Concussions and Basketball

Concussions are more commonly seen and discussed in football, but they can happen in any sport.  We were reminded of this last night during a scary moment in the North Carolina-Boston College game.

As North Carolina sophomore P.J. Hairston, playing one of his best halves of his career, went for a rebound, he collided with teammate Dexter Strickland in mid-air.  It appeared in the replay that Strickland’s elbow made contact with Hairston’s head, and it is also possible Hairston’s head bounced off the floor upon landing. Whatever happened, it immediately became clear that Hairston had suffered some sort of injury, lying on the court for several minutes.  He was eventually taken off the floor on a stretcher after losing his balance during his initial attempt to walk off the court.

This comes roughly two weeks after two Texas Longhorns’ women’s basketball players, Cokie Reed and Chelsea Bass, announced they would end their basketball careers.  While Reed cited “exercise-induced hyperextension” as her cause of leave, Bass had reportedly suffered the fourth concussion of her career and reached her decision after discussing with several doctors and the Texas training staff.

Since basketball isn’t labeled a “collision” sport like football, and basketball players aren’t running the floor with helmets like football players (or baseball or hockey players, for that matter), it is often assumed that concussions aren’t a threat in basketball.  However, a quick Google search shows the number of concussions just in major college basketball programs this season.

UCLA forward (and former Tar Heel) Travis Wear suffered a concussion last week against Arizona.  Georgetown’s Otto Porter missed time in November with a concussion. Forward Mike Bruesewitz of Wisconsin suffered a concussion during practice in a collision with teammate Evan Anderson. Florida’s Casey Prather had a similar incident during a preseason scrimmage.

The Tar Heels are also no strangers to concussions.  Earlier this season, Reggie Bullock missed North Carolina’s victory over UNLV as a result of a concussion suffered in practice.  During the team’s 2010 NIT run, Tyler Zeller suffered a concussion against Mississippi State, but returned for the Tar Heels’ third-round contest against UAB.  This season in the NBA, Zeller suffered another concussion (along with a broken cheekbone) after taking an elbow from DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Perhaps more alarming in these stories is how subtle the injuries can be.  It’s obvious in a case like Hairston’s violent collision or certain football tackles that a player has likely suffered a concussion.  However, when it is seemingly ordinary contact, especially amongst players fighting in the post or driving to the basket, it can be brushed off at the time as a typical foul until symptoms crop up later.  In the case of Travis Wear, he says he initially thought he had suffered a stinger, “because both of my arms went numb and I was just out of it.”  Bruesewitz was initially treated for whiplash before training staff noticed concussion symptoms.  With stories like these, one must wonder how many concussions go completely unnoticed at all levels of basketball, as players might simply chalk them up to headaches or other minor ailments as the result of repeated incidental contact.

For Hairston, the next step will be understanding the significance of his injury and not rushing back to action.  The temptation for Hairston will be to return to action as soon as possible, starting Saturday when the Tar Heels host Virginia Tech.  Hairston tweeted last night, “Thanks to everyone for the support, I’m okay just a very very bad headache….”The problem with that, of course, is that most “just headaches” don’t require you to leave a game on a stretcher.  As a competitor, Hairston will want to “tough it out” and get back to basketball almost immediately.  It will be up to the North Carolina training staff to properly evaluate Hairston and make sure he is not at risk for further brain injury when he returns.

As for the Tar Heels, a potential Hairston absence could offer a setback.  Many fans had been clamoring for the sophomore to receive more playing time, especially following their 91-83 loss against NC State. In that game, Hairston scored 19 points in only 17 minutes of action.  Hairston had scored 14 points in 12 minutes against Boston College, including a perfect four-of-four shooting performance beyond the arc, before leaving the game Tuesday evening.

Without Hairston, North Carolina loses an offensive weapon, capable of spreading the floor with his shooting ability.  Fortunately for UNC, Leslie McDonald will be returning to the Tar Heels Saturday following a three-game suspension, which should help lessen the blow if Hairston is unavailable.


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