Billy Thompson was embarrassed at Laker practice last December in Richfield, Ohio, when he reached into his gym bag and pulled out two left sneakers.
But things got worse. Much worse. In Denver last April, Thompson tried to put on his left sock and couldn't bend his knee far enough to do it.
"I was just frozen," Thompson said, recalling the wave of fear that passed over him in the visitors' dressing room on the night the Lakers eliminated the Denver Nuggets from the playoffs.
It is six months later, and although Thompson can put on his socks again with ease, he still is unable to play basketball. If the fear is gone, it has only been replaced by uncertainty.
"I was not aware it would go this long," said Thompson, who hasn't taken the court since being knocked to the floor by Maurice Martin on a slam-dunk attempt.
"I was praying the pain would subside and go away and I could get back in motion, but it hasn't happened that way. The pain's still there, although it is subsiding."
For now, Laker Coach Pat Riley said the second-year forward who was a No. 1 draft choice last season doesn't fit into his plans. Thompson will start the season on the injured list, and it may be some time before he returns.
"I'm like Tom Landry that way," Riley said, referring to the Dallas football coach. "As long as a guy is hurt, I can't count on him being here."
Thompson's injury was originally described as a hyper-extended knee, and it was thought he would be ready well before the start of training camp.
When Thompson struck the floor after colliding with Martin, however, he also suffered a deep bone bruise just below the left kneecap. Riley described it as a dent in the bone. That's where the pain remains, said Thompson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery last summer.
"The bone jammed together upon impact," Thompson said. "There were some chips around the bone that they removed, and I had a stretched medial collateral ligament. Most of the pain now is in the area under the kneecap."
Thompson has begun jogging, but so far is unable to move laterally. That, he figures, will come in time. What he wonders about is whether he'll be able to jump out of the gym the way he used to. Thompson's playing time might have been short last season--he averaged just under 13 minutes and sat out 23 games--but there were some electrifying moments, sparked by his spectacular dunks.
"I've been thinking about that: Will I be able to jump again like I used to, and maybe even better," Thompson said. "I still have my right leg. I'll just start dunking left-handed, if I have to."
The playoff game against Denver had long since been settled--the Lakers were ahead by more than 30 points--when Thompson stole a pass from Martin and dribbled downcourt for a breakaway jam. Martin, also a rookie, pursued from the opposite side, and when Thompson went airborne, Martin ascended as well. The collision that followed was fearsome.
Thompson, who says he is a born-again Christian--he signs off on his telephone answering machine by saying, "God bless you"--puts a moralistic twist on what happened.
"I guess I was a little prideful going to the basket," he said. "I didn't see him--I knew he was there--but it didn't matter: I was going to make that slam dunk.
"I made it, but I paid the price. Next time, I know I have to go a little stronger or go underneath the basket and do it from the other side or something, and not be so prideful."
Was Martin, not wanting to be shown up, guilty of overdoing it?
"I don't think that had anything to do with it," Thompson said. "I think it was just his athletic enthusiasm. I had stolen the ball, he had passed it and he was willing to make a good play to cover up his bad pass."
Thompson, a star forward on Louisville's National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship team his senior year, didn't make all the right moves as a Laker, though he showed enough to make General Manager Jerry West one of his biggest boosters.
Thompson averaged 5.6 points and 2.9 rebounds a game, but projected over 48 minutes, those numbers grow to a shade under 21 points and 11 rebounds.
"He met my expectations," West said. "I liken him to A. C. Green the year before. It's hard for kids to play on a team with so many veterans, but I think Billy made really good progress. I thought there were times last season when he made a real contribution."
Then there were other times, such as the day of the matching left shoes, taken straight out of the Benoit Benjamin playbook. Benjamin, the Clippers' 22-year-old center, pulled the same stunt at an exhibition game last fall.
"Can you believe that?" Thompson said, chuckling at the memory of his own foul-up. "I'm in Cleveland, and what's going on there? Nothing. I'm not running around . . . I'm walking around the hotel, doing nothing and then I get to practice--and two left shoes.
"I said: 'Man, can you believe this?' "
The Lakers could. Thompson had a few lapses last season, the kind that aren't uncommon for a rookie.