Man Behind the Muscle

If a team wants its identity to be defense – as the Cavaliers certainly do – there’s a level of physicality that will be required over 82 games, plus playoffs. And the Wine and Gold easily has its share of rugged, physical players. From Big Ben Wallace to LeBron James, the Cavaliers are definitely a club that can muscle its opponents.

The man behind the Cavaliers’ muscle is Strength and Conditioning Coach, Stan Kellers.

He’s been with the Cavaliers full-time since 1996, but was originally with the team in 1991-92, when he was a part-time consultant through the Cleveland Clinic. Aside from working at the Clinic – where he resided for 15 years before joining the Cavs – Kellers was also strength and conditioning coach of the Cleveland Indians for two years.

The Cleveland State graduate and father of two now focuses solely on the Cavaliers and is one of the reasons the Wine and Gold are one of the league’s toughest and most durable squads.

Kellers has seen coaches and players come and go, although he has forged a special relationship with Zydrunas Ilgauskas – to the point of being of one of the groomsmen in his wedding. (Along with international hoops star and former Pacer, Sarunas Jasikevicius.)

Around the practice facility and on the road with the team, Stan can break chops with the best of ‘em. And can also push the iron around pretty well, himself. While he was doing the interview, Ilgauskas teased his buddy about benching 315 pounds. (“It’s not my best, but not bad for an old guy,” quipped Kellers.) was curious about the man who keeps the Cavaliers conditioned, so this week we sat down with Stan Kellers after practice at the Cleveland Clinic Courts …

Let’s get this question out of the way first: Who’s the strongest guy on the team?
Stan Kellers: Ben Wallace. In terms of lifting weights, Ben is No. 1.

Is he the strongest player you’ve ever had?
Kellers: If you look at all the different lifts, yes. I’ve had guys who could squat more or might’ve benched more – (Vitaly) Potapenko comes to mind – but if you talk about all the different lifts, comparing Ben to anybody, he’s the strongest player I’ve had.

Are you ever concerned that Ben is spending too much time working out?
Kellers: I imagine that happened earlier in his career, but Ben’s been around the league, and he knows the right dose that’s going to help him and not tire him out for the next practice or the next game. So he’s pretty good about that.

Is there ever a time where you have to throttle guys down a little in the weight room?
Kellers: Yes, you do. You don’t want to squelch their enthusiasm, but at the same time, as a professional, you have an obligation to the athlete that you’ve done enough on the rehab end. You run across that many times.

On the other side of the coin, are there players that really need to be cajoled into the weight room?
Kellers: There are certain guys where the toughest thing you have to do is turn the light on in the weight room. And there’s other guys that you need to convince that they need to do this. And it’s an educational process, it really is. You’re educating the athlete as to why you need to do this. You don’t just stand there and say, ‘You need to do A, B, and C.’ You tell them, ‘Here’s the reason and rationale as to why we’re doing this.’

That’s why when you get a young guy like J.J. or Darnell, it’s critical to get with them early, so that they understand the role of this place. And then when you have veteran leadership like Z, LeBron and Ben – who live in the weight room – that makes my job a lot easier.

What are some other methods?
Kellers: Well, one of the oldest tricks in the book is to create a competitive atmosphere. Because the one common denominator among all the players that I’ve ever had is that they’re competitors. And if you can somehow instill that into a “working out” format, that’s going to spur motivation – who can do the most push-ups, who’s got the lowest body fat.

When we do our conditioning tests in the fall before Training Camp, we post the best times. And it catches some eyes. That stuff works.

Do you try to make it as much fun as possible once you get guys in there?
Kellers: Every strength coach is going to have a different philosophy. Years ago, the guy that mentored me said the key is to be yourself. If you try to come out of character, the players are going to know that. And you know me: I can be witty if I need to, I can be angry if I need to.

The players just want you to be yourself; to be honest with them. It should be hard-working and productive, but there should be a certain element of – I don’t know if the word is “fun” – but something that will make the guys want to be in there.

In terms of LeBron – who looks even bigger this year – it’s often been said that he won “the genetic lottery.” How much of that is true and how much of it is how hard he works in the weight room?
Kellers: I’ve been fortunate enough to see (LeBron) through the time since we’ve drafted him, and yeah, it’s true, he won the genetic lottery. But he has worked his tail off on top of that.

And even when LeBron came to us as a rookie, he had been exposed to strength and conditioning and some really good principles in high school under Eric Lichter – who’s now the strength coach for Ohio State football. So LeBron had a good base to work from, as far as being instructed the right way.

And he’s just so smart. He realizes there’s certain types of training that’ll help with recovery, which is critical for him. There are certain things that will help with injury prevention. And he’s a big advocate of flexibility work. So he does all the right things for his needs. He’s not going to train how Delonte will train.

If LeBron wanted to be the strongest guy in the league – as far as lifting weights – he probably could. But he doesn’t need that.

Over an 82-game schedule, is the recovery aspect one of the more vital components of your job?
Kellers: The one thing that we’ve seen in the 12 years since I’ve been doing this full-time is a far greater understanding of recovery from a nutritional standpoint – as far as post-workout drinks and the role food plays, in terms of replenishing your carbs and proteins in the right ratio within an hour of working out or playing a game.

We’re big proponents of massage, which is a recovery tool. We use the cold plunges, post-practice flexibility, aqua massage; we use foam rollers, which help break up scar tissue and muscle damage. We use a number of things aimed at recovery.

Do you individually tailor certain workouts for certain players?
Kellers: The one luxury in the NBA is that you only have 14 or 15 guys. So you can individualize. In the NFL, when you’re bringing 50 of them through, I’m sure it’s done, but it’s tougher. We can be very individualized in our programs.

And basically, you look at three things: One is athletic needs – Andy’s needs are different than Delonte’s and LeBron’s. Second is injury history. And the third is high injury risks – we target the ankle, the knee and the back: places where problems are most likely to show up.

Those three variables really impact the program. There’s a lot of similarity, a lot of common ground between everyone’s programs. But there’s also some individual tailoring, as well.

How big of a difference has the new weight room at the Cleveland Clinic Courts made?
Kellers: A huge difference. I’m a functional-based guy, in that you’re not going to see a lot of machines in the weight room at CCC. It’s wide open. And it provides us space – the ability to accommodate as many athletes at one time as possible. Its location is perfect – right off the practice court. Just the pure aesthetics of the room – with the big, open windows – makes it a pleasing place to be. All of that plays a role in it being immensely effective.

The room itself is a tool as far as the strength and conditioning program – just like this whole building is. People want to be here. And that was the objective, I’m sure, when Dan Gilbert sat down with Danny and Lance and Chris Grant and everyone else involved – to build a “basketball mecca.” And damned if they didn’t do it.

What’s the main thing you try to stress as strength and conditioning coach?
Kellers: There’s so many things in this league that are beyond your control – travel, a tough schedule, things like that. But being in good shape is something that you can control. It’s a controllable variable. That’s one philosophy I take with the young guys right out of the gate. It’s inexcusable not to be in great shape.