Day In the Life: New York Knicks physician Dr. Lisa Callahan

Meet the person responsible for making sure the Knicks and other athletes in New York are at peak physical condition

An occasional series to feature the behind-the-scenes work of some unsung NBA staffers. The “Day in the Life” project was conceived by Michael H. Goldberg, longtime executive director of the National Basketball Coaches Association (NBCA) who passed away in January 2017.


New York Knicks

Chief Medical Officer & Senior VP of Player Care, MSG Sports

NBA.com: As if you don’t have enough to do working with the Knicks, the WNBA Liberty, the NHL Rangers, the D-League’s Westchester Knicks and the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack, you served as the team doctor for both the USA Basketball’s men’s and women’s teams in the Rio Olympics last summer. What was that like?

Lisa Callahan: It was an amazing experience. And we were fortunate not to have any significant injuries, so I was really not every busy at all, which is the way you want it.

NBA.com: You did have more than sports injuries to focus on, though. There were fears about the Zika virus as well as concerns about the water.

LC: A lot of the prep work we did, besides being prepared to deal with the ankle sprains and those types of things, we went in having to be ready to deal with infectious diseases. Sea-borne illnesses, water-borne illnesses, mosquito-borne illnesses, you can’t really predict exposure to those. But USA Basketball worked with the international and the U.S. Olympic committees, and we built an educational platform that we were able to roll out to the players and their families. It also was self-selecting. The players who might have been concerned probably weren’t there. By the time guys committed to going, they had been educated. They knew what the potential risks were and how to protect themselves. And since August is winter in Brazil, the mosquito population was down, and there were spraying efforts. It really turned out not to be a big concern.

NBA.com: So what is a day in your life like, in your role with MSG?

LC: Every “typical day” is different. That’s probably the beauty and the challenge of the job. On a game day, my job is to be waiting in neutral. Observe and stay available. But you have to be ready to respond quickly, because if somebody needs you, time is of the essence. It can make a difference in whether somebody can play in the game. Let’s say I walked in [to the Knicks’ training facility in Tarrytown, N.Y.] this morning and there was a player who suddenly had a swollen knee. I’d could be getting the player an MRI. You manage the problems that come up.

NBA.com: Game days are different then from practice days or travel days?

LC: On a game day, some days I’ll go to shootaround, some days not. Most NBA team physicians don’t go to shootaround. But most are on the phone with the trainers – we’ll talk to members of the training staff as often as we’ll talk to our own families, multiple times a day.

NBA.com: And then you’re at Madison Square Garden?

LC: I usually get there 90 minutes to two hours before tip off. Because not only are you available to your team, you’re available to the visiting team. Physicians don’t travel with their teams. So the other day against [a visiting opponent], I got a call from them about one of their players. Let’s say there’s a player who picks up a stomach bug the night before and, pre-game, he’s not throwing up but he’s feeling a little weak. Maybe you decide to give him an IV. You’re there to see if there are things you can do to get a player ready to play that night.

NBA.com: What flips a situation from the trainer’s realm to the physician’s realm? Is it just the severity of an injury or condition?

LC: The trainer is always on the front line. He sees the injury or gets a call from the player. He knows what’s going on and then he almost always talks to the physician about it. You have to trust your trainer to have good instincts and good assessment skills. But if there’s anything at all unusual or complicated about the injury, or the player is going to need a prescription medication, or if the trainer knows there’s something going on with the player that might make it a sensitive subject, he’ll immediately call it to my attention.

NBA.com: The league’s medical staffs have a reciprocity arrangement. How well does that work when 30 teams are all looking for an edge?

LC: Medicine is not a competitive field. Our teams are competitive but we work together to make sure that every team is well taken care of. So if our team is on a five-city road trip, the trainer might call me from city No. 2 and say, “So-and-so’s knee getting sore.’ Or “So-and-so has a fever of 102.” I may call the doctor in the next city and fill him in about that player, with anything in his history that can help him know what to do. We do that for each other. You’re entrusted to take as good care of their players as they are yours.

NBA.com: How did you get into sports medicine?

