Chapter One: Perfect Reps CHAPTER ONE PERFECT REPS
It’s another sunny, beautiful morning in Santa Monica, California. I’m behind the wheel of my car, circling the block near Saint Monica Catholic High School in search of a parking spot. The 9:00 a.m. workout doesn’t begin for another twenty minutes, so I’m good. Or so I think.
My cell phone rings. It’s Russell Westbrook. “Yo, Mac, where you at?” he says, already irritated.
“I’m parking,” I say. “Don’t worry, man, I’ll be there. It’s only eight-forty.”
“Don’t be late.” He hangs up.
That guy’s crazy, I think, not for the first time. I park and hustle into the gym. Russ has already worked up a sweat and he’s ready to go. “Where are the other guys?” he asks.
“They’ll be here,” I say.
“They better not be late.”
Pretty soon the other guys—Derrick Rose and Kevin Love—hustle into the gym. It doesn’t take long for them to stretch and get ready, too, and the net work begins. We start with some basic moves—jab step right, jab step left, one-dribble pull-ups, right side, left side, pump-fake drives—with some hard sprinting in between. When they’re in the NBA, these guys are competitors, but today they’re… well, competitors. That’s why the three of them like working out together. The energy they bring is contagious. Most days it starts with Russ—that guy’s got stupid intensity—but Kevin and Derrick will never let him get too far out in front, whether it’s how many jumpers he makes or how hard he dunks.
After a while we graduate to more challenging moves. Pump-fake two-dribble pull-up. Jab step, crossover, drive to the rim. A series of shooting drills where they run across the court to five different spots behind the three-point line, and then catch and shoot. They attempt ten in a row and then do a sprint to the far baseline and back. They’re breathing heavily, but I won’t let them stop, and they don’t want to show weakness. Especially if I’m keeping score.
It’s the summer of 2009. All three guys are coming off rookie seasons. They were all top five picks in the draft. They played well that first year, but they’re just kids—not even old enough to drink yet. They know they need to get better. That’s why they’re here.
And why, you may ask, am I here, a six-foot-one, 170-pound, thirty-year-old dude from Rhode Island whose only hope of getting near the floor of an NBA game is by scoring a courtside ticket? Well, I’m the trainer, which makes me the boss, I guess. Except they’re also paying me (or their agents are), which also makes me their employee. I jump in and participate in the workouts, sometimes joining games of two-on-two or full-court pickup, so in a way I’m their peer (just shorter, slower, and much less talented). Often, when the workouts are done, we go to lunch or dinner, which makes us friends. And I like to stay in touch with them during the season to talk about their progress and what I’m seeing on video. So I’m kind of a coach. We talk on the phone a lot. I know they need to vent to someone, so I’m there to listen to their stresses and hear out their frustrations and insecurities. Kind of like a therapist.
This is the job of a full-time basketball trainer, a rapidly growing occupation that didn’t really exist back then, at least not in the NBA. At the time, I was employed by Wasserman Media Group, an agency that represents dozens of top NBA players. There were plenty of agencies doing business, but at that time Wasserman was the most prominent for one reason—Arn Tellem. He was a real trailblazer, not only as a basketball agent but for Major League Baseball players as well. Wasserman had hired me as an extra service for their clients. It was a great part of their sales pitch—sign with Wasserman, and we’ll provide you with a trainer who will help prepare you for team workouts in the run-up to the NBA draft. Those auditions can make a difference of millions of dollars to the players. It was a smart idea for Wasserman, and a smart investment. Believe me, I wasn’t all that expensive.
I started out thinking I would try to be a college or NBA coach, but the more I got down the road of being a trainer, the more I liked it—and the more it became a viable way to make a living. Those sessions with the Wasserman guys were a huge learning experience for me, too. They gave me three of my best clients, as well as three of my best friends.
Over the years, various cities have organically evolved to be gathering places for NBA players over the summer. For a while, Chicago was the place to be. That’s where Michael Jordan’s longtime trainer, Tim Grover, set up shop. Las Vegas later became a popular destination, especially after the opening of the IMPACT training center, where I worked before getting hired by Wasserman. Miami had a run when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were there, but Miami is real hot during the summer. New York is New York, but it’s hard to get a gym when you need one. Space is at a premium.
Right about the time I started working with Derrick, Kevin, and Russell, Los Angeles was becoming for NBA players the place to be during the summer. In fact, I might argue that the Wasserman workouts, and those three guys in particular, were a big reason. I mean, why not L.A.? The weather is great in the summer (sunny but not too humid). You’ve got the beach, the bars, the restaurants, the night scene, show-biz types, all kinds of celebrities. And if Vegas is your thing, it’s an easy trip. Other agencies followed Wasserman’s lead in hiring their own trainers, and since many are also based in L.A., that brought even more players to town. Pickup games would take place at UCLA, Loyola Marymount, and other spots around the city. When word spread that there were intense workouts happening at this little private high school in Santa Monica, lots of other NBA guys wanted to participate.
