How Markelle Fultz returned to the game that had mysteriously abandoned him

PHILADELPHIA — The loudest voice in the Philadelphia 76ers’ locker room belonged to the one who, for several months, had little or nothing to say. Markelle Fultz couldn’t explain to anyone, not even himself, how the gifts and the swag that made him worthy of trading up to acquire him with the No. 1 overall pick weren’t taken from him as much as they had fled.

Basketball, which had long been his sanctuary, had suddenly become the place where he was judged. Videos of his workouts were watched like highway accidents. Speculation about what caused the problems ran rampant, forming a narrative that he was unable to control. A right shoulder and scapular muscle imbalance were used as the culprit for his problems, but many around the league, and even those who’ve known Fultz for years, felt that the problem was more between the ears than anywhere else.

Robert Covington, back, helps Markelle Fultz celebrate his return to the court Monday night. (AP)
Robert Covington, back, helps Markelle Fultz celebrate his return to the court Monday night. (AP)

After a stunning and encouraging return Monday in the 76ers’ win over the Denver Nuggets — complete with a standing ovation and chants of his name from the home crowd, a few flashes of his abilities and, of course, the expected rust — Fultz was asked about the shoulder but ignored the question, instead looking for a towel to wipe off the sweat from his brow. Fultz buried his face in the towel, lifting his head to find an audience awaiting a response but he remained silent until a 76ers public-relations staffer asked for the next question. Another attempt to get Fultz to discuss the shoulder was again met with silence. Fultz wasn’t going to feed that storyline, not on a night when he wanted to create a new one.

“I love this game to death, and I know stuff happens,” Fultz said after scoring 10 points with eight assists in his first game after a 68-game absence. “I just had a lot of teammates, front-office staff, and coaches who really supported me through these tough times. I just worked every day, that’s all it was. … It was a long journey to get here, and it felt good.”

For all of the frustrating and confusing nights, for all of those days when his confidence had sunken so low that he struggled to lift his arms to shoot or even catch the ball, Fultz came to the determination that the only way he could move on from this mysterious funk was to get back on the court again. Fultz went to Seattle and hung out at the University of Washington during the All-Star break and came back focused on returning to the floor again, sources told Yahoo Sports. His rookie year wasn’t going to be what he dreamed the night commissioner Adam Silver welcomed him to the NBA, but it didn’t have to be worthless just because he lagged behind the other rookies.

The Philadelphia 76ers have already exceeded expectations with the otherworldly talents of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons putting the team in an unexpected fight for home-court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Throwing Fultz out on the floor against a Nuggets team also in a fight for the postseason, at a time when the priorities had shifted from the last time he had played, could be perceived as risky. But coach Brett Brown, Fultz’s teammates and the 76ers brass understood the importance of having him in uniform, making plays and even mistakes.

While explaining Fultz’s return from the curious shoulder injury, Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo acknowledged that there was a “mental component” to the recovery. All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love have raised mental health awareness in recent weeks, using a platform built upon their on-court success. Fultz is still 19, trying to handle more responsibilities than ever, trying to navigate a league that shows little mercy or patience. Those who can’t cut it often get left behind.

“Just look at what he’s been through,” Brown said. “It’s ridiculous what he’s been through. He understands it. I understand it. That’s the scrutiny you get when somebody says, ‘And with the first pick in the 2017 NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select Markelle Fultz.’ That comes with pressures and responsibilities and acknowledgements. It’s just such an atypical way anybody enters pro sports. Knowing what I know and seeing what I’ve seen, and understanding how special that kid is from a human being standpoint, it’s a good day.”

Fultz needed the game again. He needed more than those two-on-two or three-on-three scrimmages. He certainly needed more than those individual drills that had become so mundane and monotonous. He needed what could only come from what he spent his entire life working toward. Having his heart racing so much that it was a struggle to breathe. Feeling the adrenaline from hitting a ridiculous over-the-shoulder layup off the glass. Hearing the roar of the crowd — even if he wasn’t quite sure what they were saying late in the fourth quarter, as Philadelphia mocked the Minnesota Vikings’ Skol chant by screaming, “Fultz! Fultz!”

“I thought they were saying, ‘Nick Foles,’ ” Fultz said of the Super Bowl MVP quarterback for the champion Philadelphia Eagles. “Then I realized it, and it was pretty dope. These fans are great, and I love them.”

Brown mentioned that Fultz “is different than anything we have” because he gives the 76ers a dynamic guard who can make plays for others and himself. What Fultz is able to give the 76ers either the rest of this season, the playoffs or beyond wasn’t going to be determined by what happened Monday night. But Fultz offered some encouraging moments after dribbling right into a turnover almost immediately after entering the game. Joel Embiid helped him remove some of those jitters when he found Fultz cutting to the basket for an easy layup. Fultz went on to take 13 shots, including a jumper that bounded high off the rim before dropping and got Embiid out of his seat to applaud. During his first go-round, Fultz was afraid to shoot anything that wasn’t at the rim.

“I feel like I’ve been going through it with him since he got here, so I was really proud of him,” Embiid said. “Honestly, there was really no expectations. My message to him was always about being patient and come back whenever you feel like, not even about being healthy, but just about being confident and it’s kind of a risk coming back, especially when the team is playing well and we have to include him.”

Perhaps the only positive from his lengthy absence was that expectations have been tempered, making it easy for Brown to bring him along slowly or extend the leash if Fultz proves himself worthy of more. This return was more about the long game, giving Fultz something to build from this offseason. Fultz can only hope that the worst is behind him, that he is already off to a promising start by dragging himself out of whatever had plagued him and returning to action.

The joy of his reunion with basketball could be felt in the high-fives and the cups of water teammate Robert Covington poured on his head to celebrate afterward. And it could be heard in the usually quiet 76ers postgame locker room, which was suddenly filled with bizarre noises and jokes coming from Fultz, finally the participant and not the spectator. Fultz had nothing else to lean on but basketball and, for one night, it gave him what he’d been missing.

For the first time in a while, Fultz got to be examined for what he did in a game. Not the practice court or some pregame warmups with the assistant coaches. Fultz even critiqued his own game while standing in front of his locker-room stall, telling a 76ers staffer that he wishes he had dunked his first shot because he was at the rim by himself. “Be my luck,” Fultz said with a grin, “I’d try to grab the rim so hard …”

Fultz laughed instead of finishing his thought. Even while joking, he wasn’t going to mention that shoulder.

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