clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Meet the Man Behind Your Favorite NBA Jump Shot

Rob McClanaghan has worked with everyone from Steph, KD, John Wall, and Westbrook to little-known journeymen who never made it to the NBA. This is the story of a college walk-on who became one of the most instrumental behind-the-scenes figures in basketball.

Rob McClanaghan holding a basketball, surrounded by players he’s trained Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sweat poured out of Chandler Parsons like a juiced fruit.

The Memphis Grizzlies forward had entered the private Bel Air home gym 20 minutes earlier, grinning and laughing, his voice booming around the large room. The gym was built as an exact replica of the Staples Center, down to the glass-cased retired jerseys on the wall and black-leather-cushioned metal chairs on the sideline. Parsons badgered Ballers coproducer Joey Krutel, sitting courtside, to put him in an episode. Then the fun stopped. Now Parsons is grimacing, straining through rapid shooting drills interrupted only by jogging laps down the court and back. There’s no talking. Rubber soles squeak on hardwood. It’s a hot day in mid-July. The music and air conditioning are switched off.

“If we keep going like this,” Parsons says, “I’m going to throw up.”

“Good,” Rob McClanaghan says, and bounces him the ball.

McClanaghan is a 38-year-old former Syracuse walk-on from Rhode Island who has a voice like a young Mike Francesa and has never played basketball professionally. He once worked as a high school gym teacher. Now he’s a skills trainer to NBA stars.

In a few days, he’ll fly on a private jet to Asia with his client Steph Curry for the Under Armour tour. In 2011 Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in NBA history, and Kevin Love was named Most Improved Player. Both thanked him in their award-acceptance speeches. Last season, one of his clients (Russell Westbrook) won Most Valuable Player. Another (Kevin Durant) won Finals MVP. A third (John Wall), who hired McClanaghan in 2012 after shooting a paltry 7.1 percent from beyond the arc in the previous season, hit a season-saving 3 in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals, using the retooled jump shot he and McClanaghan began developing that first summer.

“He's ascended to the very top of a very competitive field [in personal training],” ESPN NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski says. “It’s almost an empire that he's built for himself.”

McClanaghan battered his way in with a supreme confidence in his own abilities, even when others weren’t so sure. Now, he finds himself an elder statesman of a largely unseen basketball world: private gyms, skills trainers, summer days spent searching for an edge. He is trusted by stars who trust few. He is one of those always-available people earning a living on the basketball periphery by nurturing talents worth millions. He is the name behind the name on the back of the jersey.

“Nowadays,” McClanaghan says, “coaches get fired every two or three years in the NBA. [In their career, players] could have five coaches, but if they have a consistent trainer, who knows their game better than anyone, someone they can trust, that’s a big difference. … I saw there was a market for that.”

Parsons has played for three coaches in six years. He’s exactly the kind of athlete who looks to McClanaghan for instruction. He is trying to return to consistent production after injuries scuttled his last three seasons. In Bel Air, McClanaghan turns to the nauseous Parsons and slightly alters the drill they’d just done. Instead of “hesi,” an abbreviation for hesitation, and dribbling through his legs into a shot, it’s now hesi and behind the back into a shot. McClanaghan steps up to guard Parsons; his players say they enjoy his involvement in workouts. He also likes to test his guys when they’re tired. Parsons is tired, and he senses the challenge. He forces a grin.

“Oh,” he says, “You know that’s my shit.”

McClanaghan’s workouts focus on offensive skills and rarely last more than an hour and 15 minutes. The players are in constant motion and seldom break more than once for water. Conversation is usually limited to trash talk, a player yelling in frustration, and McClanaghan’s instructions. He subdivides every drill into “sets” and “reps,” like lifting, and focuses on different skill groups every day. For the last shot of every set, McClanaghan bellows, “Game-winner,” and counts down from three. The player must make that shot before moving on to the next drill. Everything, players say, are “game reps” in intensity and practicality. Everything, to an outsider, appears simple. That’s partly why players like it.

“It's just straight to business,” says former Wizards guard Brandon Jennings. “There's no extra everything. I'm not really too fond of people videotaping my workouts or a lot of music being played. … You get your work in and you leave.”

McClanaghan and his players often work out together, eat meals together, and go out together. “He’s a cool guy,” Wall says. “Not too many guys you can work out with and hang out with and have the same type of love.”

