Where Shaquille O’Neal is about to travel, Grant Hill has already been. Armed with the knowledge and experience gained from six months under the wing of the Suns athletic training staff, Hill talked to O’Neal last week before the trade with Miami was completed, preaching about the fountain of youth he had found in Phoenix.
“What I kept harping on was ‘Big Fella, not only do I think you’ll be able to play out his contract, you may have even more time after that if you commit to what they throw at you,’ ” Hill said. “You’re going to feel better. Your quality of life will improve. You have a chance to turn back the clock.”
Suns head trainer Aaron Nelson isn’t selling snake oil. If you break a bone or tear a ligament, what’s done is done. But if aches and pains and wear and tear are the trouble, the Suns’ approach of prevention, manual therapy and corrective exercise already boasts an impressive track record for improving and extending careers.
“It’s worked for (Antonio) McDyess, Steven Hunter, Grant,” Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said. “When Steve (Nash) got here, he was an old 31, now he’s a young 34.
“If they explained exactly what they were doing, I wouldn’t know what they were saying. But the end results can’t be argued with. You get players who are motivated and buy into what our guys do, and the success rate is overwhelming.”
In layman’s terms, the idea is to get the body to function at optimum level by identifying imbalances (through a computer-generated “body map”) and working them into line manually — with trainers using their hands, thumbs, elbows and special tools for the biggest jobs.
“First we want to increase the range of motion and flexibility,” Nelson said. “We take the tight or overactive muscles and lengthen them, and take the dormant or weak muscles and activate them or make them stronger. It’s all in the name of balance, to make the body work as it was designed and eliminate overcompensation.”
Nelson and fellow trainers Eric Phillips and Mike Elliott arrive three hours before practices — with nationally renown trainer Mike Clark helping out on game days — and the assembly line begins.
Hill and Amaré Stoudemire go first. Then it’s Nash and Raja Bell. When you’re not on the table being stretched, squeezed and manipulated, you’re doing corrective exercises designed to improve and/or maintain balance.
Even equipment man Jay Gaspar is now getting involved with every extra set of hands needed as the Suns add to their collection of thirtysomething stars.
“They treat the body as a whole, making sure everything is working efficiently and in alignment,” said Hill, who missed 364 of 574 games to injury in the seven years before becoming a Sun. “Sometimes your hamstring is sore, but they are working on your back because that’s the real problem area. You have tendonitis in your knee, but it could be a calf or ankle or hamstring that’s forcing other areas to fatigue. It’s part art, part science, and when you get off the table, you feel better. It’s worth the time and the discomfort.”
After undergoing an appendectomy last month, Hill came back but was bothered by back spasms. But instead of using anti-inflammatory drugs or the usual heat and ice, the trainers traced the problem to an oblique muscle in his abdominal wall that had shut off.
Working in concert with mentor Clark and the Mesa-based National Academy of Sports Medicine, the Suns are in their seventh year of the program and ahead of the curve when compared to most pro teams. The injury rate was cut by more than half in the first three years alone. Last year, every player on the team was available for at least 67 of 82 regular-season games (only Kurt Thomas missed more than nine) and the team missed only 40 total games to injury.
Nelson relies on the players not to hide anything from him – which is the key. “Don’t wait until you start feeling bad or something happens,” he said. “Let’s maintain it. Let’s look at the whole body, and make sure it’s all working for you. Once the pain or the spasm starts, it’s harder to attack.”
O’Neal returns to Phoenix this afternoon and will be on the ground for less than three hours before hitting the training room for his next session. After only two brief sessions with Nelson — one during his physical and one after the trade was finalized, and he’s apparently sold.
“In sessions like that, the results can come fairly quickly,” Nelson said, smiling.
Hill has spoken to O’Neal regularly, and said his new teammate is eager to see how much the regimen will do for him.
“As an NBA athlete, the best you feel is leaving your bed the morning of media day. From there it’s all downhill,” Hill said. “Anytime you can feel better, you’re going to do what it takes. If you get off that table and you feel better like I know the big guy did, he’s going to come back. And every morning, your body is going to tell Aaron what’s going on, and what it needs. He’s got a lot of years left in him.”