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Training’s Day

More and more NBA players are turning their workouts (and summer highlight reels) over to private skill trainers. With the help of social media, some trainers are using the exposure to become entrepreneurs, newsmakers, and even celebrities in their own right.

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Alex Bazzell is focused on his laptop. His eyes track every pivot foot and shot release, and he stores the details away in his memory for future use. It’s late June, and the 28-year-old basketball skills trainer is in his St. Louis home watching film of Bulls forward Bobby Portis to prepare for an upcoming trip to Chicago. Later that night, he’ll mimic the moves he wants to practice with Portis in front of a mirror to replicate them on the court. Suddenly, his phone rings. Bazzell doesn’t recognize the number, so he rejects the call. A text message follows almost immediately.

Hey, this is Kobe Bryant. Call me back.

At first, Bazzell thinks it’s a prank. It’s not. Bryant wants Bazzell to train his daughter’s seventh-grade basketball team the following weekend—a two-a-day Friday, six hours Saturday, and another two-a-day Sunday: 14 practice hours in total. Two weeks later at a restaurant in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles, Bazzell laughs thinking about the long sessions he led with Bryant sitting quietly courtside. “Typical Kobe,” he says. Bazzell preserved the moment by posting a picture with Bryant on his Instagram.

Instagram is an important tool for Bazzell. A few months before that text, he had used the social media platform to repeatedly message Roc Nation agent Joe Branch about running the agency’s pre-draft workout. You’re not going to find a better or cheaper option, Bazzell told him. It worked. Bazzell ran one of Roc Nation’s workouts in L.A. before the draft. Bazzell, who recently moved to L.A. full-time, says he’ll now train two of the participants—Clippers two-way player Angel Delgado and the Lakers’ Moritz Wagner.

When Bazzell first dove into the world of basketball training in 2014, as an understudy of trainer Drew Hanlen in their hometown of St. Louis, he worked mostly with local college and high school players. Bazzell, who played one year of Division I basketball, three Division II years, and a one-year stint as a pro in Germany, wanted to stay close to the sport even if he wasn’t playing it. He got his first pro client, Doug McDermott, within a year through his college roommate, Kirk Korver, the late brother of Kyle Korver and a friend of the McDermotts. Portis, who was then McDermott’s teammate on the Bulls, also decided to work with Bazzell. “I will train you for free until you get your next contract,” Bazzell told them both. Now, he charges new clients a “rookie fee” of $2,000 a month for training and film work year-round. He has yet to charge Portis, who is still on his rookie deal.

“You take care of them, they’ll take care of you. It’s more about a long-term financial security than short-term,” Bazzell says. For a young trainer, the exposure and connections can be more valuable than money.

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Bazzell is a part of a new generation of skills trainers who have utilized social media to their advantage and in the process turned the profession mainstream. Today you would be hard-pressed to find an NBA player who doesn’t have “their guy,” whether they’re team-affiliated or from the private sector. Players work out with their trainers in the offseason, do film work with them, and keep in contact—sometimes in person—throughout the season. Some have even been hired on their trainees’ teams. In recent years, these trainers have become more than just another face in an NBA player’s entourage. They are highlight-reel curators, entrepreneurs, and newsmakers. To the chagrin of some of their peers, some are even social media celebrities.

Bazzell’s Instagram-follower count skyrocketed over the past year, from 3,000 to nearly 31,000. After self-financing monthly trips to Oklahoma City in 2017 to train McDermott, he met a teenager from Norman with a deadly 3-point shot. Now, Bazzell is Trae Young’s guy.

“That’s just what’s happening now,” Young tells me. “Everyone wants to get personal trainers.”

