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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Fall 2002 > Surgeon in the NBA
Dr. Lombardo holds a giant sneaker.
Dr. Steve Lombardo '63 holds a sneaker that belonged to his patient, Shaquille O'Neal.

Surgeon in the NBA

By Gary Libman

Above an aquarium in Dr. Steve Lombardo's office rests an extremely long purple and white shoe that belonged to one of the largest and most important feet in America.

“People see it,” Lombardo says of the size-22 basketball shoe worn by Shaquille O'Neal, “and they think it's like a model from a store, it's so big.”

The shoe is inscribed “To Dr. Lombardo. 'Six to eight weeks,'” and refers to Lombardo's decision in 1997 when the star center hyper-extended his knee.

“I told him he would probably be out six to eight weeks,” recalls the trim Lombardo, dapper in a suit and tie behind a large desk in his West Los Angeles office. “At the month mark he said, 'I'm going back.' But he still had swelling, atrophied muscles and a decreased range of motion, and I said, 'You really can't.' He was upset.”

O'Neal took his plea to the top of the Los Angeles Lakers' organization, but owner Jerry Buss supported Lombardo and O'Neal missed 28 games. Management's backing of Lombardo highlights his crucial role as team physician for the three-time defending NBA champions.

“I'm an integral part of the network of the team,” says Lombardo, a 1963 Amherst graduate and an orthopedic surgeon at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic, a pioneer in sports medicine. “The only mistake you can make in this case is to have him [O'Neal] go back too soon. There's a bigger downside to that than if you hold him out an extra week. But the Lakers realize this athlete is a long-term investment, so they want to make the best decision.”

Lombardo's importance to the Lakers is also appreciated by former general manager Jerry West. “He's been the constant that has been there to diagnose and treat some very serious injuries to some of our truly great players,” says West, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player. “Almost every player I know has had confidence that he's the person who is going to steer them in the right direction for the best medical advice.

“No [player] would go out there for the Lakers who would jeopardize their career in any way,” says West, now president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies. “Dr. Lombardo always would be on the cautious side with regard to getting the player back into action. He's simply the best you can find.”

Lombardo has been the Lakers' physician since 1974 and is also the team doctor for the Los Angeles Sparks of the Women's National Basketball Association. He held the same position with the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League from 1974 to 1992. He has operated on Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and treated Kobe Bryant and Wayne Gretzky. He's also attended to celebrities such as Wayne Newton, James Garner and Ben Vereen.

Although athletes and celebrities constitute less than one percent of his practice, he spends a lot of time with the Lakers, attending all practices, sitting behind the bench at home games and traveling with the team during the playoffs.

This season a major concern will be O'Neal. As the Lakers won their third consecutive championship, the 7-foot, one-inch, 335-pound center struggled with injuries.

A cut finger suffered during the playoffs has healed and a painful little toe has been surgically repaired. However, an arthritic big toe that restricted O'Neal's motion and pained him periodically last season did not heal, and the player underwent surgery in September, about seven weeks before the NBA season. Nevertheless, Lombardo predicted that O'Neal will play well in 2002-03, as the Lakers seek their fourth straight title.

“Shaq's tough,” Lombardo says. “He's played with pain throughout his career and always delivered when important issues are on the line; I've got all the confidence in him.”

Lombardo also cares for the other Lakers star, Bryant, 24, who resisted the physician's recommendations on one occasion in 1999. In the first half of a game in Minnesota, Bryant severely injured his shooting hand. Despite the injury, he made five of six shots in the second half. After the game, an X-ray revealed a broken metacarpal, the longest bone in Bryant's hand. Despite the broken bone, Bryant insisted he'd played well and vowed not to miss any games.

Continued >>

Photo: David Gautreau


Online Extra


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O'Neal might undergo surgery on arthritic toe

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