“Some players have asked me, ‘Why are we doing this drill?’” McClanaghan says. “But I have a reason why we’re doing every single one. … I swear, every guy that has asked me that hasn’t reached their potential. I say that because it goes back to our trust. I’m trusting you to work hard. Trust me to know what I’m doing. It’s not to make up time or get through the hour, it’s for a reason. My top guys, I can’t think of one time that they’ve ever said, ‘Why are we doing this drill?’ That’s why we’re successful at what we do. We have trust.”

Courtesy Rob McClanaghan

McClanaghan doesn’t post about specific training regimens. And for those trying to move up in the training world, he advises that they let clients credit them, because players see through hustlers. McClanaghan prefers to let the performances of his clients speak for him. They regularly fly him in for workouts and absorb the extensive tape and text breakdowns that he sends to each player every seven to 10 games. McClanaghan mandates to his assistant, a player he coached in high school named Joe Mazzulla, that the write-ups possess proper grammar and punctuation. McClanaghan notices mechanical flaws on the court as well, Parsons says, that team coaches may miss when worrying about an entire offense, like when his shot gets flat, or he fades away, or he doesn’t hold his follow-through.

After Parsons’s workout ends, he pulls out his phone and scrolls through Instagram. There’s a trainer, Parsons tells McClanaghan, who works out NBA stars for free in exchange for the right to record and post videos of the workouts. That grows his reputation, expands his social media reach, and allows him to charge more money for camps and other individual workouts.

“What’s it look like?” McClanaghan says, curious.

“Here,” Parsons says, and turns the phone around. “He can make like $50,000 a year just from that [account], probably.”

This is the internet democratization of something McClanaghan started doing more than a decade ago. Where Michael Jordan’s trainer, Tim Grover, was a trailblazer in the field, McClanaghan was one of the first to go into skills training with the sole goal of working independently, basketball experts say. Trainers who preceded him, like Neil Olshey, parlayed the position into NBA executive or coaching jobs. Now, training itself is a destination, a market flooded by social media accounts and businesses like “[First name] [Last name] Basketball.”

“Huh,” McClanaghan says, scrolling through the account with his left hand, running his right through his trademark slicked-back black hair now flecked with gray.

A few hours later, former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak sits courtside, legs folded, right index finger hovering above his phone, peering over the glasses on the end of his nose. He’s watching his son, Maxwell, as the UC–Santa Barbara junior practices jumpers.

Maxwell and McClanaghan are working through a “1-2 rhythm shooting drill” assigned as summer work by Gauchos coaches. McClanaghan’s willingness to incorporate a team’s plans into players’ training has earned him faith among NBA front offices with their most expensive investments, Wojnarowski says. McClanaghan bounce-passes to a spot about 5 feet from Maxwell, who, one, sprints over to the ball, and two, squares himself to the basket. Release.

“Rob, more like this,” the elder Kupchak says, flicking his wrists upward, putting backspin on the ball instead of bouncing it.

“Dad, it’s OK,” Maxwell says.

“What?” Mitch says. “You made me do it.”

Change the names and coasts, and this is how McClanaghan got his start in the summer of 2002. A mother from Long Island found him through a mutual friend and looked on as he worked out her preteen son and daughter on a public court in Narragansett, Rhode Island. After the workout, he quoted a fee to the woman: about $40.

“That’s what you’re charging me?” she asked, surprised.

McClanaghan was worried he had the wrong price point. A few months earlier, he had left the University of South Florida after spending the 2001-02 season as a graduate assistant. The NCAA limitations on practice had baffled him. “If a college kid wants to work out with his coach in the summer every day, he can’t do it?” he says. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

About 60 miles south of USF on I-93A sat IMG Academy, a pre-K to postgrad sports factory that NBA players frequent in the offseason to work out with skills trainer Joe Abunassar. In free time away from USF, McClanaghan rebounded Abunassar’s workouts with stars like Kevin Garnett. For a few following summers, he interned at IMG to run youth clinics, fetch water, and grab more boards. He wanted to be a skills trainer, because it allowed him to be on the court and offered the potential to ascend to the game’s highest level, in a way he couldn’t as a player. But at the time, there was no independent career path, because trainers worked only at schools like IMG or for a company.

That summer McClanaghan felt anxious as he found few opportunities to work out players. So, in the fall, he returned to his alma mater, Bishop Hendricken High School in Rhode Island, and took a gym-teaching job. He became a varsity basketball team assistant and started a training business by posting flyers at all of the local YMCAs. When that Long Island mom questioned his rate, he feared his burgeoning business was about to collapse.

