A shooting guard for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, Prince had led the team to a sparkling 7-1 record to open the season. In three straight wins, Prince thrilled fans as she scored at least 30 points each time, including a pair of buzzer-beaters to send the games into overtime.
It was “Prince-sanity” and nothing could stop the Brooklyn native who once scored a high-school record 113 points in one game.
Until the night of June 16, 2012, that is. In a game against the Indiana Fever, Prince went down with a broken right foot that threatened to end her Cinderella season. At the time, she led the league in scoring with a 24.3-point average.
Fortunately for Prince, the league took a month-long hiatus for the 2012 Olympics in London – precious extra time for the 5-foot-9 guard to recover. She ended up sitting out eight weeks and missed only eight games before the Sky’s medical staff deemed her ready to go once again.
In her first game back on Aug. 17, Prince hardly missed a beat, putting up 16 points, three assists and three steals. But that wasn’t the most remarkable part.
“For her exact injury, she was, in my eyes, probably two or three weeks ahead of schedule, which is significant in the season,” said Ann Crosby, strength and conditioning coach for the Sky.
How is it possible for athletes like Prince to recover from broken bones with such efficiency and return to action in record time?
For starters, it begins with a support system, a team spirit that covers healing as well as playing.
“I will admit that Piph worked very hard to get back on the court. She put in a ton of hours in the gym and in her rehab,” Crosby added. “But that was a quick return.”
Crosby is part of a highly-trained staff employed by the Sky that works around the clock to keep players well-conditioned. Her extensive experience in collegiate, professional and Olympic sports has helped hone her craft: keeping athletes from getting injured. Or, as she calls it, “prehab.”
When Sky players report for preseason training camps in spring, Crosby is already devising ways to whip them into game shape. Players must adhere to a strict workout regimen made up of four phases that build up their strength and endurance.
Crosby tailors the exercises to each player’s needs, from pool training to build endurance to weightlifting to increase strength.
“If they’re not complaining, then I’m not doing my job,” she said.
With six years under her belt as the Sky’s conditioning coach, Crosby has learned to detect when a player’s body is not performing up to par.
“I see their bodies start to break down. I see fatigue on the court,” she said. “They’ll say they feel like they’re in quicksand or they’re not hungry or not sleeping well.”
Once the injuries strike – and they often do – it falls into the capable hands of head team physician Benjamin Domb to operate if needed. Domb, who completed his fellowship in Los Angeles and worked with the NBA’s Lakers and the MLB’s Dodgers, specializes in hip arthroscopy and minimally invasive orthopedic surgery.
Domb isn’t afraid to use treatments that others are hesitant to try, such as platelet rich plasma therapy. PRP is the process of drawing blood from a patient, then extracting a high concentration of platelets that promote healing and injecting the serum back into the site of the injury.
Clinical trials to date have yielded varying results, leading to a divide among healthcare professionals on PRP’s value.
“I don’t consider him experimental. I consider him cutting edge,” Crosby said. “This dude’s a genius. I watched (Sky forward) Tamera Young’s surgery. He’s a perfectionist in the OR. He knows the newest, the latest, the safest thing… and it works. I would not say he treats us like hamsters.”
Crosby is a believer in PRP, and so is Sky athletic trainer Lynette Carlson, who oversees the players’ post-operative rehab.
“Dr. Domb does utilize PRP, cortisone, and hyaluronic [a gel-like substance] injections for some of his patients,” Carlson said. “They have some good science behind them and good outcomes and I do feel there is a place for them in the recovery of injuries. The key is using them in an appropriate way with the right patient and it’s Dr. Domb’s role to make that recommendation or not.”
As a certified physical therapist, Carlson will invent new ways to keep players active after injury. Sometimes, she says, they have to get creative.
“When an athlete is out for an injury, that doesn’t mean they’re sitting on the couch,” Carlson said. “We always find ways to work-out the other parts of their bodies and do cardio, regardless of the injury. Most doctors have a general outline of progressions, but we use our clinical judgment to keep them moving forward and progressing back to basketball as quickly and safely as possible.”
For all the pushing and prodding and motivating that Crosby and Carlson do to keep their players in top shape, there are times when they must act as gatekeepers.
There’s no question that pro athletes in all sports are motivated. They wouldn’t be playing at a professional level if they hadn’t put in the time and commitment to get where they’re at. But sometimes that motivation propels them to seek competitive advantages in any way possible, including the use of supplements, injections and drugs.
Most professional leagues have a list of banned substances, but that doesn’t always keep players from using them anyway. Despite recent crackdowns in baseball and cycling, Crosby says substance abuse is still a problem in college and professional athletics.
“It’s pretty big everywhere,” she said. “There’s not a lot of blood doping in football or basketball, but there is in other endurance sports. You’re going to have that everywhere you go.”
As for her own athletes, Crosby says Sky fans have nothing to worry about.
“I can say with 100 percent confidence, I do not think my athletes are taking anything illegal,” she said. “My athletes here are very in tune with what’s on the drug list and what’s not.”
Crosby said the WNBA has a strict drug-testing policy that plays a large role in keeping players drug-free. At one point during the 2012 season, her team was randomly tested three times in three weeks for performance-enhancing drugs, she said. Such testing may include steroids, stimulants, and testosterone. All of the Sky players were tested at some point last year.
When it comes to recovering from injury, both Crosby and Carlson keep tabs on the players’ diets while keeping the recovery process as natural as possible. They must resist their athletes’ and their team’s desires to get back on the court too soon while keeping careful responsibility of the players’ overall health.
“I do feel the pressure, but I don’t let that guide my decisions. I still do what’s best for the athlete and their recovery,” Carlson said. “We can only do so much to speed up their recovery. Pro athletes want to spend as long as possible in their sport – it’s their career.”
Crosby said she feels additional pressure from her employer - the team. If players don’t perform well because they’re gasping for air by halftime, the blame is on her.
“My job depends on them. Sometimes they don’t see that,” Crosby said. “They’ll ask your opinion on something and they’ll do something else anyway. That could cause us to lose the game because now your legs are sore because you thought you would do something on your own. Now if we lose this game and we keep losing, that could be my job.”
Most players, however, are aware of the hard work the medical staff provides. Two weeks ago, a professional tennis player called Crosby to ask for some tips on conditioning. She had formerly worked with Crosby years ago.
“She’s a pro tennis player and she’s still asking for my advice,” Crosby said. “That’s the highest compliment I can get. I’ve been very fortunate and I like working with people. They’re like my kids.”