For the most part, Russell, Derrick, and Kevin were okay with having outsiders join us. But they were picky. If somebody didn’t measure up, Russ would pull me aside and say, “He ain’t in our group anymore.”
They took a lot of pride in their work—maybe too much pride. I literally had to beg those guys to take days off. I’d specifically ask them not to work out on Sunday, in hopes that it would make them fresh and ready to go when we resumed our work on Monday morning. Most of the time, they’d ignore me. I remember one time on a Sunday a buddy of mine called me from UCLA and said, “Russ is up here with his dad shooting.” He always found a way to get into a gym.
Eventually I told them, “Okay, let’s meet on Sunday and we’ll just do some light shooting.” So Sunday came, the four of us were in there alone, and we started some light shooting. It didn’t take long, though, for things to get a lot less light. Russ would do a shot fake, hard dribble, elevation, and slam dunk, so Derrick and Kevin had to outdo him. Before long I was jumping right in, guarding and bumping them and talking trash. The sessions were productive, but not because my drills were so innovative. It was because of the attitude we brought to the exercise.
And then when the net work was over, the four of us would often hang out together… in the gym. We might be there for a while just shooting the breeze, or maybe a game of HORSE would break out. You’d think after working so hard these guys would want to get out of there, but they just loved being in the gym. It was their happy place—and mine. This was supposed to be the hard part of their job, but they never looked at it that way. It was a great lesson for me, and I continue to apply it to all my net work. The great ones find joy in the grind.
I laugh when I hear a player say, “Oh, I’m a gym rat. I’m in there working hard all day.” I say if you’re in the gym all day, you can’t be working that hard. Do one hour with me, and I promise you’ll be dead on your feet.
That’s how I approach my net work: Be efficient, go hard, and then get out of here. Much of the work I put in with players takes place in the off-season. Since they have a lot more time on their hands, it’s especially important to use it wisely. An NBA season is really, really long. I want them to enjoy their summers. I don’t know if I’ve ever done double sessions with my clients, especially in July and August. They’d never make it, and it wouldn’t be good for their overall development.
My whole thing is, “Don’t get reps. Get perfect reps.” If we just did something in a drill, I’m always asking, would that work in a game? If you’re not going at full speed, then we’re all wasting our time. Most of my workouts are no more than an hour. They’re efficient, and they’re high intensity. You won’t see me out there talking the whole time and stopping to huddle everyone up. It’s simple math: If you’re not going full speed 50 reps in a workout, and you do five workouts a week, then you just wasted 250 reps. In a month it’s more than 1,000.
It’s amusing the response I get when I first tell an NBA player I only want him for an hour. Really? An hour? I usually go for two or three. Then after forty-five minutes, he’s toast. “You sure you don’t want to do another two hours?” I’ll chide.
The details are important, but the work isn’t complicated. I don’t have a bunch of special secrets. That’s why I bristle a bit when people call me a “shot doctor.” I don’t know if they’re giving me too much credit or short-changing me, but that’s not really what I do. I spend a lot of time, for example, helping my guys become better shooters, but I can’t say I’ve read a lot of books or watched a lot of video to learn about technique. The main thing about teaching players to be better shooters is to make sure they practice shooting when they’re tired. And every single shot should simulate what happens in a game. Unless we’re really focusing on a guy’s form, you won’t find me having him stand in one place and feeding him catch-and-shoot jumpers over and over again. I’d rather they shoot a few in the corner, run across the court, catch and shoot from there, do a few more game reps, sprint down to the other end of the court, then come back and shoot again. Do that a few times, and they’re gasping for air—just like in the fourth quarter. I’ll never be able to replicate exactly how fatigued they are during games, but if I can’t get close, then I’m not doing my job.
Personally, I think there’s too much emphasis on form when it comes to shooting. Look at Tayshaun Prince. His elbow was all the way out. It was not a good-looking shot but he made threes all the time. Heck, Reggie Miller’s follow-through was highly unconventional. His wrists would hit each other. I think he managed pretty well. I realize that in some cases a guy needs a fix, but almost any type of shooting technique can be grooved if the guy puts in his net work and gets enough perfect reps.
You’re also not going to see me out there having my guys dribble with a bunch of tennis balls. I’m not knocking trainers who use that stuff—if it works for them and their clients, great—but my feeling is, if you’re not going to use tennis balls in an NBA game, I don’t want them in my workouts.
