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Risk of Knee Injury Haunts NBA Players

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 25, 2013

The Eastern Conference is a two-team race now that Derrick Rose has been lost for the season to another knee surgery. That's good for the Pacers and Miami, the other conference title contender, but it's bad for the NBA, a star-driven league that gets no benefit from a two-team conference race. It's also devastating for Chicago, which played without Rose last season and now must play without him again for the rest of this one.

Rose needn't feel alone in his grief. Ligament and cartilage tears in knees, with the occasional sprain thrown in for variety, have become about as common around the NBA as charter flights and five-star hotels. Memphis probably joined Chicago on the scrap heap when Marc Gasol went down for an indefinite period last week with a sprained medial collateral ligament. Oklahoma City fell out of contention last season when Russell Westbrook tore his lateral meniscus in the playoffs. Miami's title hopes rest largely on the strength of Dwyane Wade's left knee, which has bothered him since college. He reinjured it during last season's playoff series with the Bulls, but managed to play through it. He's already missed games this season to rest it.

By such twists of fate and knees are championships won and lost.

Even relatively minor knee issues can direct the destination of the Larry O'Brien trophy. Some of the Pacers from the 1998 team that lost to Chicago in seven games in the conference finals wonder if they wouldn't have won the series – and the championship – if Derrick McKey had been healthier. He played, but was nursing what by then was a chronic knee issue. Perhaps if he were stronger he could have limited Michael Jordan by a couple of more baskets per game. Perhaps that would have been enough.

“It's a major part of the pursuit of a championship,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “You have to have a lot of things fall into place. Staying healthy is definitely one of them.”

The bigger question is why? Why so many knee injuries now? Twenty, thirty years ago, they weren't nearly as common. Going back to the ABA, I can't think of a single Pacers player who tore an ACL, MCL or any other variety of L. Their careers were shorter, but they didn't get injured nearly as often.

Why?

David West and his wife talked about it after he got home from Friday's game in Boston at 3 a.m. Saturday. They came up with no answers, either.

“Something is … something … it's something,” West said. “Obviously, guys are getting bigger, stronger, faster, more explosive. Maybe the shoes … I don't know what it is. Pushing bodies to their extremes. There's something … it's just not a coincidence, because it's becoming so common. Something … I don't know what it is.

“You hate it in terms of being a sports fan.”

West has a more personal reason to hate it, having torn the ACL in his left knee late in the 2010-11 season while playing for New Orleans. He went up for a dunk in a game at Utah on March 24, got knocked off-balance, landed awkwardly, and felt his knee give out. He missed the rest of the season, and wasn't close to 100 percent until late the following season, after he had joined the Pacers.

As often as not, however, the injuries occur without contact. Just ask Colts receiver Reggie Wayne, who tore the ACL and meniscus in his left knee on Oct. 21 without being touched. But it seems to happen more frequently in the NBA. Remember Pacer Al Harrington in the 2001-02 season? He cut across the baseline and up toward the perimeter during a game at Boston and his left knee gave out. Torn ACL. Nobody had touched him, either.

Rob Hummel can relate, too. The former Purdue star who played an Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday with Minnesota tore the ACL in his right knee in a game at (the University of) Minnesota in 2010 when he drove into the lane, threw out his right foot to jump-stop and collapsed on the court. Purdue's legitimate hope for an NCAA championship went down in a heap with him.

Hummel tore the ACL in the same knee on the first day of practice the following October, when he jumped to blocked a shot in a drill and landed slightly off-balance. He was lost for the season. He returned the following season, wearing a heavy brace, then played in Spain last season while he continued to work his way back into shape.

He's fine now, giving hope for all the wounded-knee veterans. The elastic wrap on his knee is the only indication that something had ever gone wrong.

“I've been pretty lucky in the fact I don't have pain,” he said. “My knee feels normal.”

Still, why? There's probably a lot of reasons. Basketball players go year-round now from a young age thanks to AAU competition. They tend not to play other sports in high school, so there's repetitive use issues. They are bigger, strong, faster and more explosive, so they put more strain on their ligaments. The Pacers weight training program is designed to guard against knee injuries by strengthening a variety of muscles and keeping the body in alignment, but you can't strengthen ligaments.

Shoes might be an issue, too. Back in the days when players wore Chuck Taylors, the low-cut, canvas shoes made by Converse, knees rarely gave out. An athletic trainer I respect once told me those shoes were better for players – at least relating to knees – than the boot-like contraptions of today, which don't allow the foot to stay in contact with the floor as well. Good luck getting a shoe manufacturer to ever admit that, however.

The bottom line is that NBA players live with the ugly reality that a knee can go at any time, for no particular reason, no matter what they do.

“You work on building muscles and strengthening everything up, and things just come loose on you,” Paul George said.

Now it's Rose's turn. He's suffered two major knee injuries in less than two seasons, and possibly will never be the same again. The Bulls can't trade to acquire a player to replace him without gutting their roster, so they're likely to have to soldier on in the purgatory of better-than-average, but not-good-enough this season, and perhaps seasons to come.

One could forgive the Pacers for feeling a twinge of pleasure from Rose's injury, because it helps remove one of the primary obstacles to their quest to earn the No. 1 seed in the conference heading into the playoffs. To a man, however, they sound genuinely disappointed that Rose won't be on hand to make their lives more difficult. After all, it just as easily could have been one of them.

All they can do is hope.

“If it's going to happen, it's going to happen,” Roy Hibbert said. “If it's your time, it's your time.”

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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