By Lyndon Stambler
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020, UCLA orthopaedic surgeon and Los Angeles Lakers head team physician Kristofer J. Jones, MD, felt like he suddenly was living in a science fiction movie. “We hear about outbreaks in different countries, but I never saw it becoming an issue in the U.S. — until it did,” he says.
This new reality became very tangible on March 10, 2020, during a game between the Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets at Staples Center. In the visitor’s locker room, Dr. Jones was examining two Nets players with injuries when the team’s trainer mentioned that some players were ill. The next day — the same day the NBA temporarily shut down — Dr. Jones learned four Nets players had tested positive for COVID-19. With that disturbing news in mind, Dr. Jones and the consulting medical staff decided to test all the players on the Lakers. According to a statement from the team shortly after, two players, though asymptomatic, tested positive and went into quarantine. Dr. Jones followed up with contact tracing, and he launched an education program to give members of the team the information they needed to protect themselves from the illness. “We wanted to make sure they knew the consequences of getting it, and how that could affect their families, as well,” he says.
As a former college football player, Dr. Jones can speak in a mutual language with athletes, and he was well equipped to deal with the challenges of managing the health care needs of one of the greatest professional sports franchises in history in the midst of a pandemic. When the NBA announced it would create a “bubble” at Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, to continue the season, Dr. Jones and the other members of the Lakers medical team, including Daniel V. Vigil, MD (FEL ’98), a UCLA family and sports-medicine physician and associate head team doctor, got to work preparing the team. His experience as an athlete helped him relate to the players. “Being able to see these guys get back to compete and possibly win a 17th championship was important to everyone in the organization, especially after the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant. But, first and foremost, I needed to make sure they grasped what it meant to continue to play in such uncertainty, and how we would make it as safe as possible for them,” Dr. Jones says.
The son of an electrical engineer and a public-school German and French teacher, Dr. Jones grew up in Chicago. He loved science, sports and fixing things. One Christmas, his grandfather, a handyman, gave him a tool belt. “That was my introduction to using a hammer, nails and screwdrivers,” he says. “Now, lo and behold, that’s what I do [as an orthopaedic surgeon] in the operating room.”
After high school, Dr. Jones, who ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, received offers to play football for several Division 1 schools, but, instead, he accepted a scholarship to play tailback for the University of Chicago, where he won all-conference honors. Influenced by an older brother, who went on to become chair of anesthesiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, his dream was to combine sports and medicine. He earned his MD at the University of Pennsylvania and completed his residency and fellowship training at the Hospital for Special Surgery, in New York City. (While training in New York, he served as assistant team physician for the Brooklyn Nets, the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer and Iona College Athletics, as well as an orthopaedic consultant to the United States Tennis Association and the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament.) He joined the UCLA faculty in 2013, and he also currently is a team physician for UCLA Athletics.
When the Lakers entered the “bubble” in July, the players were tested daily. They wore electronic devices to regulate their contacts, and masks all the time, except when they were eating, sleeping or playing in a game. If they didn’t comply, the NBA’s “COVID Police” made them mask up. “These are young guys,” Dr. Jones says. “They do not like wearing masks, but they did it. There was not a single Lakers player who tested positive while in the bubble.” The NBA set up practice courts, weight rooms and a small urgent care facility. “Everything was available,” Dr. Jones says. “MRIs within 10 minutes of an injury happening, which is unheard of in regular play.” The Lakers thrived and went on to win the NBA championship against the Miami Heat on October 9.
Dr. Jones spent 40 days with the team in the “bubble.” “My wife loved it,” Dr. Jones jokes. “I left her with two rambunctious toddlers. I owe a lot of thanks to her for allowing me to do what I consider to be an important part of my job.” COVID-19 also allowed Dr. Jones to develop a greater understanding of the players and his UCLA patients. Before, he would only see players when they had a medical problem. Living with the players for 40 days changed that. “It was a lively environment, watching LeBron ride his bicycle up and down the hallway, blasting music,” Dr. Jones says. “I relived what seemed like a college-dorm experience with a bunch of the most prominent NBA athletes that we’ve ever seen. That translates into a more personal relationship and a lot more trust.”
Lyndon Stambler is a freelance writer and associate professor of journalism at Santa Monica College.