Most of the working trainers I spoke to for this story, all of whom either have clients in the NBA or work for an NBA team, come from similar beginnings: They were basketball obsessives who topped out at high school or college ball, or maybe after a stint overseas, and eventually found training as another way to make a living off the sport. Along the way, they linked up with an NBA player, which opened doors to turn their passion into a relatively lucrative career. (Most trainers didn’t want to reveal how much they made, but one said they had earned seven figures during one year.) For instance, soon after Irv Roland was informed in the summer of 2016 that he wouldn’t be brought back by the Suns as a player development coach, he got a call from James Harden, whom he’d worked with during the 2011 lockout and when Harden was at Arizona State. Harden had just landed an extension with the Rockets, and he wanted Roland to train him as a member of Houston’s coaching staff.

“I know that if I did work independently, there’s things that I could do to probably make more money,” says Roland, who shadows Harden on everything from Adidas commercials to trips to China. “[But] I like working with a team and building towards a title.”

Some trainers were faced with a much tougher choice than Roland’s: try to break in with a team or keep pursuing personal training. Cody Toppert’s crossroads moment came in July 2016, when Tyler Johnson, one of the first players he worked with for multiple summers, signed a four-year, $50 million offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets (that the Miami Heat matched). The undrafted Johnson had made it; now he needed to ensure that he’d stay there as long as possible. So he offered Toppert, once a private pre-draft trainer and then an assistant coach for the Rockets’ G League team, a salary roughly four times what he was making to be Johnson’s private trainer. This could have been Toppert’s big break, a chance to take the money and become Johnson’s guy. As a coach, he’d earn less while hoping to slowly grind his way up the ranks.

“Now I’ve got a decision to make,” Toppert says over the phone as he drives around Phoenix. He speaks with confidence, like a guy who once dropped 21 points on Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse team in 2002 when he played at Cornell. Or like someone who feels like he made the right decision. Toppert is now an assistant coach and the director of player development for the Suns. “Some of these [trainers] just want to be development guys,” he says. “I wanted to be a coach.”

For a long time, Phil Beckner did too. He coached as an assistant for five years at Weber State. Two seasons ago, one of his star pupils wanted Beckner to train him full-time. Damian Lillard says he felt sharper when Beckner was around and liked the way the coach challenged him. “He was like, ‘I’ll pay you whatever you’re making now,’” Beckner says. He initially resisted. “I want to keep impacting younger guys’ lives,” he told Lillard. But this past spring, he made the leap to private training.

Lillard praised Beckner’s “foundation shooting” routine, which he does before every workout. (The routine also helped Chandler Hutchison nearly double his 3-point percentage at Boise State. Beckner said an NBA team called to pick his brain about how he did it.) The drill puts Lillard in unconventional shooting positions, both on and off the dribble, in order to target every aspect of his shot—from a tight core to a proper follow-through. Lillard says he can now do it with his eyes closed. Only small portions of this routine are on the internet—and that’s just the way Beckner and Lillard want it to be.

“I think there are two types of players out there right now,” Beckner says. “One, players who want to get famous, and be on Instagram, and enjoy their pictures and their workouts and their videos. I get so tired of that bullshit. And two, there are the players who want to get better and have a different career and win championships. I wanna work with the guys who want to get better.” Unlike most trainers breaking into the business, Beckner says he wants to be hard to find. He doesn’t have Instagram, for now. “I’d love to be one of the best development coaches without an Instagram some day,” he says, “but I know that’s probably not smart.”

“I think all that stuff is for show,” Lillard tells me about filming workouts. “It ain’t about all the posting videos and all of that. Some of these dudes post these videos, and they get to training camp and they’re not even in shape. It’s ironic.”

It was 1989 when Michael Jordan first reached out to Tim Grover. Jordan, who had yet to win a title, was looking for both a personalized program and the convenience to work out whenever he wanted to. “People who had individual coaches were Olympians,” Grover says. “Michael was probably the first [NBA] guy to hire a guy full-time.” Eventually, Grover became the trainer to work with. His work with Jordan helped him land Kobe Bryant as a client. “The success Michael and I had over the years, that was the selling point,” he says.

