The Curious Case of Kobe’s Achilles

Kobe Bryant

Editors’s Note (from DJ): Below is another post from Paul Shirley.  This post examines Kobe’s season-ending injury.  As a former professional player, Paul has a unique insight into this issue that is quite interesting (and did I say “unique” or different from what I think I have generally heard on this subject). 

On April 12, Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers’ longtime star guard, ruptured his Achilles tendon in a game against the Golden State Warriors. Bryant is 34, and already ranks 14th in all-time NBA minutes played.

In other words, for Kobe Bryant, this could be the end.

No matter what your personal feeling about Bryant, it is inarguable that he is one of the most important players in recent NBA history. The potential end to his career is –  in the sports world – a big deal. As such, after Bryant’s injury, fans and reporters were quick in their search for answers. They wanted to know who, or what, was at fault. Was the injury caused by Bryant’s age? By the minutes he’s played? By Coach Mike D’Antoni’s short rotation?

The answer cited most frequently was a curious one in a time of knowledge and reason: that, more or less, we don’t know.

For example, here’s what one man close to the subject had to say:

Obviously when something like this happens, everybody wants to know why. And there’s not always a reason why. If you look at our season, it’s been a nightmare. We had a player come in with a surgery which was Dwight Howard, then we had Steve Nash break his leg, then we had Steve Blake have an abdominal surgery, then Jordan Hill with hip surgery, then we had Metta World Peace with a knee surgery. We also had Dwight with a labrum (tear) in his shoulder. Antawn Jamison will have surgery after the season on his wrist. When you try to look at the ‘why’s,’ it’s bad luck. If we’re going to look at why these guys are getting injured, then we have to look at why the years we had seven or eight guys playing 82 games. Why? Some of it is just bad luck.

The stuff out there with Kobe playing 48 minutes … if you want to say it’s 48 minutes, it has more to do with every minute you’re on the court, gives you an opportunity of being injured. You can’t be injured if you’re on the bench. If that’s your argument, I can see that. The odds increase with time on the floor. You can step on somebody’s foot, you can get yourself in a bad position and get injured. To say he was injured because he played 48 minutes the last however many games is a stretch. Lots of guys rupture their Achilles tendons and don’t play 48 minutes. To make that correlation isn’t fair. We’ve just had a very bad luck season, but we’re not done.

Who said that?

The Lakers’ GM, Mitch Kupchak? The Lakers’ head coach, Mike D’Antoni? A random fan, caught loitering near the Staples Center immediately after the game?

No, those words were spoken by the Lakers’ head athletic trainer, Gary Vitti.

I am neither an athletic trainer nor a kinesiologist, but I did play professional basketball for a decade. Injuries, like earthquakes, may appear to the casual observer to be “bad luck.” But there is always an underlying cause. It may be asking too much of the average fan to figure out that cause. It may even be asking too much of the average athletic trainer to figure out that cause.

It is not, though, asking too much of the average athletic trainer to know that there is a cause.

**

The NBA is largely considered to be a players’ league, which is to say that if you have the right players, you have a chance of winning. This is probably true in large part because each team has only five players on the court at a time, so each player has a more significant impact on the outcome of a season than in any other team sport.

One of the biggest impedances to a particular player’s chances of playing is injury.

The men in charge of preventing injury: the NBA’s athletic trainers.

It stands to reason, then, that NBA trainers would be held accountable for their players’ injuries – that, because the quickest way to submarine a season is to lose a player, there would be a high turnover amongst trainers.

The data disagree.

The average tenure of NBA athletic trainers: 11.4 years.

Gary Vitti has been in charge of the Lakers’ health and well-being for 28 years. But he is not the longest-serving athletic trainer; that honor goes to the Detroit Pistons’ Mike Abdenour, at 32 years.

Those numbers might seem reasonable, if this were your father’s NBA – an NBA of good ol’ boys who keep their jobs no matter what their performances.

But this ain’t your father’s NBA. This NBA is a cutthroat place, where wins are demanded, results are necessary, where we must SUCCEED NOW.

Consider this: except in the cases of a few transcendent coaches (currently: Gregg Popovich, George Karl, Rick Adelman, Rick Carlisle), coaching has little to do with a team’s success in the NBA. (WoW’s own David Berri co-authored a study on this very subject. Or you can take my word for it; I played for a bunch of mediocre coaches in my 17 professional stops.)

Yet the average tenure of coaches is three years.

And this for men who are extraordinarily expensive to fire. NBA coaches often sign guaranteed deals that pay them several million dollars each year. Athletic trainers are paid salaries that run into the hundreds of thousands.

To recap:

NBA coaches, who have almost no impact on winning and are costly to fire, have tenures that are almost four times shorter than NBA trainers, who have all sorts of impact on winning and are (relatively) cheap to fire.

So what gives?

First, examine that quote from Gary Vitti.

Now imagine that it was given by a politician, instead of by an athletic trainer (perhaps the least eloquent politician in history, but whatever).

The problem with athletic training, as athletic trainers will tell you, is that it is difficult for the individual to evaluate the impact of preventative medicine. I could hire the best athletic trainer in the world and still blow out my ACL this summer. I could hire the worst athletic trainer in the world and not blow out my ACL this summer.

This is a real and difficult obstacle for most trainers; they can’t prove their impact…to the individual.

They can, however, prove their impact to the group. There are ways to measure health outcomes over the aggregate; NBA GM’s could very easily track these things.

I suspect, however, that they are not. I suspect this in part based on the evidence I see as an outsider. By his words, I think Gary Vitti has convinced people (and possibly himself) that what he is doing is witchcraft and not science.

And I suspect this in part based on the evidence I saw as an insider. I dealt with all sorts of athletic trainers in my time in the NBA. And what I learned is that almost no one is listening to them, whether they’re good or bad. The best (Fred Tedeschi at the Bulls, Aaron Nelson at the Suns, Gregg Farnam at the Timberwolves) are often ignored just as egregiously as the worst (naming names here seems inappropriate).

Instead, players do pretty much what they want. GMs think they know as much as (or more than) the trainers. Coaches assume that what they learned back in 1974 remains gospel.

And this results in a muddling along – a sclerosis in the trainer’s brain. No one outside the press corps has listened to Gary Vitti for so long that he’s given up on trying. He says things like “When you try to look at the ‘why’s,’ it’s bad luck.” And “You can’t be injured if you’re on the bench. If that’s your argument, I can see that. The odds increase with time on the floor.”

Of course, the odds increase with time on the floor. A second-grader knows that.

Yet Gary Vitti – who, if not the dean of NBA trainers, certainly the most recognizable – says these things as if they’re A) revelatory and B) the extent of human understanding on the subject of injury.

I don’t think it’s outlandish to assume that the athletic trainer’s job is to know a little about why a particular injury happens. Or, absent that, to try and figure out how to keep catastrophic injuries like Kobe Bryant’s from happening again. Or, at the very least, to do a bit of soul-searching when something dreadful does happen – to wonder if maybe it was his fault that the star player went down, or that the team hasn’t been together all year, or that he has presided over the worst rash of injuries in the team’s history.

Unfortunately for basketball, for NBA fans, and for scientific progress in general, athletic trainers aren’t doing that.

Probably because no one would listen to them if they did, and probably because they won’t get fired if they don’t.

– Paul Shirley

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