LC: A lot of what’s happened, I never planned. I grew up in a rural part of North Carolina – I actually went to high school with Dominque Wilkins in a little town called Washington. After I went to medical school [at East Carolina University] I went for my training to California. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there weren’t many opportunities in sports medicine for people who weren’t surgeons. The West Coast started leading the way in the sports medicine world.

NBA.com: You moved to New York following your husband Mark’s career. What came next?

LC: I got a job in special surgery at a hospital and from there, there were so many opportunities. I was working for the [NFL] Giants for a couple of years when the Garden called looking for someone to come in and supervise the health care of [MSG] athletes. That was in 2004.

“Medicine is not a competitive field. Our teams are competitive but we work together to make sure that every team is well taken care of.”

Knicks team Dr. Callahan on relationships with other team physicians

NBA.com: Why medicine in the first place?

LC: Between my junior and senior years of high school, I went to a program called “Governor’s School.” They chose students from around the state and you basically spent six weeks in immersion exposure to all kinds of fields, like psychology, philosophy, journalism, science. During those six weeks at Wake Forest, I was enrolled in an anatomy lab. A lot of kids from the cities were like, aw, this is gross, looking at dead bodies. I was fascinated. That’s when I decided I wanted to pursue a career in medicine.

NBA.com: And the sports part?

LC: Part of what drew me to this was, you have these athletes who have these phenomenal, gifts and physical talents. The average NBA player, they’re taller, faster, leaner. Everything about them – their hand-eye coordination – they’re incredibly gifted with natural talent that they then take and work extremely hard to develop, to be at the top of what they do. So it was a natural fit for me. Going from when I was 16 years old, looking at the diseased state of a body and wondering “How do you prevent that?” to the opposite end of the spectrum of working with these incredible athletes.

NBA.com: Are NBA players good patients or bad ones?

LC: It’s really a microcosm of the population. Whatever an athlete’s experiences have been with medical care and doctors, that colors the way they’re going to react to you. The good thing about these athletes is, most of them understand that you’re trying to partner with them to be as healthy and effective as they can be. There are players who want more explanation – they want to understand the complete nitty-gritty of why you think what you think. There are others who say, “Whatever you say, doc.” And then there are players who take some convincing. But we’re able to provide them with a lot of information about their bodies now and things they can do to help maximize their performance. That helps them and the team.

NBA.com: Rest and proper sleep are big topics in the league recently. Are those part of your domain?

LC: Absolutely. We have a specialist who works with certain players on their sleep. We make general recommendations to the entire team about travel, about flights, about hydration on the plane and afterward. We have a nutritionist who works with the team, with the menus on the plane but then also works with individual players based on their preferences. I coordinate all of that, like the hub of a wheel.

NBA.com: So are you more involved in oversight than hands-on care?

LC: You can’t really oversee things if you’re not ever in the trenches. The management needs to be done, but the relationships with and care of the players is the fun part. I do both and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

NBA.com: Here in 2017, are there any issues or challenges about being female and caring for so many male athletes?

LC: When you’re a woman working in a man’s world, you can probably look for and find things where you’re at a disadvantage. I would say those are the vast minority of situations I deal with. When I started in 2004, I was the first female head physician in the NBA. Now that there are other women, I don’t think anybody notices gender anymore. Part of that is the evolution of the times. And part of that, without tooting my horn, is that I tried to set an example that gender doesn’t matter. What matters is your knowledge, your skill set, your work ethic, your integrity. I don’t think a player would tell you that my being a female has been any kind of negative.

NBA.com: Are there differences in treating male vs. female athletes?

LC: I think they’re very similar, except that the women may be more aware that I’m a woman. Because so many of them have gone through their own challenges related to gender. And maybe because I’m a little bit of a role model, as a woman in a traditional man’s field. By this point, though, a lot of the men have had female physicians and trainers in college. And a lot of them come from homes where there’s a strong matriarchal figure. Everybody brings their own perspective to the situation.

NBA.com: I would think there is almost an inverse relationship between a team physician’s notoriety and the team’s good health. Some team physicians are in the media more than others.

LC: We’re there to help them succeed. If nobody notices we’re there, that’s kind of a good thing. We prefer to stay in the background. I never want to become a household name.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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