NBA ironmen cling to routine during the load management era
By Michael Pina
Little will be ordinary when the ab- breviated 2019-20 NBA season resumes as expected on July 30. Games will be played at the Walt Dis- ney World Resort inside a so-called bubble, a plan that does away with playoff basketball’s normal hallmarks of rigorous travel, home-court advan- tage and the motivational fuel provided by screaming fans.
How it will look and feel to the par- ticipants once they get there is a mys- tery. But in an era of basketball defined by load management — the practice of deliberately holding stars out of some regular-season games to keep them healthy for playoff runs — there exists a faction of NBA players who pride themselves on rarely, if ever, missing a game. They will now have to navigate their return without being moored to the grind of an 82-game season.
At the forefront of that group is Utah Jazz wing Joe Ingles, 32, who has played in all of his team’s games since Dec. 16, 2015, the longest active streak in the league. When the season was suspended in March, Ingles quaran- tined for two weeks with his pregnant wife, Renae, and their infant twins. Everyday life was disrupted overnight, and Ingles, without any idea when, or if, basketball would come back, turned his focus to his family. Every morning, he made breakfast for his children, and he tucked them in at night, enjoy- ing parenting pleasures that had been mostly impossible during the season.
His professional life has revolved around the same practice-game-prac- tice-game routine since he first signed a professional contract at age 17. He has spent his offseasons from the NBA playing for the Australian national team. In the past few years, he became one of the NBA’s ironmen, tightly regu- lating his daily regimen to maximize the amount of basketball he could play. Before the pandemic, he made a habit of getting to practices an hour early so he could get a massage, stretch and do corrective exercises. After practice, he’d stay an extra hour for treatment.
“If I knew 10 years ago what I know now, maybe I would still be dunking,” he said.
Today, with a full gym at home that includes a treadmill and exercise bike, Ingles has tried to recreate a recogniz- able groove for himself. Every night, he massages himself after workouts with a vibrating foam roller or a massage gun — he owns several — and then, usually while watching a movie in bed with his wife, slips into NormaTec compres- sion pants, which aid muscle recovery. “I had days where I was meant to lift and I didn’t because it’s hard to get that motivation when you’re doing it at your house,” he said. “I’m not going to a game tomorrow, I’m not going to a practice tomorrow. I’m just going to do the same thing tomorrow. Again.”
A sprinkling of other players who have similarly committed to playing full seasons are dealing with the NBA shutdown and resumption plan in their own way.
Since the league expanded the schedule to 82 games, its current nor- mal length, before the 1967-68 season, going the distance has become an in- creasingly rare achievement, partially owing to advances in sports science that have informed teams about the myriad harmful consequences seven straight months of professional basket- ball can have on a human body.
In the 2018-19 season, less than 4 percent of the league (21 players) ap- peared in 82 games.
Injuries, personal issues, coaches’ decisions and sched- uled rest can take the choice of playing out of a player’s hands, but those who are healthy enough to have the option to play at every opportunity know they are a rarity.
“It’s very challenging. That’s why there’s only a few that do it,” said Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker, 35, who hasn’t missed a game since 2017. “You get a day off when the schedule permits.”
Their motivations vary: Some want to defy an injury-prone reputation, ful- fill a sense of duty to fans and team- mates, or avoid permanently losing their minutes to a replacement player. Many also cited their love of basketball and an obsessive attentiveness to their body as reasons they’ve embraced the monotony that invades the NBA life- style.
Since he was traded to the Phila- delphia 76ers midway through the 2018-19 season, forward Tobias Harris, 27, has checked in with team staffers to look at his performance analytics, since any decrease would suggest a need to rest to prevent injury. But Harris said that taking time off when he feels well enough to compete tends to have an adverse effect.
“I feel if I don’t play, it’s kind of like hurting me a little bit,” Harris said in an interview before the shutdown. “I’m in a routine and a rhythm. That’s the type of guy I am.”
Harris was inactive for the final game of the 2018-19 regular season, but still played in 82 total games after logging 55 with his former team, the Los Angeles Clippers.
Phoenix Suns wing Mikal Bridges, 23, has not missed a game in his first two seasons as a pro. He is disposed to a strict daily routine, and once the sea- son stopped, he immediately mapped out a plan that could best replicate its physical drudgery while he was home. Bridges did body weight exercises and used weights already in his home, and used a nearby field for conditioning drills.
“I knew I wasn’t going to take time off, but I didn’t know how hard I should go,” Bridges said. “Am I just going OD hard for nothing? It was awkward because if the season didn’t come back I think I was going to keep working out and then treat it like the season was still there.”
Denver Nuggets guard Monté Morris, 24, sat zero games during four years at Iowa State and has not missed one since the start of the 2018-19 sea- son.
“It’s really, really, really important that I stay in my rhythm,” he said in an interview. “I’ve always been a guy who’s able to find a way. Even when the gyms weren’t open.”
A couple of months ago, Morris reached out to Ann Najjar, a boxing trainer, on Instagram and asked her to fly in from her home in San Diego to work out in his backyard.
When the NBA in early June ap- proved a proposal to send 22 teams to play in Florida, concerns about spreading the coronavirus were shared widely among players, including those who see playing every game as an ob- ligation.
“Going into a hub, I think the hard- est part for me is I know I’ll do the right thing and I’m assuming my teammates will, but we’re all relying on 22 teams, 17 players per team,” Ingles said be- fore the league last week distributed a 113-page guidebook of health precau- tions needed to make the resumption work. He worries that a player con- tracting the virus is inevitable. “I want to be there to play the games with my team, but I’m definitely not 100 per- cent comfortable going.”
Players and team staff members are expected to remain on the prem- ises nearly at all times and cannot en- ter other people’s hotel rooms, among other regulations while in Florida. Ingles prioritizes his family’s safety at such a precarious time, but acknowl- edges that he does not want to let his team or fans down by not playing.
“I know people aren’t paying mon- ey to come watch me play — they’re coming to watch Donovan play,” he said, referring to his teammate Dono- van Mitchell. “But if I’m healthy and can get out there, then I should play.”