Dr. Michael Mellman read all the headlines about the “never say die” Los Angeles Kings and they annoyed him.
Yes, the Kings were down 0-3 against the San Jose Sharks before winning the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. And yes, the Kings lost three straight in the second round to the Ducks before eliminating their freeway rivals. And yes, the Kings were 0-4 against the Chicago Blackhawks during the regular season before eliminating the 2013 champions to advance to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But not being a quitter did not explain the Kings’ postseason success.
“Athletes at this level never give up. To attribute a team’s success to grittiness and determination does them a disservice,” Mellman said.
Mellman is the Kings’ internist, one of two doctors who travels with the team and one of five doctors who tends to the players during home games. The others are an orthopedist, an opthamologist, a dermatologist and a dentist, who keeps a dentist chair in the locker room
The National Hockey League playoff schedule is arguably the most physically grueling schedule in professional sports. The Kings played 21 games in 44 days to reach this month’s Stanley Cup finals. Mellman has a photograph from a previous season, of his team flying back from an East Coast playoff game with a dozen IV’s hanging from the overhead luggage compartments to help the players rehydrate in time for the next game.
Still, Mellman insists the deciding factor in the Kings’ postseason success isn’t psychological or physical. It’s brainpower.
“In a seven game series, teams have the opportunity to study their opponent. The team that wins is the team that’s best at reading their opponent and adjusting. The Kings have a herd-like intelligence that enables them to identify obstacles and overcome them. It’s not subconcious. It’s deliberate. After the first period, the players talk to one another about adjustments that need to be made.”
“Coach Sutter gives the assignments, but you can’t have a coach in your ear throughout a game.
“Watch kids sports. The better teams are the ones whose coaches are quiet during the game, not the ones with coaches yelling what to do.”
Mellman has been treating professional athletes for over three decades.
A tall, glass cabinet in his office holds a 2012 Kings Stanley Cup ring, three Lakers NBA Championship rings, a 1988 Dodgers World Series trophy and a 2000 Rams Super Bowl trophy.
But he insists he does not practice sports medicine.
On the morning following the Kings’ overtime win in game seven against the Chicago Blackhawks, he saw three Kings at his El Segundo office, but also 22 regular patients.
“Athletes have the same illnesses and injuries as the rest of us, except that if I have the flu, I might not get out of bed and they will. It’s not unusual for athletes to play better sick. Baseball pitchers are notorious for memorable performances while puking and coughing. Kareem had his bad back, Magic his knees. People don’t realize what these athletes undergo behind the scenes.
“As the season goes on it gets worse. During playoffs, there’s not a lot of time to recover. So, the players don’t look too far ahead. They deal with the task at hand. Their ability to perform when not feeling well, is astounding. To me, their single mindedness is their most amazing quality, next to their prodigious skills.”
Mellman grew up in Culver City and swam, ran track and played football at Culver City High. Summers he surfed Ballona Creek before the Marina del Rey Harbor breakwall was built.
Though he continues to swim and stand-up paddle in the ocean in front of his Hermosa Beach home, his competitive sports days ended in high school.
After UCLA, he studied at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, where he might have stayed if not for a fateful trip to the beach.
“I had to take a train, a subway and a bus to get there. I didn’t want to raise my three kids under those circumstances, so after medical school, I accepted an internship at Cedar-Sinai in Los Angeles and moved to Hermosa Beach,” he said
In 1981, after completing his residency, he was invited to join the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic. The founders, themselves, became sports celebrities after Dr. Frank Jobe’s surgical repair of Dodger pitcher Tommy John’s elbow in 1974. At the time, Kerlan and Jobe were expanding their practice to include spinal injury treatment and joint replacements.
“They needed my expertise in hospital-based medicine and at the same time the Lakers and Kings were looking to supplement their medical staffs,” Mellman said.
The new job led to him being named team physician for the Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers.
In 1986, when the Dodgers’ long-time team physician retired, Mellman became the Dodgers’ team physician, as well.
