Basketball Shoes May Reduce Ankle Injuries

A new design for basketball shoes may cut down on ankle injuries. Ankle sprains and breaks are the most common injury in the NBA — and they're largely treated as just part of the game. But one new shoe company says it can change that.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Finally this hour, a new basketball shoe that is touted to dramatically reduce ankle injuries. Ankle sprains and breaks are the most common injury in the NBA, and they're largely treated as just part of the game.

Well, one new shoe company says it can change that. NPR's Mike Pesca tells us about its prospects.

MIKE PESCA: No one pays to watch Kobe ride the pine, or to assess Kevin Durant's towel-waving skills. But that's what we've seen from these NBA stars at different points last season - all because of ankle injuries.

Tim Duncan, Lebron James, Amar'e Stoudemire, Gilbert Arenas, Kwame Brown - from stars to scrubs and in between, ankle injuries are the common denominator, or deactivator.

Enter Barry Katz, former college basketball player, radiologist, visionary.

BARRY KATZ: We've solved the problem. We can't say 100 percent, but we're confident that we'll knock out 99 percent of ankle injuries.

PESCA: Katz is the inventor of the Ektio, a sturdy - one might say imposing - shoe that features a system of straps and dorsal protrusions called side rollers. It's an unquestionably serious sneaker, so Ektio sought to outfit serious players.

Brooklyn-based Pro Am team, the X-Men. One of the X-Men, Malcolm Connor, who's played professionally in Chile, spoke of the footwear the team is now sporting.

MALCOLM CONNOR: Of course, seeing a new sneaker, you're a little skeptical, like OK, it's not Nike, it's not Adidas. Let me see what it's about. Well, as we're trying them on, you know, and the reassurance of not spraining an ankle and everything like that, you know, it kind of clears your mind and allows you to play free up and down, you know.

PESCA: The X-Men's founder, Dytanya Mixon, says his team, which just won the prestigious Rucker Park Tournament, has experienced only one ankle injury all summer.

DYTANYA MIXON: Everything is a fad. And right now, Nike has a fad. You know, everybody want to wear Nike. They don't care about ankle injuries. They don't care; they want the look. You know, they're not thinking about healthwise. That's where the Ektio - it definitely protects the ankle - injuries, definitely. You cannot roll the ankle, no matter how much you try.

PESCA: It does seem that considerations other than safety dictate the choice of shoe, for most professionals. Former New York Knicks guard John Starks puts his finger on how he made decisions concerning his ankles.

JOHN STARKS: The money. You know, most guys don't even think about, you know, the safety of the shoe or what have you. You know, they think more so about the money. And I was a young player then, and had a family to feed.

PESCA: Starks is now part owner of Ektio, so you could say it's still about the money. But he says he wishes Ektio had been around when he was wrapping his tender ankles in tape.

Historically, shoes do not seem to be getting safer. Foot injuries are up more than 60 percent over the past two decades. Barry Katz says Ektios can solve this problem. He compares the shoe to a familiar piece of sports equipment.

KATZ: What we did is, we created a very light ski boot, 15 to 16 ounces. So while tape is attached to your foot, the shoe can still roll over when you land on someone's foot. If the shoe rolls over, you tear your ligaments and you sprain your ankle.

We keep the foot and the shoe together so this doesn't happen.

PESCA: There is a problem with this analogy, however. Dr. Benno Nigg, founder of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Calgary, says the ski boot itself has been rethought.

DR. BENNO NIGG: In the old days, the ski boot's very, very, very soft and flexible. And then they made them safer and safer and with that, they reduced a number of ankle injuries but increased the number of knee injuries.

You want to have all the muscles that you have in your body involved in the whole process of the movement. A shoe that is very stiff and very rigid doesn't do that.

PESCA: Nigg is an undisputed expert in the field, but it must be disclosed that he's accepted funding from big shoe companies, including Adidas, throughout his career.

He says that the studies Ektio has commissioned are insufficient to make any claims about injury reduction. He has worn the sneakers, however, and he says...

NIGG: Oh, I thought it was a good feeling.

PESCA: But he says proof of the shoe's effectiveness would require a study that would be fairly costly for a small company like Ektio. On the other hand, if thousands of players wear Ektio sneakers on their own, that could provide important data.

Of course, it's hard for a bit player to outfit thousands, absent a verifiable scientific claim. So as it stands, this small shoe company is hoping to get a break for its product that hopes to prevent them.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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