Grover has seen the evolution of the business firsthand. He says the bar for entry has been lowered—“now any ex-athlete that doesn’t make it to the pros suddenly becomes a skills trainer”—the training being done has been “diluted,” and social media blurs what success looks like and the role of trainers in the basketball ecosystem.

“If social media was prevalent around that time, the story would be not that [Jordan and Bryant] were working out, but it would be when they’re not working. Because if they would have posted when they’re working out, that would have been every single day,” Grover says. “Now there’s a lot of trainers that want to live the same life and be as well-known as their client is. It doesn’t work like that.”

But Grover’s career created a template for a new wave of personal trainers. For many, a connection to a star player can make or break them. Oftentimes, the best way to get one is through social media. An Instagram account is a business card. Even Grover acknowledges that social media has become an inextricable part of the business. Promotion can generate new clients and, if your follower count is high enough, even sponsorships. “Players use it to their advantage with endorsement deals and marketing, and we kind of have to make our own endorsements deals and marketing,” Bazzell says. “We don’t have agencies looking for things.”

Stanley Remy says he doesn’t want to film his workouts. But the 33-year-old Miami-based trainer says it’s “what’s going on in this generation. I would be crazy not to follow it.”

Remy, whose client list includes the likes of Andre Drummond, Jeff Green, and Hassan Whiteside, has a five-person marketing team that helps him determine what to post on his Instagram and when to post it—typically highlights of his summer runs to attract more NBA players to work out at his gym. Remy is also mindful of connecting with the next generation of players. It’s why he posts highlights of Vernon Carey Jr., a potential top-five pick in 2020 who he’s trained since sixth grade. “All it takes is one player to not want to be filmed, and that’s it,” Remy says. So far, no one has objected.

“Basketball for me is an escape. It’s my personal shell, where I escape when I don’t have anything else to do, when shit goes wrong,” Lakers rookie Moe Wagner says. “I am not the guy who says, ‘don’t film me,’ but if you ask what I prefer, I don’t like being documented.”

If there are two trainers who have best utilized social media to enhance their notoriety and grow their businesses, they’re Drew Hanlen and Chris Brickley. Brickley is a former Knicks staffer whose clients include Donovan Mitchell, Carmelo Anthony, and J.R. Smith, and whose gym is often full of stars (including LeBron James) looking for a run during the summer. His personal Instagram account has nearly half a million followers, and he posts multiple times a day over the offseason. Hanlen, meanwhile, has more than 180,000 followers, and has compared the vision for his multi-trainer company, Pure Sweat, to Uber Black. He’s produced a video series, shot by a team of videographers, called “Unseen Hours,” which showcases the skill work of and scrimmages among his client list, which includes Bradley Beal, Jayson Tatum, and Joel Embiid (who is now allowed to work with only Hanlen in the offseason). One video can get as many as 1.9 million views on YouTube, and another 128,000 on Instagram. The days of grainy highlight videos are gone.

It doesn’t take long for the videos or pictures trainers post to become discussion topics on Twitter or debate segments on television. Brickley’s Instagram videos are constantly reposted on the House of Highlights account, which has more than 10 million followers. In the doldrums of the offseason, when the news cycle slows to a crawl, videos of star players training in an empty gym are often the only option to satiate a fan base that grows by the year. Hanlen made news this summer when he began posting footage of Markelle Fultz working on his infamous jump shot. Few outside of the 76ers organization know how Fultz is doing; Hanlen is one of them. The clips were tantamount to a Woj scoop.

A recent highlight reel trainer Chris Johnson published of Andrew Bynum’s secret comeback also made news.

It’s not just teams and fans who are watching, either. “People like LeBron, who doesn’t follow me, I catch him looking at my stories all the time,” Remy says.

But most trainers admit that the clips they post are often edited for their players’ (and their own) benefit. One trainer says they had to be careful about what they posted of a player before he entered a contract year. In a crowded market, there’s value in showcasing star power and reach, not showing missed shots or blown drills.

