Quincy Pondexter finally broke his silence.
The former New Orleans Pelicans’ guard told his story to ESPN, outlining the various surgeries, infections, rehabilitation stints and obstacles that sidelined him for two seasons.
During the string of 164 consecutive games missed, Pondexter never fully explained the situation publicly, appearing in the team’s locker room and training facility but declining interview opportunities at every turn.
It was revealed in the ESPN piece that Pondexter suffered a devastating MRSA infection earlier this year, amongst the multiple medical complications and operations he’s suffered through on his left knee.
It turned out to be the end of his stint with the Pelicans. Pondexter was traded to the Chicago Bulls earlier this month (in addition to a second-round pick) to clear cap space.
The trade allowed the Pelicans enough flexibility to sign forward Dante Cunningham and guard Tony Allen, who New Orleans is hoping can fill the void left behind by injured starting small forward Solomon Hill. League sources said Hill’s injury, which is expected to keep him out for six to eight months, prompted Pondexter’s trade, since the Pelicans needed immediate help at the position and couldn’t afford to gauge Pondexter’s progress slowly.
However, despite a two-year absence, Pondexter told ESPN he fully expects to play for the Bulls on opening night next month. He’ll likely be on a minutes restriction early in the season.
As Pondexter told ESPN, it’s been a long path to get back on the court, stricken by prolonged setbacks and endless hours of recovery time.
However, league sources familiar with the situation tell a slightly different story about Pondexter’s travails, from the Pelicans’ perspective. On one occasion, the Pelicans believed Pondexter was on the cusp of returning, only to learn his recovery had been derailed.
Sources indicated doctors outside of the Pelicans’ medical staff performed all of Pondexter’s surgeries, which isn’t a rarity in the league, but it kept the team from driving some of the major decisions. The most controversial procedure came in early 2016, his second surgery on the left knee.
The Pelicans felt Pondexter was nearly ready to play, but instead he opted to undergo a procedure that had only been performed a handful of times on professional athletes and involved using cartilage from a cadaver. It “scared the team to death” a league source said about the surgery and ensured Pondexter’s hopes for playing in the 2015-16 season were dashed.
While the Pelicans’ medical staff ultimately agreed to each of the surgeries, there was significant hesitation from the team’s perspective on the early 2016 procedure, because Pondexter had nearly reached the end of his rehab schedule and participated in a full practice.
Yet, when the decision was ultimately reached, the Pelicans allowed Pondexter to undergo the potentially risky operation, since he told the team he didn’t feel healthy enough to play.
Pondexter, through his agent, declined to comment for this story.
“I tried to do everything possible to play, and my knee felt really, really bad,” Pondexter told ESPN. “I couldn't even walk upstairs or do anything, let alone run, jump or anything like that, but I wanted to sacrifice everything for the Pelicans."
That particular surgery was expected to keep him out for nine months. It turned out Pondexter would never suit up for the 2016-17 season, due partly to the infection. However, sources indicated the decision to undergo that 2016 surgery at all caused a “major setback” and changed the tenor of his recovery entirely.
But, beyond the bout with MRSA, sources said Pondexter did approximately 70 percent of his rehab off site from New Orleans, choosing his own medical group and physical therapists. The Pelicans sent staff to routinely monitor Pondexter and received weekly reports, but his rehab was largely driven by his hand-picked medical group, according to sources.
It’s unclear whether any of this would’ve made a difference in Pondexter’s recovery and time line. But, sources said members of the team’s front office expressed frustration with the length of the recovery and believe the timeline could’ve been accelerated.
Pondexter disagrees with that assessment, claiming he did everything possible to get back on the floor.
“I sacrificed a lot of my body to play in that Pelicans uniform,” he told ESPN. “Every day I spent countless hours with the team's trainers trying to get right. I did all that was asked of me and then some."
Even as an onlooker, Pondexter was voted by the rest of the locker room as the Pelicans’ “Teammate of the Year”, according to the NBAPA, growing a close relationship with Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday amongst others.
It’s a situation Pelicans’ general manager Dell Demps has often lamented in his public comments, particularly since his trade for Pondexter in 2015 was seen as a critical jolt in the team’s push to the 2015 playoffs. The 3-point shooter and wing defender was an ideal fit alongside Davis, Holiday and Ryan Anderson, helping New Orleans win eight of its final 11 games to earn a spot in the Western Conference playoffs on the final day of the season.
But, the combination’s time together was short-lived.
Now, the Pelicans and Pondexter will go their separate ways wondering what could’ve been.