On the Training Table with Max Benton

by Joe Gabriele
Cavs.com Managing Editor

In seven years with the Cavaliers, Cavaliers Athletic Trainer Max Benton has seen it all. He’s been in that position since 2001 – back in the day when the Wine and Gold was a 17-win team and Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ career was in serious peril. He is the man who makes the Cavaliers’ engine run and when a part of that engine breaks down – from a broken leg to a bloody nose – Benton is the man that the Cavs call on to fix it.

He came to Cleveland following six seasons as the assistant athletic trainer for the Denver Nuggets. A 1995 graduate of the University of Colorado, Benton was a student assistant in the CU sports medicine department where he worked primarily with football, men’s basketball and men’s and women’s track.

The Fort Collins, Colorado native is a certified member of the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) and the Ohio Athletic Trainers Association (OATA) and is a Performance Enhancement Specialist.

Benton and his wife Jolynne are the proud parents of Emma Lenice, who just turned three in July. Or, as Max would say with his trademark laugh: “It’s like I tell everyone: I have 15 boys and one little girl.”

How did you wind up with the Cavaliers?

I started here seven years ago – the 2001-02 season. I just applied, threw my name in the hat. When I heard the position (Assistant Athletic Trainer) had opened up, I was extremely young. But my colleagues gave me a big show of support around the league. And I went from Assistant to Head Athletic Trainer in the NBA.

In my seven seasons here, I’ve seen five head coaches. But I do my job the same way, no matter. I consider myself very flexible and I’m a people-person, and I think that’s what’s allowed me to be successful in this business. I can adapt to corporate demands and the needs of my players, most of all. I guess I have a different perspective, because their health care comes first, and the corporate demands come second.

(The players) are human and what we’re asking them to do is put their bodies in harm’s way. So I try to be their voice to protect them, do the right things for them and do the right things by the company. It’s a balancing act.

The Cavaliers were extremely healthy last year. How much credit for that goes to the Cavaliers training staff and how much of it was plain luck?

A lot! (Laughs; knocks on wood)

Injuries happen. We can do a lot to prevent them, but that’s why they’re called injuries.

But it’s nice to have such competent colleagues. The first thing we stress to our players is: “You know you’re body better than we do.”

Any good physician out there is going to say that there are all these standards and norms – but that might not be you. And so what we’ve tried to do is really listen to what the problem is, and then address it from there. And I think we’re very special and unique in that process.

Each one of those players is their own corporation – forming one large corporation. And we have to tailor to those different corporations’ needs.

Do players sometimes avoid treatment or try to hide an injury from you?

Yeah, of course. They’re human.

I think it’s like anything. We have to learn how to listen to them. A player may tell you: “I’m great.” But we’re looking at him thinking: “You look a little slow.” (Laughs)

But we never want to lose their trust and confidence in them telling us what’s wrong. What we try to do is listen, communicate effectively, educate each other and try to get on the same path.

The business of Sports is unique in that it’s such a driven, goal-oriented atmosphere. And our goal – all of us – is the Championship. One goal. And there’s a lot of drive and effort to get there.

Is there another trainer in the league that you look up to or look to for advice?

Quite a few. And I feel fortunate in the NBA, we’re such a small group. I’ll be the first to tell you that I’ll take an idea if I can learn something new and how to do it better, smarter, more effectively. And it’s not just professional basketball. I’ve learned a lot from different sources out there.

We speak a lot with different trainers from different avenues and different sporting backgrounds – both college and professional sports – and we just combine whatever information we can in a good sense.

That’s one of the things I love about healthcare – that you can always learn something new.

How important is keeping up with new training technology?

I think in this country and around the world – in regards to healthcare – that you’re going to see another revolution soon, where healthcare is going to change one more time. Not so much from a technology standpoint, but more of you being treated as a true patient and not as an insurance number. I think you’re going to see that dynamic in healthcare, in general.

I think within the next ten years, healthcare across the country is going to improve one more time.

