A writer spends four grueling days at NBA boot camp in Florida
The author went to IMG Academies to participate in the same workouts as the pros
With calves and hamstrings burning, Ballard got a new appreciation for the game
Afterward in pickup games, the author was yelling things like, "pinch post"
Recently, I spent the better part of a week training at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. If you're interested in feeling really old and out of shape, I highly recommend it.
IMG is like a sports factory, or perhaps an athletic Disneyland: 300 acres of fields and gyms and courts where tiny Sharapovas and little boys in wicking shirts train year-round at everything from soccer to basketball to baseball. This is where Nick Bollettieri runs his tennis program, where Freddy Adu honed his dribbling, where offseason NBA players spend their days shooting jumpers and chugging chalky protein shakes. To walk the campus, with its man-made lagoons, emporium-sized weight room and roaming packs of long-limbed athletes, is to feel like you've stepped into a Nike ad.
I arrived along with eight other media types for the Basketball Academy's first "Train Like a Pro" program. For four days we went through (mostly) the same program that players such as Kevin Martin, of the Kings, and Luol Deng, of the Bulls, follow during the summer. Same coaches, same drills, same searing leg cramps at 2 a.m. Or maybe only I got those.
Going in, I had a vague idea of what to expect. Long ago, in what now seems like a former life, I played high-school ball and a year in college. I recall running -- lots and lots of it -- and endless loops of ball handling exercises, 2-on-1 breaks and weave drills. So I was prepared for the conditioning aspect of IMG. What I was unprepared for was the exquisite attention to detail, the focus not just on improvement but on mastery.
Of course, that's better-suited to NBA clients. For our group, the stated goal was to better understand the game. The unstated goal was that none of us -- mostly in our mid-30s, universally unaccustomed to two-a-days -- leave on a stretcher. Both goals, I can happily report, were accomplished.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning, on a Monday afternoon, fresh off a cross-country flight.
We've been on the court 30 minutes and already I feel like I'm wearing a wet dishrag. One thing about training in this part of Florida: you sweat in ways you never knew possible. Even though it's fall, the air is warm and heavy, and the slightest exertion summons rivulets of perspiration. This makes warming up tired muscles deceptively easy. It also means we surround the water jug like a bunch of meth addicts jonesing for a fix. Still, I can see why it's a great place to train -- you always feel as if you're really working.
We begin with basic dribbling and shooting drills on the two NBA-size courts. As if by way of apology, at least half a dozen times coach Mike Moreau, head of the Basketball Academy and one of our two main instructors, tells us, "Don't be insulted by the simplicity of what we're doing." His point is to focus not on what we're doing but how we're doing it. So when we yo-yo the ball back and forth with one hand during a dribbling drill, we're to do it not only as hard as possible -- "HAMMER NAILS!" Moreau shouts, like some crazed foreman -- but until we go so fast that we lose the ball. The idea is to simulate a game situation, when a defender is crowding you at full speed. "If you don't lose the ball, you're not going hard enough," Moreau shouts, "MAKE YOURSELF LOSE IT!"
It's a totally unnatural sensation, like speeding up a treadmill until you wipe out, and requires a concerted effort, even more so I imagine for NBA players for whom losing the ball is a sign of weakness. Once accomplished, however, it's quite liberating. Rarely does one get to screw up and be praised by a coach.
And what emphatic praise it is. As head of the Academy, Moreau deals primarily with the students at IMG and, as such, has the wired intensity required to command a teenager's attention. He often speaks in caps, whether commanding us to hammer those nails or "KILL THE GRASS!" during a ball-handling drill. Thin and wiry, with a buzzcut and intense eyes, he moves like a boxer and seems to genuinely delight in our small victories.
Our other guru for the week is David Thorpe, executive director of the Pro Training Center at IMG, the NBA arm of the program. His current clients include Martin, Deng and Orlando Magic guard Courtney Lee, among others. Built like a fullback, Thorpe has the clean, tanned look of a politician or the most popular dad at the PTA meeting, with short hair and a thick jaw.
In the span of 15 years, he has risen from a Florida high school coach to NBA trainer and analyst for ESPN.com. An excellent talker, he's fluent not only in the you-can-do-it motivational patois required of any good trainer but is also capable of unleashing three motherf------ in one sentence when the moment calls for it. He's also a fine listener, and is on his cell phone so often that he not only has two Bluetooth's but also carries a corded headset for when his batteries inevitably peter out (Interestingly, depending on the personality and experience of his clients, he says he varies his ratio of talking to listening: he estimates that with Deng he is the one talking 30 percent of the time, while with Bulls forward Tyrus Thomas it is 50 percent and with Lee, the rookie, it's closer to 90 percent).
With us, Thorpe alternates between encouragement, gentle ribbing and clinical assessment. What's striking is how quickly he provides the latter. He watches me shoot all of two jump shots before concluding, "You've got nice form. It's a little flat but it's compact and easily replicated." Later, while I'm performing jab step dribble drives from the wing, he instantly notices that I'm sliding my right foot back before going forward, like a tiny unnecessary dance step, thus wasting a split second. It's the kind of detail that, in 20 years of playing the game, I'd never even thought to consider. His solution is simple: practice the move with a chair behind your right leg; the bruises will tell you how you're faring.