“Too fast! Too fast!” Holsopple hollered, words that have rarely, if ever, been directed at the sweet-shooting, slow-footed 7-foot future Hall of Famer.
The Mavs are preparing Nowitzki for a marathon in his 18th NBA season, not a sprint. Every step, every rep and even every bite Nowitzki takes is meticulously planned by Holsopple, the Mavs’ technologically savvy athletic performance director, and head athletic trainer Casey Smith.
Nowitzki, with more than 50,000 NBA minutes on his odometer plus many more playing for the German national team, is like a basketball version of a vintage BMW. He’s still a high-performance machine, but he needs a heck of a lot of maintenance.
“He’s a lot of work,” Smith said with a laugh. “But we always tell him he’s worth it, so it’s OK.”
The mission for Holsopple and Smith is maximizing Nowitzki’s chances of meeting his high-performance standards while minimizing the pounding on his 37-year-old body. It’s a blend of injury prevention and performance programming. With the blessing and budget of billionaire owner Mark Cuban, Holsopple and Smith have gone to great lengths to search for methods to help Nowitzki work smarter, not harder.
Nowitzki needs his mileage carefully monitored, which is why Smith and Holsopple opted to keep him out of contact drills for the first week of camp and sit him for the majority of the preseason after Nowitzki played for Germany in the Eurobasket tournament. Coach Rick Carlisle, who hopes to trim Nowitzki’s minutes to about 26 per game this season, trusts Smith and Holsopple to determine the workload for the face of Dallas’ franchise.
Nowitzki trusts them as well. He says he “felt the best I’ve felt in years” at the beginning of last season before a mysterious stomach ailment in December sapped his strength and screwed up his conditioning, causing what he refers to as “a hole” that took a few months to dig out of. Nevertheless, the strong start made Nowitzki confident that they’re on the right path with his routine, which has been enhanced this season.
The Mavs’ body mechanics — who also have their hands full with the recoveries of Wesley Matthews (torn Achilles tendon), Chandler Parsons (hybrid microfracture knee surgery), JaVale McGee (surgery to repair stress fractures in his leg) and Deron Williams (various medical issues, including two ankles that have been surgically repaired) — use a wide variety of tools, from traditional strength and conditioning exercises to biomechanics, GPS monitoring and even experimenting with electrical stimulation.
“I’ll try anything at this point and see if it works.”
“I think we’re trying to find a good mix where I don’t overwork but I don’t get out of shape,” Nowitzki said. “I’ll try anything at this point and see if it works.”
That wasn’t necessarily the case when Nowitzki was in his prime. He’s always had an extraordinary work ethic but didn’t touch weights in his 20s, strictly adhering to the lengthy, unconventional conditioning routines concocted by his longtime mentor Holger Geschwindner. But a lot of the lunges and jumps featured in those workouts would be counterproductive for ankles, knees and hips that are fighting Father Time.
At this point in Nowitzki’s career, Geschwindner is still a trusted shooting coach but merely consults with Holsopple and Smith about the conditioning regimen.
“He makes it very clear what he wants at all times,” said Holsopple, whose offseason travel included a weeklong trip to Germany to make sure Nowitzki and Geschwindner were comfortable with the prescribed offseason conditioning routine as well as a research trip to Australia.
“I have a great relationship with Holger, but he’s very clear on what he thinks and what he wants and what he sees, so working with him is always fun.”
Nowitzki’s conditioning routine isn’t always fun, especially when he’s working out by himself in the offseason, typically focusing on strength and fitness for 90 minutes or more before Geschwindner joins him in the gym for shooting drills. It’s better when Nowitzki is in Dallas and can pass the time by talking trash to teammates and staffers, but the preparation for a comparatively old man to compete against freakishly athletic power forwards still features a lot of pain and monotony.
Take, for example, the electric stimulator that Holsopple has recently introduced to Nowitzki. It looks like some sort of strange scene from a sci-fi movie, with large adhesive patches connected to wires covering entire muscles on Nowitzki’s legs.
