For 76ers, there's always a doctor in the house

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Dr. Jack McPhilemy, right, talks to Moses Malone during a Sixers game. (Ron Cortes / Staff Photographer)

The massage tables in the visiting basketball locker room at the Wachovia Center are as massive as they come, but not massive enough to comfortably hold the most Brobdingnagian NBA player, Shaquille O'Neal. At the tail end of his career, the 7-foot-1, 321-pound O'Neal has a plethora of nicks and dings all over his body.

O'Neal's groans are sonorous and his tattoos, some seemingly the size of small automobiles, twitch as the trainer starts his pregame rub-down. O'Neal smiles, though, when he sees Jack McPhilemy enter the room.

McPhilemy, the 76ers team doctor, is making his pregame rounds, which include checking on the visiting team - in this case, the Phoenix Suns. It is clear the two have met before. O'Neal asks McPhilemy for an over-the-counter, extra-strength anti-inflammatory.

"One?" asks McPhilemy, who even at 6-foot-2 looks pint-sized - maybe even dram-sized - next to O'Neal.

O'Neal, now standing, sheepishly puts up three huge fingers. Then he shakes his head and puts up four.

McPhilemy gives the thumbs up. "He's one heck of a big guy, so I guess he needs four," he said. "A big Motrin for a big guy. That's the NBA. That's what is fun here."

McPhilemy is in his 21st season as the 76ers team doctor and coordinator of the team's 11-person medical staff - which includes a dentist, a psychologist, an ophthalmologist, even a podiatry consultant.

Yet it is "Dr. Jack" (what players and 76ers staff call him) who is the medical face of the team. At each home game, his evening can be a whirl.

An office manager, a bank president - even a mail carrier - can endure a lot of physical injuries before his or her job performance suffers. A professional athlete, however, has to pay attention to each pain or pull, as millions of dollars are on the line. So a team doctor, like McPhilemy, needs to be both medically proficient and a trusted confidant. McPhilemy works hard at being both.

Spending a day with the tireless doctor is exhausting: Along with his team doctor duties, he balances an orthopedic practice and advises students at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.

On Feb. 9, before even arriving at the Wachovia Center for his 5:30 p.m. pregame rounds, McPhilemy had put in a full day of "regular" doctoring, seeing about a dozen patients in his Northeast Philadelphia office, performing two surgeries, advising a fourth-year student, and consulting with two physical therapists - not to mention checking up on the 76ers' most famous patient, forward Elton Brand.

McPhilemy's day started with a 6:30 a.m. appointment at his office at Harbison Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard. (The Philadelphia Orthopedic Group, in which he is a partner, has two other offices. For surgery, he is affiliated with Main Line Health, which owns the rights to the 76ers medical services.) The patient was an apartment manager with nascent arthritic conditions in his back and legs, exacerbated by excess weight.

"Now, look, you take off that weight and that could solve some of the other problems," said McPhilemy. "I tell that to the players and I tell that to you."

The patients come in, followed into exam rooms by McPhilemy, the physical therapists, and the fourth-year student. Each case is a mini-seminar. There is the scrap-metal hauler with knee problems, the auto-repair-shop owner whose right leg is an inch shorter than his left, the 26-year-old exterminator who is, said McPhilemy, "too young to have a bad back."

"I know he's the team doctor and all that, but that wouldn't mean much if he just brushed me off as some little guy," said the exterminator. "But he takes his time with me and makes me feel important. If he does that with the Sixers, too, then they are lucky guys."

The most curious case in the office is a 15-year-old girl who came home from a long soccer game in the fall with a muscle twitching in her left thigh. It hadn't stopped in the following months.

McPhilemy consulted all the X-rays and MRIs the girl's mother brought and bantered with the physical therapists about it. A curious case, they all agreed, something McPhilemy had never seen in an athlete before. In the end, he sent her to a neurologist for more tests.

"Whatever I might do for [Samuel] Dalembert's sprained ankle is no different than what I do for that exterminator's back," says McPhilemy. "It is important to them, whoever they are, not because one makes $10 million a year and the other is a blue-collar guy."

The doctor, 61, grew up in blue-collar West Oak Lane, the son of a Philadelphia cop and a telephone operator. His father pushed him to go to St. Joe's Prep, even though he initially rebelled.

"I didn't think I would fit in, the son of a cop with all those richer kids," said McPhilemy, who now lives in Plymouth Meeting, his own two sons now grown. "But it is where I learned that the only thing that rich kids have more of is money. It is what has held me together all along in life."

He played sports of all sorts in high school and then freshman basketball at St. Joseph's University. He went to the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and practiced nearby, sometimes treating St. Joseph's athletes. Through them, he met some of the 76ers, who trained in various places on the Main Line, eventually at the college. A few of them recommended him, and he has been on retainer for the team since 1988.

"I've known Jack maybe 20 years now, and I have never heard a player or coach say anything bad about him," said Steve Kauffman, a Philly native, now an agent based in Malibu, Calif. Among his clients was former Sixers captain Eric Snow, on whom McPhilemy operated. "Eric trusted him implicitly."

As the morning progressed, McPhilemy began to worry whether he would get to Wilmington to check on Brand's surgery at Christiana Surgery Center. Brand, who signed a big free-agent contract with the 76ers before the season, had separated his shoulder.

McPhilemy, though, had two other patients scheduled for surgery that day - a rotator-cuff repair and a hip injury.

"You don't just say, 'Oops, sorry, Elton Brand is more important than you,' " he said. "Still, you want to be there because you represent his team, his employer, and you want to show compassion."

After the second surgery, McPhilemy headed to the Wachovia Center. Besides his visit with O'Neal, he checked in with the referees - "You never know; sometimes there is a bad back or knee issue going on there," he said - and did rounds with the Sixers players. Dalembert, who had tweaked an ankle the week before, needed a similar horse-sized Motrin for the inflammation.

As McPhilemy was heading to the cafeteria for dinner, a member of the front office pulled him aside. He had been carrying around a set of MRIs of his foot, which was in "searing pain." McPhilemy spent the next 20 minutes examining the MRIs and the affected foot.

"I've even come to him for orthopedic work," said Jeff Garber, the Bala Cynwyd-based 76ers team dentist. "He knows his sports medicine and is a dedicated guy - and he definitely takes his work with the Sixers seriously."

McPhilemy sits behind the 76ers bench during the game. "It's a lousy seat. I can't see over them," he said with a laugh. The Phoenix game was uneventful - medically. It was, however, a win for the Sixers, their fifth of seven games in the homestand.

"Frankly, that is why I took this job," he said. He checks back with the Sixers and then heads back to the Suns' locker room. Louis Amundson, the forward who played with the Sixers last season, shouts to McPhilemy. "I'm OK," he yells while putting bags of ice on his feet. O'Neal flexes a tattooed arm and pats him on the back.

"A good day. It's always a good day, but time to go home," said McPhilemy. "Not that Shaq is asking me to party, but I have patients at 6:30 a.m. again."