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2019 NBA Playoffs

Kevon Looney is playing through two kinds of pain

The Warriors center has been dealing with a heavy heart and bum collarbone

OAKLAND, Calif. — Two days before the Golden State Warriors’ season opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder last fall, Kevon Looney was awakened at 6 in the morning to news from back home in Milwaukee.

Wati Majeed, a longtime friend and supporter of Looney’s basketball career, had died suddenly from complications due to a seizure. He was just 29 years old.

Looney was caught off guard by the news, especially since he didn’t know his friend was even that sick. The death of Majeed was very painful for the Warriors’ fourth-year center, but he coped by getting back onto the basketball court and dedicating the entire 2018-19 season to Majeed, including writing the words “R.I.P Wati” and “Long Live Wati” on his shoes before every game.

That dedication has culminated in the Warriors making it to the NBA Finals for the fifth straight season, and the fourth consecutive season since Looney was selected No. 30 overall in the 2015 draft. And while Looney is fighting through the pain of losing someone so close to him, he’s now also fighting through physical pain. During Game 2 of the Finals, Looney suffered a fracture of the first costal cartilage on the right side of his rib cage. But what was once supposed to be a series-ending injury turned into just a one-game absence.

Now with a heavy heart and a bum collarbone, Looney is leaning on everything he’s learned from Majeed in hopes of helping the Warriors overcome a 3-1 deficit to win their fourth championship in five years.

Despite being seven years younger than his friend, Looney was very close to Majeed, who would come to every one of Looney’s games, from middle school to high school to Amateur Athletic Union. When Looney was a gangly teenager at Alexander Hamilton High School in Milwaukee, Majeed was his unofficial life and motivational coach.

“He used to tell me, ‘Do you just want to be good or you want to be great? Don’t settle,’ ” Looney told The Undefeated’s Marc Spears last month.

Mimicking the Nike commercials starring puppet versions of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, Majeed would tell Looney, “You gotta be hungry, Kevon. Gotta be hungry.” Looney repeats that saying to himself before every game.

Kevon Looney pays tribute to his friend Wati Majeed during Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Looney found it hard to deal with Majeed’s death earlier in the season. “It’s always tough to talk about it, but when I go on the court I think about him, say my prayers,” Looney said. He’s lost people close to him before — close friends, former teammates and family members — but Majeed’s death hit hardest because Looney was an adult when it happened, and because it was so sudden.

Looney quickly discovered the best coping mechanism for a 6-foot-9 NBA player: playing basketball. It was Majeed and Looney’s older brother, Kevin, who taught him the most about basketball. They all built a bond through the sport, so what better place to keep Majeed’s legacy alive than on the court, particularly now in the Finals.

“He loved basketball. He loved me. He loved his family,” Looney told The Undefeated after Warriors practice on Wednesday. “And I just try to go out there and represent him the best I can.”

Getting out there has proved more difficult than Looney could imagine.

Halfway through the first quarter of Game 2, Looney contested a Kawhi Leonard drive to the basket, but he bounced off the Raptors forward and crashed to the floor onto his left shoulder. A week after the injury, Looney says he’s feeling somewhat better. His pain levels fluctuate from day to day, game to game, from feeling game-ready to struggling to put his shirt on. Playing during Game 5 was more painful than Game 4.

“When I feel good, I can move around,” he said. “But when it starts hurting, I can’t really lift my arms up over my head.”

What’s made his injury saga more troubling is the sudden return and immediate loss of teammate Kevin Durant during Game 5 in Toronto. Durant, who was out since May 8 with a calf strain, returned to the court Monday but lasted just 12 minutes before rupturing his Achilles tendon.

There’s an expectation, from parents to coaches to fans to team executives, that the true character of an athlete is his or her toughness, fighting through sickness or pain to help the team win.

This idea that athletes are Superman, capable of overcoming insurmountable levels of damage and pain, can be annoying, Looney said, and many players probably take to the court when they shouldn’t. But, at the same time, that belief is essentially a part of the game, and sometimes it works out. Michael Jordan’s “flu game” is so highly revered for a reason.

“You go out there, you might be feeling sick, body might be feeling like s—, but you might go out there and have the game of your life,” Looney said.

But he’s learned from teammates such as Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green that, at the end of the day, he has to know his body and push through only if he can. He doesn’t let outside forces dictate his decision to play or not. “You can’t listen to the fans, can’t listen to the outside people. You got to listen to yourself.”

That being said, Looney remembers how Majeed would constantly tell him to “be great” and “be hungry” when Looney was playing in high school. That’s been in the back of his head while he plays through his collarbone injury. “I think he would be proud of me going out there and showing the toughness that they all instilled in me, and I just want to go out there and give my all,” he said.

As far as Looney’s availability for Game 6, with the season on the line and his team playing its final game at Oracle Arena, he’ll know sometime Thursday.

“If it happens where I wake up … and I can’t play, then I can’t play,” he said. “I did all I can do. I just didn’t want to look back a year or two from now like, ‘Man, I really had a chance to go out there and help, but I didn’t.’ ”

It can feel like a heavy burden to dedicate a season to someone who’s died, especially if the season falls short of expectations. For the Warriors, it’s been Finals or bust since they won a league-record 73 regular-season games in 2015-16. But Looney isn’t feeling the pressure of making this season about Majeed, whose family heavily supports Looney and loves everything he’s done to honor Majeed’s family. Even if the Warriors had missed the playoffs entirely, he knows his friend would have been right there next to him as he’d always been.

“From where I’m from, a lot of people don’t make it out. They don’t make it to the NBA, or let alone to the Finals for the fourth consecutive year,” Looney said. “He would have been proud of me regardless.”

Liner Notes

The Undefeated senior writer Marc J. Spears contributed to this report.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"