“I always post the best stuff,” Bazzell says. “But teams aren’t idiots. Teams see the players. You might fool them for a summer, then they’re going to get back and they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, OK, yeah, he’s still missing shots.’”

Says trainer Justin Zormelo, who has worked with Kevin Durant: “If you watch an Instagram video, you think everyone’s going to have an All-Star year.”

The trainer industry has no standards or formal regulations. It’s a Wild West of varying rates and gym fees. Some trainers work for free or have to track down players for money, while others live comfortably. There’s no contract tying players to trainers, roles are rarely formalized unless a team gets involved, and there’s no database of who is working out whom (though teams certainly keep track). If you want to mark your territory, an easy way to do so is through social media.

The need for trainers to publicize who they’re working with is partly why Cody Toppert, the Suns assistant coach, stayed on the coaching track. “I mean, it’s a business model. … [Trainers] post it because that’s how you get another client,” he says. But the line between posting to help your client base and posting to ward off competition can sometimes blur.

“James [Harden] knows I’m not one of those guys that’s trying to take credit for his success or trying to act like I made him,” Irv Roland of the Rockets says. “Social media is a great tool to market yourself. But there’s a thin line between marketing yourself and this fake, self-promotion type thing, for lack of a better word.”

Brickley and Hanlen both have huge followings and entrepreneurial tendencies—the former promotes a clothing line through his Instagram account; the latter his training clinics and instructional videos—yet it’s no secret in training circles that the two don’t get along. Hanlen once posted a screenshot of what appeared to be an Instagram DM from Brickley in which the New York–based trainer called him “your daddy” and wished him a Happy Father’s Day. In text over the photo, Hanlen described Brickley as “one of the cornballs that post every player that walks in the gym.” (Both declined to be interviewed for this story.) Earlier this year, Roland says he was irked when a media member thought Brickley was Harden’s trainer because of an Instagram post he’d seen.

Some trainers think the pettiness makes the industry look bad. Grover also thinks trainers have become too eager to be claim players that they work with. “We’ve worked out Dwyane Wade, LeBron, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, James Harden, but we don’t claim them as clients,” Grover says. “If he’s a client, he’s spent years with you—not the summer, not an offseason, not six weeks. And what happens when the guy isn’t doing well during the season? Does a trainer still want to stand by them, take the responsibility?”

Sometimes, tension arises between trainers and their players’ teams. One trainer tells me that a team official sent him a pointed message with a mandate of not just what to do with a certain player, but how much he could do—even though the player came to the trainer because he felt he wasn’t getting enough developmental attention from his team. “I do think there are organizations out there that feel threatened sometimes, or a little insecure,” the trainer says.

Some players come to trainers specifically to gain the confidence and skills to go beyond their current role. “My belief is let’s get you better in the role that you’re in now, but let’s also prepare you for the role you want in the future,” Bazzell says. “And from what I’ve heard from my clients is that that isn’t something that’s typically worked on [with teams].”

As a result of the potential disconnect, team-affiliated development coaches like Toppert have turned into liaisons between the franchise and trainers. Toppert, Tyler Johnson’s former trainer, has seen both sides of the business, and thus its benefits. “Practice has become cool, which, for teams, is half the battle,” he says. These days, a significant part of Toppert’s job is to find out who Suns players are training with and develop relationships with them. His goal used to be to train a player to perform his best with a team; now it’s to ensure that the trainer’s approach coincides with the team’s goals.

Bridging that connection is essential; it quells the organization’s fears that a player will be working on one-on-one moves when maybe it wants to improve his screen work. Nearly every trainer I spoke to emphasized the importance of communication with a team official. Remy, for example, says he speaks with Erik Spoelstra on the phone at least once a week during the offseason to get on the same page about the Heat players he trains. Though Zormelo believes there are still plenty of teams against the privatization of offseason training, he lets GMs and coaches visit his sessions. “Teams don’t want you listening to anybody [else],” Zormelo says. “They want to train you themselves. But now it’s only normal.”

