Markelle Fultz reveals what really happened with his shot, shoulder

Markelle Fultz reveals what really happened with his shot, shoulder

Since he arrived to the NBA as the No. 1 pick in 2017 for the Philadelphia 76ers, there has been so much misreported about Markelle Fultz.

Fultz went through two tumultuous years of misinformation by the media and fans, conspiracy theories, unfounded rumors, criticisms and internet jokes, and he was labeled a bust by people who are paid a king’s ransom on ESPN — namely Stephen A. Smith, who called Fultz “the biggest bust in NBA history.”

But what actually happened is quite the opposite. Fultz wasn’t a “bust.” He was dealing with an injury that is not only untraceable by an MRI, but also rarely (or hardly ever) seen in basketball players. In spite of all that, he was still trying to play through the pain because of his love for the game of basketball, and it's something that he does, in fact, regret doing. 

I spoke with Fultz on my podcast, "The Rematch," and the Orlando Magic guard opened up on everything that happened with his shoulder and finally put all of the incorrect rumors to rest. Below is a snippet of our conversation:

Etan Thomas: You mentioned your shoulder. You injured your shoulder, and you initially tried to play through it and not tell anybody about the injury, right? Am I correct?

Markelle Fultz: "Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely."

Etan Thomas: So walk me through that process because people don't really understand how it works sometimes. And I'm sure the pressure of being No. 1 was a contributing factor to why you wanted to play through the injury. But walk me through that process.

Markelle Fultz: "Yeah. Well, a lot of people just don’t know my love for the game. Growing up in the area I grew up, you have bumps and bruises. But that's where it becomes a business, taking care of your body. And me being who I am, loving the game so much, I feel like, although my shoulder was messed up, I feel like I can still contribute to the game and help my team win. So I wanted to go out there and just compete and have fun with the game. And also, it's my first year. And I think that I did a poor job of communicating to my agent and my family what I was feeling, instead of just going out there and trying to compete without expressing what I was feeling. And all I was doing was making it worse. But when I realized that certain situations weren't going my way, I knew I had to speak up, and I had to do what's best for myself.

"And I think that was the toughest part about it, because I felt like I could still play and contribute to my team, but I wasn't myself. I wasn't 100%, and it wasn't what was best for the team. So I took that time and tried to figure out what was going on. And I went to go see certain doctors and started that rehab process then. But I think the biggest thing I learned from that is just taking care of my body, and communicating what I feel to not only my agent and my family, but also trainers and stuff like that."

Etan Thomas: So how long were you in pain before you told anybody?

Markelle Fultz: "Actually, my shoulder started hurting before training camp [in my rookie year].  But I just thought it was from how much work I was putting in, from me shooting so much that my shoulder was just sore. So I tried to work through it. I'm going in the gym, shooting thousands of shots, trying to shoot through it. And the whole time, I just continued to make it worse. But again, the mindset that I had, I'm just trying to grind. I'm trying to continue to work through these issues, and not knowing that I'm making it worse. Again, I'm just kind of being young and being selfish, I would call it, in a sense, not understanding my body. And I think that was a big part of it. And again, once I communicated, I started to get the help that I needed. And I started to work and rehab, and it started to get better."

Etan Thomas: You mentioned you learned how to advocate for yourself. I want you to go a little bit more detail with that. And speak up because still, a lot of people don't really understand how it works with team trainers and team doctors, and how a lot of times players have to speak up and advocate for themselves. Just go into a little bit more detail about that point.

Markelle Fultz: "Yeah. And this is no knock on any team or anything like that, but it's a business, at the end of the day. And sometimes, again, it's a long season, so you have bumps and bruises. And sometimes, some people play through it, some people don't. Everybody's body is different. So especially not knowing a person and not knowing the situation, if you don't communicate and advocate for yourself, you never know what could happen. And it can be something as small as your toe hurting. But what I've learned so much about my body is your body compensates. And we're so good, as athletes and as humans, that if we're trying to do something, our body's going to find a way to do it. So it might not be the right way, but we can do certain stuff and hurt ourself, in the long run.

