IT WAS THE start of the fourth quarter and the Boomers, the Australian Olympic team, were in a tight game against Italy in an important group stage match. The Aussies had inched ahead and a finishing kick would guarantee advancement to the medal round. Coach Brian Goorjian peered down the bench, looking to put his rugged center into the game.
The Aussie had been playing well; he had 14 points in 14 minutes and nailed a couple 3-pointers, which had become the big man’s specialty. Now, he was needed on the inside to battle fellow NBA players Nicolo Melli and Danilo Gallinari. But he was nowhere to be found.
Where was Aron Baynes?
It was a long way to the bathroom in the Saitama Super Arena outside Tokyo, and Baynes had gone to use it between the third and fourth quarter. He had to go diagonally across the court, down a hallway and a flight of stairs. It still didn’t make sense. Baynes had left running so as not to miss the start of the final frame.
Concerned, one of the staff members went to look for him, tracing Baynes’ steps. As he did, the staffer found him. In the locker room on a tile floor near the bathroom, the 6-foot-10 Baynes was sprawled on the floor, blood on his uniform and on the floor from two deep, inexplicable puncture wounds in his upper arm.
The team doctor was summoned. Then paramedics. Still on the floor, Baynes was groggy and couldn’t get himself up. He remembered running around a corner to head toward the bathrooms.
An investigation broke out. There were two hooks on the wall for towels that looked like they could’ve caused the cuts. Maybe Baynes had hit his head on the ground. As the team of medical officials got him onto a stretcher, he was texting photos of his wounds to his agent in New York and keeping an eye on the end of the game, which the Boomers had eked out by three points.
He still had not used the bathroom and needed to go, so he got up off the stretcher.
He immediately fell to the floor.
In the confusion of the moment, no one had realized that Baynes had lost his ability to walk. Or that he was headed for a nightmare that would derail his basketball career and leave him isolated in a Japanese hospital, weeping in pain day after day, with the possibility that he might be paralyzed.
“The loneliest time in my life was laying in that hospital, going in and out of consciousness, going over my life plan and my goals and just crying,” Baynes says, speaking about the ordeal for the first time.
“My uncle Don had an accident 10 years ago. He’s a quadriplegic,” he says. “My family’s had first-hand experience with this going down. I was so scared.”
AFTER PLAYING IN college at Washington State, Baynes had played nine seasons in the NBA with five different teams. In 2014, he’d won a championship with the San Antonio Spurs. He’d made almost $40 million. He had a career season with the Phoenix Suns in 2019-20, averaging 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds that led to a two-year, $14.3 million contract that year with the Toronto Raptors.
And one of the most important moments of his career had been unfolding in Japan. The greatest generation of Australian basketballers — including NBA players Patty Mills, Joe Ingles, Matisse Thybulle, Dante Exum, Matthew Dellavedova and Jock Landale — were with Baynes as their country went for its first-ever Olympic medal. They’d beaten Team USA the last two times they’d played, and there was a hope they could do it again and win gold.
After halftime of the Boomers’ first game, just three days before their seminal game against the Italians, Baynes had come out to warm up for the second half against Nigeria. With his hands still wet from hand sanitizer lathered on just minutes before, he had gone up for the most basic of dunks in the layup line.
As he did, his fingers slipped off the rim. On the way down, he’d lost his balance and crashed to the court, landing on his head and neck. He sat the second half out of precaution.
“We don’t really know what happened. The neurologists can’t be sure of that exact cause. But I was in a lot of pain after that fall,” Baynes says now. “I was pretty sore and needed painkillers to play.”
Three days later, when Baynes slipped and fell again in the bathroom — and it isn’t clear whether it was due to the effects of the first fall or just water on the floor — his health rapidly declined.
“The loneliest time in my life was laying in that hospital, going in and out of consciousness, going over my life plan and my goals and just crying.”
When he was first found in the locker room and roused to consciousness, medics initially thought he’d suffered a concussion. But as time passed, his legs started to tingle. Then he realized he couldn’t move his left hand and arm. Still needing to relieve himself, someone brought an empty water bottle. He couldn’t go.
“Over about a half hour I really started to deteriorate,” Baynes says.
Victory in hand, his teammates came back to the locker room to check on him. Focused on the game, they knew nothing of what happened. He had always been the rugged play-through-pain type. It’s the Australian way, and Baynes was the toughest on the team.
“We came into the locker room just wondering where Baynesie was at,” Dellavedova says. “He was in a bad way. At first it was like, ‘Can he play in the rest of the tournament?’ And then we were like, ‘Is he going to be OK?'”
Baynes was taken by ambulance to the hospital and immediately put through an array of scans. An MRI showed he had internal bleeding that was putting pressure on his spinal cord.
BAYNES COULDN’T COMMUNICATE well with the Japanese nurses and doctors. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tokyo was in a state of emergency, so Baynes couldn’t have anyone from the team with him.
“He sent me a picture of the holes in his arm and said the doctor was checking him out and the next thing I know he’s in hospital bed and his texts were panicked,” says Daniel Moldovan, Baynes’ longtime agent. “No one could get us any answers. We were scrambling for information and trying to keep [his wife] Rachel updated in Australia. I wanted to take the next flight but at that point I couldn’t even get into Japan.”
