John Wall: 'I really thought I was gonna die'

JOHN WALL LOOKS down to discover that the nice, safe carpeted floor beneath him has disappeared. Impossibly, he is suddenly swaying on a wooden plank, the width of a diving board, 30 feet above a rusty pit. His heart races. Just the slightest wobble could be fatal.

Safety is merely 8 feet in front of him, a distance the stressed Wall chooses to cover on tiptoes. He's about halfway there when someone nearby gives him an instruction: "Turn and step off the plank." Wall shakes his head. He won't do it.

After telling himself over and over that this can't possibly be real, he finally turns to his right, steps off the plank and plunges into the abyss below.

Then Wall peels the black virtual reality headset off of his face, relieved to rejoin the safety of the physical world as we know it.

Welcome to the bleeding edge of the NBA's 30-team wrestling match to find a competitive edge, where a hot new frontier is the use of virtual reality to get into the heads of NBA players as never before.

A Stanford study found that sawing down a virtual tree can cause people to use 20 percent less paper in real life. Another study found that football players improved decision-making by as much as 30 percent and sliced almost a full second off their decision time after they used virtual reality to simulate defensive coverages.

Can it apply to basketball? The Wizards intend to be at the forefront of finding out.

"I really thought I was gonna die," says Wall, who was coaxed into trying virtual reality largely after hearing that Tony Romo, of Wall's beloved Dallas Cowboys, is a fan. "This, is going to be great for the NBA."

STANDING IN BURNT-GREEN khakis and a gray half-zip sweater just outside the Washington Wizards' locker room, majority owner Ted Leonsis shakes the hand of 76-year-old former coach and player Kevin Loughery, dressed in a pressed navy suit for Bullets Night at the Verizon Center, a salute to the team's past. Leonsis can't stop talking about the future, specifically the virtual reality company he invested in two years ago, STRIVR, which originated in the halls of Stanford University with a bent toward the sports world.

"We should get him in virtual reality," Leonsis jokes of the white-haired Loughery, who seems to have only a vague understanding of what the heck Leonsis is talking about.

Loughery offers a conciliatory chuckle and, before long, heads for his seat. Leonsis presses on, explaining that his Wizards may have won just two of their first 10 games, but they won't lose this race: "It obviously hasn't shown in our record, but we want to be on the ground floor of this."

Leonsis brings up the Socratic method and other traditional avenues of idea creation and cognitive learning. He explains that virtual reality is just another tool to deposit information into the brain.

Wall can tell you: The difference with VR is that it is immersive. Coaches will tell you it's like pulling teeth to keep the attention of a roster for an entire film session. What if they could go over plays, study shooting drills and hammer out defensive rotations without players' thoughts wandering to Instagram feeds?

An early benefit has come from players noticing things they used to miss on laptops -- especially hitches in their shot mechanics.

"I really saw a difference in my jump shot and free throws," says 20-year-old wing Kelly Oubre, who grew up playing "Call of Duty" and is used to wearing a headset. "I could see my mechanics, what I needed to do right." Oubre's true shooting percentage is up this year, from 50.7 to 53.4.

ACCEPTANCE, OF COURSE, is the challenge. Deploying virtual reality means developing new habits, and in that department the Wizards are at something of a disadvantage. The NFL's Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots have VR labs built into their facilities. The Wizards, meanwhile, have just one headset to share, and it's not for everyone.

"It can really screw your mind up. I started bending down, trying not to fall and stuff. I was in the room, trying to figure out, like, 'What is going on?'"
Marcin Gortat

When Marcin Gortat -- a 32-year-old 7-footer with a giant goblin tattoo on his left arm -- tried what's commonly referred to as "the plank," he went into a panic, getting on all fours to grab the board.

"It can really screw your mind up," Gortat says. "I started bending down, trying not to fall and stuff. I was in the room, trying to figure out, like, 'What is going on?'"

Gortat is still trying to decide whether he hates virtual reality or loves it.

"Oh man, it's amazing," Gortat says. "I think it can be successful, but for me, as a 10-year veteran, it's not going to change anything right now. It's the new tool of the century."

Wall isn't one of the team's heavy users, but he sees the benefit. "Oh, it's helpful now," Wall says. "I could see a lot of NBA teams starting to use it. I think it's helping so many different ways -- ballhandling, shooting, moving."

WIZARDS HEAD COACH Scott Brooks is a big believer in the power of visualization and VR. Brooks says he stood 4-foot-11 when he joined the East Union High School basketball team in Manteca, California. Not ideal for someone who had NBA dreams. Though he grew a foot by the time he graduated from high school, Brooks never topped the 6-foot mark.

Still, he could shoot with the best of 'em. By his senior year at UC-Irvine, Brooks shot 42 percent from beyond the arc and 85 percent from the charity stripe. Brooks owes much of his shooting success to a homework assignment given to him by Bill Stricker, his high school coach.

The task? Train his brain every night before bed. Don't count sheep. Count swishes.

"Visualizing is so huge," Brooks says. "My high school coach taught me that a long time ago. I used to visualize making free throws every night."

At first, young Scott was skeptical of the concept of mental imagery. Really, this was going to be the trick? But then the coach told him a story, a tale that Brooks loves to retell to this day.

It's about a prisoner of war in Vietnam who was locked in solitary confinement for years. To pass the time, he came up with the idea of playing a round of golf every day in his mind. He had never swung a golf club in his life, but he knew it was something that could keep his mind busy for four or five hours at a time. One day, he got rescued and decided to go play his first real round of golf.

"And he shot 2 over," Brooks says.


"Yes," Brooks says, with his eyes stretching from ear to ear. "My high school coach told me this 30 years ago, and I've heard that story so many times."