"And so my one thing would be: try to be in tune with your body as much as you can. And [it could be something] as small as your toenail hurting. I mean, you always get this phrase of 'You're soft' or you're whatever. But what I've learned is I'd rather overcommunicate about how my body's feeling and still be able to work out. I still want to work out, but I'm going to let you know, 'Hey, my big toe's hurting. Hey, my right hamstring is feeling like this today. My knee's feeling like this.' So they can start to know that you're caring about your body, and you're documenting certain stuff, so you don't end up compensating and hurting yourself in the long run."

Etan Thomas: Yeah, well, it's interesting. You go to different gyms, and they could be even as young as high school. And you see phrases on the wall like "Pain is weakness leaving your body" and stuff like that. And I hate that. I do, because it puts the wrong mentality into players, to thinking that them being injured is somehow their fault, like they're not being tough enough to play through an injury. And I just personally cannot stand that mentality at all.

Markelle Fultz: "Yeah. And I think that's how I kind of grew up. Not in a bad way. But growing up, I'm playing through whatever. I don't want to be soft. I want to show that I'm tough. But when you get to a certain point where your body is your brand... Your body is your car, so you need to take care of that thing like it's a Ferrari. You hear phrases like that, but it's true. You have to take care of your body.

"You have to get the right recovery. You have to get the right sleep. If not, it's going to end up hurting you. It might not hurt you right away, but down the road it can give you certain side effects. Or you never know, it can lead to something happening right away. But there are also freak accidents that happen. But I think that's the one thing that I would recommend to any player at any age, is just communicating about your body. [That] doesn't mean that you have to sit out of a drill, but it can start to put an awareness on people's mind. You can start to document certain things. And you'll have a better understanding, going forward, of why you do what you do."

Etan Thomas: But I think that sometimes a player does have to sit down. A player does have to say, "Okay, I can't go. You're going to talk bad about me. You're going to tell..." So I use the example a lot with my son about Robert Griffin III. So when RG III first came to D.C., my son was the biggest RG III fan on earth. And then I took him to... you know when they have the open scrimmages? So he met him, and RG III was cool with him. And they took a picture, and he's been the biggest RG III fan forever since then. And you remember that game where RG III was limping out there? And so, I'm watching that game with Malcolm. And he was like, "Why is he playing? What is he doing? He's going to injure himself," and so forth. This is what a young Malcolm is saying.

And sure enough, in fact his entire career, the trajectory of everything, went downhill from there. And then you saw the trainer say, "Well, I didn't tell him to go out there." Nobody wanted to take responsibility. But it should be the trainer's job to tell you that you are going to hurt yourself more if you continue playing. And that's the problem that I personally have with a lot of NBA trainers. I'm not throwing anybody in particular under the bus; this is a league-wide issue. They're employers of the team, and they want to do what's best for the team, not what's best for the player.

Markelle Fultz: "Exactly. And that's where it comes back to a relationship. So you have to have the certain people in your corner that's going to always keep it real with you because at the end of the day, like I said, your body's your brand. And it's about the longevity. It's different if it's Game 7 in the playoffs or the championship, and you're sacrificing for that. What I've also learned is rest is a big part of recovery, and getting the right amount of rest. Some days you got to go hard, and some days you have to not do anything at all. I mean, you can do some light stuff. But I think you hit it right on the head. Some people’s mind is set for the team. Not everybody has your best interest [in mind]. You have the best interest for yourself. So I think that's why it's huge to communicate how you feel to whoever it is — whether it's your mom, your dad, your trainer, whoever — and do what you feel is best because you know your body the best.

"Nobody else can tell you how your body is supposed to feel, how your body feels at that time. And I think that's where I learned how to advocate the most for myself. And I've gotten more respect from a lot of people when I do that. And again, it doesn't mean you're soft. It's just being smart about certain things. But at the same time, you do have to push yourself in certain limits to be able to... It's going to be certain days where you're sore, and you still have to push through. That's part of it, but it's a difference between sore and hurt. So just trying to learn... The sooner you start to communicate certain things, you start to learn what's pain, and what's okay to work through and what's not to work through. And that's where I think I've learned the most. I've learned how to identify what's going on in my body, and understand what I need to do to make that feel better, or if I need to take rest or if I need to go get treatment."

Etan Thomas: Yeah. I mean, I always heard the saying that there's a difference between being injured and hurting. So sometimes you're going to have to play through being hurting. That's just part of being an athlete. But being injured, you need to sit down.

Markelle Fultz: Exactly.

