Fixing the NBA’s Most Important Knee
Joe Abunassar had two months to train KG back into shape.
Kevin Garnett arrived to Joe Abunussar’s Impact Basketball gym in Las Vegas every morning at 6:30 a.m., prepared to step on to the court for what felt like the first time in years. It was August, and Garnett was three months removed from the arthroscopic surgery on the injured right knee that removed posterior bone spurs and perhaps more.
According to Abunassar, his body had shown the effects of the time spent away from the court since the Boston Celtics shut him down in March. His spindly frame had put on some weight. His legs – known for its explosiveness and speed – were not firing properly. His right calf suffered significant atrophy. For a player whose game relied on unrelenting speed, Garnett had to approach the last two months of his summer slowly retracing his steps.
When he was on the court, Garnett was missing his shots, a far departure from the usual crispness of his shooting drills. “The beginning part was interesting, to say the least,” says Abunassar. “Everything was a step behind.”
But Garnett wasn’t concerned. Neither was Abunassar, a longtime NBA trainer who has worked with Garnett since 1998, when he was introduced by way of then-Timberwolves teammates Joe Smith and Chauncey Billups. “Nobody was frustrated or anything,” says Abunassar. “We were just trying to get him going.”
Kevin Garnett was perhaps the NBA’s biggest question mark coming into the season.
Despite Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge’s assurances that the 33-year-old star was recovering nicely, he spent the off-season safeguarding the team from another extended absence. Ainge signed free agent power forwards Rasheed Wallace and Shelden Williams, and he re-signed postseason breakout Glen Davis. In addition to Brian Scalabrine and Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics now have five players on their roster who could play Garnett’s position. Garnett was once the anchor of Boston’s holy triumvirate – including Paul Pierce and Ray Allen – that won the team its 17th championship in 2008. But as Boston begins its campaign for an 18th title, they may have to accept the worst: that Garnett’s injury may force him back on the injured list.
For Abunassar and co-trainer Andrew Moore, this was not a possibility. They knew how to rebuild Garnett’s legs. They spent considerable time on his lower body, guiding him through a series of repetitive exercises with dumbbells, mini-bands and physio balls. They attacked his core from all angles, knowing the stronger Garnett’s core was, the less weight there would be on his legs. “We were probably way more detailed in our approach to preparing him this year than we have ever been,” says Abunassar.
Nearly every day Rudy Gay and former Memphis Grizzlies teammate Kyle Lowry sluggishly entered the Impact gym at 11 a.m., they saw Garnett sitting in the weight room, catching his breath and staring around the gym. “You don’t even see him work out,” says Gay during a practice session at Impact earlier in September. “But then you talk to Joe and he says, ‘yeah, I’ve been here since 7 a.m., working out KG’… that gives you something to learn from.”
Detroit Pistons rookie Austin Daye, having trained at Impact since May, often found himself marveling at Garnett’s untiring dedication to his workout. “He’s a physical specimen, that man is,” says Daye.
By 1 p.m., Abunassar would have his NBA clients convene for the daily 5-on-5 scrimmages. The scrimmages have developed a legend of their own, with players like Billups, Detroit Piston Tayshaun Prince and New York Knick Al Harrington competing against one another at an NBA level. “They’re serious around here, man,” says Gay of the scrimmages. “I think that’s the best part of being out here.” Garnett did not partake in these scrimmages, instead returning to where was during the last postseason: on the sidelines, coaching and barking at players. Garnett is “full go” in everything he does, says Abunassar. But for this off-season, he needed to harness that intensity into his exercises and basketball drills, not during pick-up games.
By September, Garnett’s shots were falling. His step was returning, although it wasn’t completely there, something Garnett would concede to reporters during the second day of the Celtics training camp in Newport, RI. Abunassar knows it’s going to take time for the step to completely return. “The Celtics don’t need him to play in September. They need him to play in May,” says Abunassar.
So far in the preseason, Abunassar’s work has been showing. During Boston’s first game against the Houston Rockets, Garnett ended with 6 points and 5 rebounds after 13 minutes of play. Against the Knicks, he shot 50 percent from the field for 10 points and 8 boards. While playing the Nets, he had 12 points and 6 boards.
His shot is falling. He’s grabbing the boards. The fire is there, too, as evidenced by his handling of the not-nearly-as-assertive Yi Jianlian.
The Celtics might need Garnett for May. But many believe the Celtics may have him a lot sooner for a lot longer.