A quick internet search reveals that the tale first appeared in a book in 1975 and later popped up in "A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul." It's one of the most retold inspirational stories out there.

The only thing? Alas, in virtual reality, it's hard to know what's real. After a long dig into the story's origins, Snopes.com concludes the following about a man coincidentally named James Nesmeth (not James Naismith):

"Although many current versions of this legend identify one 'Major James Nesmeth' as the Vietnam POW whose playing golf in his mind translated to his becoming a far improved linkster once he was back home, we have been unable to verify that anyone of that name served in Vietnam, was held as a POW, was released from captivity, or achieved notable results on the links after returning to the U.S."

Brooks went on to play 10 years in the NBA, and he currently ranks top-100 in career free throw percentage, making 85 percent (564-of-664) in the pros. In this case, maybe visualizing the truth is more important than the actual truth.

THE COACHING STAFF of the Wizards works with the team's analytics gurus, Brett Greenberg and Ben Eidelberg, to figure out the most impactful experiences that can help players improve their games.

They have been focusing most of their attention on Ian Mahinmi, who has been wearing the headset so much he's worried he might short-circuit it.

"I don't want to sweat all over it!" he shouts, holding the VR headset in the air inside the Wizards' practice gym.

Mahinmi was the poster boy of last summer's free-agency bonanza before Miami's modestly toothed reserve, Tyler Johnson, stole that label. After eight seasons in the NBA, and only one as a full-time starter, Mahinmi received a four-year, $64 million contract from Washington to fill a bench role. Combine Mahinmi's age (he just turned 30) with the fact that he's fresh off of a monster deal, it doesn't seem that he would be the most likely candidate to be a VR guinea pig.

It turns out that a knee injury and a free throw affliction made him a perfect test case. Mahinmi's career free throw percentage is just under 60 percent, including a recent season in which he shot just 30.4 percent.

"It's more like building muscle memory, but for your brain. Kind of like, OK, if you see it, your brain is going to register it. And then, when you shoot live, you're going to think about it and see yourself shooting and making. You know you can do it."
Ian Mahinmi

Two weeks ahead of the 2016-17 season, Mahinmi underwent surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus in his left knee.

Over the next several weeks, the Wizards put together a rehab program with two key objectives: minimize excessive time on his feet and, secondly, get him to work on his free throws so they can remove him from the Hack-a-Shaq list.

To build up his confidence as a shooter, the Wizards used a 360-degree camera to film him making free throws. Then they played the makes on repeat so he could watch himself making free throws over and over in the first-person perspective. Before his daily shooting drills, he put on the VR headset and underwent a session to prime his brain with success -- his own success. Seeing is believing.

"It's more like building muscle memory, but for your brain," Mahinmi says. "Kind of like, OK, if you see it, your brain is going to register it. And then, when you shoot live, you're going to think about it and see yourself shooting and making. You know you can do it."

Hours after finishing his morning workout, Mahinmi is back on the floor, this time on the game court just before tipoff. As rainbow-clad analyst Walt Frazier does a pregame MSG hit a few feet away, Mahinmi walks to the basket stanchion and puts on the headset so he can watch himself make free throws. Next to Mahinmi stands Eidelberg, who is watching Mahinmi's perspective on a MacBook Pro. That way, Eidelberg and Wizards assistant coach David Adkins can see exactly what Mahinmi is focusing on. It's at this moment that a handful of nearby fans take out their phones to snap a photo of this bizarre scene.

"What are you seeing, Ian?" shouts Adkins. "See your hands? Keep them up. Keep the follow-through up."

Mahinmi is talking his way through it. Make after make. After eight minutes in VR, Mahinmi takes off the goggles and walks to the free throw line. He starts shooting free throws. Swish.

Adkins walks over with a grin and relays Mahinmi's success rate.

Sixty-five out of 70.

"There's a bunch of stuff I didn't realize I was doing," Mahinmi says. "My hands, sometimes after I make a few of them, they drop. My body is shifting sometimes. There's a bunch of stuff that I notice now that I didn't before."

After a series of light jumpers, Adkins tells Mahinmi that he's good, the workout is done. Time for regular treatment on his real knee.

LIKE MANY HYPED tech revolutions, the VR bonanza hasn't taken off yet. While the short term has seen intriguing signs in beleaguered Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond (sporting a career-high 43.8 percent from the free throw line this season after incorporating virtual reality into his training), the long term is riddled with potential.

Consider that STRIVR is developing a "hangover experience" to demonstrate to NBA players what it's like to play basketball with slower reaction times as a result of a long night of drinking and a lack of sleep. There is talk of creating experiences that allow injured players to feel as if they're on the court while their teammates sweat out road games.

What is the value of helping people feel closer together and more empathetic? Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, created "the plank" and other scenarios not just for basketball players but for all people. He's a co-founder of STRIVR and works with companies such as Google, Facebook and Samsung. He says the most interesting development in VR may be diversity training to reduce bias.

The "Walk a Mile in Digital Shoes experience" is one in which the subjects see an avatar version of themselves in a virtual mirror, and then the avatar changes between races, ages and genders to feel what it's like to be the target of racist, sexist or ageist remarks. Consider an older white male who swaps bodies with a young African-American man. (Roger Goodell tried out the empathy training at Stanford last summer).

Bailenson says that within four minutes of being in someone else's avatar, the brain undergoes a "body transfer" in which it fully believes it is that person. Once racial discrimination is inflicted to your avatar, you feel that it's happening to you. Studies show that the empathy felt in that experience can last long after you take the goggles off.

"This is what virtual reality is all about," Bailenson says. "Changing human behavior for the better."