In the moments immediately following Akil Mitchell’s horrific eye injury last Thursday night, the worry was very, very real.
With just under eight minutes remaining in New Zealand’s home game against Cairns, Mitchell found himself writhing in agony on the floor near the baseline. A stray finger had caught him during a rebounding contest and reality was quickly setting in: his left eye was no longer on the inside of his face.
It was a realisation that was rapidly spreading; players, referees and fans sitting courtside all reeling in both repulsion and fear, worried for the future of the Breakers’ likeable import.
Mitchell’s teammate, Kevin Dillard, grabbed his face with both hands – then his stomach – before retreating to the opposite end of the court. Dilard’s distress was palpable.
The Cairns players, with their bench just metres away, covered their faces with towels. Mark Worthington threw his to Paul Henare as the Breakers coach rushed to Mitchell’s aid.
This was a very serious situation.
One Breaker – Tom Abercrombie – was a picture of calm.
The veteran small forward, who had been fouled and was headed to the free throw line, swiftly moved to Mitchell’s side.
Abercrombie bent down, caught sight of the protruding eyeball, and stayed strong. He instantly grasped Mitchell’s wrist and pulled his hand away from the eye, helping to prevent further damage.
The support Abercrombie provided Mitchell in those first few moments was incredible.
“I just felt I had to stay calm for him,” Abercrombie told NBL Media.
“He was freaking out, as you would if it happened to you, so I was just trying to make sure he wasn’t panicking too much and making sure he had someone he knew to be there for him when he was going into a bit of shock.”
The 29-year-old Kiwi, who had never been a first responder in an emergency before, showed remarkable poise under pressure.
“I felt like I had a responsibility to stay calm for him and not panic, because that was the last thing he needed in that situation,” Abercrombie said.
“I was just saying, ‘we’re all here for you, everyone is here and it’s all going to be alright’.
“It was more just having someone he knew right beside him to try and comfort him and get him to relax a little bit.”
Abercrombie feared the worst initially, but felt the best possible outcome – whatever that may be – would likely come from Mitchell staying calm.
“I can’t remember if he grabbed my hand or I grabbed his hand. I just wanted to be there for him,” Abercrombie explained.
“I remember telling him, ‘try to take deep breaths and not panic too much, you’re doing a good job of leaving it alone and not trying to touch it’.”
Another teammate who provided tremendous support was Breakers sharpshooter Kirk Penney.
After catching his first glance, Penney turned away initially, keeling over and grasping at his mouth. But after a brief moment, he steeled himself and returned to assist his mate.
“I walked over expecting to see a bloody nose and obviously it surprised me what I saw. I just didn’t expect to see that,” Penney told NBL Media.
“But then the next thing that came into my mind was just worrying about Akil going into shock … I just wanted to stay close so that he knew that he had support and there were some hands on him just to feel that support.”
Through a career spanning decades all over the world, Penney has seen numerous teammates suffer traumatic injuries; dislocations, compound fractures, etc. The best thing to do in those moments, he figures, is to prevent the player from catching sight of their injury. This situation, of course, presented its own unique challenges.
“I think for Akil it must’ve just been a feeling thing,” Penney said.
“Just like, ‘man this doesn’t feel right’. That’s the part where the mind just starts racing.
“For us it was the same. Obviously we didn’t expect or have ever seen that before and after the initial shock you just want to be as supportive as you can.”
That support was greatly appreciated.
“Kirk and Tom were amazing,” Mitchell told NBL Media on Saturday.
“Two of the guys that I could see sitting by my side the entire time I was on the floor.
“I was fairly anxious before getting into the ambulance, but after knowing that I had guys calming me down and sending prayers immediately, I knew I could be okay.”
With pain medication and some saline drops on board, Mitchell’s eye actually slipped back into place during the ride to hospital. He is expected to make a full recovery, with no long-term effects, and hopes to be back on court sooner rather than later.
While reflecting, Mitchell also sang the praises of Henare as well as fellow import Paul Carter who helped lighten the mood with some well-timed jokes about goggles and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“Paul (Carter) and Paulie (Henare) also ran in and supported me while I was down,” Mitchell said.
“But I have to stress the entire team has gathered around me like a true family and no matter where I play or go, these guys will always have a special place in my heart.”
The way in which @ajmitchell25 dealt with having his eyeball dislodged last night is nothing short of amazing.
— NBL (@NBL) January 27, 2017
That word, ‘family’, is one you often hear when talking to the Breakers. Their club slogan, ‘Team is Everything’, embodies their selfless approach.
“It’s tough for a guy like Akil, who is obviously an import and in a foreign country and doesn’t have any of his family here,” Abercrombie said.
“We’re his family when he’s here and I just wanted to be there for him anyway I could; holding his hand, trying to comfort him, keeping him calm.
“It seemed to work well so I was happy to do that.”
For Henare, the actions of his veterans – while heartwarming – were exactly what he would expect.
“At one point, Juddy (assistant coach Judd Flavell) came over and asked if I thought we should get the guys away because they’ve got to focus on the game,” Henare recalled.
“He went to grab Tom but Tom wasn’t going anywhere and that’s when I noticed that Tom had been by Akil’s side the whole time.
“That pure love and care and concern that he had for Akil right then was pretty special.”
Henare feels similarly about Penney.
“Kirk is a guy that genuinely cares for each and every one of his teammates,” he said.
“While everyone’s immediate reaction is different, I think Kirk realised that Akil is actually the one that needs the support right now and for him to go straight back that doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
The Breakers dropped two important games across Round 17, adding a heavy defeat in Sydney to Thursday’s loss to Cairns. They’re now 12-14 with two games remaining and a long-shot to make the Finals.
But in the grander scheme of things, they won.
After all, for the Breakers, team is absolutely everything.
Written for NBL.com.au by Liam Santamaria