Nelson Signs Four-Year Contract With Suns
Posted: July 8, 2010
One member of the Suns’ organization that never made it to free agency may have been one of the most important signings of the year.
It may not have received a great deal of fanfare, but when reigning NBA Trainer of Year Aaron Nelson inked a four-year contract with the franchise, it was not overlooked by the people that work within US Airways Center. Nelson, who has been with the Suns for 17 years, is known for being a trailblazer within his field.
“He’s one of the best trainers that you could ask for,” Suns point guard Steve Nash said. “He continually educates himself and has a great impact on this locker room with his expertise and his ability. He allows us all to go out there every night with less of a deficit physically. He plays an important role and it’s really important that we locked him up.”
Nelson came to the Suns from Iowa State, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education with an emphasis on athletic training and a minor in health. He arrived in Phoenix as the assistant trainer, where he served under head trainer and Ring of Honor member Joe Proski for seven years.
After Proski retired in 2000, Nelson stepped in to man the post of Suns head athletic trainer. Even though he was new to the position and the NBA’s second-youngest trainer at the time, Nelson wasn’t afraid of taking a huge risk.
Despite following the traditional course of athletic training that was widespread throughout the league, Nelson wanted to be more cutting edge. So he approached then-Suns GM Bryan Colangelo with his plans for a more progressive approach.
During his time as an assistant, he befriended Michael Clark, who is currently the CEO of the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Clark, who was occasionally brought in by the Suns to work with players with chronic injuries, greatly impressed Nelson with his results.
“It was hard because this was my first job as a head athletic trainer,” Nelson recalled. “Luckily, I had talked with Bryan and had the support of Mike Clark. I could’ve been out after a year if it didn’t work, but I really believed in it. I‘ve always believed in the research and science.”
Nelson said that everything he implements for the Suns’ players is based on whatever the research is showing and having the right staff in place. Maintaining the players’ fitness level is a three-fold process with it beginning on the training table, extending into the weight room and finishing on the court.
“He does such a great job of keeping our guys healthy,” Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry said. “He has a great track record with older players in particular like Shaq, Steve Nash and Grant Hill and we’ve had great success with guys coming off injury like Amar’e. Aaron is as good as there is, so it was important for us to keep him in the organization.”
One of Nelson’s duties is constantly tweaking and making various adjustments within that process to yield the best results on the floor. He credits strength and conditioning coach Mike Elliot and assistant trainer Tom Maystadt for making the system a well-oiled machine.
“I have a great staff and you really can’t replace that,” Nelson said. “All the way up from Drs. Thomas Carter and Craig Phelps overseeing everything to Mike, Tom and even (equipment manager) Jay Gaspar).”
The system the Suns’ training staff has in place is proactive, with all of its members being on the same page. The plan is to identify dysfunction in a player’s body and to attempt it correct it so that the player can prevent injury and heal quicker.
“I think he’s ahead of the curve as far as manual therapy, corrective exercises and a preventative attitude, rather than reactive,” Nash noted.
The method that Nelson and Clark cultivated 10 years ago is still the one that exists today.
“He does a lot of stuff differently, and he really has a great approach as far as treating the body and the personalities of everybody,” Suns forward Grant Hill said. “Everybody is different in terms of injuries.
Sometimes with me he has to hold me back, because I’ll try to do more than I should.”
Always attempting to stay one step ahead of his peers, Nelson cites adapting and re-calibrating their process every year as yet another reason why his training staff has been so successful.
“We don’t do the same things year in and year out,” he said. “We still do the same assessments and put together the same programs, but the research and data may show something different. If so, we may utilize different techniques, whether it’s manual therapy techniques or different corrective exercises.”
Over the last few seasons, Nelson’s reputation has been built on keeping Nash healthy during his mid-30s despite chronic back issues, helping Amar’e Stoudemire recover from microfracture knee surgery, keeping Hill healthier than he has ever been in his career and nursing Shaquille O’Neal back to All-Star form. But Nelson believes the lion’s share of the credit should go to the players.
“Players deserve a lot of the credit because if they don’t put in the time then they don’t get the benefits,” Nelson said. “You hear about those guys like Shaq, Grant and Steve because they’ve had had significant injuries or issues, but we’ve had a lot of guys that don’t get talked about that were good role players that had issues that we were able to help.
“And we’ve also had guys that went on the program and then regressed. It’s worked with the guys who stayed with it and decided to buy in.”
In addition to his deep appreciation for his staff and the enjoyment he receives from working with the players on the Suns’ roster, the former Iowa St. Cyclone wanted to remain in Phoenix because of the amount of family he has in the Valley now.
Besides his own mother, sister and brother nearby, Nelson’s said that his wife’s family also resides in Phoenix. Never satisfied, don’t expect Nelson to quit learning or improving his craft.
“I think in the last few years we’ve grown because we’re getting deeper into the science and challenging ourselves to be better educated in the whole profession,” Nelson said. Fortunately for the Suns, they’ll be able to benefit for at least another four years.
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