The Dreaded Ankle Injury

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One of the most spectacular and hugely popular moves on the hard-court is the ‘ankle-breaking’ crossover. The ball handler, usually a speedy guard, quickly moves the ball from one hand to the other, changing direction in a flash, and leaving his hapless defender for dead—well, usually seated on the floor wishing the court would swallow him up. Seriously, there’s no way you wouldn’t want to watch this over and over again, unless you’re Andre Miller, of course.

But contrary to the somewhat hyperbolic expression, sick crossovers are not usually responsible for the breaking of a player’s ankle. If they were we might not relish the move with such fervor. Unfortunately, however, ankle injuries are, and always have been, a frequent occurrence in the NBA—and in basketball in general. They’re much more likely to happen this way however.

Steph Curry, a guy with a history of dodgy ankles, comes down on the foot of Blake Griffin, who’s setting the pick, and that’s all she wrote, so to speak. Sure, Eric Gordon’s quick change of direction was a contributing factor to Curry’s injury, but the contact with Griffin’s foot creates the ankle inversion that leaves Curry writhing in pain. And just a few nights ago Rockets’ star James Harden injured his ankle when he stepped on David Lee’s foot as he drove to the rim. When players usually hurt their ankles stepping on another player foot, however, it’s when they’re grabbing a rebound in traffic. Everything is extremely congested down low and the likelihood of bodies—feet included—getting tangled up is high.

With the constant speed and sudden changes of direction involved in an NBA game, ankle injuries are inevitable. Our ankles probably weren’t designed for pivoting and turning with such quickness the way they do during a demanding basketball game. But over the years developments in basketball footwear have come along which have attempted to mitigate the worst effects on that all-important joint where your leg and foot meet.

If you were playing basketball soon after Dr. Naismith invented the game you probably weren’t wearing anything more specialized than a pair of low-top tennis shoes with rubber soles—hardly designed to protect those delicate ankles.

And then Chuck Taylor’s Converse All-Stars came along. The iconic shoe, which has now become more popular among the general population than among those in the basketball world, was designed by Taylor, in collaboration with Converse. Taylor, a basketball player himself, wanted to create a high-top shoe that gave players the extra support and flexibility needed in the game of basketball. During the 70s and 80s, however, brands like Nike, Adidas and Puma, came up with shoes that proved equally as popular for basketball players, and usurped Converse’s grip on the market.

The basketball shoes that today’s players wear are undoubtedly made of a higher quality material than those that Chuck Taylor, and the likes of George Mikan and Bob Cousy wore. They provide more support for the foot and lessen the impact on the knees. But in recent years players like Kobe Bryant have moved away from the high-top shoe, towards what would be considered a mid-top sneaker. Many players complain that high-tops restrict the amount of mobility they have on the court. They’d rather take the risk of wearing a mid or low-top shoe and be able to move around the court with more freedom. And there is a school of thought that states that wearing high-top shoes becomes a crutch of sorts; the ankle is never fully able to gain enough strength because of the excess support. It would be better, according to those who adhere to that position, to wear low-top shoes and work on strengthening your ankles through exercise.

However, according to study done by the National Athletic Trainer’s Association, and published by the Journal of Athletic Training in 2000, high-top footwear reduces the amount of ankle inversion athletes experience. According to the study, “High-top shoes reduced the amount of inversion by 4.5°, the maximum rate of inversion by 100.1°/s, and the average rate of inversion by 73.00°/s when compared with low-top shoes. Depending upon the loading conditions, subjects wearing high-top shoes may reduce their risk of ankle sprains”.

However, the study does go on to say that high-top sneakers are not a sure fire way to prevent ankle injuries. And many players obviously know this. Bryant received quite the backlash back in 2008 for his low-top Kobe IV’s but he responded by saying: “I’ve been playing basketball all my life, and I’ve rolled my ankles plenty wearing high-tops. If you come down on somebody’s foot, you’re going to roll your ankle and there’s not a lot you can do about it”. Bryant wanted the freedom that a low or a mid-top sneaker gave him and he was willing to take the risk for that extra mobility.

Ultimately many players in the NBA tape their ankles and wear some kind of extra support that somewhat nullifies the controversy over wearing low-top sneakers. Steph Curry, owner of the NBA’s most delicate ankles, wears the ZAMST A2-DX ankle brace. Curry said regarding the brace, “Over the past two seasons, I’ve used a lot of different braces to help reinforce my right ankle. The ZAMST A2-DX is the only product that has given me full confidence to play without the fear of reinjuring my ankle”.

Ankle brace or no ankle brace, Curry’s still had a couple scary moments with that ankle this season, but essentially it’s illustrative of the fact that braces and tape have become almost as important as the shoe for a player with suspect ankles. Ankle injuries, as Bryant asserted, will always be part of the game of basketball regardless of the type of sneaker involved, but players can take precaution to lessen the risk. Unfortunately for some, they feel the extra support is detrimental to their overall mobility.

The debate will go on, but whether a player’s wearing high-tops or low-tops, let’s hope that we see more of the figurative ankle-breaking crossovers, and not so much of the much less entertaining, career threatening variety.

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