Etan Thomas: So, I want to ask a few specifics. I remember seeing some videos of you, watching you play and seeing your different routines on the free-throw line. And I just wanted to ask: Was that when you was trying to push through it? Was it part of the rehab? So there was one where you would kind of pat the ball like this, and then shoot it. And then there were some where you would go up and it would be kind of like a hitch, kind of. What exactly was going on?

Markelle Fultz: "Yes. So what a lot of people don't know is, what TOS (Thoracic Outlet Syndrome) is. It's a nerve... It's when your nerves are getting pressured on, and you can start to lose feeling in your hands. So at the time when I was playing, I still had TOS. I wasn't diagnosed with TOS. I still was working through certain shoulder stuff. But again, with my love for the game, I still wanted to be out there.

"And another thing people don't know, TOS is not diagnosed through a MRI, CAT scan. It's very hard to diagnose TOS, which is a big part of why, in the beginning, I kind of thought that nothing was going on. And I just thought it was my shoulder, because when I got MRIs and I got the scans, I didn't see anything that was going on. But I had to continue. So I went from shooting 40% in college to coming into the NBA.... It's so funny, people were like, 'He changed his shot.' Like, what would I change my shot for? There's no reason. So that was one of the funniest things that I heard, then I used to hear all these rumors about me being injured on a motorcycle, but that's another story."

Etan Thomas: Oh, man! There were so many different rumors about you... They got the story wrong so many times. I heard so many different stories.

Markelle Fultz: And that's what was the funniest thing because to me... I never went out to address it because I didn't care about that. Again, my main focus was getting back on the court, doing what I needed to do. But some of the stuff I used to see, I used to be like, 'Yo, that's crazy that somebody actually believes that.' But it also taught me another thing: You can't believe everything you read, right? But yeah. So pretty much what people didn't know is, so when I was going... The whole thing on my shoulder, when I would try to shoot, it almost felt like I had a too-small suit jacket on. So I would go, try to go up, and it felt like somebody was almost holding my arm there. I would try to move fast, but I felt like I couldn't move fast. So what I ended up doing is continue to try to shoot on it. I ended up building up more and more pressure on my shoulder where I'm not using... where I'm starting to hinge my shoulder up. I'm starting to use the wrong muscles, and I'm building bad habits.

"But what people don't understand is I'm out there playing, still. Still trying to shoot, still doing this. I was still making free throws. I wasn't very high percentage, but I was still making free throws. And so the first thing, when I would go up sometimes, I would lose feeling in my hand. And so, that's the reason I'd double clutch, because I would get here and I wouldn't feel like the ball was in my hand. But when I'd come up, my feeling would come back because the way it is — when I'm going through a certain motion — my muscles are pushing on my nerve, which is cutting my feeling off. And when I go through, it releases off the nerve, and that's when I would get my feeling back. So when I would do the double clutch, it was because when I would get here, I wouldn't feel the ball in my hand. So it was no way I was shooting if I don't feel like the ball [was] in my hand.

"So I would go up a little bit and it would come back, so I would just come from here and shoot the ball. And so when I went to practice, I'm like, 'Alright, that's not working, so let me try something else.' So another thing I tried to do was, this wouldn't have me holding the ball. So the desensitization of just moving the ball back and forth until I get into where I get feeling, which is right here, then I can just shoot. I was fine shooting from here. If I had just caught the ball here and shot up, it was perfectly fine. So that was why I went to that because I was just trying to be more efficient at the free-throw line. I didn't care what people were saying. I was just trying to get my flow in. So when I got to where I needed to go, I can just shoot the ball fine. But again, that was another realization of me compensating. And I said, 'Markelle Fultz, you don't need to compensate. You need to get healthy.'

"And another instance where I talked to my agent, I just told him I have no problem playing. I just feel like I want to be myself so I can just go out there and play without thinking, just playing my game, be who I am. And so, that's where it kind of went from. But just a lot of repetition of shooting the wrong way, it just builds bad habits and it builds your muscle memory wrong. And so, that was the biggest thing, trying to get back to... And I'm still working on it now. It's something I'm always going to have to work on. It's just trying to get my brain to process the ball being over my head the same way. And it's something that is a everyday grind, but I'm enjoying it. I feel way more comfortable now, and I feel the improvement. And again, I know my body, so I know what I need to work on.

Listen to the full episode of Markelle Fultz on The Rematch here.

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