Abercrombie and fit: Breakers veteran Tom to finally make NBL23 debut

Tom Abercrombie entered NBL23 with a desire to rekindle his passion for basketball.

Instead, he faced a potentially career threatening roadblock after a freak incident just minutes into preseason action left him with a torn retina.

The four-time New Zealand Breakers NBL champion was floored by the seriousness of the injury, initially believing the stray arm from Brisbane Bullets big man Aron Baynes left minor damage to his left eye.

"When it happened, it didn't feel like it was anything bad. I went off to the hospital and got it checked out and was waiting to get medication and go back home for the game the next day," Abercrombie told ESPN.

"The surgeon gave me the bad news that I'd torn my retina and needed surgery. The eye isn't something you want to mess with, it was a whirlwind back home to get back to Auckland on the redeye out of Darwin."

Abercrombie went straight to surgery, with initial concerns extending beyond his basketball career.

"I was lucky that where the retina was torn it was down the bottom so there was a little bit of fluid behind it. Because it was down the bottom it couldn't sink any further. That tear was close to my centre field of vision, which is where the urgency came from because if that tear expanded and reached my central vision, the chance of getting full vision back post-surgery is greatly diminished. There was a sense of urgency to get me home and get the surgery done."

As the Breakers began their campaign, Abercrombie was at home, spending the bulk of his days lying down, as an air bubble in his eye was tasked with the job of speeding up the recovery process.

"I had the air bubble there for six weeks. It was disorientating and frustrating. Thank goodness it's gone. When I went into surgery the plan was to not put the air bubble in there. They decided to do it in surgery, so I woke up with it and there was a bit of confusion.

"It sits in behind the retina and you have to lay down, so the bubble sits behind the part of the retina that's been reattached and the pressure helps it heal. After the first week of lying down it's essentially done its job and you have to wait for it to slowly disappear so it's floating in your eye. No one else can see it except me, it was disorientating and took up a decent chunk of my vision. Basic everyday tasks became that much harder, I came close to chopping off my finger a couple of times cutting onions and things, so it was good times."

Abercrombie and Baynes know each other well, with the veteran pair spending a season of college hoops together at Washington State in 2007-08.

"He sent me a message when I was in hospital and asked if I was alright. I told him I was just waiting for the doctor and I'd be out in an hour. I texted him a few hours later and told him I tore my retina, and it wasn't good. He was very apologetic. It was pretty ironic, he's my old college roommate, coming back from his own freak injury only to inflict one on someone else. He felt bad, but it is what it is, those are some powerful elbows, you want to avoid them at all costs," he said with a laugh.

When Abercrombie first touches the floor against the Sydney Kings on Sunday afternoon, it will have been over 1000 days since the Breakers legend played at Spark Arena in Auckland. Head coach Mody Maor stopped for a lengthy pause before explaining Abercrombie's influence on the franchise.

"Tom Abercrombie is a bigger than life human. This is clear to anyone who walks in. This is the pinnacle of what an athlete, teammate, man, father, needs or wants to be," Maor says.

"For the Breakers, he's a person who gets a statue outside the building. Losing him was incredibly scary because we wanted to play, we wanted to conduct ourselves in a way that Tom was the model. You conduct yourself on and off the floor like Tom Abercrombie. We have a bunch of young guys, new guys, this is the guy you look at, so I was very worried about it."

Despite the significant loss, the Breakers have been one of the surprises of the league to sit on top of the table with a 6-2 record.

Though he has been restricted to watching from the sidelines, Abercrombie can't contain his smile when describing the enthusiasm around the club about two pandemic ruined campaigns.

"I don't want to talk about the last two years too much but obviously they weren't enjoyable. From a personal sense, I didn't get a lot of enjoyment from the last couple of years. My focus coming into this season was to find my spark again and fall in love with basketball again.

"I had an awesome preseason and was really hitting my stride and what's happened is an unfortunate roadblock along the way, but I still feel being back at home and being a part of this group has been rejuvenating for me. Seeing what the team has been able to do the first few rounds, the identity they're establishing, that's awesome for me to see as a fan in a sense. I respect what they've done and I'm excited to be a part of it moving forward."

For a big time player with a big time resume, it feels only fitting that Abercrombie will return for a top-of-the-table matchup with the defending champion Sydney Kings.

It's not hyperbole to suggest the return was in danger of ever happening mere weeks ago, and though he has achieved all there is to achieve in the league, even he acknowledges there will be some anxiety attached.

"It kind of feels like my first game all over again. It's been a really long time since I played at home and I'm very excited but nervous as well. Coming back into the team it's a real mix of emotions but mostly I'm just excited to be back with the team."