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OKC Thunder's Andre Roberson returns after 909-day absence to standing ovation, 'lot of emotions'

Every Thunder player, coach and staff member stood from their socially distanced seats with 5:33 remaining in the third quarter.

Andre Roberson was checking in.

In a gym without fans, Roberson had a cheering section. He cracked a smile as he crossed halfcourt. Roberson could hear the applause as he walked to the far basket, but he might not have seen the standing ovation Oklahoma City’s bench was giving him.

It was a moment 909 days in the making.

Roberson returned to the court Friday afternoon in a scrimmage against the Celtics, his first competitive game since rupturing the patellar tendon in his left knee two and a half years ago. That injury was followed by several setbacks, and serious doubt that Roberson would ever play again.

“Man, it was a lot of emotions,” Roberson said of his return. “Anxious, happy, just overly ecstatic just to get back out there on that floor and hear Coach call my name to get into the game.”

At halftime, Billy Donovan told Roberson to get ready.

“The nerves just started rattling,” Roberson said. “I don’t know if you guys could tell the first four minutes.”

Roberson collected five points, two rebounds, a block and a steal. He played 12 minutes, all in the second half, and was not hampered by a minutes restriction.

Roberson’s day was highlighted by a corner 3-pointer and a chase-down block.

“I think you were able to see glimpses of what’s made him such a great defensive player, the things that he does do and just how smart he is,” Donovan said. “His ability with his feet and his length, he actually played really, really well.

“Forget about the way he played, even though he played great,” Donovan added. “I was just happy that he could be out there playing.”

Chris Paul beamed from the bench when Roberson drained the 3-pointer.

“When I first got traded to OKC, I went down there to work out and hoop with the team,” Paul said. “And Dre, it was his first day on the court trying to play pick up. And he had a setback. I used to play against Dre year in and year out, and I got a chance to see him through this whole process and the hard work he’s put in. It was an unbelievable feeling for us to see one of our brothers who, we know what he’s been through mentally … I don’t know man, it’s crazy to see it.”

Paul was a first-year Rocket the last time Roberson played.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a freshman at Kentucky, facing West Virginia in the Big 12/SEC Challenge the same day Roberson’s left knee buckled.

Danilo Gallinari was a Clipper, Dennis Schröder was a Hawk and Darius Bazley was a high school senior.

Steven Adams and Terrance Ferguson are the only Thunder holdovers from the 2017-18 season when Roberson last played.

Roberson high-fived every teammate, old and new, when he checked out of the game.

“They’ve been through a little bit of this process with me, knowing how hard of a struggle it was just to get back out there on that court,” Roberson said. “Everybody played a role, and I appreciate everybody doing so. That was basically showing my gratitude and appreciation.”

Roberson, laughing in his postgame interview, said he could feel the love from Thunder fans who were watching at home.

“I just want to thank everybody,” he said, “Oklahoma City and fans all around the world for sticking with me and supporting me through this whole journey.”

Roberson’s biggest obstacle after entering the scrimmage was adjusting to new sneakers on a slick court at Disney World’s Visa Athletic Center. Roberson slipped on his first defensive closeout, but settled in after that.

“It wasn’t what I imagined,” Roberson said of the strange setting, “but man, definitely not taking anything on that court for granted.”

Once a wing who earned All-Defense honors for locking down the perimeter, Roberson played power forward and small-ball center against the Celtics.

Basketball has become even more positionless since Roberson last played, and Roberson said he’s practiced anywhere from shooting guard to power forward in the last two weeks.

“Smartest defensive player I’ve been around,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “He’s always in the right spot, knows where the next pass is gonna be. It’s honestly like he’s always doing the right thing defensively, and that’s off the ball. It’s harder to be engaged off the ball because you’re not in the play, but that’s something that he doesn’t struggle with that I tend to struggle with sometimes, and I’ll try to get help from him.”

Roberson’s defense, according to Donovan, isn’t at the level it was before the injury. The Thunder has two scrimmages left — Sunday against Philadelphia and Tuesday against Portland — before its regular season restart Aug. 1 against Utah.

Roberson, who’s logged 269 career starts, could still work his way back into the rotation.

“I haven’t really thought about it like this until just now,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said Wednesday, “but the thing that makes Dre a great defender is when someone scores on him, it doesn’t deter him from the next possession. He doesn’t get disrupted when things don’t go his way. You can play great defense on one of these great players in the NBA, they’re gonna score on you.

“It’s the same thing in this. When you suffer an injury like this, there’s going to be setbacks. In his case, there’s more than you would’ve hoped. But that hasn’t deterred him. He’s had low moments, he’s had moments where you thought he was right there, but nothing makes you more happy when you can see him on the floor doing the things that he does.”

Related Photos
<strong>Andre Roberson (21) poses for a photo during the Oklahoma City Thunder media day at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019.  [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]</strong>

Andre Roberson (21) poses for a photo during the Oklahoma City Thunder media day at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-96c694f87f32effcd1db7edae78273f9.jpg" alt="Photo - Andre Roberson (21) poses for a photo during the Oklahoma City Thunder media day at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Andre Roberson (21) poses for a photo during the Oklahoma City Thunder media day at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Andre Roberson (21) poses for a photo during the Oklahoma City Thunder media day at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure>
Joe Mussatto

Joe Mussatto joined The Oklahoman in August 2018 to cover OU football, men’s basketball and softball. He previously covered University of Kentucky football and basketball for SEC Country. Mussatto is from Oklahoma City and lives in Norman. Read more ›

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