What started out as a gym game played between two peach baskets has in little more than a century become one of America's favorite pastimes. Most Americans, even those who don't necessarily follow the sport, could name at least one or two big stars on the court. Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson, Lebron James - the names come easily to even the most athletically clueless.
When a Massachusetts physical education teacher decided in 1891 that his students were in need of a different way to spend their time in his class, he couldn't have foreseen the way the game would alter the trajectory of sports culture in the United States.
But what might surprise even the most well versed fan is that basketball has one of the highest dental injury rates of all contact sports, according to a study released in 2007. With an incidence rate of 10.6 injuries per 100 athlete-seasons among men, and 5.0 among women, basketball supercedes even the notorious football injuries when it comes to dental trauma.
"I’ve seen two kids get teeth knocked out during games," says college-bound basketball player Blair Orr. Contrary to the practices of most of his teammates, he has been using a mouth guard for most of his basketball career, and it's done more for him than just protecting his pearly whites.
"[Wearing a mouth guard] gives you that sense of security, that you have this edge over someone else. You can take a hit but they don’t have that same protection".
Not having that protection can lead to serious dental injuries in a game where elbows are constantly flying.
High impact sports like football and hockey used to maintain an easy lead in this realm of sports statistics, but mandated use of mouth guards in more recent years has significantly curbed the rates of injury for those sports. Instead, basketball has crept to the forefront, leaving the dental injury rate for men's basketball players nearly five times that of football players who must wear mouth guards.
And yet, mouth guards remain rare on the basketball courts. According to Orr, many basketball players hesitate to use dental protection while playing because of the way typical athletic mouth guards restrict speech and breathing. "They don't want to wear big, ugly mouth guards", says Orr. "For me, because I'm a vocal player, that's the biggest thing - being able to breathe and talk right with it in". (Blair uses a SISU 1.6 in white or blue)
It may seem strange that a sport with such a significant dental injury rate should report such low rates of mouth guard use, but the answer could also have to do with the pressure on players, especially young players, to underreport their injuries.
Kids involved in athletics are pitted against what Nature World News calls a "culture of resistance" when it comes to reporting injuries. Basketball isn't just a hotspot for dental injury - it's included in the list of high school sports with the highest rates of concussions, particularly during games as opposed to practices. That same culture of resistance that results in kids enduring untreated concussions is also contributing to an environment where wearing a mouth guard is considered frivolous and unnecessary - even weak.
But that's changing.
With more research and awareness surrounding the severity of dental injuries that basketball players are subjected to, regulations are slowly adapting to encourage the use of mouth guards - although they aren't yet being mandated.
What's your experience with wearing a mouth guard for team sports? Did you? Why or why not?
Blair Orr is an incoming freshman at the University of Winnipeg, Canada, where he will be playing varsity basketball. He's aiming further his career in basketball there, setting his sights on the Canadian National Basketball League.