Ratliff Works Toward Return

Ratliff has been working non-stop to rehab the injury that kept him out of all but three games this season.
Scott Cunningham - NBAE/Getty Images
NBA players are more style-conscious than their peers in professional football, hockey and baseball. Especially the ball players. But that doesn't mean Theo Ratliff wants to be known for looking good in street clothes on the bench for an entire year.

But after playing only the first two games of the season, Ratliff required surgery to remove torn cartilage from his hip. Since then he has struggled to rehabilitate his aching hip, working out, running, often participating in the same drills his teammates are going through on a regular basis.

If you are wondering why he couldn't play if he could do all this, you aren't alone. Ratliff wondered, too. And that's what pushed him to try to play in Toronto on January 11. But the pain returned, the same pain he felt before the surgery that was supposed to make things right.

"When I went out there the first time," he says, "after I had the surgery, I felt that I was healthy enough to play. I knew it would be a test to go out there then. I mean, either it was going to work to the best or work to the worst. It just so happened it worked to the worst and I ended up back on the injured list. The pain I had coming back was the same type of pain I had before I had the surgery. After that, I knew it wasn't healed enough for me to go out there and be able play."

So the rehab routines began anew. Nothing helped. The Hawks and Ratliff tried every possible thing to find the right person or the right treatment for his injury.

Enter the Alex McKechnie Physiotherapy Clinic, housed in Ice Sports Burnaby 8-Rinks in Burnaby, British Columbia. The practice facility of the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, 8-Rinks is also the home of the Skate Canada Centre of Excellence Training Center and the Sports Medicine Council of British Columbia. While the Hawks made their annual West Coast road trip in February, Ratliff was in Vancouver beginning McKechnie's 12-stage program. McKechnie, who has worked with the Canucks and the L.A. Lakers, is in high demand from athletes in all sports, but especially hockey players. Ratliff's injury is common in hockey and soccer because of the hip's constant knifing action from skating or kicking a ball.

McKechnie works directly with his clients. "He told me when he decided he would work with me," Ratliff says, "that once he decides to take you on as his project, you become his case. He's got to make sure everything goes as planned, on schedule. Once he brings you on as a patient, he makes sure he goes with you one hundred percent all the way, until you get fully healthy. With the type of work that we did every day, it's not easy. It's something that you've never done before."

The rehabilitation process is demanding enough that McKechnie doesn't take on just anyone. "He determines what type of effort that you give to tell whether you are really trying to get things done, really concentrating, trying to get through the program," Ratliff says. "He said I was a good candidate because I picked up things real fast, what he was trying to do with the different drills."

That week in Vancouver was grueling. "The exercises," Ratliff says, "are very difficult to do. It's gotten a lot easier now that I've been doing it for a couple of weeks, but when I first started, man, it was like two-a-day camp. You're concentrating on contracting the lower abdomen and stuff so much and trying to stay still. It's exhausting just trying to hold your stomach muscles tight. That's something you do throughout the whole two and a half hours of workouts. It's definitely real serious."

  • Watch Ratliff Performing the Exercises

    McKechnie's drills create constant resistance against the limbs to correct the body's alignment. Through repetition, Ratliff is learning how to use positioning to strengthen his movements.

    "You have elastic straps around your legs and your ankles," Ratliff says. "You've got these straps pulling, so you're constantly firing every time you move. "To explain it a little bit," he continues, "when you're kicking the ball in soccer, you're exploding [at the hip] with your muscles. You kind of lose your posture, as far the proper way your body is supposed to function, which is what happened to me with the surgery. I lost muscle, lost endurance, lost strength within my hip, which caused my back to slip out of place. It's complicated because it's so many different areas within the hip that you have to have at a hundred percent before you can go out and do anything.

    "Because [McKechnie] has all these different techniques, all these bands and stuff wrapped around you when you're doing exercises, he can eliminate the pain in the area. I don't know how he does it but it works."

    Back in Atlanta, Ratliff continues this endurance-based program in a room off the training room next to the Hawks locker room and in a little area at the end of Philips Arena practice court that's just been painted with numbered charts for footwork drills. These Ratliff does with bands around his thighs and ankles, torquing, learning how to disassociate his upper body and from his lower body.

    "You turn and fire your hips," Ratliff says, "which is what you do in basketball: turn, catch the ball to the post. Where most guys turn their whole body, [McKechnie] teaches you to disassociate. That's why Kobe [Bryant] got so good. He can fake a guy and make a step back before a guy can recover. There are different ways of using your hips instead of picking your leg up."

    Slowly, Ratliff is experiencing all of those ways as he sweats through his program, building his strength while easing his pain. Now that he feels the difference in his body, he is determined to make his rehab a positive experience for the whole team. Not only because they can adopt his exercises but also because Ratliff will be at peak fitness for training camp. If they all work together, he knows, "We'll be at our best when next season rolls around."

    This story appears in the April 2002 issue of Hawk Talk, the Atlanta Hawks Official Team Magazine. Learn how to subscribe today.