As he waited for doctors to review the tests, Baynes was put into a room so small he could touch both walls with his hands, if he’d had full movement of them. There was no bed long enough for him, so the nurses slid another bed sideways to prop up his feet.
Baynes struggled to use the translation app on his phone. What did come through was that the doctors felt Baynes needed surgery to relieve the pressure on his spine. He got on the phone with his wife and children back in Australia and tried to figure out what to do.
“I was still hoping to play in the next game,” Baynes says, tearing up at the memory of the call and talking to his wife. “The Japanese [doctors] thought I was crazy. Looking back, I can’t believe what was happening.”
He ended up on the phone with an Australian neurosurgeon at 2 a.m. The doctor had seen the condition before and had a treatment plan of medication and physical therapy to reduce the swelling so he could get home.
“The Aussie docs put us at ease,” Moldovan says. “They knew what to do. Once we got a handle on it, we had a road map.”
For nearly two weeks, Baynes focused on doing what he had to do to stand. If he could stand, he was told, he could take the flight from Tokyo to Brisbane. It became his obsession, even though he often wasn’t strong enough, relying on therapists to move his limbs for him. The nerve pain seared throughout his body.
“I couldn’t cope. I was like a combination of burning, fire, knives,” Baynes says. “I needed the pain meds, but they knocked me out immediately, so I had to time it around the games. The nurses showed me so much compassion.”
Ten days after the accident, the Boomers ended up winning the bronze medal with a brilliant performance against Slovenia. When it came time for the ceremony, Baynes, alone and watching from his makeshift hospital bed in between doses of high-level pain medication, wept seeing his teammates receive the medals, especially when his name was announced.
The nurses didn’t understand the post-game ceremonies, so they came to give him his meds in an IV as soon as the game was over. Baynes set a series of alarms on his iPhone, so he’d stay awake to see it.
The next day, teammates Dellavedova and Nathan Sobey came to the hospital to bring Baynes his medal. He was better. The swelling on his spine had decreased and he was getting stronger with therapy. The hospital allowed him to see the team doctor and the athletic trainer for 15 minutes a day. Dellavedova and Sobey had posed as doctors to get past security.
“It was a pretty emotional visit, you know?” Dellavedova says. “It had been such a long journey for us to get there and he was such a big part of the program. There were a few tears. I don’t want to get in trouble with the Japanese officials, but I’m glad we were able to get in there.”
Baynes jokes: “Delly got an online degree.”
ON HIS 11TH day in the hospital, Baynes was finally able to stand. Then, in an exercise to work on motor skills, he was able to stack one cup on top of another, an accomplishment he’d been working toward. He was so excited that he FaceTimed his wife. When she answered he saw his youngest of three children, his six-month old daughter, learning to do the same. He began to cry.
Getting home was brutal. A special medical plane was chartered for the 4,000-mile flight. In order to keep him safe, doctors determined he’d need to be strapped down on his back and anesthetized for the entire eight-hour flight. When he finally got home to Brisbane, he had to be stretchered to an ambulance because he still couldn’t walk. Australia’s strict COVID-19 protocols meant he had to go into a mandatory two-week quarantine in a local hospital, still unable to see his family.
He began intensive physical therapy, which was the best time of his day because the room had windows and his family could see him. His goal was simple: Be strong enough to hug his wife and children when he was let out of quarantine.
He stayed in the hospital in Brisbane for nearly a month. He progressed each day, from wheelchair to walker to walking on his own, mostly dealing with weakness in his left leg, quite literally re-teaching his body how to move step by step, working his legs and feet in sync.
After a couple more months, he was finally able to run.
Following a breakthrough on Wednesday, he rewarded himself. It had been a week without falling. He picked up a basketball for the first time since August and tossed in a few set shots as part of his daily therapy.
Though he’s kept largely silent about his condition, he’s been inundated with texts, emails and calls from former teammates and coaches checking in. He watches NBA games most days.
He’s been going to the beach with his family. It’s mid-summer in Australia, and he hasn’t been home in the summer in years.
This week he attended a Brisbane Bullets-Melbourne United game and watched Dellavedova score 16 points to lead United to the win. Dozens of kids came over to pose with him for photos. He was happy.
“If you saw me now, you wouldn’t know anything happened,” Baynes says. “There’s been a lot of progress in the last six months.”
Baynes turned 35 during this ordeal, and his goal is to get back to the NBA next season. He’s rehabbing aggressively every day. “He has no off switch, he wants to do it eight hours a day. We try to back him off but it’s not in his nature,” Moldovan says.
Part of his drive to get back to the league is because of how much he is enjoying the way NBA referees are calling the games this year. More physical play is being allowed, which favors his long-preferred style.
“It looks so much more fun now. That’s how I grew up playing and I really want to get back to it,” Baynes says. “I’ve got the want to get there and every single day I expect a lot out of everyone around me.
“I don’t know what the path will look like, but I’m going to give it one hell of a crack.”