Peril in pickup hoops

Once a friendly game of basketball is being now called 'high risk'

Once a friendly game of basketball is being now called 'high risk'

March 09, 2009|By SAM MCMANIS / Sacramento Bee

Coming late to lunchtime pickup basketball at a recreation center in Sacramento, Calif., Peter Castles had plenty of time to gird himself for a game.

Amid the squeak of sneakers on the hardwood floor, the grunts and the shouting, heavy breathing and flying elbows on the court, the 43-year-old unzipped his duffel bag and went to work.

Out came his black Rolling Stones tour T-shirt, frayed where the sleeves were cut off. Then came the black, ankle-high socks (two pairs to prevent blisters) and his shiny, black, high-end Adidas hightops - veritable Cadillacs for the feet. Finally, he reached deep and snagged his black mouth guard, which he nervously chewed on while watching the rhythmic hustle and flow of the action.

No need to ask why Castles wears the mouth guard. Dark holes where his right incisor and canine formerly maintained residence make it gapingly obvious whenever he smiles. Awaiting dental implants, Castles thinks the missing teeth serve as a good war story to share with fellow weekend (and weekday) hoops warriors.


"A guy roundhouse-punched me in a pickup game a long time ago - friend of mine, too," Castles says. "Disputed call."

Yeah, it can be a little rough out there on the courts and playgrounds - even in "friendly" pickup games.

Basketball, once considered a finesse game, now is listed as a "high-risk" sport by the National Athletic Trainers Association. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons ranks the sport as the one that causes the highest number of injuries, with more than 1.6 million incurred annually - easily "outhurting" second-place cycling.

And yet, hoopsters play on, well into middle age. Pickup basketball now is the sport of choice for the occupant of the White House (no more brush clearing and mountain biking).

Just as runners and cyclists consider their activities "lifelong sports," so do pickup basketball players. As long as ibuprofen and ice are handy, there's no way they are going to let injuries stop them - be they minor (pulled hamstring) or major (anterior cruciate knee ligament tear).

"My body's breaking down," Castles says. "Doctors tell me to rest and stop playing. That's not gonna happen. I know that my pickup career will end someday with something catastrophic. But I've got a hoops addiction. I can't give it up."

Castles' teeth are hardly the only casualties of his two decades of playing pickup basketball. Far from it. There was that bout of plantar fasciitis in his arch, tough to shake. Pulled calf muscles sometimes nag him. And doctors tell Castles he has a degenerative left hip - "I can feel it pop and tweak out there," he says - that eventually will need surgery.

Mercifully, his knees have been spared.

"My ankles, too," he says. "I've had only two ankle sprains in 24 years of playing pickup."

So what's Castles' secret for staying injury-free on the court?

A stretching regimen?

Strength training?

Plyometric exercises?

Not really, he says with a shake of his head. Then he jogs onto the court for a new game, with nary a hint at warming up his muscles.

"I stretch, sometimes," he says. "But I should do it more. The doctors say, as you get older, you need to condition yourself at a higher ratio than what you'll be exerting to avoid injury. But, for me, I only have so much time for exercise, and I want to play."

Contrast Castles' pregame warm-up with that of another 40-something regular - Norm Ng, who when asked about his hoop history says modestly, "I've played a little ball in my day."

Ng says it's important for players of a "certain age" to take care of themselves and adjust their games accordingly.

"Mentally, you still think you're in your 20s," he says. "But you notice you're a step slower. But if you don't stay in shape, you're going to feel it out there.

"When I was younger, I played a lot harder, really went after it. You tend to get more injuries going like that. And if you're not in great shape, you'll get banged up pretty good. I don't know if I'm any smarter now, but I do stretch at home.

"You've got to work out your back, lower ab muscles, calves. I'd highly recommend that to anyone, no matter your age."

Ng's philosophy is echoed by everyone from sports-medicine specialists to physical therapists to coaches.

"Injuries have a higher incidence in the untrained athlete or weekend warrior, because their bodies are not specifically trained for the intensity of the game," says Sacramento physical therapist Billy Martinez. "We see injuries occur from player contact, knee and ankle injuries from landing awkwardly, landing on another player's foot, planting the foot to change directions, or not wearing the correct shoe."

The most serious injuries, according to Dr. Meredith Bean, a sports-medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente's South Sacramento Medical Center, are ACL knee tears and Achilles tendon ruptures.

"Especially in the Achilles," she says. "The elasticity of the (tendon) collagen decreases with age. Things tighten up. And then you get muscle fatigue and we can see ruptures."

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