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Inside Klay Thompson’s epic comeback to become the player he used to be

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TIBURON, California — The first thing Klay Thompson does, before any of the boat stuff — untying the docking lines from the bollards, tossing the fenders onto the deck, checking the instruments and gas tank — is turn on the music.

Nine times out of 10 he picks Michael Jackson. Lately, though, it’s been Burna Boy, Wizkid and HoodCelebrityy. All kinds of uptempo Afro-Dancehall stuff as he tries to build himself back into the player he used to be.

This morning he’s feeling The Weeknd.

I feel it coming. I feel it coming, baby.

He’s singing at 8 a.m.

Not loudly, as most of his neighbors in this sleepy Marin County town are still waking up, but loud enough to feel what he needs to feel.

It’s been nearly three and a half years since Thompson crumpled to the ground under the basket at Oracle Arena in Game 6 of the NBA Finals with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

It’s been two years since he tore his right Achilles tendon in a pickup game at a gym in downtown Los Angeles.

He made it back from both of those catastrophic injuries to contribute to the Warriors’ fourth NBA title in June, but he wasn’t the same.

“I didn’t expect myself to be even close,” he says. A rare admission he will soon walk back.

“But in the playoffs, I actually looked at my numbers leading up to Game 1 of the Finals,” he continues. “If you look at my stats on paper, you would’ve never guessed I was hurt.

“That inspired me a lot to just keep going. It’s like, ‘I’m right there. … I know I’ll do it again.'”

Thompson bought this 37-foot fishing boat and learned to sail it himself in 2020. He’d always wanted a boat of his own. He needed something to replace the joy of playing basketball while he was rehabilitating his injuries. And it just might be in his genes. “That’s his Bahamian roots coming out of him,” his father, Mychal Thompson, says.

Occasionally a friend will help him tie up the boat or clean the windows. But he won’t hire a deck crew. He likes doing the work himself.

“What’s the point of that?” he scoffs. “It’s like being in the Boy Scouts. It’s very Zen.”

The weather is perfect as he backs away from the docks in Tiburon toward Belvedere Cove. This is the sunniest part of San Francisco Bay, but it can still get cold when the wind gets going or the fog rolls in.

“Wow, what a day. It’s like a lake out here,” Thompson yells out. “It’s the best when conditions are like this. Not a lot of wind. It’s ‘glassy’ as boaters say. We’ll get to the city quickly.”

Thompson loves boat language and boat things. He even bought himself a pair of white-soled Sperrys to wear on deck.

Out past Alcatraz Island, he spots a couple of seals and a school of jellyfish. He slows the motor and pauses for a few seconds to admire the Golden Gate Bridge. He’s quiet, but his mind is not.

“The best I ever felt was in 2019. I know I can’t get back there, but even if I get to 90 percent of that — still hell of a player,” he says. “Still a hell of a championship team.”

This is the kind of self-talk that’s gotten him through the last few years. But it’s self-talk, not gospel. Which is why he got ejected for the first time in his career on Oct. 25 for barking at Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker. “Four rings!” he kept shouting, then later clapped back when TNT analyst Charles Barkley said he wasn’t the same player.

Too much is riding on proving them wrong.

Warriors ownership has shown a willingness to pay whatever it takes to keep a championship team together, but this group will be historically expensive next season after signing swingmen Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins to contract extensions nearly worth a combined $250 million. Tough decisions lie ahead. They’ll have to fight to keep what they’ve built together.

This year, the Warriors haven’t looked much like the team that won a title last year, dragging a 6-8 record into tonight’s road game against the Suns.

“For me,” Thompson says, “it’s just about staying present and enjoying every day I’m in a Warriors’ uniform.”

The water is still calm out by Angel Island as he pushes the boat a little faster. This is the feeling he lives for out on the water.

He keeps the throttle down when the boat hits a bit of chop caused by a large ferry boat that’s passed by a few minutes ago. But he’s sailed this route enough to know the chop’s going to get stronger before it dissipates.

“It’ll get big out here,” he says. “You just take it slow. That’s how I learned it. Behind the helm, slow is pro.”

