These days, basketball players are prepared to jump ball and take falls.
Many NBA and college players wear thigh pads and chest pads beneath their loose-fitting uniforms, and their numbers have steadily risen. The quaint sport that James Naismith introduced to pass time in the winter has evolved into a full-contact sport requiring full-time protection.
“In the paint, basketball is very physical,” the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard said. “You’ve got elbows flying, bodies flying, crashing, people fighting for position. I don’t think people see all of that. That’s why a lot of people have been wearing those.”
He pointed to his teammate Mickael Pietrus, who was sliding into a flak jacket before a recent game.
The padding pioneer was Shaquille O’Neal, whose 216cm, 143kg frame provides ample room for bumps and bruises. O’Neal had worn girdlelike protection for a while, but five seasons ago when he joined the Miami Heat, he consulted Ron Culp, then the team’s longtime trainer, on how to best nurse a bruised rib while continuing to play.
Culp considered having O’Neal wear a bulletproof vest, but it restricted movement and weighed too much. Culp then approached Kevin O’Neill, the Miami Dolphins’ head trainer.
O’Neal maybe taller, but he weighs about the same as many football players. And after witnessing the contact O’Neal absorbed, Culp said, it was only natural to consult a football team about protection.
“Basketball is the most physical non-contact sport in the world,” Culp said. “There’s a conundrum. You’re putting 10 oversized people in an undersized place and telling them to run as fast as they can and jump as high as they can and to not get hurt while doing it.”
Dwyane Wade later started wearing the padding because he “bounces off of people like he is on a pool table,” Culp said.
O’Neal, now with Phoenix, said: “I’m a trendsetter, baby.”
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Amare Stoudemire are also among those who don padding.
The most dynamic players, who draw the most attention and see the most contact, are regular users.
The extra cushioning provided by padded compression shorts and a tight-fitting padded V-neck undershirt goes mostly unnoticed.
Because of O’Neal and others, McDavid, a manufacturer of protective sports equipment based in Illinois, modified its NFL gear for basketball use. Its HexPad technology involves forming foam composites into hundreds of lightweight hexagonal pads that are bonded into fabric.
The NBA is happy as long as no one sees the extra padding.
“Whether they’re wearing padded or non-padded compression gear, they can’t be visible while they’re at a standstill, and the compression tanks can’t be visible under the jersey as well,” said Stu Jackson, the league’s executive vice president for basketball operations.
But that makes it tougher to market to younger players.
“That’s the hard part of the product, that nobody sees it,” said Rey Corpuz, McDavid’s marketing director, who estimated that basketball padding for all ages could become a US$15 million to US$20 million business for his company. “It’s designed specifically not to be seen at the NBA level.”
Companies including Nike and Under Armour have also developed protective basketball padding.
“We really see this as the new modern-day uniform system,” said Todd Van Horne, a Nike creative director. “You’re not just using the jersey that’s wearing the number on the outside. The players are bigger, they’re stronger. They’re more competitive.”