Given how often a basketball player puts himself into a position that strains his ACL, one would think that ACL injuries have always occurred in the NBA, and of course they have. But Elgin Baylor, who played in the NBA for 14 years for the Minneapolis and Los Angeles Lakers and is now the general manager of the ACL-injury-plagued Clippers, says, "We never heard of it when I was playing. Torn cartilage, yes, but never this ACL."
Players, however, did suffer ACL injuries before 1980. We just didn't hear much about them because the injury usually ended the players' careers. Neither Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, who ruptured his ACL in December 1975, nor Doug Collins, the four-time All-Star with the 76ers, who tore his in March 1980, returned successfully from those injuries. Who knows how many cases of "bad knees" or "severe knee sprains" were really ACL injuries? When a player "blew out" his knee, team officials were more concerned with if and when he might return to action than with which ligament he had shredded.
Nobody knows if NBA players suffer more ACL injuries today than five, 10 or 20 years ago. According to John Robinson, director of sports research at Nike, "There are a lot of questions. And we're not attacking them in a very scientific manner."
Stephen Lombardo, who is a team doctor for the Lakers, says, "I'm not sure that there are more. There are a lot of apparent epidemics: We had three broken fingers on the Lakers in one year, three hand injuries on the [L.A.] Kings, seven knee-ligament injuries on the Rams. It may only look like there's a rash of ACL injuries."
Not until he was hurt did Corzine notice that ACLs were being ruptured all around the league. While doctors may not agree, players, coaches and general managers are convinced that more NBA players are tearing their ACLs than in the past. They offer the following theories to account for the injuries:
•Shoes are too good. The most common fracture in skiing used to be the boot-top break, so called because the tibia would snap just above the top of the ski boot when a skier fell. Now, however, ski boots come up higher on the leg; it's as if skiers wear casts from the toes to the middle of the shin. Some doctors have said the higher boots put more pressure on the knee ligaments, and that in turn has increased the incidence of ACL ruptures on the slopes.
So what does skiing have to do with professional basketball players? Almost everyone in the NBA now wears hightops. If high ski boots put more pressure on the ACL than low boots, then maybe hightop sneakers put more pressure on the ACL than low-cut sneakers—even though hightop sneakers don't come as high on the leg as ski boots. NBA players have taped their ankles for decades, and some players say that, too, increases pressure on the knee. But tape loosens up during a game; hightop sneakers don't. Says one general manager, "It must be the shoes. Everything else is the same. Maybe they're not giving enough?"
•Players are bigger, stronger and faster. Although ACL injuries are not caused by behemoths' bounding into one another, big, strong, fast players do exert more force on their knee ligaments than small, weak, slow ones do on theirs.
•The season is too long. With the combination of the interminable regular-season NBA schedule, the playoffs and summer leagues, some players are on the court year-round. Krystkowiak was hurt during a Sunday playoff game. "I was so tired by then that I didn't have enough energy to work out the Saturday before the game," he says. "I wonder to this day if I had gone into the weight room on Saturday to use the leg-lift machine, whether that little bit would have been enough to protect me from what happened."
For such a devastating injury, an ACL tear sometimes seems less than serious initially. Harper, who tore not only his ACL but cartilage as well, asked to return to the game a few minutes after he got hurt. The team doctor said no. Manning thought that he had simply hyperextend-ed his knee. "It wasn't that bad," he says. "It was an 'Oh, hell' feeling. You never think it's something all that serious. You never think you have an injury of that magnitude."