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hen the Knicks finally open the season on Friday, it will have been 271 days since their last official NBA game last spring's Game 5 loss to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. If their preseason contests against the Nets are any indication, the layoff has left them far from game shape. The Knicks looked tired and out of sync last week, with Ewing appearing particularly sluggish and hauling around what seemed to be 15 extra pounds. (Aren't you supposed to sweat in negotiations?)
"You have all ranges of being in shape here," coach Jeff Van Gundy told reporters at the Knicks upstate practice facility a couple weeks back. "The best way to put it is that they're in shape enough to start getting in shape." Which means what, exactly?
"Everybody can stand to do more conditioning," says Greg Brittenham, assistant coach of strength and development for the Knicks. "Some did more work than others in the off-season, but they all came back with a modicum of conditioning. Even at the low end, people are fit enough to get ready for game situations. And there are some guys that take real pride in their conditioning, so some of them are looking pretty good."
"But you can only train them so fast," says Dr. Michael Lowe of The American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, who has worked with the Utah Jazz for more than 20 years. "Hopefully, they have all been working out. But if they've been hanging out in the Bahamas, waiting for the lockout to end, they'll have bone-density loss, muscle loss, and tighter hamstrings. That'll take about four to six weeks to get back. You can't rush it. If you try to do too much in this short period of time, it won't be effective. You'll just end up damaging the players."
A player with bone-density loss is more prone to stress fractures. With a good diet (calcium), some jogging, and some rebounding drills, weak bones can be built back up. But only in time. Because training camps will only last three weeks, all teams will likely need to extend their conditioning programs into the regular season.
"Everybody wishes we had a couple more weeks to get in shape," says Brittenham. "But there's nothing different about the training camp than in a normal preseason. You don't want to overstress the players' bodies. We just go to the limit, before anything can overstress." It's a matter of getting the players from being merely in shape to being in NBA shape.
"There are many ways to measure that difference," says Dr. Lowe. "The resting heart rate of a pro basketball player should be about 36 beats per minute. Your average healthy Joe will be at about 72 beats per minute. And body fat is another important indicator. The players should be at about 9 percent body fat. For everyone else 18 to 20 percent is considered healthy." Many players are given bonuses for keeping their body fat at a certain level. "It's a good incentive for them to keep their weight down," says Dr. Lowe.
For the Knicks, Brittenham runs mostly plyometric exercises, otherwise known as power training. "It's about not only strengthening bodies, but strengthening their agility. So we work on things with rapid changes in direction, having the players run over barriers and passing medicine balls."
The Knicks also run through a lot of wind sprints for conditioning "high intensity for 15 seconds to two or three minutes with a brief rest period," according to Brittenham. "With any extended period of time off cardiovascular will drop, so it's important to do these high-intensity exercises." This is the problem Sprewell referred to when he said his "wind is not where I want it to be," after the preseason game at the Garden last week.
The players also go through pool training by "running in the deep end for conditioning," says Brittenham. "And it's also more joint-friendly. In the shallow end, I have them doing movement exercises, like hopping, skipping, and sliding." The water slows down the action, allowing trainers to see more accurately what may be wrong with the player's technique. "We don't want them moving in a way that could cause sprains or muscle pulls," explains Brittenham.
In particular, coaches watch out for what they call low-position movements. "When they squat and go down low, it's a moment of extreme stress on the body, since it's a sudden movement," says Brittenham. "To prevent that, we're doing a lot of weight training in squat positions."
The compressed schedule is another element to contend with, in terms of injuries. "Even though our training isn't all that different," says Brittenham, "the way we think about it, in an 82-game season, it's a marathon. In a 50-game season, it's a sprint. So we need to get out of the block early." The Knicks will average about four games per week with two five-game weeks toward the end of the schedule, as opposed to the usual three to three-and-a-half games per week.
But most physicians and trainers associated with NBA teams believe their players will be ready for the grind. They are generally positive about the conditions of all the players and are confident that they have been training in the off-season. Even Sprewell made do in a YMCA gym with some of his pals.
All optimism aside, however, the reality of a compressed schedule coupled with the shortened training period will make players more susceptible to injuries. "It's unfortunate, but there will definitely be more problems this season like hamstring pulls and sore heels." says Dr. Lowe. "Given the tight schedule, there will simply be more chances for injury. The stronger athletes, the ones who have kept up their conditioning in the off-season, will deal with it better. But some are lazy. You'll see who they are in a month or so."