WHEN THE WARRIORS look back on the run they’ve had one day, a handful of moments will be front of mind. Thompson’s Game 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016. Steph Curry’s Game 4 against the Boston Celtics in 2022. Thompson’s 37-point quarter in 2015. The night Curry broke the all-time 3-point record at Madison Square Garden.

Experience even one moment like that and you’ll spend the rest of your life chasing it again.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Thompson says.

Rowers describe a phenomenon called “swing” when every member becomes in sync and moves in perfect harmony. Watching the Splash Brothers get hot like that is a religious experience for basketball purists.

“If you were to go back and ask James Naismith to build a model of what he envisioned when he made this game up, Klay Thompson’s shot would be a statue,” Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser said. “Maybe Steph is the player that Naismith envisioned, but Klay’s shot is just so pure.”

When the injuries took basketball from Thompson, they also took that feeling. From him, from the team, from the game.

“There was this sense of loss,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says. “You’ve got everything you’ve ever dreamed of, and you’re enjoying every moment of it, and then, poof, it’s gone.

[Warriors vice president of basketball operations] Mike Dunleavy [Jr.] has a great quote. He says, ‘Every player runs his own race.’ Klay’s race has been really unique and spectacular, but then there’s been two years of — I don’t want to say tragedy, that’s too harsh — but two years of hell.”

Thompson knows what he lost.

“Two years of my prime,” he says.

And that feeling.

He comes out here on the water to process it all, not to escape it.

This is a way of life, not a hobby. There’s a chess set, a sea log book and a fishing pole in the main galley. Below deck is a bed he’s obviously spent many nights in, an issue of The New Yorker and a well-worn copy of “Antifragile,” from Lebanese American philosopher and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Thompson has always been a voracious reader.

“Since he was a baby,” his dad says. “Nine months old, and you’d look over in the corner and he’s on his knees reading a book.”

While Thompson was out the last two seasons, he read all the time.

“I read Embrace The Game andDanger Zone, which was my favorite novel as a kid. Young, Black, Rich and Famous by Dr. Todd Boyd,” he says. “I also read just other random ocean books, freaking Blue Water Hunters, because I love to spearfish.”

Right now he’s reading Thomas Pletzinger’s book on Dirk Nowitzki to see if it contains secrets on longevity.

But it’s the copy of Taleb’s book that’s right by his bed.

“There is no word for the exact opposite of fragile,” Taleb writes. “Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience of robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

THE WALK FROM “The Ramp,” a restaurant near Chase Center that lets Thompson dock his boat while he’s at practice or a game, is no more than 10 minutes. But he prefers to ride his bike.

It’s the pace he’s after, not the time.

“I’m so grateful for being healthy now, I’m always in motion,” he says. “I never want to sit around ever again.”

It’s hard for him to even talk about those early days of recovery after each injury.

The first month after the Achilles injury was the worst. They stick your lower leg in a cast and tell you to do as little as possible until the swelling goes down enough to perform surgery and repair the tendon.

Thompson stayed at a house in Orange County near his family for that first month. His longtime agent, Greg Lawrence, older brother Mychel and mom, Julie, came over daily, helping him get around to do tasks.

“I’m in a big cast and gosh, ‘thing’s luggy,” Thompson says. “It’s hard to get up and brush your teeth or make breakfast … just the most simple things. You can’t drive a car, so you just feel immobilized.”

He read a lot during that time. Did whatever he could to occupy his mind. But not being able to move through it was torture.

He needed to find another way to work through the fragility.

One day at the house in Orange County, Lawrence noticed Thompson get up and use his crutches to walk to another room. Ten minutes went by. Then 20.

“All of a sudden we hear screaming from the other room,” Lawrence says. “Mychel gets up to see what’s going on, because we were both worried he’d fallen and hurt himself or something.”

Mychel opened the door to find Klay screaming at his laptop. He was fine.

“That’s when I heard Tony Robbins’ voice,” Mychel says with a laugh.

Warriors co-owner Peter Guber had introduced Robbins to the team four years ago. Robbins gave a motivational talk that resonated with Thompson, because he asked for help connecting with the motivational guru following his Achilles injury.

“Some of the methods he taught me are so simple and seem so silly when you’re doing them,” Thompson says. “One of them is just literally looking myself in the mirror and screaming, ‘I’m a F—ing Warrior.'”

