Tell Him Where It Hurts
A top L.A. surgeon is taking your calls.
Ten minutes before 7 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, Robert Klapper walks into the studios of sports-radio station KSPN in downtown Los Angeles, wearing wrinkled blue scrubs and sockless black Prada loafers. He confers briefly with his producer and then slips on a pair of purple-and-gold headphones and pivots an overhanging microphone toward his mouth. The guitar riff from ZZ Top’s “La Grange” blares over the speakers, signaling the opening of Weekend Warrior, his two-hour call-in show devoted to sports medicine. In a gruff honk that’s straight out of Queens, Klapper dives into a monologue that veers from Steve Jobs to Michelangelo to Steph Curry.
“Curry is the greatest shooter on the planet,” he says, eyeing a computer monitor that displays the queue of callers waiting to speak with him, “because even the wrist action on his follow-through has perfect form. It’s like art or surgery: In order to make the front right, you have to make the back right.”
For the past ten years, Klapper, who is 58 years old, has been the chief of orthopedic surgery at L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Group, where he performs between 10 and 15 surgeries a week, replacing some of the city’s most famous hips and knees. (His patients have included Wilt Chamberlain, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, and William Shatner.) In the medical world, Klapper has gained renown for helping to invent an ultrasonic device that breaks up the bonding cement used in hip-implant surgeries without damaging the bone. But he’s probably better known as the host of Weekend Warrior, where his knack for making clinical jargon understandable has turned him into a cult figure among Southern California’s amateur athletes.
“Think of your spine as a stack of Oreo cookies,” he tells Dave from Hollywood, who may be suffering from a herniated disk. “The bone is the cookie. The disk is the cream filling. When you squeeze the cookie, the cream gushes out.” His advice? Confirm the diagnosis with an MRI and start physical therapy. As for cortisone shots — “fahgettaboudit.” They only serve to mask pain. “A lot of surgeons will tell you to have surgery when you shouldn’t,” he says. “Surgery is when you got no choice and everything else has failed.”
He counsels Quentin from Long Beach, who complains of recurring soreness in his Achilles, to do exercises that will strengthen the tendon. “Stretch slowly,” Klapper tells him, “like they stretch out the pizza dough at Village Pizzeria on Larchmont.”
A longtime Lakers season-ticket holder, Klapper was standing outside Staples Center before a 2009 playoff game when he overheard the team’s broadcasters speculating about the partial tear to the medial collateral ligament of center Andrew Bynum. Klapper handed his card to the producer and was soon on the air advising fans to relax. He knew from the type of injury that Bynum would be able to play with a knee brace. Soon after, the city’s sports talk-show hosts were asking him to explain how players’ injuries would affect their teams’ fortunes: Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp’s ankle woes and surgically repaired shoulder; Lakers star Kobe Bryant’s fractured knee; Angels first baseman Albert Pujols’s plantar fasciitis.
In the Southern California market, where five all-sports radio stations fight for the coveted 25-to-54 male demographic, Mike Thompson, the program director of KSPN, saw room for some counterprogramming that would break through the chatter about all things Dodgers–Angels–Lakers–Clippers–Kings–USC–UCLA. In 2011, Thompson paired Klapper with a co-host; a year and a half later, he had a solo slot. His popularity has spawned similar programs in Dallas and Chicago and has attracted the attention of television producers. Last year, he started appearing on Fox Sports to weigh in on the NFL’s voluminous injury list.
Klapper likes to begin each call by asking, “So, what do you do for a living?” The question tends to disarm the person on the line, but it also prompts him to go on tangents about the joys of chocolate babka (“when you dip it into coffee it becomes tiramisu”), what he learned from working with Dr. Frank Jobe (the inventor of “Tommy John” surgery for baseball pitchers), his blue-collar upbringing (his father was a carpenter, his mother a nurse), and his love for Italian Renaissance sculpture (he majored in art history as an undergraduate).
In between calls, Klapper slips into a reverie, his riffs a mash-up of familiar voices: the bravura of Robin Williams’s character in Good Morning, Vietnam, the storytelling flair of monologuist Jean Shepherd, and the bluntness (minus the profanity) of Howard Stern. “I’m paddling in pitch blackness a half mile out into the ocean,” he says, staring straight ahead. “All I can hear is the waves as they crackle around me and my own breath. The sun is starting to come out over Diamond Head so it looks like it’s erupting for the first time. It’s beyond magical. I paddle out to the lineup, and three of my buddies — pure Hawaiian surfers — are already waiting. These are the happiest guys I know, so I ask them, ‘What is the secret to happiness?’ And do you know what they said? ‘The secret to happiness is to find your gift. Once you find that gift, share it with the world. That’s where the joy comes from.’”
After speaking with Eric (ACL tear) and T.J. (foot dislocation), Klapper signs off to the strains of “Volare.” Before heading out, he ad-libs a promo for the next show, about the possible connection between vitamin D deficiency and sports injuries. His plan is to go surfing, but first he has to swing by Cedars and check on patients.