Training Grounds, Part Two: An interview with Joe Abunassar

Training Grounds, Part Two: An interview with Joe Abunassar
Jun 25, 2006, 10:20 am
Training Grounds Introduction, and Part One (Keith Moss)

Eric Weiss: How did you get your start with training athletes? What is your background and how did you go from there to where you are today?

Joe Abunassar: Well, I was a manager for [Bobby] Knight at Indiana and then I coached four years at the University of Wyoming. After leaving Wyoming I was in the process of moving on to a different school but I got the chance to work out a couple of guys for an agent while I was in between coaching jobs. Now, it was suppose to be just a temporary thing. I’ve always had my strength and conditioning certification, so I ended up taking over all those responsibilities for the agent, he had three guys at the time. It just kept growing and growing from there.

I started running summer camps for Kevin Garnett, Joe Smith, and Chauncey Billups while also training them. Two years later I got rid of the summer camps because I started getting more and more guys. So I got kind of lucky with those three, they’re pretty good guys to have. From there it just grew to the point where now we’ve got kids, draft guys, and veterans, the whole thing.

Eric Weiss: Going along those lines, who are the guys that you feel you’ve helped the most. The players you mentioned obviously have great name recognition, but who do you feel you’ve had the most impact on as a coach? Also, what do you do with players developmentally after the draft process?

Joe Abunassar: Billups and Garnett for sure. Tayshaun Prince and Al Harington most certainly. Michael Ruffin, who’s been with me since he came out of Tulsa and just signed a two year deal. A guy like Reece Gaines, who hasn’t had much success since, but we really got him ready for the draft and got him to go at 15. Jared Jeffries is a guy that I’ve been training since he was a junior in high school because he was in Bloomington Indiana and obviously so was I. So, guys like Billups and Prince, Ruffin and Jefferies, guys who I’ve helped coming into the league, have helped stay in the league, stay prepared and find a niche for themselves to get it done.

I’ve got about thirty-five to forty guys that I work with every summer. There are about ten which I’ll travel to go see while they’re on the road, just to work with them a bit closer. Dahntay Jones from Duke is a guy that worked really hard with me preparing for the draft and he did better than anyone expected going at 20. He hasn’t gotten the consistent minutes yet because of Memphis’s personnel, but he’s a guy that Jerry West loves and thinks is going to be a very good player. So, all the guys I’ve mentioned, plus some others like Chucky Atkins and Tyronne Lue; these are guys that I work with all year long.

Once the season’s over then I’m in charge of setting up their off-season schedule and getting them ready for training camp for the next year. [Sebastian] Telfair is another guy that I forgot to mention who I work with on a year round basis. Kris Humphries is down here with me right now, Alex Acker is from Detroit is a guy I love, he’s another guy spending the summer down here with me along with his teammate Amir Johnson. They’re two young guys who pretty much entrust their summer to me and say “this is where I want to go, you tell me what I need to do to get there.” So now that I have the facility out here in LA, they’ll be coming in over the summer as well as going out to Vegas when we open there on August 6th.

Eric Weiss: So, is there a certain philosophy or methodology that you bring to your work?

Joe Abunassar: I guess the best way to describe it is that we build the player from the court backwards. What I mean by that is we analyze everything from a basketball standpoint first. For example, what can Al Harington do to be a better player next year? I’m fortunate in that coming from IMG and now being situated out in LA, I’ve got performance coaches, nutritionists, physical therapists, and psychologists, just anything you could ever want.

So, from the goals we set on the court, we then build a program. The strength people and myself will sit down and review what we need to do in this area, do we need to gain weight or lose it, etc. The physical therapist will then come in and we’ll determine if we need to increase flexibility, is there a hip mobility problem. Then the nutritionist will come in and figure out what needs to happen there.

I’m big into periodized training for recovery purposes. You can’t take a guy April 20th when the season’s over and just beat the hell out of him until October and expect him to have a good season. So, we build our plan from the court backwards and carefully plan our whole summer out. I’m not a big fan of working with guys unless we get them for months at a time. Getting a guy for a week at a time is fine, but we’re about peaking his body. I’m into triathlon training myself, so I’m very in tune with the body and how to peak it effectively, how to get the endurance, how to create a muscle base.

