NBA coaches' new play: tending to health to cope with grind
OAKLAND, Calif. — Luke Walton began a wellness program for his Lakers coaching staff. Steve Kerr reached out to Steve Clifford after each spent significant time away from the sideline because of debilitating headaches and other symptoms.
Coaches around the league are taking preventive measures to help deal with the grind and stresses of a long NBA season.
That hasn't always been the case. Now, the NBA Coaches Association provides guidance to its members on everything from diet and exercise to sleep and mental health.
"Well, we're trying. We all are trying, we all are conscious of it," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "I don't think we're very good at it, honestly. I know I've tried. It's still very hard to accomplish. The game consumes us. It consumes me at least, and it should, if you love it. And it's just hard to turn off. It's important. We have to do it. We should have been doing it."
After a late arrival in Bay Area last month, it was after 10 p.m. when Rivers had the team tissue therapist work on his body, including knees and ankle — "and my brain." He has consulted a sleep doctor, too.
In Los Angeles, Walton is being proactive by encouraging every staff member to stay physically, mentally and emotionally healthy. The advice is to recharge when necessary, in whatever way is best.
"It's a priority," Lakers assistant Mark Madsen said. "It's important because think about all the late nights. We'll get into cities at 4 in the morning sometimes. You have to stay on top of it."
As a youngster, J.B. Bickerstaff knew there were a couple of hours in the afternoon on game days his father needed for himself. Bernie Bickerstaff took a power nap that allowed him to be fresh for a long night on the NBA bench.
J.B. Bickerstaff now does it the same exact way as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies.
The coaches' association is providing support and guidance like never before, and many coaches are making a point to openly discuss wellness strategies and share ideas.
There's also a close-knit support system within this crop of NBA coaches that Dallas' Rick Carlisle, the coaches' association president, considers special.
"We also have a unique group of head coaches right now, guys that are extremely competitive but have great respect for one another and provide a high level of support for each other," Carlisle said. "Guys who are going through tough times with health and even things like losing streaks. We've got a very high character group."
For example, Clifford so appreciated a call he got last season from Kerr, each having gone through his own challenging health ordeal that kept him from the bench for an extensive stretch.
Clifford, then coaching the Charlotte Hornets, missed more than five weeks dealing with agonizing headaches that after a battery of tests were deemed to be caused by sleep deprivation.
Kerr has endured some of the most high-profile absences.
He missed the initial 43 games of the 2015-16 season — including a record 24-0 start — dealing with painful and confounding symptoms following a pair of back surgeries.
Kerr was sidelined again for 11 games during the Warriors' 16-1 postseason in 2017 before returning to the bench for Game 2 of the NBA Finals the Warriors wound up winning in five games against LeBron James and Cleveland. Kerr had undergone a procedure to repair a spinal fluid leak on May 5, 2017, at Duke University but was not well enough to return until June 4.
He made it through last year's repeat run to a title.
"My advice to coaches who are coming into the league: Don't get back surgery," Kerr quipped. "That's my main advice. Sorry, bad joke. Luke Walton, when he took the Laker job, we talked a lot about that. He told me his whole staff is really on a conditioning program and a health-wellness program. I think it's really smart, something that every staff should try to do is just make sure you've got people looking after you and looking after each other."
Kerr practices regular yoga and can often be seen on the elliptical machine after practice in a corner of the gym, getting loose on a foam roller or stretching with the assistance of an athletic trainer.
Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts appreciates the points of emphasis and information provided by the coaches' association "whether it's diet or things to alleviate stress." He watches what he eats and works in exercise whenever he can, saying those two things are "the remedy for everybody."
"A lot of it is just common sense that everybody has to deal with to take care of yourself," Stotts said. "It's not just coaches, obviously, it's everybody, a lot of middle-aged men need to be doing the same, and some like me, beyond-middle-aged men. The fact that our lifestyle, if you give in to it, it can be a detriment, and everybody needs to be aware of it."
Clifford is in Orlando now, and he understands better than ever the importance of taking care of himself and monitoring his own health in a business where keeping your job depends largely on winning. He took significant steps to improve his sleep patterns and overall health, this after a previous heart scare as well.
The 57-year-old Clifford deeply appreciated Kerr's call.
"It was great," Clifford said. "He was one of the guys who reached out and obviously we had the health issue in common. It was a terrific gesture."
Last season, former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue dealt with anxiety and needed a mental and physical break.
"Wellness isn't just physical. It's mental as well," Portland guard Damian Lillard said. "I think the position we're in as professional athletes and with coaches in the social media age, it's a little more difficult. That takes it to a much higher level from physical and mental ... when you've got people talking about you all the time, on Twitter bashing you. People just have so much more access to you. It becomes a more stressful job, much more pressure on your job and so many more eyes."
Coaches are also realizing they can't always do it alone, relying on experts to stay healthy.
Golden State hired Rick Celebrini this past offseason as director of sports medicine and performance.
"If you can find some help, somebody to give you a little guidance," Kerr said, "like we have here with Rick and Drew Yoder, I think it's a big help."
The coaches' association sends a regular newsletter with guidance from nutrition consultant Stacy Goldberg, who also is always available for 1-on-1 conversations. She attends coach association meetings, too, offering healthy food and snack choices.
"Often, coaches are so focused on taking care of the players that they are not always focused on taking care of themselves," said Goldberg, founder and CEO of Savorfull. "This is especially true when it comes to their nutrition."
Added Carlisle: "We view this as important as anything else we do with the NBA coaches association."