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For any basketball player, the dream of reaching the NBA Finals and winning a championship starts as a kid. For Dario Saric, that dream came crashing down in Game 1 of last year’s Finals, when he tore his ACL in his first two minutes on the court.
Not only was he out for the rest of a series the Phoenix Suns would eventually lose in six games, but it put his entire 2021-22 season in jeopardy.
“When he got hurt, it was devastating,” coach Monty Williams said. “He worked his whole career to get into that position, and then to get hurt like that was tough for him and tough for us.”
“It was hard in the Finals,” Saric admitted. “You work for that for your life, you work for Finals always. Like a kid, you want to be part of that.”
Saric remained in the locker room and around the team during the Finals to support his teammates, but the impact of his injury didn’t stop being felt after the Milwaukee Bucks won the title. The Homie’s road to recovery was just getting started.
“It was tough,” Saric said. “All this process was kind of same season for me, [but] even if the season ends, I’m still hurt. My mind was there coming out of therapy every day.”
Accepting that this injury was a part of his basketball career and turning the page on that negative outlook was one of the more difficult challenges of his ongoing recovery.
“Sometimes when you’re injured, you kind of know you’re going to be out for a while, but sometimes your mind is not ready,” Saric explained. “Obviously I play basketball for almost 20 years right now, and I want to be out on the court. And it was hard to see the team kind of like dealing — they were winning, obviously it was kind of easier, team wasn’t struggling at all, so they were winning the games. But for me to not be on the court, it was really kind of challenging, up and down in my mind.”
Over the summer, Williams said Saric dedicated himself to his recovery process, choosing to remain in Phoenix rather than return home to Croatia. The medical staff helped him get started with “pre-rehab” before he underwent surgery on Aug. 4.
That time gave him the chance to reset his mind and get over the Finals loss.
“First couple hours and I saw it was going to be a long process,” Saric said. “So you need to kind of adapt your mind on that, but in my rehab, my first kind of like month, I was by myself here during the rehab with the guys from the Suns. And I kind of needed that peace since my injury, we lost the final, I was injured the first game — it was really tough to get all that.”
But as teammates began to trickle back into the practice facility to prepare for the upcoming season, the Suns’ infamous chemistry started to ease those burdens. Saric felt happier again.
“They were positive, they were talking about ‘You’re gonna go again in the Finals’ and that kind of stuff, and it was really a positive atmosphere,” he said. “Guys are happy for me, and I’m really happy for them too. So we’re a really good group of guys here. I think that’s the big force for us.”
On the first day of training camp, Williams promised he would try to keep Saric involved by teasing him and cracking jokes at his expense, just like he would any other player. Between that and just checking in on him and his longtime girlfriend Karla Puseljic, the Suns wanted to do whatever they could to make his road to recovery a little easier.
“Dario is in so many ways the heart and soul of our team,” Williams said. “Everybody cheers for Dario, they root for him because he’s just a genuine, authentic person, and to see him out, we all kind of look over there and see him rehabbing and we all feel bad for him. So I think as we go along, we’ll figure out ways to keep him engaged, ’cause this is a tough spot for him.”
At Media Day, about eight weeks after his surgery, Saric was off crutches and on the exercise bike again for the first time. While he admitted it’s been difficult to watch the team thrive and not be able to contribute, the Suns’ uncommon level of camaraderie has been key to keeping his mind right and his outlook positive.
“We love seeing him around,” Devin Booker said. “I love seeing the progress from on the table getting worked on to in the weight room to — not see his first steps, but see him back running on the court. Like, I love seeing the progression and seeing the work. Those guys come in way before we get here and are here after. It’s always tough having an injury, but the road back, being around the guys, I know it helps them out a lot.”
As much as the Suns have helped encourage Saric in his rehab process, his frequent involvement hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of his teammates either.
“Dario is locked in,” JaVale McGee said. “He’s there, he’s here early, getting his work in. He’s on the bench with us, cheering us on. He’s in the huddle with us when we do our little pregame thing. So he’s been a part of the team the whole time.”
Williams has praised Saric for not only helping guys with on-court observations from the bench, but giving them an outlet to talk about non-basketball things as well. Jae Crowder believes that Saric simply being part of the team’s day-to-day activities will position him in a more advantageous spot when he’s ready to return too.
“It keeps him engaged,” Crowder said. “I think even when it’s time for him to come back, he’s rolling a little bit. He’s able to see scouts, he’s able to hear the things that we’re going through on a game day, so he’s still engaged. I think that’s critical. Obviously, he’s putting the work in, and I think he would put the work in if he was somewhere else, but him just still being engaged in our group is critical for him and for our group camaraderie to being, whenever he comes back, he’s hitting the ground rolling, right where he left off.”
For Saric’s part, sticking around the Suns and being a good teammate was a top priority.
“It was really important for me to stay involved, I think, and for the guys,” Saric said. “This is like my home, second home, spending almost a year here. So it’s unbelievable to support them, to be there for them, to give some advice.”
It’s been 282 days since that torn ACL on July 6 and 253 days since Dario Saric’s surgery. Throughout January, he could be seen getting work in on the bike at the practice facility. In March, he started getting shots up after practices, including shots on the move:
In April, he started getting up shots with the big man group again:
Saric even dunked again recently, though he joked that he could only do it off his good leg.
“I jumped with the healthy one,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve lost a little bit this kind of pop, and I hope they say you’re gonna get that back. So I hope I’m gonna get that soon and kind of be able to jump with the rim and try it then. But I never was, like, dunking you know what I mean? That wasn’t my game, so I’m gonna survive.”
So what can Suns fans expect in terms of a potential return?
As far as a timetable, Saric, the coaching staff and the medical staff are trying to figure out what’s best for both his situation and the team’s. At Media Day, Saric said they wouldn’t set a specific timeline, but rather, take it month by month, day by day.
At practice on Thursday, he had more of a tangible update.
“I think it’s best to kind of say maybe I’m not gonna play this year, but I don’t know, if three players, three big guys are injured and you need somebody and I’m feeling healthy, maybe it’s a different story,” Saric explained. “So for this right now, I’m feeling like I’m kind of out for the season, be their support, but like, if something goes wrong and I’m in a good place, I don’t know, I’ll jump in and play. So I don’t wanna really say promise, but in this right now, this situation, I’m gonna kind of be out for the rest of the season.”
Watching Saric come full-circle from last year’s Finals injury and return to action on that stage — even in garbage time minutes — would be a difficult story to top. Most likely though, this “break in case of emergency” approach means Saric will be out for the rest of the season, especially with how well JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo have played behind Ayton.
On Thursday, Saric noted that right now, he’s only able to shoot, run and play “one-on-zero. The next step is full-contact, probably starting with the coaches and going from there.
But if a full-fledged return or even a garbage-time curtain call isn’t in the cards for Dario Saric this summer, the light at the end of this tunnel is getting brighter — both for him and the Suns after their Finals heartbreak.
“I’m feeling really like a basketball player,” he said with a smile. “I was before feeling like, I don’t know, a weightlifter or something like that. But finally, I feel more like a basketball player, really happy. I’m really happy with the position where the team is right now. Guys are doing amazing. Be there, be there for support, and at the end of the day, blessed I’m in this situation right now. I’m kind of like rehab is going well, no issues, so I’m in a really good position.”