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Caught on the Fringes of the NBA’s Work Stoppage

Players, coaches, and execs aren’t the only ones caught in basketball limbo. Trainers and others who make a living off the NBA without working in the NBA are wrestling with when and where their next paycheck will come.

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The NBA season had already been suspended, the NCAA tournament had just been canceled, and inside a hotel in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on the morning of March 14, Irv Roland woke up at 6 a.m. to a flurry of texts. The night before, the player development trainer had been forced to cancel a women’s basketball clinic he had scheduled in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now, family and friends were worried he wasn’t going to be able to make it back to the United States after President Trump had raised the possibility of a travel ban.

There were three more sessions of the camp he was running, and Roland, a former Houston Rockets assistant coach and James Harden’s longtime personal skills trainer, decided to wait until Monday, his last day of work, to fly back to the States. “My thought process was if anything, I would just stay in Russia,” Roland says by phone from Oklahoma City. “Because at least there, I could work and make some money, because the gyms hadn’t closed.”

But as basketball grinds to a halt around the world, Roland has had to cancel training clinics, now his primary source of income, in Oklahoma, Dallas, Edmonton, Iowa, and Australia. And all conversations he was having with agents about helping college players get ready for the draft have been iced.

The NBA has agreed with the National Basketball Players Association to continue paying out contracts for players in the NBA and the G League—for now, at least. But those who make a living off the NBA without working in the NBA—agents, trainers—have been thrust into limbo, unsure of how to go about their business or when their next paycheck will come.

“Financially it’s a blow for a lot of, not just trainers, but a lot of people that just work solely on commission,” says Alex Bazzell, a skill development trainer who has worked with Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, and Trae Young, among others. “Our main moneymaking season is from mid-March until the end of October.”

With so much unknown, Bazzell says he is preparing for a reality where he’s not able to make money for a year and a half. Roland has the same concern. “People are struggling to get toilet paper and I’m trying to send them basketball drills so I can eat,” Roland says. “It’s a weird time, man.”

NBA players typically use the summer to prepare for training camp, which prepares them for the season. This is when trainers come into play. A skills trainer can tailor a development plan to help a player improve parts of their game, while a fitness trainer can fine-tune their conditioning.

But NBA players stopped working three weeks ago when most of the sports world shut down, and the league has told teams to close facilities and disallow players to train at fitness centers, college facilities, or public health clubs. Without an NBA calendar to guide them, or really any idea of what the next few months could look like, trainers don’t know when they’ll be able to work with players again or what to even work on.

Roland says this time is “very stressful because the day in and day out of the uncertainty and the unknown is really nerve-racking.”

Most skill development trainers like Bazzell and Roland aren’t on agencies’ or players’ payrolls. They are independent contractors who get paid a flat rate for an entire season, offseason, predraft period, or training session. Without basketball, they have nothing to bank on.

Still, trainers are trying to stay engaged. Roland partnered with P.J. Tucker last weekend to do a virtual workout class. Some have resorted to posting instructional videos, offering online workout plans at a discount, breaking down tape on Instagram Live, or holding informal Q&As on Instagram and Twitter about everything from at-home drills to shooting techniques.

Bazzell has been in touch with all eight NBA players he works with full time, as well as eight others he worked with last summer, and none has a home gym, even Anthony. “Someone like Doug [McDermott], who I work with, he’s got to stay in shape because he’s on a playoff team,” Bazzell says about the Pacers forward. Once travel becomes less risky and there’s clarity about whether the season will pick back up, Bazzell says he could envision a scenario in which a select group of healthy players agree on a meeting spot where he and/or another trainer could begin working them out. Right now, though, everyone is still just trying to deal with the uneasiness of it all.

“I’m still in game mode, so it’s really weird,” the Cavaliers’ Andre Drummond says in a phone call from his home in Miami. Drummond says the Cavs, like other teams, have sent him workouts to do at home, but that he’s also been using his couch to do squats and beer cases to lift. “This is around the time when your body is ready to go and do more, so to be just at home is strange.”

Bazzell, Roland, and other trainers can see themselves going stir-crazy, too, but financial concerns are at the forefront of their minds. Late March to June is usually when some of them work with prospects in the run-up to the draft, but all in-person aspects of the pre-draft process have been put on hold. And July to September is when they work with NBA clients, but there’s no telling yet whether this regular season will resume this summer, or when the offseason and next season will begin.

