SI Vault
Give the Man a Big Hand
Kelli Anderson
May 18, 1998
By being an impatient patient, Patrick Ewing forged a remarkable comeback
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 18, 1998

Give The Man A Big Hand

By being an impatient patient, Patrick Ewing forged a remarkable comeback

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The injury to his shooting hand that New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing sustained while breaking a fall at Milwaukee on Dec. 20—a dislocation of the right lunate bone, one of eight small bones in the wrist—rarely occurs on the basketball court. However, it happens often enough among the general populace, in football and in falls or automobile accidents, that doctors can construct a pretty grim prognosis for the patient with average care and motivation: a rehabilitation period of at least six months and a permanent 20% to 30% loss in range of motion. But last Thursday, only 4� months after injuring himself, Ewing was back on the court, defying normal medical estimates and averaging 15.3 points in three games of the Knicks' Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Indiana Pacers, which the Pacers led 3-1 after a victory on Sunday.

Had Ewing's recovery been similar to a normal patient's, it would have meant the end of his season and perhaps his career. "Because it was Patrick's shooting hand, our biggest worry from the start was whether he'd regain full motion," says Knicks team doctor Norman Scott. "A lot of lay people might not need full motion; they might function at 75 percent motion. He couldn't."

Fortunately, Ewing had three things working for him that the average Joe doesn't: high motivation (his bread and butter, after all, lies in the full flick of his wrist), an absence of other work obligations, and a team of medical professionals devoted to his recovery. Within eight hours of his tumble in Milwaukee, Ewing had already undergone a 1�-hour operation in New York by hand surgeons Charles Melone and Susan Craig Scott ( Norman's wife). Their quick relocation of the lunate and repair of the surrounding ligaments, which had been torn, spared Ewing tissue swelling and nerve damage.

A few days after the surgery Ewing started an aggressive conditioning regimen with Knicks strength coach Greg Brittenham to keep himself generally in shape. Once his above-the-elbow cast came off on Feb. 15 (it was replaced by a light plastic wrist splint), Ewing added modified upper-body workouts and range-of-motion exercises for his wrist with team trainer Mike Saunders and New York-based physical therapist Karen Lockhart. "That was four hours a day, easy, just at the [ Knicks' practice] facility," says Brittenham. "Even on the plane and bus, Patrick was always working on his grip strength or range of motion. He always had Silly Putty in his pocket. So he really probably spent eight to 10 hours a day on his rehab. He gave 100 percent from Day One. There was no question in his mind that he could come back."

No obstacle fazed Ewing. While traveling with the Knicks during the early phases of rehab, he and Brittenham would seek out a gym or health club while the rest of New York's players were at a shootaround. It couldn't be just any gym. "We always had to find a place that had a ladder we could set up next to the stair machine so Patrick could keep his arm elevated while he worked out," says Brittenham. "That wasn't always easy, but we never missed a workout."

Once the wrist cast came off and Ewing could start running the floor, Brittenham concentrated on working Ewing's left side, throwing passes to his left hand, forcing him to dribble and shoot layups with it. "It's called cross-transfer training," says Brittenham. "The idea is that if you train the left side of the body, there might be a transfer to the right side. I saw some real benefits in Patrick not being able to use that right hand."

Fragile though Ewing's right hand was, Norman Scott knew it had a future when Ewing's wrist registered a 65% range of motion a mere month after the cast came off. "As soon as we saw that, it allayed a lot of our apprehension," says Scott. "It was our first glimmering that he might force us into making a decision about playing him this year."

Ewing's return to action with almost full range of motion and strength last week "was a real testament to Patrick's motivation and medical team," says Pacers team doctor Sandford Kunkel. "It gives hope to future athletes faced with this injury."

But what hope does the guy who approximates Ewing's injury by, say, falling from a scaffolding have for regaining full range of motion when faced with a need for highly specialized surgery, time-consuming rehab and, perhaps most daunting of all, the draconian tightfistedness of the typical modern health-care organization? "You had better be a hell of a motivated person," says Norman Scott, "because you're going to have to take charge of your own treatment. Doctors will be handcuffed in what they can prescribe. The injury is substantial enough, but when you have to fight the system as well.... I'd venture that most people would say, 'The hell with it.' "