I don’t go into the gym and say, “We’re gonna shoot a thousand shots today.” I just let it happen. And I don’t want to do the same stuff every day or it becomes boring. I’m always wondering, are my guys having fun? Am I keeping them on edge, interested, and engaged? ’Cause if I’m not, they’re not gonna want to spend a week with me, much less an entire summer, or several years in a row. So it’s my job to come up with creative stuff, so long as it’s stuff they would use in a game.
While the drills have to be changing constantly, my own energy has to be consistent—consistently up. The guys I’m working with are intense. They don’t know how to be any other way, and they expect the same from me. The problem is, for them, this might be their only workout of the day. But I have to do six or seven, five or six days a week. So while I’m teaching them about basketball, they’re teaching me about effort and energy. This is something important I learned early on. Effort is a talent.
Russell Westbrook exemplifies that idea better than anyone. I first met Russ at Saint Monica’s the summer before his sophomore year at UCLA. He came with Kevin Love, who was about to start as a freshman. They were roommates on the road. At that point I barely knew who Russ was. He’d only played about eight minutes a game during his freshman season. Right away I thought to myself, This guy’s just a stupid athlete. He made lots of shots, too… as long as they were within fifteen feet. Once he got past that mark, his shot got real flat.
That was a bad habit. I knew that was something he could improve on, but given how long that takes, I didn’t want to try to fix anything so close to the season. I was worried he would get back to UCLA and his coaches would say, “Who the hell told you to do this?”
Once Russ decided to enter the NBA draft following his sophomore season, I started working with him over the course of entire summers. It was a slow process, but I could see his confidence grow week by week. You’d think his energy would decrease over time, but the opposite happened. I could pit Russ against any player, and he’d go at the guy with high intensity. Big man, point guard, swing man—it didn’t matter. I was amazed at his range and his versatility.
Russ frustrates a lot of purists because he’s what is known as a “volume shooter.” He won’t win any three-point contests or finish in the top ten in the league in that category, but he will always keep firing. What people need to understand is that this is who Russ is, and it’s exactly what makes him great. He can miss twenty in a row, but he’s still going to keep coming at you. Great players talk about the importance of having amnesia. That should be true if you make twenty in a row, too. Russell is a great player because he’s superaggressive all the time. He’s one of the best pure athletes ever to play the game. He wins like that, and loses like that. If he were to stop shooting because he missed a bunch in a row, then it would affect the rest of his game as well.
Russ is one of those guys who lives for the big moments. Some guys are wired that way. And some are wired for the opposite, by the way. We’ve all seen plenty of players who are really good the first three-and-a-half quarters, but when it’s crunch time they suddenly become willing passers.
Russ just doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Even in workouts, he has that same mentality. He can miss fifteen shots in a row and you’d never know it. He’s very stone faced.
This mentality is especially crucial in the playoffs. Once you get to that point in the season, there are no secrets, and no tricks. You get into a seven-game series and after game one, the coaches don’t have any more adjustments to make. Everybody knows what everybody is going to do. Scouting reports are useless. It becomes a battle of wills. Tell me who in the NBA has more sheer will than Russell Westbrook.
If a group workout is losing steam, the easiest way to revive it is by setting up a competition. It can be real simple stuff. Let’s do one-dribble pull-ups. First guy to ten wins. Boom, it’s on. The other thing I’ll do to liven things up is get out there and guard guys. Of course they’re a lot better than me, but they love the competition, especially when I start talking trash to them. These guys are my friends, and I know how to get in their heads.
I always end with my toughest sequence, whether it’s a five-alley-oop drill or something that’s high intensity. The way I look at it, you should finish the workout way harder than when you started. Same thing with bringing your best at the end of a fourth quarter. I’m trying to prepare them to not just physically but mentally play their hardest when they’re at their most fatigued. There’s a minute left in the game, it’s the playoffs, the game is close, you have the ball… you have to be at your best in the moments when you feel the worst. That’s how basketball—that’s how life—is played.
I wasn’t a great player by any stretch, but my whole life all I’ve done is eat, sleep, and breathe basketball. NBA, college, high school, whatever—from the time I was a kid I was obsessed with it.
You might think that because I wasn’t a high-level performer that NBA players are skeptical about working with me, but that has rarely been the case. These guys are professionals, and they know that I am as well. The trust has to be there from the very beginning. It’s my job as their trainer to give them confidence that I know what I’m doing.
This life—this job—is not something I planned. I just had a passion and followed it, same as the players. Net work starts with a foundation built on the idea that the only way to get somewhere is to work at your craft. From the very beginning, I understood that the key to success in basketball was the willingness to put in the time and effort. This book tells the story of that journey—what I did, where I was, and what I learned from the great ones along the way.