A grueling four days at NBA boot camp (cont.)
Breakfast is at the cafeteria, near the eastern edge of the IMG campus. And it really is one, with dorms (girls on one side, boys on the other), a functioning K-12 school and even, each spring, a prom (For 60 grand and up for annual tuition, you better get one). The manicured grounds are a stark contrast to the surrounding area of Bradenton which, best I can tell, consists primarily of auto dealerships, condo complexes, liquor stores and fast food joints. It's not what I expected -- where are the posh resorts and rich, Botox-ed women in Beamers? On the drive in from the airport I even began to wonder if I was lost (and indeed, the relative isolation of Bradenton is why some NBA players choose not to train here, preferring the "entertainment" options of working out in Vegas or L.A.). But then I saw the gates, large, white and imposing, as if the Academies are some enormous fortress or nature preserve, which in a way I guess they are.
When NBA players train at IMG they usually rent a condo nearby or stay in one of the million-dollar villas at the rear of the compound (Thomas rents a four-bedroom place, even though it's just him and his manager). By contrast, most of us stay at the adult lodge, which offers small, tidy rooms. We eat communal meals and do so with alarming ferocity. Chicken parmesan, turkey filet, yogurt, potatoes, salad: we shovel it all in, trying to replenish calories our bodies aren't accustomed to burning. Over the course of four days, a couple of my peers lose close to 10 pounds.
On this morning, as we inhale scrambled eggs, discussion centers around two things: hamstrings (how tight they are) and sleep (how blissful it was). There is a good vibe to our crew, which is comprised of bloggers (including Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com and Henry Abbott of ESPN's True Hoop), stats gurus (Roland Beech of 82games.com) and even one agent (Jason Levien of LSR). We scan our schedule for the day:
9:30-10: Stretching and Warm-Up
You'll notice that actual basketball takes up only three hours, and even so, a chunk of that is spent listening. Both Thorpe and Moreau are believers in quality over quantity, dismissing players who claim to work out "six hours a day."
"If you're working hard, you can't go six hours a day," says Moreau. "We get our guys through in a little over an hour for each session and they're gassed."
At IMG everything is functional. When we stretch and lift, it's mimicking basketball moves. Instead of slow-and-heavy bench press, which builds mass, trainer Corey Stenstrup favors speed work, whether it's cable pulldowns, box jumps or hitting the "jammer," a weight machine that mimics exploding from a squat up toward the basket. The goal is not to get big but to build lean muscle -- Stenstrup says he strives for a "remodeling effect." Tear up too many muscle fibers on a Monday, he explains, and you can't lift on a Tuesday. Much of his job is psychological anyway.
"If you can get NBA players to do conditioning then you're good," he says. "Because if there's one thing they hate, it's conditioning." (If there's another, I would suggest, it's defense)
We, however, are more-than-willing pupils. Our problem is coordination. Much of what Stenstrup stresses involves core work, which in turn involves balance. So when we jump rope, we not only do it forward and side-to-side but backward (try it; it's totally counterintuitive). We topple off balance boards, lose our grip on heavy balls and wobble while doing one-leg hamstring lifts. (The good news: each day it becomes easier). It's becoming increasingly clear that the stereotype of lazy millionaire NBA players is, in many cases, just that. The reason it looks effortless when a guy like Kobe Bryant adjusts in mid-air is because he's worked his ass off so that he can adjust in mid-air.
Our work on the court is similarly focused on applicability. During dribbling drills, we not only switch speeds -- going through five "gears" while handling the ball, to mimic the way a guard like Chris Paul changes tempo -- but try keep our eyes up and aimed downcourt. Not just anywhere, either. We are to rotate looking at four imaginary teammates, thus keeping the equally-imaginary defense off guard. Given the option of choosing, I decide that as long as it's my imaginary team, I might as well be the guy taking all the shots, so I envision an all-defensive-specialist lineup of Adonal Foyle, Bruce Bowen, Quinton Ross and Theo Ratliff.
It's time for mental conditioning, which I can summarize as follows: Hey man, you're really, really good!
Even elite athletes, it turns out, need love and lots of it. As Thorpe says, "When they play well and win, they don't need me. They need me when they're down."
So for each NBA client, the IMG team creates a personal highlight reel, which players can dial up on their iPods before games or whenever they need a shot of self-confidence. We watch the reel for Courtney Lee, a first-round pick this year by Orlando. It begins with keyboard-heavy instrumental music -- think Alan Parsons Project-- and what follows is five minutes of Courtney Lee, Super-Frickin-Star. We see Lee dunking, we see him draining threes, we see him soaring over an opponent and blocking a shot out of bounds. Six times, we hear a broadcaster intoning, "The Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year!" Interspersed are clips of Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and sprinter Michael Johnson doing incredible things.
By the time the video finishes, I feel like I'm the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year. I can only imagine how pumped Lee must get (it also makes me wonder what the counterpart would be for my line of work -- shots of me triumphantly hitting the Return button cut with footage of Frank Deford pounding a typewriter in slo-mo?)
Of course, after you build players up, then you must break them down. So IMG provides written analysis of every game its clients play. We check out a critique of Daniel Santiago, a former NBA reserve now playing in Spain, from October of 2007. The breakdown is by half and is by turns encouraging ("Free-throw stroke looked good") and constructive. For example, regarding an early entry pass Santiago doesn't get to: "Don't just hold position back on your heels and hope the pass is perfect. Go get it if you have to -- especially from [teammate Marcus] Haislip. Expect a bad pass!"
Then later, referencing a botched move to the basket: "On the first drive when you got jammed, you tried to force a pass to the baseline and turned it over. Always look diagonally opposite in that situation. You had No. 7 wide open ready for the jumper ... look to make the easy play, which 90 percent of the time will be diagonally opposite."
It strikes me as a remarkable resource. After any game, Santiago may or may not receive feedback from his coach in Spain but, sitting in his apartment, he can pore over a complete deconstruction of his play from a dedicated coach half a world away. And this, more than anything, is the lesson of the week at IMG: You can't do it alone. If every NBA player is essentially his own small business, then, just like any company, he needs to have his own tech support, IT and oversight. The focus has to be overwhelmingly, constantly on you. What you eat, how you train, what you think. No detail is too mundane. No wonder pro athletes seem selfish and egotistical. They have to be much of the time to succeed.
Of course, the challenge is not to come off that way in public. Which is the purpose of our next session, communication training, which teaches athletes how to deal with people like me. The program is run by Steve Shenbaum, an actor, comedian and, as he likes to say, "recovering narcissist." His clients have included Pete Sampras and Greg Oden and his goal is simple: make athletes seem like human beings. So he tries to teach "honesty, humility and humor."