“You can get way more than that,” she said, much to McClanaghan’s bewilderment. She insisted on paying double, in cash. He scheduled more sessions and found parents willing to pay more for individual instruction than camps. Within months, he says, the money from training roughly equaled his teaching salary.

“That’s when I realized I had something there,” he says.

Courtesy Rob McClanaghan

Sonny Vaccaro had forgotten how many dozens of phone calls he received about this McClanaghan kid. But after hanging up on the latest one, in the spring of 2003, he thought, “Why in the hell do I got to hire someone who hasn't worked anywhere yet?”

McClanaghan’s connections, including Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who said Rob was “one of the best” walk-ons he ever had, phoned the sneaker executive and amateur basketball impresario. They encouraged him to bring the high school teacher onto the elite coaching staff, helmed by Tim Grgurich, at his legendary ABCD summer basketball camp. Vaccaro remembers telling McClanaghan he had enough coaches, to which McClanaghan responded, “Yeah, but I’m good.”

“I remember the brashness of this kid,” Vaccaro says, “like it was my obligation to make sure he coached to make the camp coaching better. That's who Rob McClanaghan is: total confidence. The brashness was insignificant, except that I liked it.”

Still, Vaccaro didn’t give him the green light. McClanaghan called camp personnel who worked for Sonny, and they said, “We’ll see,” until the calls were no longer answered. So McClanaghan found the fax number.

McClanaghan was as relentless then as he is now with holding players to scheduled workouts. “If you don't get back to me,” he says, “I'm going to text you again and again and again and again and again and again and again. Until you answer or until you block me.”

McClanaghan thought he deserved a spot in Vaccaro’s gym. He was training professional clients of his own, after all. The summer before, in 2002, he started working with his first professional client, Rubén Garcés, after they met through a mutual friend. Their work together, Garcés says, was why that season he finished third in the Spanish league ACB in rebounds. The next summer McClanaghan trained Providence forward Ryan Gomes after they met at a local pickup game. The 6-foot-7 Friar had succeeded as a sophomore by bullying defenders with his back to the basket, but knew he wasn’t big enough to do that in the NBA. They practiced starting transition offense off of a rebound, perimeter shooting, and faking Gomes’s trusted jump hook into other moves. McClanaghan thought this work, along with recommendations from those Vaccaro trusted, should have earned him a camp spot.

Then, about a month before ABCD, camp director Bobby Hartstein called McClanaghan.

“You’re in,” he said.

When McClanaghan arrived on the camp’s first day at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, he quickly approached Vaccaro. He remembers their exchange like this.

“Thanks for letting me in.”

“Did I have a choice?”

Four years later, during the 2007 NBA All-Star Weekend, B.J. Armstrong walked into a Las Vegas gym and saw McClanaghan in the midst of a workout. Armstrong had recently left his job as an ESPN analyst to become an agent at Wasserman Media Group. Seeing McClanaghan gave shape to an idea he had been toying around with.

A few years prior, as Chicago Bulls special assistant to the general manager, it occurred to Armstrong that elite draft prospects should spend the nearly three months between the college season’s end and the NBA draft training to transition to the NBA, rather than playing in the various, then-popular All-Star games. Armstrong saw the average age of draftees drop and more NBA teams hire coaches with “development” in their titles.

“The draft started placing emphasis on potential,” Armstrong says. “The guys were 19 and 20 instead of 22 and 24. Summers went from honing your craft to real basketball development. The attention to potential shifted development.”

A mutual friend suggested Armstrong discuss the idea with McClanaghan, whose name had become known around the league. Over his years at ABCD, McClanaghan worked with O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, and Derrick Rose, the future no. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft. McClanaghan had devoted all his time to training since he left Bishop Hendricken in spring 2005. He had agreed to coach a U.S. junior national team, but at the last minute, he says, the team slashed his promised salary by two-thirds. Bishop Hendricken had already filled the teaching vacancy, so embarrassed and unsure of what else to do, he spent the next year working out on his own. In 2006 he moved to Vegas to again work with Joe Abunassar, who had started a personal training company called Impact Basketball.