And in sports, what’s nice is that we’re able to take healthcare from many different avenues. In basketball, we use ideas from NASA. SportsHealth Cleveland Clinic is a great resource for me to tap into. I still tap into the U.S. Olympic database for information. The National Athletic Trainer’s Society and even here on the state level with the Ohio Athletic Trainer’s Association. We have our regional meetings where I can visit and learn different avenues from there.

Speaking of new technology, talk about your patent.

Recently, (Assistant Trainer) Mike Mancias and myself – along with a couple local medical engineers here in Cleveland – decided to venture out with some ideas that we’ve all had. Torex – a local healthcare company – made a radial tube with what we call a ‘super-conducting cold gel.’

The first was the MC-2 ankle brace. When you first look at it, it looks like an ankle brace that you’d wear for sporting events, but inside of that brace are two or three patented cooling units which allow you add even compression and isolate ankle injuries.

We’ve made some modifications and we’re waiting on our patent approval from the U.S. Patent Office. We’ve recently been picked up by Henry Schein, which is a large medical and hospital supply company. It’s truly a rehab product for athletes from ballet dancers to basketball, football and hockey players. Really the only thing you can’t use this brace for is swimming.

It’s a cryogel boot that allows to you add ice and compression for athletes who have suffered from multiple ankle sprains, foot injuries, Achilles injuries to ice those down and not have a leaky ice bag in their house or car. You can throw on a flip-flop and keep on walking.

Our other invention is the Torex cold-gel, because we see a lot of finger injuries in basketball. The cylinder tube – you roll it on and it conforms to your actual finger. So it’s a cold gel in a round tube and it allows you to add compression – (your basic R.I.C.E. principal: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation).

Initially, we were just thinking basketball and other contact sports, when you jam your finger. We really didn’t realize the potential in the occupational hand therapy market. And the finger pack has been our No. 1 seller.

It’s nice because they’re all re-usable, they’re environmentally-friendly, and their child-safe. So we really tried to be innovative and creative in our thought process.

Talk about the Trainer’s Room as a “player sanctuary.”

It’s a sanctuary because it’s their time to be themselves. And that’s one of the things I really like about my job because I do get to know the players for who they are, and I think it’s important for them to feel comfortable where they have to come to work every day. Because I feel comfortable where I come to work every day and I have fun, most of all.

They’re in front of fans from the moment they walk outside that locker room – not to mention media and the workers around the arena. And sometimes these guys might not feel 100 percent -- maybe we just got off the plane last night at 3 o’clock in the morning and are practicing at noon.

It’s important for them to come in here and be with their peers and to laugh and joke and just be normal – express their views on things. It’s like a barber shop. I think every male out there understands the dynamic of a barber shop in that what gets said in there, STAYS in there.

How early can you tell the difference between a minor injury and a major one?

Fans might wonder why I ask this, but my first question to an injured player is always: “Are you OK?” And if they’re able to acknowledge me, I’ve already done three things. I’ve checked for an air-way, if they’re breathing, and if they have circulation. Because any time you approach anyone that’s on the ground, you don’t necessarily know what’s happened. So that has to be your primary three concerns.

Most of the time, I get the quick response of “I’m OK, give me my headband.” (Laughs) And that’s when I know that my guy’s OK.

How heavily do coaches and front office personnel rely on your prognosis? How does that work?

I’m in constant communication with Mike Brown and Danny Ferry and my team physicians. And our Athletic Performance Team – we meet daily – pre-practice, during practice, post-practice. And we need to make sure that coaches and management are always properly informed so they can make the right decisions.

We never say “always” and we never say “never.” But we’ll give you the most precise information that we can.

We’re proactive trying to communicate to them as quickly as possible so they have adequate time to prepare properly. That’s one of our strongest attributes that we have here. We try to keep it very precise and to the point.

Who’s the physically toughest player you’ve ever been around?

All of them.

Every professional athlete, collegiate athlete and Olympic athlete is extremely tough, because the demands of that person in that position. They’re running up and down that court on that hardwood day in and day out. So physically and mentally, it’s tough.

I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve worked with some incredible athletes and I really try to listen to them as an individual and to learn what works for them. And if we lose sight of that, then we’re totally missing the boat on what we’re trying to do.