Who is more responsible for the Wizards' playoff fate right now, Richard Hamilton or team athletic trainer Steve Stricker? Sure, Hamilton's averaging 20.3 points per game and Stricker doesn't even play. But Stricker does have in his charge the rehabilitation of a certain small forward's knee. If you believe the pundits, Washington goes to the playoffs only via the return of a healthy Michael Jordan. Enter Stricker.

Seeing as how March is National Athletic Training Awareness Month, we turn our attention to one of the most valuable members of an NBA team. Athletic trainers tend to the health and well-being of each of the players, a very broad assessment of the numerous duties that fall under the title.


Team athletic trainer Jim Gillen tapes the hand of former Nugget Nick Van Exel before a game in December.
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"Trainers in the NBA are responsible for coordinating all the medical care," Nuggets athletic trainer Jim Gillen says. "Then you have to set up the emergency plan that you may have. You're responsible for the training room facilities, supplies and all that type of stuff. Many trainers in the NBA also oversee equipment managers. Basically just to coordinate all the medical aspects of it, the rehabilitation of the players, working hand in hand with the strength and conditioning coach, not only on conditioning, but getting players back after they've been injured. Then many of us in the NBA have a unique job responsibility in that we're also responsible for team travel. So we're coordinating charter flights, coordinating hotels, taking care of buses, setting up practices on the road, handing the players their per diem and things of this nature."

At the very best, they get a player like Jordan back in the game. At the very worst, they have to deal with unrealistic expectations for that timetable as well as grumpy players, frustrated by having to sit out or play around injury. You want to be an athletic trainer? Well, you'd better have patience and people skills to go along with the very stringent academic requirements.

Back in the "olden days," a person could become an athletic trainer by obtaining an undergraduate degree in a health-related field, logging a number of internship hours under a certified athletic trainer and then passing a national certification exam. Today, the National Athletic Trainers Association requires an undergraduate degree in athletic training from an accredited university then comes the internship and the exam. And that's before getting your graduate degree.

"I strongly recommend it. I think there's two or three different approaches," Gillen says. "One would be to get dual certified say, as an athletic trainer and a physical therapist. Because so many of the positions now are working in sports medicine clinics around the country. There's a limited number of professional jobs and so many college jobs. But there's many opportunities in clinics and if you're dual certified to do both, that makes you a much more attractive candidate.

"One other area I think a person should show some interest in was that many of us had teaching certificates also. The problem we run into is that many high schools would like to hire trainers and many of them are but they pay them like they do coaches. So you can't survive on that kind of money. So if a person was also certified as a teacher, the job opportunities are really out there right now. But definitely, for someone just to come out with a bachelor's degree in athletic training, your options are going to be very limited."

Just as any athlete will tell you, it's one thing to make it through college and quite another to make it to the pros. Professional sports, with their money, facilities, resources and glamour, tend to be the most attractive jobs for an athletic trainer, with college positions coming in a close second. There's certainly more supply than demand at this level so breaking into the ranks of the elite goes back to the old adage: It's not what you know; it's who you know.

"I think the biggest piece of advice I would give anyone is that you've got to develop yourself a network," Gillen says. "It starts out when you're a student trainer working in a college, you try to meet as many different people as you can. My network began when I was in college. When I was a senior, the trainer for the Denver Broncos, who's there now Steve Antonopulos graduated from college and he came to Ft. Hayes, the little school I was at, as the head trainer. Then he went on to work with the Broncos and I was able a few years later to come on as his assistant trainer. Because of his connections and the connections with Dan Reeves, the head coach at that time, who knew the general manager for the Nuggets, I came to work here.


Wizards trainer Steve Stricker tends to Jordan at an earlier game this season.
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"So to make a long story short, you've got to make connections and then show the work ethic. Just because you're making connections doesn't do you a whole lot of good unless you're out there showing those people you have the work ethic, the study and that you want to stay with it and you have the ambition and the goal. It's very hard to get to these professional positions. I've worked in the high school, the clinic setting, professional football and professional basketball. I have to tell you that still some of my most rewarding times within the occupation were at the high school level."

And there's no breathing easy after you've achieved the title of "athletic trainer," be it on the professional level or anywhere else. The rapidly changing face of medicine and new technologies have athletic trainers scrambling to stay on top of the best methods and remedies available for their athletes. Gillen says especially tricky is the proliferation of supplements and nutritional products on the market. So many of them not only don't work, but can also be dangerous to a player's health that athletic trainers have to be in the know so as to be able to advise.

As glamorous as the NBA lifestyle might be, Stricker will probably get more attention if Jordan doesn't recover in time to save the Wizards from another date with the draft lottery than anything he ever did for Christian Laettner. But Gillen believes the rewards of athletic training far supercede its challenges.

"When you get somebody that's gone through a long-term rehabilitation and they get back on the court or back to the field and are successful. You get a feeling of self-satisfaction that you've actually helped somebody obtain some of the goals they were after," Gillen says. "I think another great part about the job is the relationships and the camaraderie that you develop with players and coaches over the years -- and even the other trainers throughout the rest of the league. I think that's a very neat part of it all."