One night last October, Jeff Myers was wearing his Toronto Raptors uniform, playing in his first NBA game. Three minutes later, he twisted his right knee, and what looked to be a very promising moment became a nightmare.
Myers, originally from 15th and Catharine streets, never really recovered from the injury, which turned out to be torn cartilage. He played a 10-game stint with the Greenville Groove of the National Basketball Development League, but when Myers realized his injury was affecting his mobility on the court, he returned home to get back in playing shape.
"I think I came back too early," Myers, 29, said during a recent phone interview. "I wasn’t able to do the things I was used to doing. I couldn’t change directions and I wasn’t as mobile as I needed to be."
Injuries are part of the game for athletes. At any moment, a player can break a hand, tear an ACL — a ligament on the outside of the knee, or sprain an ankle.
Dr. Arthur R. Bartolozzi, of Pennsylvania Hospital-based Penn Orthopedics, has seen his share of serious athletic injuries as the former team doctor for the Flyers and Eagles. He also treats high-school and college athletes, and said sprained ankles and ligaments, particularly the MCL — which is on the inside of the knee — are the most common injuries he sees among football and basketball players.
Myers is now fighting the uphill battle that follows an injury. Much of his time away from the game is dedicated to strengthening and restoring his leg muscles. Myers’ routine includes a lot of running and jogging, as well as pickup games at the Christian Street Y.
The road to recovery was also lengthy for St. John Neumann senior fullback Jimmy Porreca after suffering a torn left ACL. He spent two-and-a-half-hour sessions four days a week at Pennsport Physical Therapy, where he did everything from riding a stationary bike to weight training for his legs.
Porreca, 18, is lucky enough to have returned to his old form.
Bartolozzi, whose specialty is joint replacement and ligament reconstruction of the knee and shoulder, said that years ago, ACL injuries were career-threatening.
"We’ve turned it into a blip on the radar screen," Bartolozzi said. "A number of athletes are back to full activity in three to six months. There are better surgical techniques and we really understand the ligament."
Porreca made his return last Labor Day weekend at the same Wildwood, N.J., field where he had suffered his injury a year earlier. The athlete promptly addressed any injury concerns by rushing for 173 yards and three touchdowns, leading Neumann to victory.
It was just the beginning of a career season for the local athlete, of 11th and Morris streets. The First Team All-Catholic and Second Team All-City selection set a school record for rushing yards in a season (1,667) and scored a team-high 162 points. The fullback also tied city playoff records for touchdowns in a game (four) and total points (26) in the Pirates’ semifinal playoff loss to West Catholic.
"I still really can’t believe it," Porreca said of the performance. "It’s hard to come back from an injury like that."
Most athletes are willing to play through pain when a big game is on the line.
Two years ago, the Neumann boys’ basketball team was preparing to play for the Catholic League title. Star center Brandon Brigman had returned from a broken left hand during the final week of the regular season, and reinjured it during the playoffs.
Still, Brigman wasn’t going to miss his last chance to participate in a championship game. He played with his hand wrapped in bandage and was held to a 1-for-11 shooting performance from the field, but his efforts helped Neumann defeat Roman Catholic 60-59 for the title.
Many pro athletes, including 76ers all-star guard Allen Iverson, prefer postponing surgery until the end of the season so they can help their team clinch a high playoff seed. That also gives the players more time to heal from an operation.
Bartolozzi said he advises patients of any risks they might take by returning to the game too soon.
"You can’t go from the rehab center to the court," the doctor said. "Our job is to make sure they do it safely and do not cause further damage."
Bartolozzi also warned that fatigue could expose athletes to further injury.
Brigman, now a 19-year-old scholarship athlete, remains injury-free and is slowly making a name for himself at the University of South Florida. He played in 29 games this season, averaging 10.8 minutes, 2.7 rebounds and 2.6 points.
Myers is hoping to make his own dramatic return to the basketball court this summer.
Coming into training camp in shape could make a big difference. When Bartolozzi served as the Flyers’ team doctor, he said athletes would arrive at camp out of shape, and would skate themselves into condition.
Bartolozzi suggested aerobic conditioning and strengthening of the lower extremities as ways of reducing the danger of injury.
"With significant muscle imbalance, you increase the risk of injury," the doctor said.
Myers hopes to return to his 2002 form, when he earned NBDL Defensive Player of the Year and played a key role with the Greenville Groove, winning the league’s first championship. The guard knows he’ll have to prove himself all over again when NBA teams start filling out their summer-league roster. This time around, Myers plans to be in the best shape he can to guard against injury.
"[The experience] has prepared me to be more patient as opposed to hurrying to get back on the floor," he added.