We ask the NBA coaches, “What are your guys doing in June?” Even a KG, a veteran like Garnett asked me for his program three weeks ago because he knows that what he’s doing in June will set the foundation for what’s going to happen in February. It’s not like he’s training on the court, but he’s doing yoga type stuff, he’s building muscles that need to be built. He’s increasing his flexibility. You have to strengthen the tendons, strengthen the muscles and ligaments so that when you load them up come August, guys aren’t getting injured. I think not doing this is what makes a lot of guys not make it through the season. Guys like Billups and Garnett, it’s not like I’m taking them and saying “you need to be a better shooter”, these guys are well established in their career. So, what we’re trying to do is just fine-tune things.

But, you take a young guy like Alex Acker and Amir Johnson and we can really do a lot of things in the summer. We’ll consult with the Pistons staff and ask them, “Where do you need him to be next season?” Then I bring together my performance team and we sit down and say, “This is where he needs to be by the 4th Thursday in June to be where we need him to be by October.” So, we’ve taken it to a pretty scientific level. We’re trying to create a complete athlete. There was an article in Stacked magazine a while back with KG on the cover, and it went into our training regimen and the 6 levels of it. The skill work, the performance training, the performance movement, the corrective work-such as making hips more mobile or strengthening shoulder muscles that are weak and causing mobility problems, the nutrition, and then finally, recovery. The recovery part is something that guys don’t get. You go Monday and Tuesday hard and then Wednesday you recover. But, recovery isn’t sitting around on Wednesday and playing PlayStation, it’s an active recovery. We might just shoot that day, we do massage work, we do cold tubs, hot tubs. There’s’ never a resting moment to training the body.

Eric Weiss: It’s good to hear you take it to that level because it’s something I don’t think people really understand or pay strict attention to. I don’t think the level of depth is fully appreciated.

Joe Abunassar: I’ve been doing this for ten years and I hear guys all the time saying “I’m going to LA to work out.” But, guys are “working out” all over the place. We’re interested in specific area improvement. Fortunately we don’t need to go out chasing guys down to do this, if a guy isn’t interested in putting in the time and taking it to that level then we’re not interested in working with him.

Eric Weiss: Going back to the draft process. What is your perception of the whole thing? What frustrates you, if anything, and what do you see your role being?

Joe Abunassar: Well, the hardest thing from my perspective is the pressure on the kids. Then again, you want players that can perform under pressure, so I don’t really think the process is that bad. The scouts have seen the Cedric Simmons’, Patrick O’Bryant’s, and Kyle Lowry’s all season. The Pre-Draft process is really more for the GM’s and coaches who may not have gotten a chance to see them as much. Many of my scouting friends say, “We don’t even need to watch this guy, we’ve seen him seven times a year for three years.”

The Pre-Draft process is great for us because I can change a kid in a week. A lot of these kids are coming from college and they have no eating habits, they never stretch, their body composition isn’t great, their movements are off, they don’t know how to dip their shoulder on dribble penetration pull-ups. So, the weeks leading up to Pre-Draft are a bonanza to me, I love it.

The key to getting the guys ready are finding what they do very well. When you go into an interview you want to make sure that you get a chance to speak about your strengths, the things that would be considered a positive to the employer. The draft is a bit different than preparing for the regular season because it’s almost like you are preparing him for a big show. Preparing for the season, you’re getting a guy ready to take six months of pounding.

Most of the kids coming out are not prepared, and this is no disrespect to the colleges, but its college. These kids are staying up late and eating fast food. I coached in college, so I know what they’re dealing with. If I could change anything it would be stuff like that. For instance, Quincy Douby came to work out with us last summer. Your can ask his college coaches about it, but he returned for his Junior year a completely different player. So, what we do with a Pre-Draft kid coming out will completely shock him the first week. “You’re not drinking enough water. You don’t stretch. You can’t eat that and come into a workout.” I mean when I coached in college, you’d have a 3pm practice and nine out of ten guys would come in without having eaten a thing, and if they did they grabbed something terrible.

This is part of our nutrition program. Let’s say Kyle Lowry has a workout with Philly on Thursday and Boston on Friday. He’s going to eat a certain way on Wednesday to get his body ready. He’s going to increase his sodium a little bit, increase his carbohydrate intake. We’re also teaching them how to eat right after. Chauncey has a back-to-back, there are certain things he needs to put in his body Friday to recover for Saturday. For the Pre Draft kids this is important because if you go into a workout and you didn’t eat the right stuff, you could have a really bad day and this is not the time to have a bad day. In college, they could go out and score 30 points and they probably had Burger King for lunch.

