My first instinct when walking into the Capital Sports Complex is that I've walked into the wrong place. There were scores of basketball courts open to the public, but only one or two was being used. This is to be expected at 11:30 on a weekday morning in the middle of an anonymous suburb of Washington D.C., but it's still jarring. Nervously, I walk up to the front desk, where a man eyes me warily.
"Uh, so where are the pro basketball players?" I ask.
"Joe Connelly's group?"
He stares at me again and pulls out a list of names. I glance at it and see names like "John Wall" and "Andray Blatche" on it, people who are supposed to be playing on this day. (Wall ended up not being back in town yet.) He eyes me again.
"Joe told me to come here," I say. "Just tell him my name."
Finally, he relents and lets me through. "Seven dollars. They're on Court 2 in the back," he says, pointing to the far right corner where there are curtains so thick that you can't even hear the noise behind them.
And with that, I'm about to get a window into the side of basketball training that few people see.
In Nike's new commercial, Kevin Durant drives a van around town, stopping at courts everywhere to shoot hoops. He pulls up at a school, a shelter, a church and elsewhere and just keeps playing and playing. It's the signature commercial behind the now-famous "Basketball Never Stops" motto, one of several sports commercials that glorifies the preparation; the work before the bright lights, if you will.
The problem is this work is, by definition, mundane. Well, maybe not mundane, but it certainly isn't glorious. In real life, Kevin Durant doesn't walk around town and casually shoot hoops with kids at the local high school (though you could argue his pilgrimages to the Goodman League resemble these things). He spends hours in a gym doing the same drills, finds the same players to do controlled pick-up games and lifts the same weights. If people are there with them, it's to kick his ass, not kiss his ass.
It only makes sense then that this workout is tucked away in the back corner of a random gym in a random D.C. suburb. As I walk behind the curtains of the Capital Sports Complex in District Heights, I see a group of 15 men and a trainer, with only a handful of observers. Some of these men (specifically, Blatche, Gary Neal of the San Antonio Spurs, Brendan Haywood of the Dallas Mavericks, Roger Mason of the New York Knicks, Hamady Ndiaye of the Washington Wizards and Devin Ebanks of the Los Angeles Lakers) are professionals looking to get back in shape to get ready for the season. Some are former college players like Mike Hall of George Washington who looking for some opportunity, somewhere. (There's also Michael Sweetney, which is its own category). All of them are there for one reason: get better for whatever is the next step in their basketball careers.
The docket is pretty consistent for these workouts this past week, which have lasted about two hours each. The first 45 minutes, which I don't see, are reserved for "conditioning and skill work, a lot of skill work," Connelly, the trainer who is putting this all together, tells me. A hundred jumpers from one spot, 125 from another, a bunch of dunks to get the players jumping around, that kind of stuff. Connelly then splits the group into three groups of five, where they run halfcourt sets; first with no dribbling allowed, then with a maximum of three dribbles allowed. Only then do the same groups scrimmage for the final 45 minutes of the workout.
"When they get into playing, they're already fatigued," Connelly says. "So then the mental factor kicks in and they try to pick each other up, find their second wind and stuff."
There's lots of shouting, mostly by players trying to point out defensive assignments. Occasionally, Connelly will jump in and offer words of encouragement, but mostly, he just lets the whole thing continue as everyone polices themselves. A number of local hoops figures like former Dunbar star Stacey Robinson sit in the stands and occasionally banter at the players, but mostly, they're just taking in the show like me. And by "show," I mean the repetitive motions.
From there, everyone just plays ball and polices themselves.
When you think of trainers, you think of dominant personalities that always find a way to make themselves the loudest man in the room. That is not Joe Connelly. Joe Connelly is a short, stocky man with a goatee that stands out only because he looks so different than the men he is training. Many trainers and coaches stop workouts in the middle to provide instruction. Connelly would rather keep things moving. The only time you hear his voice is when he's encouraging players to keep going.
It's been a long road for Connelly to get to this point. Twenty years ago, Connelly was working at local recreation centers and teaching in Baltimore. He mostly worked with high school kids and some college players. It was only a few years ago when he got in contact with some of the Wizards players. His brother, Tim Connelly, had risen to the position of head scout with the Wizards after beginning in 1996. Eventually, Joe Connelly found his way into the Wizards' network working with Mason, then with the team, and Blatche.
"I've been working out with him since I've been with the Wizards," Blatche says. "His brother actually used to be with us when I was a rookie, so Joe's been around the Wizards [for a while]."
Connelly has no official position with the Wizards, but he regularly communicates with general manager Ernie Grunfeld and others within the organization. This year, he's worked closest with Blatche, Trevor Booker and Ndiaye, and he was the man who ran the private workouts Blatche organized with a couple members of the Wizards in September. Ndiaye in particular couldn't stop singing Connelly's praises.
"He gave me so much confidence," Ndiaye says. "It's not even necessarily working on any skill. He just pushes you and pushes you to your limit. Then, you play, and you want to keep playing and playing because you're used to working so hard."
