Posted May 24 2010 2:06PM
PHOENIX -- The needles are about two inches long. The man is grinning like the Cheshire cat as he pushes them into the muscle surrounding my right shoulder, then sticks them into various points around my ankles and right up the center of my stomach and chest.
There's a twinkle in his eye as he goes about this devilish business. While I'm lying on a narrow table inside a small, windowless room, I can hear him humming a tune.
First he attaches a spider web of leads to the end of each needle. The wires are running from a battery about the size of a brick. Then he flips on the juice.
"Let me know," he says in a soft, low voice, "when you can feel the charge."
Ba-DUM! Ba-DUM! Ba-DUM! Cut to commercial? I feel like Jack Bauer on an episode of 24.
I'm in the offices of Guoliang Cao, L.Ac., Doctor of Chinese Medicine, where in the next room, Suns forward Grant Hill -- like me -- has his body covered in acupuncture needles as he prepares for his next battle against the Lakers.
Hill is a 37-year-old NBA veteran who's had more surgeries than some medical classes over the past decade. He's doing anything he can to extend his 16-year career.
I'm a 56-year-old sports writer with an aching shoulder and a willingness to take one for the team for the sake of a column.
Actually, I came into this experience expecting to take a lot more than one for the team. As I entered Dr. Cao's office, I had visions of looking like a cross between that Pinhead character in the old Hellraiser movies and a stuck pig.
But before I offered myself up on the table, I watched Cao unwrap the needles and slide them into Hill without eliciting even a flinch.
"I've always been open to different ideas," said Hill, who has missed only one game over the past two seasons after being forced to sit out the equivalent of 4 ½ seasons due to ankle surgeries and a staph infection.
"I had somebody in Orlando I used the last couple years there and had good results. Going through all these injuries, you learn to take ownership of your health and that's what I did. I'm open to outside stuff. We have great guys here on our staff. But chiropractors, massage therapists, acupuncture, if it makes me feel good and it's legal, then I'm gonna do it. All of that stuff aids and helps with recovery, so I've been willing to incorporate that into my preparation.
"There's a lot more that goes into preparation than 10 years ago even. Not just because I'm 10 years older, but because of all the advances that have been made and all the things we're learning. To be honest, I didn't think I'd still be playing at my age, but so much is constantly about what we know the body can do."
Hill has read up on cyclist Lance Armstrong, Olympic swimmer Dara Torres and big wave surfer Laird Hamilton, all of whom have had great success in their 30s and 40s.
"I just think because of my injuries, I've consulted and talked to many medical people about diet, about training and what it takes for the body to recover. I'm fascinated about the body and what it takes to maintain a level of fitness and efficiency and to continue to compete at a high level."
Acupuncture has been around for more than 1,000 years in China, where it is believed that the body contains pathways that carry energy -- chi -- and the needles unblock stoppages.
Cao was a surgeon in his native country and traveled around the globe working for the United Nations and the World Health Organization. For a while, he was based in Vienna. He left China in 1989, soon after the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
Cao landed in Phoenix in 1993 and over the past 17 years has treated an assortment of pro athletes in virtually all sports. Golfer Gary Player suffered a rib cage injury during a tournament stop in Phoenix and thought he might have to withdraw from play. But a treatment with Cao's needles and he was back on the tee the next day.
When Charles Barkley was with the Suns in the early '90s, he developed a sore neck that wouldn't let him turn his head.
"Charles, the big man with all of the big talk, was shy of the needles when he came in," Cao said. "But when I put them in and he didn't feel them and he could play the game the next day, he was convinced."
Over the years, Cao has treated Suns from Kevin Johnson to Hot Rod Williams to Jeff Hornacek to Steve Nash and now Hill. The most notable Sun who he never treated was Dan Majerle.
"All those bumps and bruises, I think I could have helped him," Cao said. "But Majerle's a tough guy."
Of course, I'm not. And no matter how much advance reassurance I got from Hill, it's still a bit unnerving to watch as the first of those needles are plunged into the balky right shoulder, which has been bothering me for about 10 years.
But in go the needles and I don't feel a thing. Then Cao hooks me up to the battery-operated acupuncture stimulator and, after the initial bite of the current, lights are dimmed, soft music is turned on and I'm left to relax and doze for 20-30 minutes.
Later, when I meet up with Hill back in the waiting room, he has a beatific grin on his face.
"Acupuncture doesn't just heal injuries, but it relaxes and at the same time stimulates energy," said Cao.
After a Game 1 loss to Portland in the first round of the playoffs, Hill felt sluggish and heavy-legged. So he scheduled an appointment with Cao before Game 2 and came out "feeling better than at any time this entire season."
As the Suns have progressed in the playoffs, Hill has kept up his treatments.
"I've been kicking myself for not going to see him more during the regular season," he said. "I'm low on energy or I might have a muscle contusion. I've even come for allergies. I don't know if the stuff (really) works. Maybe it's a placebo. But I like it and I've had good results doing it."
As we've been talking, I've been moving my arm and shoulder pain-free in every direction. I feel like I'm ready to pitch nine innings.
"I can't explain or understand it all," Hill said. "But I'm going to keep doing it, even after my playing career. I want to be able to keep on being active, playing with my kids and someday grandkids.
"You know, I'm 37 now and that's old for a basketball player. But one of these days I'll really be older. You know -- 50 or 60, when a lot of people just don't have anything left. You've seen them."
Yes, I nod. I've seen them. And I think that if I slug Grant Hill right now, after the acupuncture treatment, I bet my shoulder wouldn't hurt a bit.
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