Recently, I spent the better part of a week training at the IMG Academy 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-ever "Train Like a Pro" program. For four days we went through (mostly) the same program that players like 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 ballhandling 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 ballhandling 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.
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
10:00-11:00: Basketball Strength and Conditioning
11:00-12:30: On-Court Training
2:00-3:00: Mental Conditioning/Attitude
3:00-5:00: Communication Training
6:30-8:00: On-Court Instruction and Games
8:30: Film Breakdown with Coaching Staff
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 backwards (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 #7 wide open ready for the jumper....look to make the easy play, which 90% 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."
Much of this, it turns out, is about feeling comfortable. We run through a series of improv games, learning to vary our tone and presence. For example, during one game I'm on an "expert panel" with Henry Abbott of ESPN and Bill Ingram of Hoopsworld. Our expertise, we're told, is as lobster hunters, so we then take questions from the audience, trying to read each other's cues as we go. (To watch video of this improv, and much more, check out Henry's True Hoop blog, where he lovingly and exhaustively chronicled our week at IMG.)
The alarm bleats. I consider rolling onto the floor, then crawling to the shower. It's not that my joints are sore -- remarkably, due to the extensive stretching and strength work, they are not, for the first time in years after playing -- but my hamstrings feel like they're attached to a winch that won't stop turning. I head to the gym early to loosen up. This, I find, is the greatest luxury of the week. As a 34-year-old father, my basketball these days usually comes in frantic bursts and, aside from a hasty quad stretch here and there, is focused 100 percent on playing. Show up, go full speed, race home. To have the time to warm up properly, using a rolling pad to loosen muscles and performing a variety of exotic stretches, makes a striking difference.
Another luxury is the recovery time. Icing down after each workout, naps in the afternoon, a veritable Gatorade IV. And, this afternoon, after our morning session, an ice bath. It's something Deng does every day in the summer, and I see why. Aside from the initial shock of entering 50-degree water, it's quite nice. During two minute sessions, it feels like this: COLD!, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, blissful. Afterward, I feel like I've just unwrapped a new pair of legs.
It turns out I need them. In the evening session, we practice finishing strong at the rim -- always overhand rather than with a scoop or finger-roll ("Remember Patrick Ewing," warns Thorpe). Then, after practicing coming off of screens -- drills Thorpe refers to as "Reggie Millers" -- we pair up, a guard with a big man, and work on ball screens, turning the corner and, my favorite, running the "pinch post." If you've watched many NBA games, the play is familiar. First, the big man comes to the foul line extended to receive a pass from the guard, who's at the top of the key. The guard can then cut off the big man's hip and receive a handoff, picking off his defender in the process. Or, the big man can fake the handoff and then hit the guard with a dump down pass as he continues looping toward the basket. Or, finally, as Chris Webber used to do for the Sacramento Kings, the big man can fake the handoff, then spin and shoot a free-throw line jumper. Only, unlike Webber, we try to actually put arc on the ball.
The night ends with a scrimmage notable primarily for the fact that no one gets injured. (A sidenote: For those wondering about other elements of the game, like, say, defense, we covered that too. In fact, Thorpe and Moreau take us through an enormous amount for only four days.)
In deference to our conditioning, Thorpe put this morning's workout last. "Had we done it on Monday, you'd all be done for the week," he says bluntly.
We arrive in the gym to find the baskets lowered to various carnival heights -- eight feet, nine feet. It is time to dunk. For NBA guys this is a key element of the program, and on any given day they might dunk between 150-200 times (on a 10-foot rim, of course). Thorpe wants his players to attack with force, be quick leapers and always finish with authority. This draws fouls, creates aggressive drives and, for prospects who are on the cusp of making an NBA team, can be the best way to make an impression. When one of Thorpe's borderline players recently went to training camp with the Phoenix Suns, Thorpe's advice was simple: Go find Amare Stoudemire and try to dunk on him. It's your best shot at making the team.
So, like the pros, we practice. I pair with Ryen Russillo of ESPN, who's a beast down low, and we proceed to do unspeakable things to a nine-foot rim. Or at least that's how it feels to us, in the moment. There are few things more primal, more gratifying, than throwing down monster dunks. By the end, Ryen and I are trading roars with each jam. To be honest, it's the closest I feel to a "pro" all week. Who cares that it's nine feet?
Like everything, the work is structured to mimic game conditions. So we toss the ball off the backboard, catch the "rebound" and try to take one step and dunk. First right-handed, then left-handed, then off one foot, then off two. We hook dunk from the baseline (to put our off shoulder between us and the defender). We take one step, head fake, then dunk to draw contact. And we stand under the rim and jump straight up and dunk, then try to catch the ball and go straight back up by quick-jumping off our toes -- 20 times in a row. By the end, we are sopping with sweat, our calves on fire, and it's only just beginning. (Does all the practice help, you may wonder? Check out this preseason clip of the spindly Martin throwing down on Greg Oden and judge for yourself).
Next up is Thorpe's piece de resistance, the Superman drill. Here's how it works: Stand on one side of the lane, throw the ball off the backboard at an angle and then sprint and leap to catch it in the air and land on the other side of the lane. Now do it 20 times in a row. It is ridiculously tiring. Dunking, it turns out, was a lot more fun. But then -- salvation! -- we are told to incorporate the two. So now we throw, rebound, and dunk, again and again.
Alas, it's one of our final drills. By noon we're headed back to the lodge to pack up, grab one final meal and disperse, lugging quads stuffed with concrete. Thorpe asks me if I want to stick around and practice with the post-grad kids that afternoon. Though my mind says yes, my hamstrings say no. I wisely decline. Within two hours, I'm as sore as I've been in years. It feels fantastic.
In the weeks that follow, I find myself clinging to the glow of the experience, fighting to make it part of my daily life, which again revolves around typing and diaper changes and unfreezing food that looks like perhaps it should stay frozen. I exchange emails with Henry at ESPN, who writes, "I really, really, really need some time to perfect the things I kind of learned" and I can't agree more.
At my local YMCA in Berkeley, Calif., I continue incorporating elements of the warm-up routine, and focus on the little details when I play -- keeping that foot forward on the drive, curling tight off screens. Once, I even find myself inadvertently blurting out "Pinch Post! Pinch Post!" to a teammate. Since it's Berkeley, he isn't fazed in the least. After all, people shout crazy stuff all the time around here.
I am aware that expecting someone in a pick-up game to run the Pinch Post is complete lunacy. It's like going to McDonald's and asking for your burger medium rare. I can't help myself though. The impulse is like a vestigial tail from my week at IMG.
That's okay, though. Basketball is a game that reveals its beauty in layers; the better you understand it, the more you appreciate it. And in that regard, I feel like I've been reacquainted with an old lover. Time may have passed, but the spark is still there.