For the Win, "We asked a doctor about Sindarius Thornwell (and Michael Jordan) playing through the flu"

Published March 31, 2017

By Adi Joseph

Sindarius Thornwell is feeling better, mostly. The South Carolina star was back at practice Friday morning after missing Thursday’s session because of the flu.

Still, this is the Final Four. This is South Carolina at the Final Four, a first in franchise history. And Thornwell is not only the Gamecocks’ best player but also their senior leader and driving force to this point.

So could a lingering flu take down this year’s Cinderella? For The Win spoke with Asheesh Gupta, M.D., a sports medicine surgeon with The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics in Virginia, to discuss the advice he’d give to a player in Thornwell’s precarious position.

FTW: What would you tell a basketball player who had flu-like symptoms but still needed to play in the biggest game of his life?

Gupta: The thing initially would be to figure out what types of symptoms the patient has. Oftentimes, people will talk about is it below the neck or above the neck? So if it’s above the neck, it may just be a simple cold that’s viral. If they’ve got a stuffy nose, maybe a low-grade fever, that’s something you probably can play through. Obviously you’d want to stay very well hydrated, especially during breaks, and make sure you good take of everything.

If it’s below the neck, the chest area, that’s when you kind of worry. You’d figure out if they have a high-grade fever. That’s when you’d be worried if they have something a bit more severe. Again, obviously, if it’s such an important match, it may be hard to keep them out of the game, but make them fully aware that this might be more severe and require extra precautions. And you may need to see your primary care doctor to see if you need to be on antibiotics.

FTW: When you say staying hydrated, do you recommend sports drinks? Low-sugar sports drinks? Water?

Gupta: I think low-sugar sport drinks make more sense than straight water because you also need to get your other electrolytes as well. You shouldn’t do just water.

FTW: What would it take for you to simply shut down a player, for them to come into your office and you to simply say ‘no, you can’t play’?

Gupta: A fever typically starts at 100.6 degrees. If a player has a low-grade fever, slightly decreased energy, that’s OK. If it’s clearly higher — and it’s a gray area; there’s no real cutoff — then you start worrying, especially if they have generalized muscle cramps and aches and overall have a very ill picture. Then you start worrying, is playing going to be a detriment to their health?

1997 AP photo

FTW: There’s the famous Michael Jordan “Flu Game,” where he kept playing because it was the NBA Finals. Does adrenaline help with anything? Does the fact that it’s a big game help with the sickness?

Gupta: Absolutely. If you look at that game in 1997, in between every timeout, he was sort of slumped and receiving fluids and basically trying to make it through. Then he’d get out on the court and play. There’s definitely an adrenaline component, and you can’t discount that fact when you are talking to a player at this level.

FTW: Stomach issues, fever, aches: How much should that affect a normal person playing a basketball game? Obviously, Michael Jordan is not a normal person.

Gupta: Sure, he’s super-human, but to a normal person, it’s very, very difficult. You lose a tremendous amount of electrolytes when you vomit. So to be able to function at such a high level and sweat profusely, where you lose even more electrolytes, it’s just a true testament to his physical conditioning.

FTW: Thornwell says he’s feeling better. What kind of outlook would you give a player? Could it be a 24-hour bug, or are there still problems lurking?

Gupta: It’s hard to say, having not talked to or examined the patient, but there are instances of shorter viral pathologies and longer courses. It’s not unusual to have something that only lasts 24 hours — for instance, with Jordan, it was a stomach bug. Still, as long as he’s feeling better, I would advise that you want to stay ahead on your fluids, stay rested and be smart with your nutrition, maybe take it a little easy with shoot-around and conserve for the game.

FTW: Jordan was 34 for “The Flu Game.” Is being 22 an advantage for Thornwell?

Gupta: Jordan’s conditioning was probably not an average 34-year-old. So that’s a tough comparison. The younger the patient, they can bounce back a little bit quicker. They just have the reserves available. So I hope he does come back quickly and is able to participate at the highest level, since this is the most important game of his career to date.

Read more here