That summer, Gomes, the former Providence forward, had just finished his first of what would be eight seasons in the NBA, and he stayed at McClanaghan’s Vegas condo for three weeks. They did little more than work out and watch the playoffs. Gomes had known him for three years, and he sensed McClanaghan now had a clearer vision for becoming an independent trainer. “We were on the main road before, but we were on the highway then,” he says. “… If [Rob] has his eyes on something, he goes hard, like the rest of us, but he has a different type of confidence about him.”

Armstrong offered McClanaghan a job at Wasserman to help players transition from college to the pros. McClanaghan accepted, and, in summer 2007, he moved to Los Angeles, where Wasserman’s headquarters are located. The next spring he drilled draft prospects on pro fundamentals: lingo, spacing, and angles into the post. Armstrong intended just to help players acclimate to the NBA, but many returned the following spring to work out. “I was shocked that they came back,” Armstrong says. “[Predraft] training just snow-balled, it’s an en vogue thing now. … Rob is terrific, he builds relationships.”

McClanaghan’s reputation grew as stories of his successes circulated, players say, like one from summer 2011. He was the first one to tell Love, then a first-time All-Star, that perimeter shooting was the future for NBA big men. In Minnesota’s fourth game that season, after working from 3-point range all summer, Love hit five shots from beyond the arc. While guarding him, a bemused Dirk Nowitzki quipped, “Oh, so you’re shooting step-back 3s now?” In 2013 McClanaghan left Wasserman to create “Rob Mac Basketball” and become fully independent because of demand outside the company.

“I don't think he's changed since the day I met him,” Vaccaro says. “It's the same as seeing a young player. He was pretty damn sure about what he could do, and he did it. He did it! Rob turned his personality into a lucrative business, because of belief in himself.”

Courtesy Rob McClanaghan

Not everyone McClanaghan works out with becomes an MVP, an All-Star, or even an NBA player. A lot of his instruction focuses on the fundamentals, like squaring yourself to the basket and following through. But in his way, McClanaghan has shepherded players outside of the team construct: He doesn't care about awards, or wins, or losses, or his own job security within an organization. He doesn’t care about potential, as long as a player is willing to commit. The trust he offers is demanded in return; that’s the house rule. McClanaghan has turned down NBA job offers, because, well, he can’t leave now.

He is a trainer, and those are his guys.

In November 2008, six months after Rose signed with Armstrong as his agent and five months after Rose went no. 1 overall in the draft, McClanaghan sat among a blue, throbbing mass of Duke students at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He’d gotten tickets through a friend at the school and took Bishop Hendricken’s coach, Jamal Gomes (no relation to Ryan), to see their former student Jimmy Baron, now playing for the University of Rhode Island. Baron had been a part of McClanaghan’s “Breakfast Club,” a group that used to work out at Bishop Hendricken before class. The night before the game, thinking about playing at Cameron, Baron slept restlessly. He couldn’t catch his breath and later clanked shots in warm-ups. Before the game, he called McClanaghan. “Play at your own pace,” the trainer advised. “When you catch the ball, look at the rim, take an extra second, and then do it.”

After missing four of his first five shots in the game, Baron looked at McClanaghan sitting a few rows behind Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski. McClanaghan pressed both his hands down. Relax.

In the second half, Baron hit one long 3. Then another. He hit one from about 27 feet. He pointed at McClanaghan, who, surrounded by Duke fans, pretended to never have heard of Jimmy Baron. In total, the URI marksman hit seven consecutive 3-pointers in what Krzyzewski called “one of the great halves of any kid here.” Rhode Island still lost, 82-79. On the court after the game, Baron remembers McClanaghan saying, “Good game, man. Way to shoot it. Too bad you lost.”

“That’s [Rob],” Baron says, laughing. “He doesn’t let you get too high or too low.”

In 2009, Baron graduated, and every team passed on him in the NBA draft. He spent a season in Turkey and two in Spain, and McClanaghan traveled to see him play in both countries. Today, Baron is still bouncing around European pro leagues, but in the summers, when he comes home, he has a side business. The YouTube advertisement, posted nearly six years after his big game, opens on Baron wearing a polo in a New England rec center.

“Welcome to BaronBasketball.com,” he says.

The Mismatch

Listener Mailbag Part 4! Plus: the Gersson Rosas Debacle in Minnesota

The Ringer NBA Show

Who Will the NBA’s New Terrain Favor?

Sports Cards Nonsense

Ben Simmons Card Values and Trade Rumors, NFL Week 3 Matchups, and Mailbag Questions

View all stories in NBA