That day Robbins thought he needed something extra. He was at the beginning of the journey back.

Say it with your chest! I’m a F—ing Warrior! Yell it! Pound your chest!

“The power of the spoken word,” Thompson says. “Even just yelling sometimes. It’s good for your soul.”

SINCE HE’S HAD the boat, Thompson has taken a handful of Warriors staffers and teammates out for short trips around the Bay.

“You can’t have a bad day out here,” he says.

Curry keeps saying he wants to go, but it hasn’t worked out yet logistically. Thompson lives in the North Bay, Curry lives in the South Bay. They each have a million things to do after practices and games.

But one day they’ll both make it happen. Their relationship is more than shared history.

Thompson was in Santa Cruz, rehabbing his Achilles, the night Curry broke the all-time 3-point record at Madison Square Garden. It killed both of them not to be able to celebrate together.

“I FaceTimed him after the game on the way to this little dinner I had,” Curry says. “Just thanked him for his part in all of my individual success and the motivation to keep working on the craft. Whether we were doing actual shooting competitions together or not, I always saw him work out, we always pushed each other in that respect. He had a huge part in that milestone, so I wanted to make sure he heard it from me.”

Thompson appreciated the call, but, in some ways, it just made not being there hurt worse.

“Bigtime FOMO,” he says.

They are two very different men. Curry is married with three children, a production company, political connections of the highest order and seemingly endless bandwidth for the duties of the face of the franchise. Thompson is single, can hold his breath over a minute while spearfishing and is impossible to reach when he doesn’t want to be reached.

“Oh yeah, he’ll just disappear and go out into the woods and think or something,” his father says.

The relationship works because they let each other be.

“The best part about our team is it’s kind of a judgment-free zone,” Curry says. “Obviously, everybody’s accountable to the team to bring the commitment to what we’re trying to do as a group. But if this was like the show ‘Big Brother,’ it’d be a lot of different subplots.”

Curry remembers that talk Robbins gave the team, too. There were some giggles at first, as there always are when people are pushed to step outside their comfort zones in a group setting. But that was the point.

Get outside yourself. Let go of the inner monologue playing in your head. See what comes in to replace it.

“We all got into it,” Curry says. “It reminds you that you can create whatever energy you want for yourself.”

Thompson has always known how to create the feeling he needs through movement or music or speaking something into existence. The injuries changed the way he did that, but not his spirit.

“It’s like he has a sincere revelation every day,” Curry says. “Whatever the ‘it’ is of that day, is the most amazing thing.”

Curry knows how it sounds when people hear descriptions of Thompson like this. There’s an endearing quirkiness to him that often gets misread.

He’s a fun guy with a dog. China Klay. A man on the street talking about scaffolding in New York on the local news. Jackie Moon.

“People use the word simple,” Curry says, protectively. “It’s not a negative though. He’s very consistent in that respect. He likes what he likes, does what he does, and he loves playing basketball.”

LAST SEASON’S CHAMPIONSHIP run was easy to get motivated for. Everyone had something to prove after two seasons in the lottery.

Then there was Thompson’s comeback in January.

“It was quite possibly the best day of my life to hear the crowd again,” he says. “To get the ovation and the starting lineup. To dunk on somebody. My first game back, I just didn’t think it could have gone any better.”

This season already feels vastly different.

In training camp, veteran Draymond Green punched third-year guard Poole in the face. Video of the incident was disseminated to TMZ, prompting the team to launch an investigation into how footage from the closed practice was made public.

Kerr called it “the biggest crisis that we’ve had since I’ve been coach here.”

Green apologized to Poole and the team, and has returned to the court in fine form. But the issues underlying the conflict are still present. Poole and 27-year-old swingman Wiggins are the future of the franchise. The only question is how clean the handoff to them will be.

Andre Iguodalahas already sworn this will be his last season. But the futures of Green, ($27.6 million player option for next year) and Thompson ($84 million remaining on his deal) are far from settled.

Everyone feels the tension. There are too many subplots in the “Big Brother” house.

“There’s not anything graceful about things ending, ever,” Curry says. “We understand that, but you can’t worry about that when we step on the court, because it takes away from it. … We wouldn’t have won last year had we let that be in our thoughts.”

