A Closer Examination Of Serge Ibaka’s Miraculously Rapid Recovery

By: 05.29.14  •  5 Comments
Serge Ibaka

Serge Ibaka (Mark D. Smith- USA TODAY Sports)

Before the start of the Western Conference Finals, Serge Ibaka was declared out for the playoffs with a Grade 2 calf train. But after the swelling subsided, Ibaka was cleared for practice after Game 2 and made his return on Sunday, surprising everyone in the process. Now, the questions are shifting to whether it was a miraculous recovery, a missed diagnosis, or something else entirely.

There are constants in today’s sports world. If a game is decided by a questionable call from the officials, people wonder if the fix was in. If a player has a sudden surge in performance or makes a surprisingly quick recovery from injury, people question whether illegal drugs were involved. In Ibaka’s case, Mark Olsen — a medical chemist who designs drugs for a living and teaches at a college of pharmacy — addressed his skepticism in a lengthy post at SB Nation’s Pounding The Rock.

Here’s what we know based on Olsen’s piece, which is informative and lays out the facts instead of tossing baseless accusations at the Thunder organization. A Grade 2 calf sprain is a partial tearing of the muscle fibers, and full recovery usually takes four to eight weeks, which is why Thunder general manager Sam Presti was confident enough to tell everyone his power forward was out for the playoffs. Also, there’s been five other instances of this injury in the last seven years in the league, and none of those previous players returned in less than a month’s time.

But the sudden change in Ibaka’s prognosis a week later is what heightened Olsen’s skepticism, which he explains:

While the Thunder medical staff has a clear expertise in this area, so do the other NBA clubs, yet none of the previous 5 examples returned in less than a month. Does the OKC medical staff know something that the rest of the league does not? Not likely. This is particularly unlikely because they sent Sam Presti out to embarrass himself. If they had any inkling that this would happen, Sam would have used different words.

Another explanation would be a pharmacological intervention. A pharmaceutical. A “drug.” This theoretical pharmacological therapy would appear to be unknown to the OKC medical staff for two reasons. First, they just sent their GM out to tell the world that Serge was done for the playoffs. Secondly, if there was a “secret” therapy, there is a good chance that it is in the “grey zone” at best, and at worst a clear violation of anti-doping regulations.

One of those grey area methods would be human growth hormones, which the league does not currently test for. Again, there’s no evidence suggesting Ibaka may have skirted the rules in this case by using a performance-enhancing drug like HGH, but it does raise the larger question: shouldn’t there be rules in place to make sure we have that evidence, one way or another?

The most likely explanation is the injury was originally misdiagnosed, or Ibaka was able to make a surprising recovery on a timeline unlike anyone else that’s suffered the same injury. This happens. These types of injuries have a particular framework and timeline for recovery, but it’s not always an exact science.

The skepticism is warranted, perhaps not at Ibaka, but at a system that doesn’t allow us to be less skeptical when athletes have rapid recoveries like this one.

(Pounding the Rock)

What do you think?

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