On one side of the Los Angeles clippers' locker room, Danny Manning picks up a blue-and-black neoprene kneepad and tosses it to his teammate Ron Harper. Harper snatches it out of the air. He daintily points his right foot toward the floor and starts to slide the rubbery sleeve up to his knee. "That's inside out," Manning says, scolding Harper like a big brother.
"I know how it goes," Harper snaps back, easing the kneepad into place. Harper knows how it goes. It has been 15 months since his career ended and three months since it started again. Manning knows how it goes, too. It has been two years and four months since his career ended and 17 months since it started again.
This kneepad, which looks like a toeless sock from a wet suit, is worn by players who have torn their anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs) and returned to the NBA. The kneepad and the metal brace worn with it have become the emblems of membership for the league's ACL union.
Over the last three seasons the membership has multiplied with elite players: Manning went down on Jan. 4, 1989; the Milwaukee Bucks' Larry Krystkowiak, on May 14, 1989; the Seattle SuperSonics' Dave Corzine, on Nov. 8, 1989; Harper, on Jan. 16, 1990; the Philadelphia 76ers' Johnny Dawkins, on Nov. 8,1990 (box, page 56); the Dallas Mavericks' Roy Tarpley, on Nov. 9, 1990; the Cleveland Cavaliers' Mark Price, on Nov. 30, 1990. Before 1988 the membership roll included Toby Knight (Sept. 23, 1980), Campy Russell (Aug. 13, 1982) and Eddie Lee Wilkins (Aug. 2, 1985), all of whom played for the New York Knicks; Bernard King (March 23, 1985), who was also with the Knicks when he got hurt and is now starring for the Washington Bullets; and Mitch Kupchak (Dec. 19, 1981), who played for the Los Angeles Lakers. "It's like some fraternity now—the ACL frat," says Krystkowiak. "But it's not the kind of club anyone wants to be a member of."
The club has grown so renowned around the league that players who wouldn't know their cerebral cortex from a pick-and-roll have become fluent in the pronunciation of "anterior cruciate ligament" and experts about its function. A tear of the ACL has become the most feared injury in the sport. "The hardest thing is the mind," says Clipper trainer Keith Jones, who has worked with Manning and Harper. "They hear they tore their ACL; they know what that means. They think [their careers are] over. You can tell them success stories like Bernard's, but it doesn't mean anything to them. They think they're done."
The ACL ruptures suddenly—the injury is not the result of years of getting banged under the boards. In a fraction of a second this 1½-inch-long ribbon of tissue, upon which a player's career hinges, can be ripped apart. Corzine, who was playing center for the Orlando Magic—an expansion team in its first season in the league-when he tore the ACL in his left knee, says, "I remember that I took a pass at the top of the key about five minutes into the game. Then I took a couple of dribbles down the lane and went to plant. It was the exact same thing I'd done hundreds of thousands of times before."
That one move in a hundred thousand cost Corzine, like other ACL club members, at least a year of his basketball life. While recovering, players work out alone every day as their teams make do without them and talented rookies come into the league. "The nightmare is that all of a sudden you're not part of it anymore," Krystkowiak says.
Until about 20 years ago a knee injury often ended an athlete's career. Even if he or she did come back, the player was rarely the same. The cliché is that the knee was not designed for sports. But for 2½ million years it worked fine; it has only been in the past 100 or so, since athletes started colliding—often quite violently—at high speeds on the football field, that we have noticed it could be improved.
The reason the knee can twist and flex is that the strongest thing connecting the femur (the thighbone) to the tibia (the shinbone) is a series of ligaments. The ACL is one of two ligaments (the other is the posterior cruciate ligament) that cross between the femur and the tibia, preventing the two bones from slipping forward or backward out of joint.
When the tibia juts too far forward, the ACL can rip. Except in the case of Price—who tore his ACL when he collided with a courtside sign—all of the ACL injuries in the NBA during the last few years have occurred when a player pushed off or planted his foot. "It happens when you want to jump with maximum force and speed," says Krystkowiak.