Last week I had the opportunity to speak at a national conference in Chicago. One of the best parts of the conference was having the honor to meet NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He gave one of the keynote addresses at the conference, speaking on athletes and injuries in sports. As a six-time NBA Most Valuable Player and NBA champion as a player, as well as the all-time NBA leading scorer, he has a tremendous perspective on how sports medicine surgeons, physicians and others involved in the care of athletes can help players heal from injuries.

(Please note: I did not record his talk, so I wrote this post based on the notes I feverishly scribbled on the conference program. I quoted him as closely as I can remember.)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

These are some of the messages Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shared for athletes and the people who treat their injuries.

On the rise in musculoskeletal injuries and orthopedic surgeries

Doctors are encouraging people to exercise in order to get in shape and lose weight, and rightly so. In the process, more adults are injuring themselves than ever before.

On athletes and injuries

The two most important words to a professional athlete are not “championship ring,” “endorsement deal,” or “playoff bonus.” They are “pain management.”

On the impact of injury on a professional athlete’s life

For professional athletes, their sports are their lives. Even after an injury heals, the athlete must heal the torn fabric of his life.

On the athlete’s response to injury

When a professional athlete suffers an injury, he goes through the five stages of grief:
Denial – “Doc, this isn’t a big deal. I can play, right?”
Anger – “That doctor is an idiot. I read online that some guy ran a marathon two weeks after the same injury.”
Bargaining – “If I do twice as much physical therapy, can I return in half the time?”
Depression – “That doctor must be taking his own drugs. He said I would be back in a month and I’m not.”
Acceptance – “I guess I have to accept that I can’t do what I could before.”

On parents and their role in youth sports

Too many parents want their kids to live their dreams. Kids need to find their own paths and desires. We have to learn to respect that.

On helping athletes heal from surgery

Remember, do everything you can to get athletes back to their lives. And maybe they will get hurt again, and you can do more surgeries. (joking, somewhat)

Youth basketball athletes and injuries

Interestingly, Abdul-Jabbar’s son is an orthopaedic surgery resident at LSU. Maybe one day soon he will be working to get athletes back to play after injuries.

Also read:
Can sports science keep elite athletes healthy and prevent injuries?