May 25, 2024

The NBA has had a major problem brewing on its courts. The number of injuries in recent years has skyrocketed and is a far cry from the non-contact sport it used to be in the early 20th century. Players can run faster, jump higher and are much larger physically than their predecessors, which has thus opened the door for a broader range and increased the possibility of injuries.

 In 1982, researchers for the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine reported that 71 athletes sustained 576 injuries over the course of 7 years. A similar study conducted by the same company in 2010 looked at league injuries from 1988–1989 all the way to the 2004–2005 NBA seasons, which showed 12,549 injuries occurring in 1,366 players over the course of 17 years. 

That is an 800% increase per year in injuries between the study conducted in 1982 and 2010. Some argue that this uptick is due to the increased number of players in the league, but it still does not explain why many of these injuries are affecting players at younger and younger ages. Many of these injuries used to be explained by age and wear and tear, which may still be the answer to explaining why it is affecting younger athletes. 

The missing factor in wear and tear is the increase in specialization. Specialization happens an athlete focuses on one sport and trains that sport for over eight months out of the year. A study from 2016 found that 36% of high school athletes are specialized athletes. Those same athletes were also two to three times more likely to suffer a knee or hip injury as a result of specialization, according to David Bell, a professor at the University of Wisconsin’s department of Kinesiology’s Athletic Training Program. This is because repeated use of the same muscles, bones, ligaments and joints can break down the body over time. 

By the time many of these younger players reach the NBA, many of them have had years of repeated use and abuse on their bodies that their bodies simply break down. If an athlete trains purely for basketball at the age of 12, by the time he is 22, he will have had a decade of repeated wear and tear on the specific joints and ligaments that go into playing the sport of basketball. It is also inconveniently right around the time many of these young athletes are starting off their collegiate or professional careers.

This happened to Julius Randle in his inaugural season with the Lakers in 2014. Not even 20 minutes into the game, Randle’s leg gave out. X-rays determined it was a “stress reaction,” as repetitive impacts to the bone had caused it to give out, according to a Lakers spokesman familiar with the incident. This is part of a broader trend that athletic trainers see in the NBA.

The trainer’s response? Vary the workouts and allow more rest for athletes. The Orlando Magic conditioning coach from 2006-2012, Joe Rogowski, had his players do other workouts and exercises like boxing, swimming and volleyball to combat the years of hyperfocused training in basketball that many of these athletes grew up doing. More time between practice and games has also helped athletes stave off injury, which has become the NBA’s controversial load management program. It is a program designed to determine how often a player should work out, practice, travel and play. While these methods are a good start, the league and basketball, as a whole, still have a long way to go in combating specialization and keeping players healthy.

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