Eric Weiss: I understand. I’ve had a similar experience with proper nutritional training and then going off to college and sort of falling off that wagon.

Joe Abunassar: The great thing about it is that with Pre-Draft you get close to 100% compliance because the guys are motivated. This is the chance to reshape their careers. If you get a guy early and program him to do it the right way, he’ll do it throughout his career. You might get a guy who goes off and has a bad rest of the summer, doesn’t have the rookie year he wanted to have and comes back the next summer and is like “ok, I’m ready to work now.”

Eric Weiss: I understand. It really helps to drive home your points when you tell them something, they don’t adhere to it and then don’t get the results they wanted.

Joe Abunassar: …and I don’t want them to fail, I’m calling them all the time trying to get them to do it. I have very personal relationships with my clients. Al Harrington is my son Jack’s godfather. These guys are my guys. We’ve built up the business in so many areas that I can really give them the attention they need and make sure they have good years.

Eric Weiss: Looking at all of this, it must put players at a significant disadvantage going into the draft process when they are worried about NCAA rules violations and they can’t get this type of education without worrying about their eligibility.

Joe Abunassar: I think it does for sure. I think it forces more kids to make a poor decision because it gets the kids thinking, “If I don’t commit I can’t do the training, and if I can’t do the training then I’m at a disadvantage going against all the other guys.” Most kids can’t pay. Obviously, a top ten ranked pick can get his line of credit and that’s not an issue, but an agent or somebody is fronting the money for these guys to do this, which is obviously illegal from an eligibility standpoint. So, guys are just throwing their names in and the system kind of encourages them to sign so they can get the training they need to compete.

Eric Weiss: One of the interesting parts in all of this is the role you have as somewhat of a third-party whiteness to all the interplay between agents, executives, and scouts. Everyone’s suppose to be representing the best interests of these athletes, but it seems that you may have the most genuine role in this. What are your feelings on this and what you’ve seen?

Joe Abunassar: The unique thing for me is that I have all those veteran guys, so I know a lot of the agents and team personnel already and they know me. I’m welcome around almost anywhere and I’ve found that I’ve unintentionally sandwiched myself right in the middle of all of these people. I’ve been neutral to all of them. I’m not aligned with an agent, I’m not aligned with a team. When I prepare Chauncey and Tayshaun to have the type of seasons they’ve had, that establishes a good relationship with the Pistons to the point where they’ll call me and ask for my opinion about something and take it at face value, not like it’s etched in stone or anything, but the trust is there. I enjoy it and the way I think I’ve been able to do that is real simple. I’m for the player, that’s who I work for. I just train. I’m not trying to be anyone’s GM or anything like that. The player knows that I’m for him.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to lie though. If you’ve got Chauncey the last thing you want is to tell Joe Dumars or John Hammond that a draft player is good when he’s not good. Because they’ll look at you and it will make Chauncey look bad. So, I try and be honest. A lot of the guys that train players in this process are trying to get NBA jobs, or work for Adidas or something like that, I don’t want any of that stuff, I train, and that’s what I do. I’m aligned in the middle because of it. If the team wants something then I’ll help them out, if an agent wants something then I’ll help them out, but if a player wants something that’s my first priority. All I care about is making sure the guys I train have a great year, that’s really it. Look at Jay Williams, I’ve been thrilled by his workouts. People have been surprised, as you guys were with how much progress he’s made and that’s just…cool, it makes me feel great.

Eric Weiss: That’s an absolutely awesome place to be, and I’m with you on Jay Williams.

Joe Abunassar: Ya, the news is out, so to speak. The only bad thing is that now everyone wants to watch him in summer league, that’s step two. They’re all convinced he’s back, but they’re all like “ok, now let’s watch him play summer league.” But, he’s a high quality backup point guard in the NBA right now.

Eric Weiss: Exactly, and that’s just the building block for a 24 year old who’s worked as hard as he has.

Joe Abunassar: No kidding, look what the guy has overcome. He couldn’t walk two years ago and now look at him. Who wouldn’t want him on their team?

Eric Weiss: Well, this has been a real eye opener. When I set out to do these interviews I was thinking a lot about purely physical training, but seeing the comprehensive approach you take to this has really been rewarding.

Joe Abunassar: I think it works, it really works.

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