Pro basketball players, for the most part, wear the shoes they are paid to wear. Jordan's five-year endorsement contract with Nike is estimated to be worth $5 million. It is rare for an NBA player to have custom-made shoes. "I need to do whatever it takes to keep me healthy. If that's shoes, fine," says Bowie. "But it's going to be hard to come to some guy making a million dollars for wearing one shoe and ask him to change. You have to experience [a stress fracture]."
Most players' agents aren't farsighted enough to consider the potential damage shoes might do to their clients' long-term productivity. It's unlikely that an agent would advise a player to wear a better shoe from a company offering $500,000 less than some other manufacturer. Besides, specially designing shoes isn't cost-effective for manufacturers. Says John Robinson, of Nike, "I come to our marketing people with new, radical designs and they say, 'People won't buy that.' The basketball market is very traditional." Some of those traditionalists maintain that stress fractures are nothing new, that they're just charley horses or twisted ankles with a fancy name. Says Dr. Haas of the Bullets, "You always hear arguments like, 'Players aren't like they used to be.... When I was their age, we played with pain.' "
Andrew Toney doesn't want to play despite pain. For the last year and a half, the 76er guard has complained of pain in both feet from stress fractures. Doctors recommended exploratory surgery. In early January the Sixers gave Toney a choice: Participate in practice and games or have an operation. Toney began playing again on Jan. 25. Since then, he has had to sit out three games because of pain.
Toney doesn't want to have surgery. Bowie is sorry he didn't have surgery sooner. Walton has had surgery more times than he cares to count. Others will have to weigh similar decisions. "Most NBA players are in the red zone on the speedometer," says Cook. "The level of human performance has increased. They're on the brink of catastrophic injury most of the time."