When Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward jumped up for an alley-oop on Tuesday night, the 2017 NBA season was six minutes old. When he landed, it became clear that—barring a miracle—those six minutes are the only ones he’s going to play this season.
Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena has one of the league’s loudest and most frenetic backing tracks—the speakers are constantly blaring music, thumping bass, and piping in sound effects to celebrate the home team’s successes. That all stopped when Hayward fell to the floor. Broadcasters are exceedingly careful not to diagnose injuries from the booth, but TNT’s Kevin Harlan couldn’t help himself. “Hayward broke his leg. Hayward has broken his leg,” he said. “Oh my gosh.”
Video of the injury can be seen below. View at your discretion.
Players on both the Celtics and Cavaliers fanned out and away from the fallen Hayward. Boston’s Jaylen Brown paced with his hands atop his head and his mouth agape. LeBron James slumped on the scorer’s table, and Dwyane Wade fell to one knee. These men had witnessed—and were experiencing—a traumatic event.
TNT showed one close-up of the injury immediately after Hayward tumbled to the floor, and it revealed the gore of the dislocated ankle and fractured tibia scrambled inside his sock. As team doctors administered triage, the broadcast danced between vantage points, carefully avoiding any shots that would further nauseate viewers. Their prudence, however, didn’t stem the flow of images and videos on Twitter and YouTube. In 2017, a single camera shot has infinite reach and duration.
According to a story by Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky, there is a “rough consensus” among networks that they will air no more than two replays of a particularly gruesome injury. This agreement apparently dates back to 1985, and Joe Theismann’s famous compound fracture on Monday Night Football. Back then, replay technology was relatively novel, and Monday Night Football was the only sports broadcast that used 12 cameras rather than the standard five or six. Those extra lenses gave ABC a clear view of New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor inadvertently thrusting his knee into the Washington quarterback’s leg and snapping his tibia and fibula, in Theismann’s words, “like a breadstick.”
“Guys, this is ugly,” Monday Night Football producer Bob Goodrich warned the announcers as his team prepped the tape to air. According to the New York Times, the program’s director Chet Forte was overheard saying the footage was “too gruesome to be replayed.” But they showed it anyway. Twice.
Catastrophic injuries shown on live TV, like Theismann’s and Hayward’s and Odell Beckham Jr.’s, all have a certain Dealey Plaza effect: You remember where you were when you first saw them. Sports fans and athletes themselves can tick off a catalog of gruesome moments—a collective memory bank of busted bones and dislocated joints that come flooding back whenever an unlucky soul adds his or her name to the list. “I’ve seen Paul George when it happened to Paul. I was watching the game with Shaun Livingston when it happened, when he was with the Clippers,” James told reporters after Tuesday’s game. “I was watching NCAA basketball when Kevin Ware was at Louisville.”
These battered and broken athletes become part of an exclusive fraternity of people who’ve had the audible snap of their splintered bones broadcast to millions. Often, as was the case with Ware in 2013, they’ll get a call from Theismann, offering his support. Both George and Livingston sent tweets to Hayward. While they weren’t the only NBA players to do so, messages from others in the league couldn’t possibly have had the same resonance.
All the incidents James mentioned are YouTube-able, and each is horrendous in its own way. The George injury happened in 2014 at a televised Team USA scrimmage. The then–Indiana Pacers star went to block a layup and landed awkwardly on the stanchion underneath the basket. His lower leg buckled and the bones inside snapped and visibly tented within his skin. The game was immediately canceled.
Shaun Livingston’s own awful injury came in 2007, when he played for the Los Angeles Clippers. Livingston landed awkwardly after going up for a layup, and the impact destroyed much of his left knee. In the immediate aftermath, a doctor at Inglewood, California’s Centinela Hospital Medical Center told him he may have to brace for amputation. It’s hard to convey how difficult the video is to watch. The in-rim mic that’s supposed to amplify swishes instead picked up Livingston’s screams, and these linger through the replays as the local broadcasters try to make sense of what they’ve just seen and heard.
Livingston, who now plays for the Golden State Warriors, said after the team’s practice on Wednesday that he’s not going to watch the Hayward video: “Seeing something like that, things pop out, it’s not normal, right? It’s like stuff that happens [during] car accidents.”
When Kevin Ware broke his shin during the 2013 NCAA Tournament, some of his teammates on the sideline vomited. His bone punctured his skin and jutted out several inches. CBS showed two replays of the Louisville guard’s injury, and at halftime Greg Gumbel assured viewers they would not be airing any more footage of the open fracture. Regrettably, this slasher-flick image is the first picture that comes up when you Google Ware’s name.
Based on recent history, it seems unlikely Hayward will have much interest in seeing the video we’ve all been cringing at for the past 24 hours. Even though Livingston made a miraculous recovery and became a two-time NBA champion, he has no interest in reliving that old trauma. He has never watched footage of his injury, nor does he ever plan to. Ware, meanwhile, has only watched the video of his leg snapping one time—“and once was enough,” he wrote in the Players’ Tribune.
It took 20 years before Theismann decided he was ready to see the footage of his compound fracture. In 2005, he watched the Monday Night Football broadcast with a reporter. After the second replay, Theismann asked, “How many times do I have to watch this?”