Opportunity can come packaged in the strangest, most subtle ways. For Dr. Walter Lowe, one of the world’s most prominent orthopedic surgeons, the opening to become the head team physician for the Houston Rockets and, ultimately, the Houston Texans may as well have shown up at his door in disguise.
“I moved to Houston in 1991, after completing my fellowship at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles, which was the big sports clinic in the country,” Lowe said. “I wanted to work with sports teams, but when I moved to Houston, I was told there were too many sports doctors in town, so I started my own practice out in Sugar Land, in a facility where it just so happened that [former Rockets strength coach] Robert Barr would work out some of the players, from time to time.
“So in 1993 during the NBA playoffs, Barr brought Robert Horry to my practice to have me examine his knee. He was suffering from patellar tendinitis,” continued Lowe. “The team doctors weren’t handling it properly, so I made some recommendations for therapy that would get Horry well in about ten days.”
From there, the team said thanks to Lowe, and promptly flew to Los Angeles to see doctors at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic to get their take on Horry’s injury. They asked the Rockets brass which doctors they’d seen in Houston. When they mentioned Lowe’s name, the team at Kerlan-Jobe essentially told the Rockets to turn around, fly back to Houston and follow Lowe’s instructions. That was validation.
It was shortly thereafter that validation met with great timing, as Les Alexander became the owner of the Rockets and, at the behest of team icon Hakeem Olajuwon, Alexander made changing team doctors one of his first priorities. The most logical replacement candidate was the doctor who so deftly worked the solution to the Horry injury, and so, after a two-hour meeting with then-head coach Rudy Tomjanovich (not to mention years of undergrad work at Colorado State, medical school at the University of Texas, internships, and fellowships at various places), Walter Lowe became the Houston Rockets’ team physician.
From there, more fortuitous timing allowed for Lowe to add the University of Houston and the Houston Oilers to his sports medicine empire. Today, in addition to the Rockets and the University of Houston, Lowe is the head team physician for the Houston Texans as well as numerous prominent high school programs in the area.
Lowe’s position with the Houston Texans entails handling knees and shoulders on which the emotional well being of an entire city rides. And while Lowe is not blind to the geographic importance of, say, Jadeveon Clowney’s microfracture knee surgery in 2014, his focus is always on successfully completing the job at hand, not the Q-rating of the patient.
That patient-centric mentality comes, in part, from the influences of Bob Kerlan and Frank Jobe, the lead doctors where Lowe completed his fellowship. For those who don’t know, Jobe is world-famous for the invention of “Tommy John” surgery, an innovative procedure that’s saved numerous baseball careers through replacing damaged elbow tendons with cadaver tendons.
“[Kerlan and Jobe] have influenced so many team doctors in sports today,” said Dr. Lowe, before rattling off about a dozen names. “We had it beaten into our heads that if you take care of the player and do the right thing it works out for everybody. That’s why I don’t get caught up in the politics of any situation. You do right by the player.”
To that end, Lowe leads a Texans medical staff that was recognized in an NFL Players Association poll two years ago as one of the top five medical staffs in the sport. “That’s a big deal, when the players trust the medical staff,” Lowe said.
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While Lowe is best known publicly for his work with this city’s professional teams, he takes equal pride in repairing the injuries of kids at the youth and high-school level. If you visit the testimonial page on Lowe’s website, there are numerous, emotional expressions of gratitude from parents and the kids themselves.
“A patient is a patient, and the high-school player from North Shore with a torn ACL is no different to me than one of the Texans with a torn ACL,” Lowe explained. “The principles of getting them well are the same. The only differences are the resources to get them well after surgery. Working on pro athletes is actually less stressful because they have a ton of resources, numerous team trainers, and they get treated 24-7.”
The city of Houston is a medical epicenter, and the opportunity to be one of the faces of the medical industry here is not lost on Lowe. “There is no other town like this one in the country,” Lowe said, beaming. “You could debate Boston, maybe, but we are lucky to work and live in a city with these medical facilities. This city has been so good to me that now I just get up every morning and pinch myself.”
This article is part of our annual Best of Houston issue. Check out all the winners here.