The pain in Quincy Pondexter’s left knee was agonizing.
In the final two months of the New Orleans Pelicans’ playoff chase, the small forward spent hours each morning preparing for the relentless pounding that awaited his injured leg. But, night after night, Pondexter was on the floor, making 3-pointers at a career-best 43 percent clip while assigned to defend some of the most athletic swingmen the NBA had to offer.
Then, at each game’s conclusion, Pondexter would sit in front of his locker with massive ice packs wrapped around his legs, knowing the pain was coming again soon. And he went to great lengths to ensure nothing would change that routine.
“I played the last two months or so on a really bad knee, and there were so many things I had to go through just to get on the court,” Pondexter said. “My knee would swell and then it couldn’t drain, and I’d go through so much therapy before the games, and a lot of it didn’t really make much of a difference.
“So I was just going out there and playing with pure heart because I just didn’t want to let my teammates down. We were in a playoff push, and the ability to earn a starter’s spot was a goal and a dream since I’ve been in the NBA, so I wasn’t going to let that go, as long as I could still run when I was on the floor — no matter how much it hurt.”
It’s the attitude that propelled the 27-year-old into a locker room leader after just weeks on the roster. Even superstar Anthony Davis pointed to Pondexter’s presence as a critical factor in the Pelicans transforming their image as inconsistent performers to a team on the rise.
But Pondexter knew it was coming at a price. Eventually he would need surgery and, while the severity of the actual injury was unknown, he went to great lengths to make certain the medical staff wouldn’t keep him off the court.
“They set up MRIs, and every time they set one up, he wouldn’t go,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “He would not show. And so he got fined every time for not showing up. And so finally at the end, (General Manager Dell Demps) brought him in and said, ‘This is so uncharacteristic of you. I don’t understand it’. And (Pondexter) says, ‘If I go to the doctor, they’re going to examine my knee, and they’re going to tell me that I can’t play.’ ”
He was right.
By the time doctors got inside Pondexter’s knee in May, they found cartilage damage that needed to be repaired, and his recovery will keep him off the floor until at least November.
While Pondexter said he doesn’t have a specific timetable to return, he’s hopeful to miss only a handful of regular-season games. And he doesn’t regret the actions he took to help his team.
But Pondexter’s reputation and perception haven’t always been so squeaky clean.
After two successful seasons and an injury-riddled one with the Memphis Grizzlies, Pondexter found himself in the center of controversy regarding his relationship with coach Dave Joerger midway through last season.
Pondexter was disciplined by the organization after he was seen staring and screaming toward the Grizzlies bench during a 22-point performance in December 2013. Reports surfaced that he flung a stream of expletives at Joerger, which led Memphis to trade him a few weeks later.
Pondexter disputed those reports, saying he had no relationship whatsoever with Joerger and there was no heated exchange between the two.
“It was a difficult time in my life,” he said. “And it hurt. There were stories that I cursed the coach out that just weren’t true. We had never even communicated, let alone had I screamed at him or had a falling out. We never talked to each other prior to that game or during that game.
“There were a lot of rumors that came out and a lot of stories that popped up as a reaction to that moment. It just really hurt to have to go through that. I’m not that player, and I’m not that person. What you see now and what you’ve heard about me (in New Orleans) is the kind of person I am. I want that to be reflected.”
So far, his teammates have responded in kind. This summer, despite not being able to play, Pondexter and Davis organized voluntary workouts in Los Angeles that were attended by every player in the United States who was under contract with the Pelicans.
Pondexter attended every voluntary workout in New Orleans and traveled to West Virginia for training camp despite the injury circumstances, which he said are “difficult but motivating” as he waits to get cleared medically.
“He’s a big part of this team,” Davis said. “He’s great for us to have in the locker room, and all of the guys really respect him and like him. Getting him here last year helped turn this around, and hopefully he will be ready to go when the season starts because he’s an important part of the team.”
Part of Pondexter’s motivation will trace back to how things dissolved in Memphis, making sure a similar fate doesn’t arise in New Orleans. Gentry said he already has an impeccable relationship with Pondexter, and he isn’t concerned about what happened in the past.
For his part, Pondexter won’t completely let it go.
“I’ll never let that part of me get away,” he said. “I don’t want to be seen in a negative light. That situation really motivates me to this day. I loved going through that situation because it made me a much better person.”