“Every 20 seconds they contract really, really hard for like three or four seconds. You’re like, ‘Ahhhhhhhh!'” Nowitzki said, sticking his arms out and shaking his whole body.
“It feels like you’re getting the worst cramp possible,” Holsopple said, and once Nowitzki gets used to that level of pain, it’s time to crank it up another notch.
The method to that madness is firing up Nowitzki’s fast-twitch muscles without putting any stress on the joints that have deteriorated during his career.
“People say he’s lost a step and he needs to do explosive things,” said Holsopple, who Cuban hired two years ago because he wanted to replace a traditional strength coach with someone who was on the cutting edge of the industry’s technological advances. “Well, it’s hard to do explosive things on an ankle that has zero degrees of dorsal flexion or two of them that have zero degrees of dorsal flexion or a knee or hip that has some arthritic changes. So it’s finding novel ways to try to get him to work without the pounding.”
Those ankles, knees and hips get checked out on a regular basis during daily tuneups soon after Nowitzki arrives at the facility. Those morning stretching sessions with Smith serve as evaluations of Nowitzki’s range of motion, an essential element in mapping out his workload for the day.
Smith can tell a lot from feel. The feedback from Nowitzki, who is detail-oriented about his fitness nearly to the point of paranoia, also helps.
“One good thing about Dirk — some guys are like really, really in tune,” said Smith, who has become one of Nowitzki’s best friends since joining the Mavs staff in 2004. “He knows when something feels a little different and he can kind of tell whether it’s the muscle or if it’s the joint. He’s pretty in tune with that, so that kind of feedback from him helps us a lot kind of guide where we’re going.”
Nowitzki typically works in the weight room before each practice. Some of that work is strength maintenance; some focuses on flexibility and mobility; some emphasizes explosiveness; and some is therapeutic, designed to help keep his joints in the proper alignment.
Nowitzki has also started getting 20- to 30-minute massages before many practices. That’s a page out of the playbook of former teammate Jason Kidd, who would get hour-plus massages before each game, a factor that helped him start at point guard for a title team at Nowitzki’s age.
“Every time I would walk by — I was fairly young then, 32 or whatever — I’d be laughing at him,” said Nowitzki, who is considering making massages part of his game-day routine. “He’d say, ‘Hey, just wait a couple years. They’re going to do all that stuff with you.’ I do some of the same stuff he was doing then, and he’s probably sitting in Milwaukee and laughing now.”
As is the case for all the Mavericks, every movement Nowitzki makes in practice is monitored and tracked by a small GPS device he wears between his shoulder blades. (The GPS systems are products of Catapult Sports, an Australia-based company in which Cuban is a major investor.) Holsopple and Smith use the real-time information about the intensity and volume of Nowitzki’s workload to make decisions on his post-practice conditioning, recovery program and routine for the next day.
“I think it’s smart,” Nowitzki said. “As we all know, I like to work hard, I like to push myself. You have this tool. ‘OK, today’s a practice day. You subbed out a bunch in practice and didn’t really get all the work we need.’ So then I get on the line and run a few sprints or a couple up-and-downs. So I think it’s going to help me to find a good mix of not overworking but just doing enough where I can still stay fresh and stay good.”
After finishing his post-practice conditioning, which usually includes more time in the weight room, Nowitzki will go through a strenuous stretching routine and a recovery program that consists of a combination of ice, cold tub and compression boots. He’ll then shower and eat before going home.
There’s a running joke among Nowitzki’s inner circle that he’ll often ask, “Casey, am I still hungry?” That’s how involved Smith has been with the specifics of the Dirk diet over the years.
“I really appreciate the fact that he’s married now and has a family,” Smith said, smiling. “[Nowitzki’s wife] Jessica’s had to take some of that.”
The process of preparing Nowitzki to keep playing in the NBA is a year-round, around-the-clock, around-the-globe ordeal. And it’s a labor of love for the two Mavs employees in charge of it.
“We’re doing whatever it takes to try to keep him at a level that he can be happy with and try to finish his last few years with,” Holsopple said. “You enjoy the person so much that you want to help him go out on the highest note possible.”