Due as much to personal disposition as to professional privilege Mellman has avoided the limelight throughout his time treating LA’s celebrity-studded professional sports teams.
The one unavoidable exception was November 1991. Mellman stood next to Magic Johnson at a Great Western Forum press conference when the Laker great disclosed he was HIV positive. Several weeks earlier, it had fallen to Mellman to tell Johnson of his infection, which was discovered during a routine health insurance physical.
During the press conference, Mellman praised Johnson as a “modern-day hero” for disclosing his condition at a time when HIV/AIDS victims were shunned.
“We removed him from the game,” Mellman said, “because we didn’t know much about the disease. But we knew exhaustion and illness are detrimental to the immune system. When Earvin was diagnosed, a high percentage of HIV positive patients died within six months.
“Fortunately, he responded well to treatment and a few years later I authorized him to return to play. But that put me in a bind. In a meeting, the other players asked if playing with Earvin put them at risk. I assured them it didn’t, but I recognized then I couldn’t be the team doctor and Earvin’s, so I resigned as team doctor, though I continue to consult with the Lakers.”
When team trainer Gary Vitti subsequently treated Johnson for a cut during a televised game, he purposefully did not follow the normal procedure of putting on surgical gloves to reinforce the fact that Johnson was not a threat to other players,
The tenth anniversary of Johnson’s announcement put Mellman back in the media spotlight.
“Ten years ago, we didn’t know what to expect, so there were no expectations, only questions. I’ll take every 10 years he gets, and hope we don’t get surprised along the way,” he told USA Today. The remark was well received and widely repeated.
But a second quote in the article earned him the number one spot on the AIDS Survival Project’s list of “Ten people who didn’t make a difference in 2001.”
The opprobrium came in response to his USA Today quote that, “There’s nothing experimental, nothing high-tech [about Johnson’s treatment]. Anyone who can afford health care can afford what he’s doing. He’s as healthy as he looks.”
“I was simply making the point that there was nothing exotic about Johnson’s treatment. With proper treatment, a lot of HIV patients do well. And a lot don’t. The major problem is with the undiagnosed, or those who are diagnosed but don’t take their medicine properly. The virus can develop a resistance to medication if it’s not taken properly,” Mellman said.
The AIDS Project faulted Mellman for failing to note that “42 million Americans don’t have health insurance.”
“The Pope was number two on the list, for discouraging the use of condoms,” Mellman noted dryly.
Mellman traces his interest in what distinguishes elite athletes from the rest of us to advice Jobe gave him when he became the Dodgers’ team doctor.
“He told me that to gain a better understanding of the team, I should do research on something that interested me. The coaches and scouts spent a lot of time trying to predict which draft picks and players coming up from the minors would make it.
“I began asking the players and coaches their thoughts. They generally agreed the best indicator of future success in the big leagues is hitting. So, I started carrying a baseball and asking players what they saw when I spun the ball in the air. Different players saw different things.
“Some of the pitchers talked about hiding the ball. Sandy Koufax said he tried to get just one extra rotation out of every pitch to make the ball move more. Don Drysdale’s emphasis was velocity — mixing up fastballs and changeups.
“Art Rosenbaum, a friend at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA, was studying strabismus [lazy eye]. I told him my research idea. I said, I have the players, and you have the expertise. Doctors David Kirschen and Dan Laby also participated in the study.
“Fred Claire, the Dodgers general manager, who was very forward thinking, gave me the green light and the Dodgers funded the study over four or five years.
“We found that hitters at the major league level have vision different from the rest of us. And no amount of practice or change in diet will change that fact. They have an acute ability to see contrast and three dimensions at a distance. They can look at the pitcher, 60 feet, six inches from home plate, and know what he’s throwing the moment the ball is released.
“If a pitch comes straight in, the only way to confuse a batter is to have the ball reach the plate faster or slower than expected. Spinning the ball to make it move laterally adds even more mystery. The greater the mystery the harder the ball is to hit.
“We learned that great hitters see the stitches on a fastball as vertical lines. On a curveball they look slanted and on a slider the stitches look like a dot.
