Michael Grossman followed his childhood fascination with science to become head of the Main Line Foot and Ankle Center, but he never imagined adding Judaism to the mix.
Michael Grossman didn’t always wear his Jewishness on his sleeve. Or on his head, for that matter.
The man who followed his childhood fascination with science to become head of the Main Line Foot and Ankle Center, in addition to serving as team podiatrist for the Philadelphia 76ers the past five year — meaning he’s one of many checking out Joel Embiid’s busted foot — wouldn’t have imagined either of those possibilities back then.
For one thing, while he was good in other sports — particularly football, baseball, swimming and lacrosse — basketball was not his thing. Then again, neither was religion, though he dutifully attended Main Line Reform Temple, where he became a Bar Mitzvah.
But once wearing a yarmulke and tzit tzit became part of his daily ritual, it all made perfect sense. “The million-dollar question people always ask is, ‘What epiphany did you have?’’’ said the 53-year-old Grossman, following a typically hectic day — including performing surgery — at Lankenau Hospital, where he’s head of podiatry.
His succinct answer: “None.”
“I was in Chicago for podiatry school and remember going to a High Holiday service and it just really turned me off,” recalled Grossman, whose other passion is cycling. “I don’t know what it was. This was 1987. I switched from that shul and found a shul near where I lived which was more traditional, though Orthodox. I drove my mother nuts, because I turned kosher and she couldn’t cook anything for me. I knew nothing back then, but I just stuck with it. I came back here and joined a Conservative shul.”
In retrospect, Grossman says now he must have always had that mindset. “It just took a while to come out. At the time, I wasn’t wearing a kipah or tzit tzit,” he explained. “It was a progression. But I don’t like labels. If you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish.
“Do whatever you’re comfortable with. This,” he added, touching his kipah, “reminds me there’s somebody above you — not my wife.”
Grossman met his future wife, Nancy, after leaving his synagogue in Swarthmore at the behest of his friend. “He said, ‘You’re not going to meet any girls at Swarthmore. Come to Har Zion,’ ” laughed Grossman. “So I did. He introduced me to my wife who was
a lifelong member of Har Zion.”
Within two years, they were married and have since gone on to raise three children. The oldest, 19-year-old Jayde, is a sophomore at the University of Arizona. Avi, 16, just returned from a semester in Israel as part of Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy’s Muss Program. Brenen, 12, will have his Bar Mitzvah in Israel next year — the seventh time his dad will visit the country.
Presumably by then, the struggling Sixers — and, particularly, Embiid, who has yet to play for the franchise since being drafted in 2013 with a fractured navicular bone in his right foot — will be in better shape than they are now. While Grossman is not permitted by HIPAA laws to discuss Embiid’s — or any other player’s — injury, he says dealing with professional athletes has been interesting.
“They may be a little bit pampered, but they’re really nice guys,” said Grossman, who was referred by former team physician Dr. Jack McPhilemy after the team’s longtime podiatrist, Lee Cohen, left in 2010. “It surprised me. They’re approachable and they do what you say.”
Part of the problem is the foot simply isn’t built to take the kind of abuse pro basketball players take. “When you’re 6-9 and run up and down the court, your knees take a beating,” said Grossman, who — after completing a full day in the office — usually arrives a few hours before game time and stays until it’s over. “Your back takes a beating. Your feet take a beating. People aren’t made to be that tall and run up and down the court. And generally, the heavier you are, the more pounding the body’s going to take. And with an 82-game schedule, it’s demanding.”
Those demands often leave Grossman having to juggle his regular responsibilities for the team, whether it’s fitting a player for orthotics, a special consultation or some other need. Usually, he’ll confer with Sixers’ trainer Kevin Johnson about the best course of treatment, then they’ll go over it with the player.
Just like regular patients, though, he can’t make any promises. “I’ll tell them this might help your knee or your foot or your back, but I can’t guarantee it,” he acknowledged.
What he can almost guarantee is that his days will be long and crammed with activity. “I wake up 4:30 in the morning, do an hour of training on my bike, then go to shul for morning minyan,” said Grossman, who became a podiatrist as a way of following in the footsteps of his uncle. Ken Martin. “I’ll get to the office around 7 or 8 or I go to a nursing home. I work a full day ’til 5, then run down to the Sixers.
“I usually don’t get home until 10:30 at night. My wife gets mad at me, because I’m too wired to go to sleep.”
When he takes a moment to reflect on it, though, Grossman sees podiatry as the embodiment of much of his Jewish background. “I liked the idea of doing surgery and helping people,” said Grossman, who doesn’t work Sixers games on Shabbat or during the holidays — his associate, Anthony Cook, fills in. “But I didn’t want anybody dying on the table. I thought the call schedule and family life schedule would be a little bit better, but it’s still pretty good. I used to get a lot of calls in the middle of the night — fractures, people falling down stairs, car accidents, other traumas. And we’re opening up a trauma center here at Lankenau, so I’m sure it’ll get busier here. But we have a lot of podiatrists here.”
Yet he’s the only one among them to have competed in the 2009 Maccabiah Games, where he took a silver in the Master’s Section (40-49) team time trials and a bronze in the team road race.
“That was neat,” said Grossman, who has a picture of himself on the medal stand prominently displayed in his office, though he doesn’t normally bring it into the conversation unless asked. “A friend of mine called and said, ‘We’re putting together a team for the Maccabiah Games and we want you on it.’ I’d had a respiratory chest infection before we went so I’d been off my bike a good three weeks before we left. I was barely able to breathe, because you get de-conditioned from something like that.
“Somehow, I won.”
But in Grossman’s eyes, that makes him no better — or no worse — than anyone else. It’s one of many things he’s learned since becoming further committed to Judaism. “I guess the religious aspect was always inside me,” he said. “I never knew what it was, but that came easy to me. It’s disturbing to me when Jews judge other Jews — my pet peeve. Who are you to judge me? Besides, I’m not judging. He’s judging.”