All these years playing basketball and I’ve never suffered a bad injury to my legs. Through luck and maybe genetics I’ve avoided the sprains, strains, tears and breaks that can happen in a second and torment players for weeks, months or even years. I’ve never landed on a foot and twisted my ankle and I’ve never been running down the court and felt my hamstrings pull or snap. The letters ACL and MCL have never been a personal medical concern.
But for the past three weeks I haven’t been able to climb into a car without grimacing or executing a three-stage process and Tuesday night at the movies I had to lift myself out of the seats with my arms and try not to put any pressure on my knees. My knees are going — or have gone — and it’s a new sensation and one I’m not quite sure how to deal with.
Naturally I spent Wednesday night playing in my old man basketball league.
I have no idea what’s happened to my knees and it is plural. Same horrible, occasionally debilitating pain in each one. So it’s probably not the big ligaments but what is it? Tendonitis, arthritis, jumper’s knee, some type of other -itis? Google’s offered many interesting possibilities. It didn’t happen on a specific play but now it hurts on every play.
Last year I had a similar pain in my left knee but by the time I went to the doctor a few weeks later it had disappeared and I felt dumb doing knee-bends in the examining room. Five minutes later I was out the door, along with about 400 bucks. This time it hasn’t gone away and this time the pain isn’t exclusive to when I’m on a small basketball court in Washington Heights. If I’m standing and try to bend my knees I can go down an inch before I have to stop. Getting into the car each morning with my friend from work has become such a chore I chastised her last week for not buying a different car that would allow me to climb up into it. Something like a minivan, perfect for a single thirtysomething woman in the city. When I’m walking it always hurts but then it occasionally buckles and stops me and I have to make sure there’s no one behind me on the sidewalk who’ll run into me.
Louise has a…gel that she brought over from South Africa that hasn’t been approved by any FDA in any country in the world. The ingredients are listed in Afrikaans. I’m assuming it’s for human use, though it has the look of something a crooked trainer would use on a contender three days before the Kentucky Derby. That ointment provides relief, though it could be simultaneously paralyzing my internal organs. Advil works pretty well too.
All of this would be more tolerable if I wasn’t still in the middle of our Wednesday night hoops league. I’ve kept playing, as by the end of the two hours of action the pain seems to have gotten a bit better. So does that mean if I was exercising throughout the week it would actually help my knees? Is it the one night of basketball — a tough activity on knees as it is — that’s causing the issues? Yeah, probably. But as I’ve written before, the gym — the one with exercise machines instead of nets — is more torturous than chronic knee pain. I realize that viewpoint might have to change.
Louise has not been impressed with my insistence on keeping my Wednesday night appointments with fellow middle-aged basketball players. Stories about Willis Reed and Jack Lambert in the Super Bowl and Kobe in the 2000 Finals and the Jordan Flu Game do not convince her that I’m doing the right thing.
“You do not want to have knee pain for the rest of your life,” she smartly points out.
So last week I finally called the same knee doc I saw last year and made an appointment for next week. There are no worries that the pain will again have disappeared by the time I limp into his midtown office. I’m hoping he gives me some ideas for physical therapy (“you mean I have to stretch before exercising for the first time in my life?”), maybe a stronger painkiller, probably a recommendation to take a week off from activity.
In the meantime, there’s basketball. Wednesday I played the first game knowing the knees would hurt but expecting it to improve after I’d run up the court a few times. Instead it got worse. My lateral quickness — previously called glacial by scouts — was completely gone. Any cut was done wearily, on gimpy legs. I ran straight-legged a few times, not wanting to bend the knee. I couldn’t guard anyone and couldn’t jump for a shot. At one point as I backpedaled down the court I tripped over my own feet, a play that had nothing to do with my knees but sort of symbolized everything about an aging former athlete. A columnist watching in the stands immediately broke out a cliche about Willie Mays and his days with the Mets. A coach would have pulled me, a doc might have put me down.
After the first game — an ugly loss — I thought about calling it a night. Instead I stuck it out and played another 90 minutes. My shot was actually better than it’s been all year. The pain lingered though the knees did again loosen up as the night progressed, something I’ll remember to tell the doctor. In the final game — playing to 7 — the game was tied at 6. It’d been somewhat heated, at least for our league. You never want to lose that last game, not when you have to wait a week to play again. The pain kept me from really driving with the ball at all so on the last play I hung out near the 3-point line. The best player in our league — guy’s like a combination of Russell Westbrook and Chris Jackson during his LSU years — penetrated and passed out to me. For the millionth time in my life I went up for a shot. I went up over the defender who had tormented me the last part of the evening and hit a 22-footer to win the game and finish the night.
When I saw the ball fall through the net my knee felt great. I soaked up the moment for a bit, wandered over to my stuff, packed up and walked out with a couple of friends. I left the gym happy, but knowing the knee pain will return. Just hope I do too.