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Second chance point

Daniels glad he’s back with Celtics after spinal surgery

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By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 21, 2011
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WALTHAM - It was like any other play. Rajon Rondo was bringing the ball up, yelling over to Marquis Daniels. “Get a layup,’’ he called. “Get a layup.’’ It was nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary, and yet that voice still echoes in Daniels’s head.

He was running down the court as he caught the ball, getting ready to swing around, to go for that layup in the second quarter of the Celtics’ Feb. 6 game against the Magic. That was when his face hit Gilbert Arenas. Really, though, it was barely a touch, barely enough to do any damage, barely enough to feel. As Daniels said, “My son hits me harder than that.’’

It was enough. He fell. He had no feeling below his neck. He couldn’t move.

“The only voice I kept hearing was Kevin [Garnett],’’ Daniels said. “He just kept asking, ‘You all right? You all right? You all right?’

“I think just hearing his voice kept me calm. I was like, ‘This is not happening like this. This is not happening like this.’ ’’

He didn’t panic. He stayed calm, stayed relaxed, even as most of his body shut down because of a bruised spinal cord. He could breathe and talk, but that was it.

When the feeling began coming back, it brought with it the burning, all his nerves going off, his skin on fire. Every bump of the ambulance ride was torture.

He thought that was it for him, for basketball. He thought his career was over. He just wanted to be able to walk again. He wanted to be able to play with his kids again. He didn’t want to regret not listening to that doctor his rookie season in Dallas, the one who told him to retire because of spinal stenosis.

“I thank God every day just being here, being able to wake up every morning, play with my kids, talk, scratch my head,’’ Daniels said. “Because I could be in a wheelchair now, as opposed to being able to run up and down the court, still being able to play.

“It could have gone either way. I could have not gotten up from the floor. I was able to get up.’’

Early fears

When Doc Rivers first heard that president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was considering bringing Daniels back this season, his reaction was absolute. No. No, no, no. Rivers feared for Daniels’s health, for his future. That, in the coach’s mind, wasn’t worth Daniels returning to basketball.

“I told him he should never play again,’’ Rivers said. “I was consistent on that with him. Even when he was deciding to get surgery, we talked and I told him I think it’s [coming back] a mistake.’’

Rivers was prepared to create a job for Daniels with the Celtics, a bench position or something similar.

And, for a time, Daniels felt the same way about coming back. Even though he knew surgery was necessary to correct his condition, knew that it would provide a life without the sudden numbness and tingling, without the fear of another major issue, Daniels considered not getting it done.

He thought he’d rather retire, leave it alone.

“[The doctors] put it out there for him, that if you want to play the game of basketball again you’re going to have to have this surgery,’’ said Shana Daniels, his wife. “You cannot continue to go on because the only thing that’s going to happen is it’s going to get worse and worse and worse. And then the next time you might not be able to get up.’’

Daniels went through with it on March 30, doctors correcting the condition that includes a narrowed spinal canal, which he was born with. It was an issue that had led to other injuries, including the thumb problems that affected him with the Celtics.

Doctors shaved a couple of Daniels’s vertebrae, cut through his spine, inserted three screws and widened the spinal canal.

“I finally got my first workout in and it was like, I think I was having a panic attack,’’ Daniels said. “I was having problems breathing. I’m like, ‘Oh man, I need to go to the hospital.’ I had to lay down and pour cold water with ice on me. The doctor [said] that’s expected, because of where the incision was. It controls your breathing. It was overworking.’’

And from that point, Daniels kept recovering, kept getting stronger, helped by the additional time afforded him because of the lockout. He was convinced when he got hit in a pickup game at Auburn, where he attended college. The hit necessitated stitches. It didn’t cause any tingling.

Rivers, though, was still skeptical. And then, during the lockout, the whispers started around Orlando that Daniels was doing well, was looking great. Rivers didn’t believe it. It wasn’t until the coach got back to Boston, until he heard from team doctors that Daniels was not only healthy, that he was healthier than before his collapse, that Rivers felt at peace with Daniels’s return.

“For him to be able to step on the court, that’s a true blessing to him,’’ forward Paul Pierce said. “For him to be back with the Celtics, it’s great. He really doesn’t seem like he missed a beat.’’

Ongoing situation

When Daniels ran into Arenas that day and fell, it was not the first time he had experienced symptoms related to his spinal condition. That happened his first year in the NBA.

He would get hit and feel a tingling. He would get hit again and feel it more, and feel it a little longer. He finally went to see a doctor.

“He actually told me to retire,’’ Daniels said. “I was like, ‘Man, you’re crazy. There’s no way.’

“That’s a blow because you finally get to the point of a childhood dream, you finally make it to the NBA, you’re getting to play, and the doctor says you need to retire. You’re like, ‘No, no way.’ I mean, nothing could have stopped me then.’’

Daniels was warned that the symptoms could recur, that they could get worse, that any kind of whiplash or sudden movement could be devastating. But, still, he continued playing.

“We knew he had challenges with that,’’ Ainge said. “I’m not sure that we understood completely all the risks. But we knew that there was an issue with his neck.’’

And so, perhaps, what happened Feb. 6 wasn’t entirely bad.

“I think that basically made him get it fixed once and for all,’’ Ainge said. “So maybe it was a blessing for Marquis. It was just a real awakening for him about what he needed to have done.’’

Happy to be here

There were texts and calls, from Rondo, from Ray Allen, from Pierce, from Garnett. Not only did his teammates come to visit him in the Atlanta hospital right after his surgery - the Celtics happened to be playing the Hawks that day - but they checked on him all summer.

And though Daniels said he left it up to his agent, Mark Bartelstein, to handle the negotiations, it seemed clear the Celtics were a top choice.

“Once they said that they want me to come back here, I felt honored,’’ Daniels said. “Just being able to come back here and play with these guys, this coach, and this franchise. It’s a great thing.’’

For the Celtics, too. With the loss of forward Jeff Green for the season because of a heart issue, Boston will count on Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic to fill the role Green would have.

“What it boils down to is he’s a versatile player and he’s a good fit for our team and our locker room,’’ said Ainge, who praised Daniels’s passing and postup abilities, as well as his ability to defend multiple positions. “His teammates like him, the coaches like him, and we obviously believe he can help us contribute to win.’’

Daniels believes that, too. He knows how close he was to all this going away, basketball, walking, playing with his two children. He has plans to tattoo the word “Blessed’’ on the side of his neck, an ever-present reminder of Feb. 6.

“I was always the type to say, ‘OK, I’ll do [things] tomorrow. OK, I’ll do it this week’,’’ Daniels said. “You’ve got to be in the moment, take advantage of every situation and just enjoy life. You can’t take nothing for granted.

“It’s a second chance, more than just basketball. In life. It could have went either way. I could have been rolling in here instead of walking and talking. So I’m just blessed to be where I am now.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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