The Grizzlies' Rudy Gay puts in the work -- off-camera -- so he can shine when the lights are brightest.
Photos by Larry Kuzniewski
Glamour and grind. Life in the National Basketball Association comes packaged with both. Fans tend to see the big arenas, TV cameras, and fat paychecks. They tend to overlook the sweat that goes into preparing for the bright lights, big arenas, and 82 games in six months.
Entering the 2010-11 season, the Memphis Grizzlies' Rudy Gay has been as durable as any rising star in the NBA. Over his first four years as a pro, Gay (now 24) played in 318 of a possible 328 games. And Gay's time in uniform is spent on the floor, as his career average of 35 minutes per game attests (an NBA contest is 48 minutes). Among the top small forwards in the Western Conference, Gay has his first All-Star Game in his sights. But it hasn't been a stroll to reach this level as a professional athlete.
We spent some time with Gay to learn about the fitness regimen required for NBA stardom. If it works for Rudy Gay, why can't it work — if on a smaller scale — for the rest of us?
Considering the amount of running Gay does on game night, there's some irony in how little cardiovascular training he does once the season gets started. Between game-day shootarounds (in the morning, usually lasting an hour) and off-day practices (two to three hours), an NBA player's cardio work comes as routinely as a coffee break for the average worker.
"I commit myself in the summer to being in the best shape I can possibly be in," says Gay. "That takes a lot of work. When I come to [preseason camp], I do not want to be behind. I stay moving during the summer, maybe even more than during the season."
Gay works with a personal trainer in Las Vegas during the off-season, but then spends as much time with Grizzlies strength-and-conditioning coach Kelly Lambert as he does with any teammate. Lambert is tasked with customizing a workout that fits Gay's needs. (He does the same for as many as 14 other Grizzlies.)
"Each individual athlete is different," notes Lambert, "so Rudy's workout is suited just for him. He's an explosive athlete, so the idea is to maintain what he has and just tweak it a little bit. It's a total-body workout. We're sure to engage the core, the abdominal region. We do muscle activation before we start to lift, approximately eight minutes [of stretching]. You wouldn't go outside on a cold day and just drive your car; you'd want to warm it up first."
For a body as long (6'8") and lean (230 lbs.) as Gay's, the most likely injuries lurk in the leg joints. Lambert describes a primary focus of Gay's workout as "patella tracking." (Most of us know the patella as our kneecap.) "We're tracking the ankle, knee, and hip at the same time, making sure those joints are working together in the proper sequence."
Gay will go through a series of squats and bends that stretch the muscles and tendons around these three critical regions of his legs. Squatting and bending for a man of Gay's height can be laborious, however necessary. "I hate leg exercises with a passion," says Gay. "Just keeping my body in line; no hunching over. You use your legs constantly, so after a workout, just walking to your car . . . you're sore the rest of the day."
The focus on legs is as much about endurance as it is strength. "I never want to be the person that's tired," Gay stresses. "When I was a kid, I felt like I could run all day, and I don't ever want to change that. If I'm not going to slow down, my legs have to be the strongest part of my body."
As Gay conditions his legs for the pounding of an NBA season, you won't find him on a treadmill or elliptical machine. "I just have something against treadmills," he says. "I hate them. It's my attention span. I don't like standing — or running — in the same place. If anything, I'll run around the block, maybe two or three miles."
Gay gets invigorated when his workout shifts to upper-body exercises. His routine includes sets on the lat bar and bench-pressing dumbbells (starting with 60 pounds in each hand). But the lifting is done in moderation.
"You can get fatigued if you do a lot of volume," says Lambert. If you do sets of three to five reps, it's just muscle activation . . . no fatigue." The reps may increase on off-days, but with emphasis on balancing the muscle groups in Gay's shoulders, arms, and back.
"We want to do just as much pulling [lat bar] as pressing," says Lambert. "We want to make sure we don't neglect anything. You don't want to do a lot of upper-body presses and forget the back."
"Some people are naturally bigger," adds Gay. "In football, they lift for bulk, and we don't. As athletic as we are, it's more likely you'll get injured if you're too bulky. For your ego, it feels good to take your shirt off. It may help get the girls, but not so much with basketball."
Gay's regular schedule calls for at least two formal workouts per week, each between 30 and 45 minutes under Lambert's tutelage. In measuring his fitness, though, Gay is quick to emphasize the importance of his diet, and an all-too-rare commodity for an NBA player.
"In the past, I was one of those guys who would eat anything. And it showed in my recovery [from workouts] and endurance. Last year, I started working on my diet, and it helps a lot. I eat a lot of pasta, a lot of carbohydrates and protein. And vegetables, of course, with every meal. I don't like them a lot, but I like broccoli and string beans, steamed."
Gay never misses breakfast, and will often squeeze two meals in between a morning shootaround and tip-off (usually around 7 p.m., though the time zone varies like the weather). He'll often eat dinner after a home game (which ends around 9:30) and not get to bed until 1 or 2 a.m. Which brings us to that rare commodity.
"We have terrible sleep patterns," says Gay. "You don't know when you can sleep." The NBA mandates that a team cannot travel on game day, so the Grizzlies will sometimes arrive at a hotel on the road at 4 a.m. Good luck resetting your body clock.
"You have to set an alarm," stresses Gay. "The next morning, you may have a meeting." If he hits the sack at 4 a.m., Gay will be up no later than 10:30. If he gets seven hours of sleep, it's a blessing. He'll take a 90-minute nap — no longer — to help refuel for a game.
Rudy Gay's body is his primary asset, his muscles and tendons the tools of his trade. As he enters the prime of what he hopes is a long NBA career, Gay is ever on the lookout for new ways to condition himself for the rigors — the grind — of professional basketball. He chuckles when asked about new discoveries. "Last summer, I did some boxing training. It was cool, but I didn't spar. Don't think I should get hit."
Got to protect those assets. M