You may think the obvious answer to that question is no, but in sports such as basketball, you could possibly become an all-star with less than perfect vision. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains how Stephen Curry became one of the NBA’s best shooters despite having an uncommon degenerative condition known as keratoconus.
Keratoconus is an eye disease in which the usually spherical cornea thins and begins to bulge into a conical shape. The conical shape defocuses light as it hits the cornea causing distorted and blurred vision.
So why didn’t this condition negatively impact Curry’s development as an elite player? For one, keratoconus ranges widely in its severity and usually does not develop until individuals are in their teens or twenties, so he most likely learned the game of basketball prior to acquiring blurred vision. Also, there are additional factors that allow basketball players to perform well despite suboptimal vision. The first is muscle memory as it relates to the lines on the court. If you play enough basketball your body remembers how far it needs to shoot the ball based on your distance from the hoop, and the lines on the court are a player’s cue as to the distance needed to make a shot. Additionally, the hoop and backboard are large targets that are stationary and easy to see without excellent visual acuity. Free throws in basketball are even less dependent on sharp vision because both the hoop and the player are stationary and muscle memory can simply take over. You may recall that during NBA games Michael Jordan would actually shoot and make the occasional free throw with his eyes closed, just to psyche-out his opponents.
Steph Curry is not alone in his blurry-eyed basketball playing achievements. In a 10 year study done by physicians from Duke Eye Center, they found that 15% of players needed their eyes corrected with some of them having as poor of vision as 20/70, which isn’t a legal driving vision in most states. During my surgical fellowship at Duke Eye Center, I was part of such vision screenings and it was not rare to find multiple basketball players who unknowingly had a suboptimal vision, yet all of them were top basketball prospects coming out of high school. In contrast, the Duke baseball players were uniformly 20/20 or better as this sport selects for those with sharp enough vision to hit a small moving ball traveling at 90mph. However, I am in no way advocating visual neglect for basketball players. In fact, Curry actually credited his new and improved vision with contacts for reversing his recent shooting slump in the 2019 NBA Playoffs, stating: “When you go have that experience, and see what the world is like with 20/20 vision, it’s pretty crazy.” “Pretty crazy” is an excellent way to describe his slump-busting contact lenses: over the 10 games prior to contacts his three-point shooting percentage was 32.8%, which rose to 50% over 10 games after wearing contacts for the first time. Vision is something no one should neglect and taking care of your eye health is extremely important for sports, and everyday life. In Curry’s words, proper vision may make you feel as though “the whole world has opened up.”