Kerr played on the so-called “Last Dance” team in 1996 with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. There are similarities in the two situations, but he’s not ready to indulge the premise yet.

“This is my ninth year,” Kerr explains. “If you look at the core — Steph, Klay, Draymond, Andre — those guys have been together for basically a decade. That doesn’t happen in sports.

“But when you have a backcourt like these two guys who are just so potent and explosive, but also just so naturally humble and respectful to everyone around them, that allows for an organization to get through the rough patches.

“But it can only last so long. We know this isn’t going forever. This could be the last year, maybe next year is the last year. We’re in the final stages. We know that. We want to make the most of it.”

IN THE SUMMER of 2020 Thompson took a trip. Fraser had been trying to get him to visit his house in Mexico for years.

If you know where you’re going, it’s not hard to find. Surfers know the desolate stretch of sand on the East Cape of the Baja peninsula because of the legendary breaks near Nine Palms. But there are no addresses or street signs. To go is to want that feeling of being off the grid.

“I tried to explain how to get there through points of reference,” Fraser says. “There’s this hill, and there’s a cross on the hill, then you’ll probably see a couple donkeys.”

Fraser had invited dozens of guys on the team down to this house over the years. Very few had even made it this far. Probably best if he just picked Thompson up.

Fraser and Thompson are kindred spirits of sorts. They both love the water and getting off the grid. They both eschew entanglements that could keep them from doing that.

The Warriors even made a video casting Fraser as “The Most Interesting Man in the NBA.” His nickname is “Q,” as in Question.

Over the years, he’s been on Thompson’s boat a handful of times. They get each other, even if neither of them can fully describe it.

“If I was to choose my favorite book, it would be a book written by Klay Thompson when he’s 60,” Fraser says. “Because that’s when you’ll get everything that’s in his soul articulated.

“He’s still learning how to articulate, and also deciding what to articulate. He’s not puzzling, but he’s a little bit like a puzzle in that he’ll give you pieces that over time, if you’re listening, you can put him together.”

The day Thompson visited him in Mexico they mostly just went swimming and waited for the right time to surf.

“The only thing he brought with him was a pair of surf trunks and a basketball,” Fraser recalls. “I’m like, ‘You know we don’t have a court there.'”

Thompson still wanted to bring the ball.

At one point Fraser had to go inside the house to log onto a Zoom call with the other Warriors coaches. Bad timing, but everyone was trying to stay connected back then.

When he looked out the window, he saw Thompson shooting ghost jumpers against the wall.

“That trip changed my life,” Thompson says. “It showed me how little I actually need to be happy.”

KERR LIKES TO say Thompson is a zero-maintenance star. He might get upset about something, Kerr says, but he’ll say it in such an understated, respectful way, it never becomes a problem.

“It’s a really healthy thing, but at the same time, sometimes you want him to let it out,” Kerr says. “He won’t really reveal all the time how he’s feeling, and I know there’s so much more there than people realize. Sometimes I worry that there’s stuff bottled up.”

That’s what happened last fall when cameras captured Thompson sitting on the bench, wiping away tears, as he ramped up his on-court work with the team. He was getting close to his return, but he wasn’t there yet, and it hit him hard.

“I think he just was thinking about all the loss,” Kerr says. “All he had missed out on the previous two years. I tried to remind him of everything he had accomplished. I think I said something like, ‘Can you imagine when you were drafted, if we could have told you that you’re going to be a four-time champion and a hall of famer? You are going to miss a couple of years with injury, but you’re going to be able to play until you’re 37 or whatever it is. Keep going.’

“I tried to put a positive spin on it, but I just think his sense of what he had lost was just overwhelming for him.”

Winning the championship eased that. But it’s still there. The years he lost, and everything he used to take for granted.

“I took for granted being healthy and being able to jump and run and do all little things in life,” he says. “Doing laundry, going to breakfast, driving yourself to work. I took all that for granted. I thought I was dang near invincible when I was 28 years old.”

Most people would pause before delivering the next line. Not Thompson.

“But I was humbled, and I’m a different person than I was back then.”

He is antifragile.

Video produced by Julian Gooden and edited by Natacha Trisri.

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