“With that knowledge, when a ball is coming in at 100 miles per hour their depth perception enables them to judge when the ball will get to the plate, and their contrast recognition enables them to anticipate the ball’s lateral movement.”
Mellman and the Jules Stein doctors developed a laptop test to identify players with acute vision that the Dodgers still use.
Mellman believes that acute vision is common to professional hockey players and other elite athletes, as well.
“The way Jonathan Quick sees the puck, the way Anze Kopitar gets to where he has to be must mean they have special attributes. They don’t articulate it, but it’s very clear to me that they see and feel and do things in a way that sets them apart from the rest of us.”
Because baseball is a start and stop sport, batters are easier to analyze than other athletes.
But Mellman is not convinced, as popularly believed, that hitting a 100 mile per hour baseball with a round stick is professional sports’ most difficult skill.
“A comparison is difficult because to reach the level of proficiency required of elite athletes requires so much practice that it’s rare for an athlete to compete at that level in more than one sport.
“In hockey the number of things happening requires amazing reaction and amazing recovery times. A shift on the ice is 30 to 45 seconds. It’s like wind sprints, going from zero to 30 miles per hour, with the heart hitting its maximum rate, then backing down to zero.”
Hockey’s rapid acceleration and deceleration leads to another common misconception — that concussions in hockey are the result of collisions with players or with the ice.
“Concussions are the most significant problem I deal with. People think you have to hit your head, but it can be caused by a sudden change of direction, or just a sudden stop, like whiplash in a car. The soft brain bangs against the hard skull,” Mellman said.
League rules require team doctors to be within a few hundred feet of the team bench, so Mellman generally watches games on a monitor in the King’s locker room rather than his season seats.
“A player suspected of suffering a concussion must be removed from the game and be taken to the locker room for evaluation.
“We wait up to 15 minutes for the adrenalin to settle down before examining the player because adrenalin can mask a concussion. Adrenalin is what enables us to focus when injured or attacked so we can get out of harm’s way,” he explained.
“You know it when you see it, but we look for memory loss, nausea, blurred vision. I’ll ask the player to recite numbers backward or describe what happened.
“Players used to talk about having their bell run, and then return to play. But over the last 30 years, players have come to realize if they don’t take care of themselves, there can be long term consequences.”
Mellman described treatment for concussions as “recognition, rest and recover.”
“The brain doesn’t work well when it’s swollen. It can take just a few days or it can take months for the swelling to subside. After that, the player has to get back into physical shape and then back into competitive shape. Nothing approximates competition. You can’t practice competition, except by competing.”
During the run to the Stanley Cup, Mellman said he reminds the players to stretch, rehydrate, ice down and get enough protein and carbs. He isolates players who are sick from the 50-member team and staff.
“The great athletes all have rigid routines. Everyone naps on game days. No one is out partying.
“It’s boring stuff. Everyone wants an edge. But there are no hockey concoctions. The best edge is conditioning,” Mellman said
He views performance enhancing drugs to be harmful both to the players and to their sports.
“True competition assumes a level playing field. You don’t want to tamper with that. If you do, you’re putting the athletes in danger, and they’re in harm’s way enough. I view it as my obligation to help create a safe environment and a level playing field. I want the players healthy after their playing days.”
The importance of keeping players healthy is one reason coaches no longer tolerate fighting. Mellman said. A Canadian study published this year found that 51 percent of players miss at least one game each season because of injuries, at a salary cost of $218 million per season.
“When I started with the Kings, people joked about going to a fight and seeing a hockey game break out. Players weren’t wearing helmets or visors. Some didn’t even have mouthguards. Teams carried enforcers, whose job wasn’t to entertain the fans, but to be sure their star players weren’t taken advantage of.
“Now, the game is so evolved, there’s not room on the ice for a player whose only skill is fighting. Coaches don’t want their players in the penalty box.
“The result is, the playoff run we’ve seen this year is the best hockey you’ll ever see,” Mellman said. B
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