Dr. Heather Gillespie examines the injured ankle of Red Claw Drew Barham at halftime of the game on Jan. 15 in Portland. Gillespie also sees players during rehab and when they get extensive physicals before the season. Staff photo by John Ewing

At most Maine Red Claws games, Dr. Heather Gillespie sits a few rows behind the team bench in the cozy confines of the Portland Expo, rooting for the team and enjoying near-NBA level basketball.

She’s also hoping there won’t be any injuries.

But Gillespie, the Red Claws’ team doctor, is there in case they occur, watching the game with hawk-like eyes.

Although injuries are less frequent in basketball, and rarely as severe as in football, they do occur. Ankle sprains. Joint dislocations. Knee strains. Contusions. Concussions.

The first step toward a possible diagnosis is seeing the injury as it unfolds on the court.

“I’m very vigilant about watching what’s going on on the court,” Gillespie said. “It’s helpful to see the injury as it’s happening. That gives us a lot of info right there.”

Gillespie, with Maine Medical Partners Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, is a Rochester, New York, native with a sports background. She has competed in water polo, swimming and triathlons and played high school basketball. She previously was the team doctor for UCLA’s sports programs.

The Red Claws have contracted with Maine Medical Partners for three years, but the terms of the contract are not disclosed publicly, said Red Claws spokesman Evans Boston.

Dr. Heather Gillespie watches the Red Claws’ game on Jan. 15 in Portland from her seat behind the team’s bench. Staff photo by John Ewing

As the game unfolds on the floor of the Expo, Gillispie watches closely. She looks to see if a player’s body twists in unnatural ways, how hard a falling athlete hits the court, the reaction of the player and other details.

Tending to injuries is a big deal in a league where players are a stutter-step away from trading in 1,500-seat arenas for 15,000-seat basketball shrines across the country.

The Red Claws are a G League affiliate of the NBA’s Boston Celtics, made up mostly of recent college graduates trying to get noticed and land a coveted roster spot or 10-day contract with NBA teams.

The difference in pay between a bench player who sticks in the NBA for two or three years and a G League player who never makes it to the NBA is enormous. The minimum NBA salary is about $550,000 a year, while G League players typically earn about $25,000 for a 50-game season. Some G League players who also play part-time for their NBA affiliates, called “two-way” players, earn a minimum of $75,000 per year.

So players have a financial stake in staying healthy and recovering from injuries quickly. Gillespie said the players appreciate good medical care, and from what she’s seen, they take their injuries and rehab seriously.

PLAYERS APPRECIATE THE CARE

Dr. Heather Gillespie, who is better able to treat an injury if she sees how it happens, said, “I’m very vigilant about watching what’s going on on the court.” Staff photo by John Ewing

In addition to her time at the game, Gillespie will see the players during rehab at her South Portland offices and also when they undergo extensive physicals before the season.

During games, when she sees a potential injury, Gillespie springs into action. G League team doctors do not travel with their teams, so the visiting team can use the services of the home team’s doctor.

During a Jan. 15 game against the Austin Spurs, the G League affiliate of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, a collision sent Spurs center Matt Costello tumbling to the floor in the first half. Afterward, his right wrist started hurting and he was being evaluated by the Spurs’ trainer.

Gillespie, 44, talks so often with Red Claws trainer Mike Metcalfe that they can read each other’s non-verbal cues.

“He gave me a look and I knew to go over and help them out,” Gillespie said.

“I could tell they wanted some help from us,” Metcalfe said after the game.

At first Gillespie and Dr. William Patterson, who was assisting her for that game, looked over Costello’s hand next to the home bleachers. They asked him to clench and unclench his fist, and although he didn’t seem to be in great pain, he reported some weakness.

“Let’s ice this and re-evaluate it at halftime,” Gillespie said.

At halftime in the hallway outside the Spurs’ locker room, Gillespie felt Costello’s hand again.

“There’s a little bone we’re concerned about,” she said, before telling Costello his night was over and to keep ice on it. She wrote out a report and recommended X-rays once Costello returned to Texas.

Patterson said they were worried about the scaphoid, a small interior bone in the wrist that often absorbs a lot of pressure during falls and can be susceptible to fractures. Costello was back playing for the Austin Spurs two weeks later, so his injury ended up not being severe.

Gillespie said team doctors usually don’t do a spot diagnosis, but if it’s a Red Claws player who gets injured, they will conduct extensive follow-ups after games.

While frustrated with his injury, Costello said the league’s medical care is top-notch.

Heather Gillespie, team doctor for the Maine Red Claws, right, confers with Kalie Smith, an EMS worker with Northeast Mobile Health, about protocols in case of a serious injury during the game. Staff photo by John Ewing

“We appreciate that they’re here for us. She’s doing a great job,” Costello said.

After caring for Costello, Gillespie tended to Drew Barham, a Red Claws player from Gonzaga University who sprained an ankle during a practice two weeks earlier. He was following the rehab protocol closely and had regained significant strength and movement in his left ankle.

“She’s awesome, and very good at letting you know what’s wrong and how to improve. It’s very educational,” said Barham, who also has played professionally in Japan, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

DOING WHAT THE DOCTOR SAYS

Barham said he’s had to learn to be patient and not rush back from an injury.

“It’s a very difficult lesson, because you always want to play, but you have to learn it,” he said.

Gillespie said she tells players they will perform better on the court if they’re healed.

“I tell them it’s better to address the problem now and get them healed properly rather than have the injury become chronic, and then they’re struggling with it all season,” she said. “It’s better to miss a couple games and be back to normal.”

After feeling Barham’s ankle and getting feedback on his progress, Gillespie returned to the game, which started to get chippy between the Red Claws and Spurs in what ended up being a close Red Claws win. Gillespie said injuries sometimes occur in the final minutes of close games, as the players tire yet become more physical with each other.

There was a hard foul at the end of the game, and a Red Claws player hit the court, arms and legs sprawled out. But he got right back up.

“Let’s just get out of this half with no more injuries,” Gillespie said near the end of the game.

Thirty seconds later, the game was over and the Red Claws had won, 108-101.

The final tally on player injuries: one.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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