No matter how team personnel or anyone else associated with the NBA may feel about private training, there’s an acknowledgment that the trainers are now very much a part of the business of professional basketball. “By the time we’re recruiting guys and signing them, they already have a trainer,” one agent says. “So they can be a benefit and an asset in tipping you off to upcoming prospects. ... They are here to stay.”

Jrue and Justin Holiday are dripping sweat and shuffling slowly on a basketball court in Thousand Oaks, California, in mid-August. They breathe heavily while guarding each other in a King of the Court game of two-on-two. Of the six players involved, they’re the only ones wearing 10-pound vests over their damp shirts.

“I can’t wait until this is over so I can take this thing off,” Justin says with a deep breath.

“Well then, win!”

The voice that rings through the gym isn’t Jrue’s. It’s that of Mike Guevara, the Holidays’ trainer, egging them on with a friendly smile. By the time they reach the court around noon on a summer weekday, Guevara has already put the Holidays through a rigorous morning workout at Jrue’s home gym, which he let Guevara customize. The session involved more trampolines and resistance poles than it did basketballs. “My main goal is to build the physical ability to do things on the court. … My role is load management,” he says as he looks up the court. “’Cause if I’m not here, they’ll play for fucking hours.”

Jrue Holiday working out while another man captures him on video
Jrue Holiday
Paolo Uggetti

Guevara and Jrue go back to Jrue’s second season in the NBA, when Jrue requested to work with Guevara at a training gym in Los Angeles. The relationship turned into an even stronger friendship when Jrue’s wife, pro soccer player Lauren Holiday, was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in 2016 while pregnant. Jrue took a leave of absence from the Pelicans and asked Guevara if he would move with him to North Carolina, where Lauren was going to receive treatment. Guevara didn’t hesitate.

“At that point, I knew that I had to be there for my family, essentially. Jrue’s my family,” Guevara says. After shadowing Jrue for the 2016-17 season on his own, Guevara was hired by the Pelicans as a contractor before last season. “We feel like he’s more family than just our trainer,” Jrue says. “We all went to Disneyland recently, and we were like, ‘Mike G has to come with us.’”

For all the attention on how trainers package their sessions with players for public consumption, the actual training can be an intimate process. A trainer knows all of his client’s weaknesses. Vulnerability is a prerequisite.

Bazzell gives prospective clients a week of workouts to see if the relationship will work. During that trial run, he looks for chemistry, and also for drive and a willingness to let him help. If they click, he caters his approach to their personality. Bazzell began one of his first workouts with WNBA star Candace Parker by calling a travel on an up-and-under move she made. Parker had recently argued on “Area 21,” Kevin Garnett’s roundtable segment on TNT’s Inside the NBA, about that move not being a travel. She got what Bazzell was doing. “All right, I fuck with you,” she told him.

With Trae Young, Bazzell has struck a balance between motivation through trash talk on the floor and brother-like guidance off of it. Bazzell advises the young point guard on everything from his social life—say, whether to accept invites to hang out with Drake and Quavo—to his diet, and is a friend to play video games with or go to a movie with when Young needs one. During the pre-draft process, Bazzell introduced Young to taxes. “He was like, ‘Wait, so if I get the money, it’s not technically all mine?’” Bazzell says, laughing. “He was mad for, like, a week.”

This is what Bazzell cherishes the most about his job—the relationships. It’s why, right now, he isn’t looking to work for a team or go into traditional coaching. He likes the freedom of being a private trainer, even though it comes with the pressure that a player’s successes and failures will find their way back to him. And he likes working with younger players—including Kobe’s daughter and her seventh-grade team, which he now trains four times a week—because they are more willing to buy into what he can do for them. Much like he is, they are looking up at success, not directly at it.

“I’d rather build the relationships than get more likes on a post,” he says. “Instagram doesn’t pay my bills.”

One day, it could.

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