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Back Home from Training Like a Pro

The last morning, they promised, would be tough.

And it was, especially coming after the previous three days.

After an hour or so of weights and agility, then the kind of loosening up that leaves the floor drenched with sweat, and then some other taxing drills.

Then I was directed to an eight-foot hoop, where we got to dunking.

We worked on a whole series of different moves: Run to the free throw line, catch the ball, pivot, fake, power dribble into hop step, violent fake, and then a vicious hook dunk. (In this gym, things are practiced in the context you are likely to use them. Lots of fakes and movements mixed in with the other skill stuff.) Many such combinations, again and again. Fun!

Then we got to the real stuff. Dunk twenty times in a row, instructs David Thorpe. He has lots of particulars about how you do this. For one thing, so as to not hurt your lower back, you want to put the force into the dunk with your arms, while jumping more or less straight up and down. No using your core to put force into the rim.

But you are to dunk viciously. And you don't get to rest, or even really land, between dunks.

Just dunk it, grab it, and dunk again. If you can't get the ball again immediately, you jump in place as you collect it. So you end up with more like forty jumps in a row.

I felt great! Who doesn't love dunking!

Then after brief rest, we repeat the whole thing, this time doing fifteen dunks. Still feeling good. Please sir, can I dunk some more!

Well, yes I can. Seeing my elbow near the rim on the eight-foot hoop, they moved us to the ten-foot hoop. My partner on this one was agent Jason Levien. He played in college, and has tons of skill I don't, but he hasn't been exercising as much as he'd like, and wasn't feeling so spry. He had been a model of enthusiam throughout this drill. Screaming for my successes and his own. Fired us both up, and made a difference. You should have seen the look on Levien's face, though, when they asked us to trade baskets with part-men, part-machines Chris Ballard and Ryen Russillo who were at a nine-foot hoop.

Ten dunks on there.

I am proud that I got maybe three or four actually dunked. I'm screaming.

Then another final set, of three. I missed them all, and didn't care. With legs that had been going that hard for that many days, this is great.

Then we did a drill where you stand more or less where you would stand if your teammate was shooting a free throw, and you were lining up to rebound, second from the baseline, along the side of the key. You pass the ball from there off the middle of the backboard. Of course, it's headed to the opposite side of the lane, right?

Well, you better go get it. You have to run, and then jump to get it so that you land outside the paint on the other side. Do that twenty times without stopping.

(I'll wait, if you want to try doing that now.)

This, by the way, is an awesome drill that is teaching your mind to seek rebounds that are out of your area. You ever run all the way across the lane to get a rebound? Most people only really fight for boards that come to the area where they are boxing out. But there are balls out there to be had, if you run and get them. Thorpe teaches that point hard, and people like Udonis Haslem have profited nicely from it. A lot of what Thorpe teaches is seeing opportunities where you might not have seen them before.

Then, if I recall correctly, we lined up to work on defense. Some very cool points were taught about how to shuffle sideways faster. And we practiced it. Back and forth across the lane, as fast as you can.

When we finished that, was the first time I felt a little dizzy.

After a week of fourteen-hour days, we were ten or twenty minutes from done. I hadn't missed anything. No moments of not going softer than I could, no sitting things out. Hoopsworld's Steven Kyler had started calling me Mad Dog, and I wanted my Boy Scout merit badge, dammit. I am a finisher.

As Coach Mike Moreau explained the next drill, I breathed carefully and got by head back in gear, the dizziness now gone.

Now we were sliding some more, this time not quite as far. Boom, OK, good to go, got it.

And at the end, dizzy again. More breathing.

Then we did some really cool drills which teach you how to punish opponents for driving baseline, a big no-no at the Pro Training Center. ("The baseline," says Thorpe, "is death. Attack the middle.")

When people drive baseline on the other side of the court, they are likely to want to pass to the opposite side. If you're over there playing defense, there are some clever ways you can anticipate where the ball is going to go. Then you can pick that pass off. We practiced it. When you pick the ball off, though, you then get to enjoy the fruits of your labor by flying to the far basket for an uncontested layup.

More running. More practicing. Four or five times. A little dizzy each time.

Then there was some work moving around chairs, pretending to be Richard Hamilton, Kevin Martin, or Reggie Miller, being agile, crafty, and quick dancing and cutting and getting free.

Then there some drills where you hit the pick, and then curl or flair and hit a jumper.

