’s return makes the Warriors whole again.

At minimum, the Warriors’ championship era is back in play as Thompson bolsters the chance to resume the euphoria of yesteryear.

But on a deeper level, perhaps embedded in the Bay’s emotional connection with Thompson, he is a reminder that endurance comes with wages. If Thompson can emerge invigorated 941 days later, having a chunk of his prime hijacked, then maybe it’s safe for the people who ride for him to also believe it ain’t over.

“There’s always light at the end of the tunnel,” Thompson said. “That’s what I learned. And take things one day at a time. Because I was really looking forward to this moment but I didn’t skip any steps. And maybe during the first rehab, I was overeager. I was probably playing too soon. And no one’s self-made. I had a lot of help. A lot of help. So just lean on your loved ones and just lean on those who care about you most. Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”

The worst days are over. What remains is gratitude.

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