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Big Tough Men Doing Funny Stretchy Exercises

I happen to be a big believer that all athletes should to yoga, Pilates, or something similar. All you have to do is interview a few players who are really into it, hear what they get out of it, and then it quickly becomes a mystery why everyone doesn't do it. Preventing injuries, improving balance, prolonging careers--it has a lot of benefits!

But don't take my word for it. Michael Jordan did it for crying out loud. (I think the only reason every professional athlete doesn't do it is because they are too macho. Which is dumb, because this is really just stretching 2.0. It's better.)

In any case, it brings up a very funny little story.

Today, Neal Pollack (fine writer, Phoenix Sun fan, and friend of TrueHoop) has published a piece at Slate.com about how lazy reporters keep trying to pretend that it is big news that athletes do yoga, Pilates, karate, dance, etc. Pollack documents that these things have been reported a million times and are not news anymore, but keep coming out again and again as allegedly new trends. Pollacks's trying to put a stop to the whole shenanigan.

As a service for beleaguered sportswriting hacks everywhere, I've developed a wacky workout template for the next time training-camp news gets thin. Lead with some first-person skepticism: "Ohio State's Maurice Hall expected to encounter a little ribbing when he tried to sell his teammates on the value of yoga." After explaining the regimen "[t]he exercises, all with numerous rules and variations, are done on a mat, an oversized ball and a spring-loaded machine called a reformer" throw in a quote from a coach who uses the word "flexibility" a lot. "There's a lot of flexibility involved in [karate], so I thought it would probably help some of our guys that need additional flexibility," said then-LSU coach Nick Saban in 2004. End with a measure of hard-won acceptance and respect. "[Yoga is] something I used to think was a little foo-foo back in the day," said Redskins quarterback Tony Banks in 2001, "but I've heard some good things about it."

Here's where the irony kicks in: I have written just such a story. In 2002, Men's Journal published my big expose on Jason Kidd doing Pilates. The best thing about the story was that at one point I found myself in the Kidd family basement, alone with their son TJ, who was about four at the time. I was going over some interview notes while the photographers were doing something very technical and time-consuming upstairs with my interview subject.

TJ insisted we play pop-a-shot.

I stopped working and went over to the machine. TJ insisted that I shag balls for him. (He could reach them easily, but preferred to have them handed to him.) I love pop-a-shot, but I was on duty and behind schedule. He wouldn't hear any of it. We took turns until I finally had the idea to let TJ win. That did the trick. Then he told me to help him go upstairs where he announced that he had beaten me soundly. We all had Clearly Canadian from one of the two enormous fridges in the kitchen and laughed about the dumb reporter who got beat at pop-a-shot by a little kid.

Anyway, I digress. For the hell of it, here's a draft of my Jason Kidd Pilates story that originally appeared in Men's Journal in 2002. (Full disclosure: this is not the version that was ultimately published. I like this earlier one better.)Jason Kidd's Favorite Workout
The NBA's Best Point Guard Wishes He'd Started Pilates Years Ago
by Henry Abbott

She had a great body. So great, in fact, that when NBA All-Star Jason Kidd's wife saw her at a party, she just had to know how she got it.

The secret, the woman said, was Pilates. Before long Joumana Kidd was taking one-on-one classes from her instructor, Susan Whitlow.
Joumana loved Pilates, and told Jason repeatedly to try it. He put her off for a few years. When he relented early in the summer of 2001, "my first thought," he confesses, "was that it couldn't be that hard."

His first session with Whitlow turned out to be "a real eye opener," he recalls. He kept at it, and noticed amazing things happening to his NBA-abused body. In addition to getting stronger and more flexible, he says he felt "ready to go tackle the challenges you're faced with. It's almost like coffee or something. It gives you a little kick."

"The more I got into it and the more I understood it, the better off I felt," says Kidd. "And then the thing was, I just wanted to keep doing it." Before long, Jason was stealing Joumana's appointments. Whitlow says "he learned quickly and his shape changed. He loosened everything up, he resculpted his center, and he did really well."

