Sacramento Kings fans rocked the arena earlier this month as Isaiah Thomas swooped beneath the basket and shoved the ball to towering center DeMarcus Cousins for a decisive dunk.
Up on Row J of Section 114, a trio of smartly dressed men watched the play closely. Like overprotective new parents, the three sat poised, hyper-attentive, alert for any sign of a troubling scenario that would spur them to action: injured joints, hurt players.
No ordinary spectators, the team’s three sports medicine doctors from Kaiser Permanente are part of an plan to spread the “synergy” of the two organizations to the community, said Kings President Chris Granger, resulting in more health and fitness initiatives for the Sacramento area. “Kaiser’s progressive ideas, which include nutrition and several other healthy lifestyle choices, are consistent with our owner’s vision not only for our athletes, but for our entire organization,” said Granger. “So it’s a really good fit.”
During any given home game, however, such lofty perspectives are less the focus of the physicians than what’s unfolding below them in Sleep Train Arena.
“We really have to watch the game carefully from a different viewpoint,” said Dr. Jason Brayley. “We get excited when there’s great plays, but we’re also watching to see if a player gets hurt. Then if we do need to take a role in their care, we’ve seen the entire process leading up the the injury.”
“You can never predict what’s going to happen,” said Dr. Jason Zemanovic, 41, another sports medicine team member and an expert in arthroscopy, the surgical practice of using small incisions and a fiber-optic cameras in repairing joints. “We see all spectrums.”
Brayley, 39, is Kaiser Permanente’s chief of sports medicine and heads up the Kings/Kaiser team. The physical demands on players are tremendous, he said, with 82 regular season games and countless practices and workouts. “Keeping them going, getting them to their goal of professionally playing basketball, that’s the most fulfilling part of the job,” Brayley said.
As for injuries and ailments, the two Jasons, as they are sometimes called, have seen “ankle injuries, knee injuries, lacerations, head colds and rashes so far this season,” Zemanovic said. Specifically: Right knee stiffness (star forward Rudy Gay on Dec. 17); sprained right ankle (Cousins on Dec. 3); and, most notably, a torn left hip flexor that’s sidelined a player (forward Carl Landry in preseason on Oct. 14).
Most of the critical body parts stretched, strained and overworked by Kings players are covered by the three doctors. Brayley’s on concussions and primary care. Zemanovic’s on shoulders, knees and elbows; and Dr. Marty Reed, the third member of the trio, has shoulders, hips and knees covered. According to statistical analyses, in the NBA, foot and hand injuries rank as the biggest hazards.
The sports medicine team’s work begins with NBA-mandated preseason evaluations – general medical exams, orthopedic exams, baseline screenings and cardiology work-ups.
According to NBA rules, the Kaiser Permanente doctors are responsible not just for the Kings but visiting teams, too, should those players become injured. There’s no home-team advantage allowed here, only equal medical treatment for even the stiffest of rivals. If a visiting athlete gets hurt, he’s taken right down to the sports medicine facility adjoining the Kings’ locker room, examined and treated.
In this well-equipped clinic, with its megawatt lighting, X-ray machines and essential medical supplies, the doctors often greet Kings staff and coaches who stop by for a second opinion for a family member, medical advice or just treatment for a headache. But it’s often the team’s trainers who to tend to the players day-to-day.
As much as the Kaiser trio is thrilled to be doctors to the Kings, and as much as they crave a winning season like other fans, the sports medicine team members knows they must be cool and professional. “That’s a big thing,” said Brayley, “We’re not their rah-rah guys. We don’t want them to think of us as part of the team, like we are trying to keep them on the court when they may be injured. So there is very much a boundary between fan and physician.”
Kings executives began a dialogue with Kaiser Permanente to provide sports medicine doctors “when it was clear that the Kings were going to stay in the market and we wanted to be aligned with like-minded companies that cared about Sacramento as a community,” said Jeff David, senior vice president of sales and marketing. The health system had been providing care to the organization’s staff for 20 years.
Negotiations entailed several meetings among Kings General Manager Pete D’Alessandro, his staff and Kaiser physicians, said Granger. After Kaiser “went to great lengths” to ensure the level of care matched the athletes’ needs, the contract was nailed down, he said.
Kaiser Permanente also partners with the Kings on a range of community health initiatives. These include 5K runs and the Get Fit Timeout program in which Kings players, coaches and dancers join clinicians in teaching local youth the importance of healthy eating and active living. Kaiser Permanente also sponsored the Kings’ annual Rhythm ’N’ Rims event in downtown Sacramento, which raised $175,000 for 15 regional nonprofits. Granger said it’s all part of new owner Vivek Ranadive’s “vision to use basketball as an agent for community enhancement.”
This season, fruits and vegetables such as celery sticks and apple slices have invaded Sleep Train Arena at a grab-and-go kiosk called Healthy Picks. But that’s not to say that all the players have thoroughly adopted the healthy-eating concept that Kaiser emphasizes as an important part of disease and injury prevention.
“A lot of guys are young, on their own and in a new city,” Brayley said, noting they may fall back on fast-food habits. “This is a young, healthy group but they are human, too. Nutrition’s always a concern.”
“That’s a common trend among younger players,” said David. “We are one of the younger teams in the NBA. You don’t see Kobe Bryant and the older elite athletes eating like that. If they want to play 10 to 12 years, you need to eat right and it’s more about practicing preventive medicine and making healthy choices.”
Prevention is an emerging goal in the sports medicine field, and Zemanovic’s background includes a year of training with Dr. James Andrews, an orthopedic surgeon, a regular on ESPN and author of “Any Given Monday: Sports Injuries and How to Prevent Them for Athletes, Parents and Coaches.”
Reed’s experience includes work with the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team as well as two professional soccer outfits, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas, U.S.A. He has also cared for professional cyclists taking part in the Amgen Tour of California.
All three doctors still have their day jobs at Kaiser Permanente. There, they say, they are no less attentive to amateur athletes, from the youngest of T-ball players to 40-something weekend warriors.
“We use those same skills that we’d use on professional players in the community,” said Zemanovic.
Brayley just returned to California from Seattle last August when Kaiser Permanente recruited him to head up its sports medicine program in south Sacramento. For him, it’s been a personal as well as professional journey. “My first NBA game was in this arena,” Brayley recalled. “Years and years ago, I sat under the rafters as a fan. So for me to come to work here and then to be a team physician is amazing.”