Each bit of sudden movement made me a little dizzy. Each bit of rest and slow steady breathing kept it bay.

Breathing is great.

There was water a few yards away, but water is really for breaks.

And when this was over, the whole week's instruction was over. Some people had already left.

Eventually, we circled up and called it a day. There was talk of scrimmaging, for fun. I don't think I have ever turned down an opportunity to play basketball. Hats off to those who played. But I was done. I told Thorpe I was a little dizzy, needed some water.

He looked at me, cocked an eye, and said "I'm worried about you, Henry."

I walked over to where Corey Stenstrup (the guy who got us to get in that tub of ice) keeps a massive treasure trove of recovery shakes and the like. He is a young man, but he is wise in the ways of the body. For instance, when I exercise, I often end up with slightly sore knees. Not this week. All that pounding, and my knees feel great. Corey knows. He talked to me for twenty minutes or so, while loading me down with many thousands of carefully crafted calories in various fluids. I was due to hop in a car to drive an hour to the airport, so he gave me more for the road.

Then I did some hasty blogging with bad syntax. My body was feeling fine, but my brain was ragged. ("Many thanks to Coach Anthony Macri," I wrote, "who shot just about all of the video from this trip that I am in." It's a hard sentence to read, and it's not even totally true. When you see me getting in the ice tub, that's David Thorpe manning the camera.)

After a quick shower and stretch, I was on my way, icing my knees as I drove.

Only towards the end of the flight home to New Jersey did I start to feel mentally sharp again. (I might be the only person who actually got smarter watching "Get Smart.")

So, as you can imagine, today was my first real chance to actually gain some perspective on what I had experienced.

I am absolutely certain that what I learned will be informing how I watch and play basketball forever. I'll be writing about this week for years to come. (Especially as I really hope to keep going to something like this for years to come.)

And there is more video on the way. But, for what it's worth, here are some vivid memories:

  • Coach Mike Moreau has a certain way of hitting his hands together and saying "BAM" in a way that will wake up the kids. It's violence. BAM. Like a punch in the face. Basketball players need many different speeds, and mixing them is the key. But when the top speed is called for, this is wha
    t it's like. This is how you come off the pick. This is how you attack the rim. That's going to be in my head for a long time. And it's not like Emeril adding salt to his turkey kebabs. It's more like a turkey getting hit by a truck.

  • Stretching yourself like a professional is good. Getting stretched by a professional is far better.

  • Everything in this program runs on time. You just don't show up late. And you don't bounce the ball while one of the coaches is talking. And, knowing Thorpe, I'd advise you come in clean clothes and freshly shaved too. He's old school like that.

  • The current state of my shooting stroke, per David Thorpe, as I make my way from a lifetime of messed up form: "All jacked up."

  • OK, you're standing still with the ball and want to take an explosive step to the hoop leading with your right leg. That means you're powering off the left. Now, just before you take that power step, do you shuffle your left foot backwards just a little? A lot of people -- even some bloggers -- do. If your goal is to beat your defender somewhere (and that is your goal) then does stepping backwards make any sense? Have a friend put his foot behind your foot as you do this move, and see if you kick him. (Sorry I kicked you, Coach Macri.) Learn to stop doing that, and you'll be to the rim quicker.

  • Or, here's another one: If you are on the wing, and cut backdoor to get a pass at the rim, but instead cut back to where you started ... where do you want that ball? You want it on the wing, right? I mean, almost nobody makes the same backdoor cut twice in a row. That means that if you're defending that backdoor faker, you can anticipate and pick off the pass to the wing.

  • If there was one part of the week that really did not work, it was when they showed us inspirational video of us, interspliced with video of Michael Jordan and the like. If you are Kevin Martin, and see the highlights of your workout next to highlights of Jordan, I imagine it makes you feel like Jordan, you know? But if you are a six-foot nothing, exhausted white writer dork, on video short-arming a layup you'd normally hit, the last thing you want is to have Michael-freaking Jordan in the next clip, you know?

  • I ate five meals a day, drank as much liquid as I could find time to drink, and lost seven pounds from Monday to Thursday. I also feel great today. No blisters. No injuries. No nagging anything. This is well-designed training.

  • Mike Moreau and David Thorpe watched Chris Ballard's shooting stroke and identified that it was from the midwest. Turns out Chris is from California. But his dad, who was part of his learning process, is from Indiana.