IT WAS 3½ HOURS before tipoff at Barclays Center and the Philadelphia 76ers already had claimed a piece of the court.
As the Brooklyn Nets’ drum line and dancers practiced nearby, the Sixers’ training staff went through its own prep before a first-round playoff game. The makeshift on-court training area featured:
• Two black EarthLite folding massage tables
• A green exercise ball borrowed from the Nets
• A red, plastic Tri-Stretch balance pad placed by the basket
• Three black, cylindrical ViPR tubes weighing 16, 24 and 32 pounds
• Two dumbbells borrowed from the Nets (JJ Redick prefers them to the tubes)
• Two black roller bags stuffed with assorted tension bands, jump ropes and other tools of the trade.
While other teams use cramped visitors training rooms to stretch and work on their players before games, Todd Wright, the 76ers’ assistant coach and head of strength and conditioning, brought his on-court method with him from the University of Texas in 2015. Wright takes advantage of the extra space on the court while allowing players to enjoy the atmosphere of the arena.
A similar scene will play out along a baseline at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto prior to Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday. Only the exercise ball borrowed from the Toronto Raptors will be gray and the on-court entertainment will be limited to the dance team and a performer’s dry run of “O Canada.”
“IT’S DIFFERENT,” Greg Monroe said, breaking into a hearty laugh before Game 3 of the Sixers’ first-round series in Brooklyn. And Monroe has plenty to compare it to. The 6-foot-11 center has played for five franchises in his nine-year career, including three teams this season alone.
“But it is easier,” Monroe said. “Get your stretch in, get your warm-up and [you’re already on] the court. So, that actually makes sense.”
One by one, Sixers players ambled out to the Barclays court before Game 3 and plopped onto a massage table to start a sequence of stretches required before they’re allowed to hoist up a shot.
Wright manned one of the tables, while Todor Pandov, the assistant strength and conditioning coach, manned the other. They worked on the players like mechanics under a hood — stretching, pushing, pulling and kneading the players’ limbs to get them ready for the game.
Wright has a shaved head, dark, pronounced eyebrows and intense blue eyes. His thick frame “looks like a bag of meat,” said one Sixers staffer. Philly’s players rave about Wright’s subtle sense of humor, expertise and personal touch. He is the type of guy who offers up a, “Thanks, brother,” to a total stranger, as he did before Game 1 in Toronto when a Raptors locker room attendant delivered the exercise ball to the court.
A Bulgaria native who played forward for Western Kentucky University in the early 2000s, the 6-foot-9 Pandov offers a visual contrast to Wright, with his full head of hair, gray, speckled beard and lanky limbs.
“They’re just good people,” guard T.J. McConnell said. “You want to be surrounded by good people. But obviously, when you’re great at your job, it makes it that much better.”
After the massage, the players worked their way down an assembly line.
Guard Furkan Korkmaz performed a set of calf raises, trying to gain access to the next level of the Sixers’ required pregame prep: Lifting those, um, big rubber things that look like empty paper towel rolls.
“What do you call them? Dang, I forgot the name,” Tobias Harris said. “I forgot. I guess we call them ‘the bar.’ Yeah, ‘the bar.'”
“The bar” is the ViPR weighted cylinder that allows Philly players to turn their little corner of the court into a weight room
“We obviously can’t bring [full] weights onto the floor, but it simulates lifting weights and movement,” McConnell explained. “Kind of kills two birds with one stone.”
NBA PLAYERS ARE large human beings, and the room required to have those bodies stretch out and move around is considerable.
While changes in ownership and a flood of new revenue in the past several decades have led to modernized NBA arenas — 18 of the league’s 29 arenas were opened in 1999 or later — the visitors training rooms didn’t get the same priority in the blueprints as, say, luxury boxes and club lounges.
“The visiting training rooms are usually super small,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “If you went in and saw a lot of the training rooms, we have to stagger our treatment times because you can’t have more than like three people in the training room at a time. There’s not enough space.”
Measuring 7-foot-3 and weighing 291 pounds, Sixers backup center Boban Marjanovic might benefit the most from the change in settings.
“Sometimes, we don’t have space for ourselves,” Marjanovic said. “I think it’s a good idea. To be very honest, it’s a good idea.”
The space might be the biggest perk to the trainers — Wright appreciates the consistent training environment the court provides on the road — but the players have their own reasons why they enjoy the unusual setup.
“For me, it’s more about feeling the atmosphere of the arena, breathing the air, just being around it and being on the court and hearing the sound of the basketballs. It just helps me better prepare.”
“For me, it’s more about feeling the atmosphere of the arena, breathing the air, just being around it and being on the court and hearing the sound of the basketballs,” Joel Embiid said. “It just helps me better prepare.”
Other players agree.
“I do like the way it feels. I do like the way it kind of gets me going,” Monroe said.
As Tobias Harris added; “You get the energy, for sure. That’s always cool.”
Embiid missed the entire 2014-15 season with a broken navicular bone in his right foot. The following season, his rookie year, he played in just 31 out of 82 games because of a rest plan, combined with a torn meniscus in his left knee that wiped out what was left of his season in late February.
If the byproduct of having more room to operate means keeping Embiid more connected and engaged in the periods he is out, it makes sense that Wright and Pandov don’t mind lugging all that equipment — each cumbersome massage table weigh 38 pounds — to 41 road games a year. And in a league in which teams go to great lengths to keep their star players happy by shuffling practice times and accommodating travel plans, it’s a small concession to make.
“It’s all for Joel,” a team source said.
Just a massage and some anime to get hype for Game 1. 😂
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 30, 2018
TAKING A NORMALLY private activity and making it public can have its drawbacks.
While Embiid was getting his shoulders worked on prior to the opening game of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the Boston Celtics in 2018, TNT cameras showed the big man watching the Japanese anime “Dragon Ball Z” on his phone.
Earlier in the 2018 playoff run, before a first-round game at the Miami Heat, Embiid was seen eating a chicken sandwich on the massage table out on the court while his back was being poked and prodded.
But Embiid isn’t concerned.
“I don’t care,” Embiid said. “I’m a chill guy. I don’t care. I’m a human being at the end of the day. I don’t want to be different than anybody else walking on the streets. If they can do it, I can do it too.”
A lack of privacy isn’t the only challenge the Sixers face.
As Wright contorted the large frame of Marjanovic, who was spilling over the massage table before Game 3 in Brooklyn, Pandov was attending to James Ennis III while simultaneously protecting his turf. Television reporters and camera crews were setting up a couple of feet from the training tables for live shots to preview the game. The extra space the 76ers coveted had been shrunk to a few feet.
Pandov did his best to secure his space.
“We all got to work together,” Pandov pleaded with the encroaching media. “We got players to get going.”