Reaching out to those players and Mason was easy, but Connelly admits his phone was a little busier than usual due to the lockout. He says he doesn't think guys like Haywood and Ebanks would have come if not for the lockout. A sheepish smile crosses his face as he realizes that what was good for him may not have been good for NBA fans.
"I'm probably the only person sad to see the lockout go. I benefited from it," he says. "Obviously, it gave me some attention and stuff, some exposure. It's been a good thing."
You can tell he doesn't want to admit it.
Blatche is probably the best player on the court, which is to be expected given the surrounding talent. He posts up Hall and Cliff Dixon, a former Western Kentucky player, and scored at will on both. After launching a bunch of jumpers early in the session, Blatche committed to getting inside in the scrimmages and it was paying dividends.
But then something throws off Blatche a bit, and it's predictably minor. As Blatche dives down the lane for an easy layup, Dixon comes over and nudges him in the head gently. Blatche concentration is thrown off and he blows the layup. As the other team heads down the floor, Blatche drops his head and waives his hand to stop the action.
Earlier in the session, Blatche was legitimately poked in the eye. This time, though, it looks less legitimate. Several players come over, and Dixon and others begin talking back at Blatche. The words tumble out so quickly that it's hard to tell who is defending Blatche and who is upset. On the sidelines, those observers watching mutter, "Be a pro, man," to no one in particular. Finally, Connelly steps in and tells Blatche, "You're letting him get in his head!"
The incident says a lot about Blatche himself, of course. Connelly says Blatche has made incredible strides and predicts a breakout year for him, but admits that "up until [this] October ... he was easily the most frustrating person to work with, ever." This isn't really a story about Blatche, though. These kinds of shouting matches are not out of the ordinary when you get several players together like this. In fact, Connelly says he gets concerned when they don't happen.
"Days where stuff like that doesn't happen, I don't think we've done a good job. That means guys aren't really going at each other," he says.
This is the closest thing we get to a fight, but the scrimmaging is competitive throughout. Haywood barks defensive instructions like he's patrolling the paint in the NBA Finals. Jamar Silas, a short lefty point guard who made waves in the Goodman League this summer, is not making it easy on Neal to get his shot off. There's not a ton of one-on-one play either. Pick and rolls are being run and staggered screens on the baseline are being set.
If you didn't know the players, it almost looked like a team workout.
There is one key difference between this workout and the workouts players have like this over the summer: timing. With NBA training camps only a few days away, several players are making up for lost time. Earlier in the week, Haywood admitted that there were days it was hard to motivate himself with no NBA on the horizon. Connelly says on this day that Blatche "sort of fell back" from his October pace once Thanksgiving week rolled around and little progress was being made.
When you don't have a season, you're absolutely right. It's hard sometimes to go to the gym and do something," Blatche says when I ask him about this phenomenon. "But once the season stars, every hour you spend in the gym, about 6-7 hours a day doing something."
In some cases, you can tell that there's a little rust. Take Mason, for example. All summer and fall, he was negotiating a new deal and fending off the lockout's meme du jour. Now, he's back on the court, and the speed of the game is an issue. Physically, he looks fine. Mentally, he's out of rhythm. On one play, a teammate attempts a crosscourt pass to him in the corner, and he is slow to meet the ball. A defender comes over and deflects it out of bounds.
"That's the kind of thing they teach you in high school," one observer on the sidelines says out loud.
The speed of the game is an issue even for those who have been diligent with playing ball. The game's stars have been moving around the country playing in various summer league exhibitions. Some are more competitive than others, but none come close to matching the intensity of an NBA game or practice.
They've been playing a lot of summer league ball and a lot of runs. If you win, you win and it's not a big deal," Connelly says. "But now, you take Hamady for example, his job is on the line. So there's a sense of urgency that you're see right here."
That's the primary purpose of Connelly's group workouts. There's still eight days before training camp, and that's still eight more than zero days. That's why you see the players pushing themselves on every possession. Connelly doesn't need to tell them what's at stake.
"The toughest thing for them is coming here and realizing, 'It's real now.' Eight days from now, camp starts," he says.
Later, he puts it in even clearer terms.
Guys that are not in shape," he says, "are definitely behind the eight ball."
Soon, these workouts will be put behind the players as they enter this season. As Connelly admits, the lockout has "been good for business." Eventually, though, much of the day-to-day work will be picked up by the teams themselves and the grind of a long season will take its toll.
At that point, the glory moments will arrive and the taste of real games will get those competitive juices flowing. Goodbye, intimate setting of a locked-out NBA world. Hello, limelight. Hello, pressure. The players embrace this setting and they all know how important it is for their development, but there has to be some payoff, and that payoff, quite literally, has arrived.
At one point, Robinson tries to break up the monotony of the Wednesday workout. "Sixty-six is better than 82!" he shouts, perhaps implying that fewer NBA games means more of this type of stuff.
"Not if you lost money," he shouts back.
The extended preparation is over, and the players are more than ready to get back at it.