At the core of Pilates is the core of the body. German sports enthusiast Joseph Pilates developed the program early in the early 20th century, with the revolutionary idea that stretching and strengthening the trunk inspires tremendous health. In his book Return to Life, Pilates writes that in many ways, our bodies evolved to cope with the outdoor rigors of the Stone Age and are ill-equipped for "the daily strains and stresses" of modern living. His hundreds of exercises are designed to bridge the evolutionary gap.

He put his theories to work when the English interred him as an "enemy alien" during World War I. In the lock-up, he refined his ideas about the human body and jerry-rigged the forerunners of today's Pilates equipment out of bedsprings and other found materials. When a 1918 influenza epidemic ravaged the camp, not one inmate following his exercise regimen died. With renewed conviction, he arrived in New York in 1923 ready to teach the world the key to healthy modern living.

The metal-framed, spring-loaded equipment he designed drips with wrist and ankle cuffs. In photos, his original studio looks like a cross between an S&M dungeon and a dancehall. Nevertheless, dancers (a handful of whom are now his last living disciples) flocked there to learn the technique Joe called "Contrology." Word has been spreading ever since, with a boost in recent years from a posse of stars from Danny Glover to Madonna becoming devotees.

In books and videos, some Pilates positions might look like exercises you've done before. But everything feels different when a good Pilates instructor gets involved. "You do have to have a teacher," says Kidd. Without one, he says, you just "wouldn't understand and you wouldn't see the results."

That's music to the ears of Pilates instructors, who typically charge $40-$100 per hour, but it's not unfounded. After attempting a book-based workout, I learned quickly that professional help is pretty much essential, at least at the beginning. In the classes I took, at Physalchemy in Pennsylvania and Tribeca Bodyworks in New York City, the instructors' moment-to-moment corrections like "pull your stomach in" and "relax your shoulders" turned my flopping around on the floor into a deeply satisfying, and incredibly precise, workout.

After just two sessions, I've started sitting so tall in the car that the roof blocks my view of traffic lights. What's more, the classes gave me the confidence to attempt Pilates on the living room floor again, where Alycea Ungaro's CD-based mat workout made clear why Pilates called his regimen "Contrology."

Imagine this: you are lying on your left side after completing exercises that involve holding your right leg just a few inches in the air for what seems like an eternity. "Stay right where you are," Ungaro chirps cheerily, unwilling to let you put your leg down even though certain critical parts of your powerhouse are screaming.
"I want you to draw eight fast, tiny circles in air with your toe," she continues. Sheer brut force or flailing to recruit the wrong muscles can't help you here. Only precise mastery, or "contrology," of the proper muscles will get you tidy little circles at this stage.

Kidd finds that kind of precision strength (often from muscles he had never even focused on before) has been doing wonders for his game. In addition to the obvious benefits of stretching and strengthening everything, Pilates, he says, has made him "focus on the part of the body that you're working, and that has translated into the mental part of my game becoming stronger."

A few months into his Pilates workouts, Jason convinced Whitlow to customize a monster three-hour workout (much longer than Pilates himself advocated, but Kidd says he loves to "push the envelope") which he was doing regularly last summer. Then, thanks to regular sessions on the Pilates machines in his basement and at the team's practice facility, he has revamped his entire conditioning program. "I don't lift the big heavy 300-pound bench and all that anymore," he says. "I just try and keep a fine line of a little iron and a lot of the Pilates machine," in addition to the exercise he gets on the court.

Thanks to the fact that Kidd found Pilates at about the same time as team Strength and Conditioning Coach Rich Dalatri, the Nets last season became the first NBA team to embrace Pilates. Several of the players now have the equipment at home, which may have contributed to the Nets' staying almost injury-free last season. In fact, they shattered expectations by making the NBA finals. Kidd finished a close second in league-wide MVP voting, and thinks Pilates deserves some credit. That's why he says it's a good bet that in the injury-riddled NBA, "Pilates is not going to be a secret for long."