“I can’t even put a dollar amount on it, but from now until Lord knows when, I won’t be able to earn any money because what I do is public gatherings,” Roland says. Spring and summer are usually prime times for the clinics that Roland runs for kids and teens. He can sell skill-work videos, but says the time isn’t right for that. “We’re cancelling everything, but my building still wants the rent paid.”

James Clark, a skills development coach who has worked with Eric Bledsoe and Kevin Love, has been forced to make contingency plans. Clark worked with Ben Simmons ahead of the 2016 draft and says pre-draft workouts are a “huge chunk of my income.”

“It’s got me contemplating going back and coaching in college because of this,” he says. Clark, who lives in Philadelphia and has two kids, was part of coaching staffs at Georgetown and Drexel, but he liked the freedom and simplicity of focusing on just the on-court side of basketball, and giving up the recruiting and managing. Yet the longer the hiatus goes on, the more appealing the steady income of a college job becomes. “I’m giving it about 60 days, and if it gets to around June and they haven’t figured out anything, then I got to really think about it.”

Normally around this time, agents would be in a room with a college player and his parents, trying to make the final case that they’re the right person to represent their son as he tries to make it in the NBA. Instead, one agent said they’re stuck inside their house after canceling agreements for housing, a remote office, and gym space in Southern California, where they were scheduled to conduct the pre-draft process for the players they were expecting to sign. Another house that had been rented for their primary NBA client to live in while he trained this summer? That lease has been canceled, too. And the G League players they represent? Any chance of one final call-up that could set up a deal for next season has been erased.

The newfound downtime has opened up some new sponsorship opportunities for agents to pursue. At least one NBA player has been getting a number of offers from video game and streaming companies to livestream himself playing games. However, new player contracts—which make up a large portion of an agent’s commission—are up in the air. One agent has an NBA client who is eligible for an extension this summer, but doesn’t know whether the dates when negotiating can begin will be pushed back. “It’s just … nobody knows anything,” the agent says. “This is uncharted territory.”

Spring is usually slow for NBA deals, as the league turns its attention to the playoffs. For agents, the stoppage has had a bigger effect on the college-to-pro process. The cancellation of college conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament forced agents to begin recruiting and signing clients earlier than usual. Most of those important—and awkward, given the severity of the situation outside the basketball bubble—conversations have to happen via phone or text. Last week, the league sent agents a memo recommending no in-person meetings.

“Everything is virtual and you have to trust your work, the relationships, and what you’ve done before,” says one agent.

One agent says his agency is preparing for the possibility that teams will interview players, and maybe even watch them work out and shoot, over videoconferencing software like Zoom or Skype. Without in-person meetings or workouts, intel on prospects figures to be an even bigger factor in the draft equation this year. Cody Toppert, a college assistant coach at Memphis, says he’s been fielding numerous calls about players from NBA personnel in recent weeks and anticipates that will only ramp up.

“Now it becomes an info game. How can we mitigate our risk?” says Toppert, who used to work as a player development coach for the Phoenix Suns. “Now [teams are] going to have to go off the work [the prospects] did during the season. Teams that didn’t send too many scouts out during the season might be like, ‘Oh man, now we’re not gonna have enough on this guy.’”

The pool of available prospects could also dwindle for teams and agents. The NBA’s Undergraduate Advisory Committee, which counsels players who have remaining college eligibility about their draft prospects, is accepting applications earlier than usual, but testing the waters is difficult without any of the usual opportunities—March Madness, the draft combine, pro days, workouts with teams—to improve your stock.

“This may force some of these kids to go back to school because they’re not gonna get a chance to prove themselves throughout the process,” says one agent. Who does this affect the most? “Kids who were borderline lottery [picks], mid-to-late second-rounders, who had a chance to work their way up in a weak draft, guys that may not stand out athletically on game film—this erases that opportunity for them.”

ESPN also reported this week that a standoff between agents and the NCAA over the new agent certification process has left undergraduate prospects with just 24 possible choices for representatives. And those agents are unlikely to take a chance on a player who isn’t a sure thing during these uncertain times. “This is not a time to be adding players to your client list; it’s a time to consolidate,” an NCAA-certified agent told ESPN.

Like trainers and agents, the prospects themselves are stuck searching for answers on the fringes of the NBA. One player projected just outside the lottery has been trying to keep active at home by doing push-ups and sit-ups, and going on runs. His potential agent checks in with him every day to make sure he’s practicing social distancing and eating the right food. The next step is getting outdoors to work on his shooting form. But even that’s fraught right now.

Just last week, Roland tried to work out an NBA player for the Thunder on an outdoor court in OKC. Soon, they realized it would be impossible to have a fruitful shooting session—the wind was blowing too hard.