Suns News

Suns' Phelps to Become New ATSU President

Phelps has been on the Suns' medical staff for 26 years.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)
By Stefan Swiat,
Posted: May 1, 2012

Phoenix Suns Team Physician Dr. Craig Phelps, who was named the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association Physician of the Year for 2010-11, is stepping down with his position from the team to become the president of A.T. Still University's medical school. During his 26 years on the Suns' medical staff, Dr. Phelps enjoyed some tremendous experiences. Check out some of them in this exclusive Q&A. What was your reason for leaving the Suns now?

Dr. Craig Phelps: It was one of those rare once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to be the president of a health sciences university. There aren’t that many of them and opportunities don’t come along very often. I think the real reason is that I’ll hopefully have the opportunity to affect the lives of future health care providers. It’s kind of the right time, so to speak. They sent out letters to candidates that they thought would be good and asked them to apply. They had well over 100 applicants apply. Where is the school located?

Phelps: There is a campus in Missouri and in Mesa, Arizona. I’ll be presiding over both campuses. Are you going to remain active in your practice here in Arizona?

Phelps: As of July 1, I’ll no longer be at my local practice. It’ll be difficult to move from clinical practice to the presidential role. There simply is not enough time to do both and give them justice. How did you end up with the Suns?

Phelps: My first time on staff was during a fellowship in 1985. I started with the Suns under then-team physician Dr. Paul Steingard. He was the original team physician for the Suns. How did you feel when you took over as team physician?

Phelps: There are a few things that I carry around with me and one of them is the letter that welcomed me as the team physician. How good of a basketball player were you?

Phelps: I grew up in Phoenix and I went to a little school called Phoenix Christian High School and then I went to Azusa Pacific University. I played basketball one year there. Was being involved with NBA basketball a goal of yours?

Phelps: There wasn’t a specialty in sports medicine when I was in medical school so it was something that many of us thought about. Dr. Steingard was one of the pioneers in sports medicine and it just kind of evolved. As that happened, young physicians embraced the specialty and developed it into its own sub-specialty. So there’s what we would consider primary care, then there’s a specialty under orthopedic surgery. Since the '80s, it’s turned into a very popular and robust specialty. How did you and Dr. Steingard become acquainted?

Phelps: I met him as a medical student once I thought that this might be a profession worth learning more about. So during the Christmas break of my first year in medical school I went and visited Dr. Steingard at his office up on Bell Road in Phoenix. I introduced myself to him and told him that I’d like to rotate with him as a student. He was more than helpful and we formed a relationship and bond. As I graduated and came back to do what was called a fellowship, he was kind enough to take me under his wing and introduce me to the Suns. I was in Kirksville, MO at the time. I was at the school I’m going to become the president of now. What was the most unique injury you ever treated as an NBA doctor? Weirdest injury?

Phelps: One of the most unusual injuries that occurred at a Suns game happened to the Gorilla. He was jumping off the trampoline for his dunk routine and he fractured and dislocated his ankle. Everybody, including the medical staff, thought it was part of the routine when he was carried off the court.

Then, of course, Joe Johnson’s injury to his face during the playoffs stands out. How everything came together with the coordination of his care and how he was able to return in the playoffs was memorable. That was a pretty brave return on his part.

And then there was that Game 5 against Los Angeles on Mother’s Day back in 1993 and Dan Majerle had a real severe gastroenteritis. It was the opening of the Blue Burrito on 32nd and Camelback, but to this day, he says that’s not what got him sick. But anyway, he was very sick. I left Mother’s Day brunch with my mom and I went down to the emergency room. He and I rode down together to US Airways Center and I was holding the IV bag as we drove. We were able to get him hydrated before the game and he went out and played a fantastic game. And then after the game he was pretty exhausted. And that was the series that then-Suns Head Coach Paul Westphal predicted that we would come back and win the series. That just kind of show you how tough Dan Majerle is. And that was pretty amazing. Who is the toughest player you’ve ever been around?

Phelps: I’m going to give you a list of a few guys. Dan Majerle, Shawn Marion, Grant Hill and Steve Nash all come to mind. There have been so many players that have played with illness and injury that the public never hears about. It’s really amazing how they will give it all to the team. On the personal side, one of the real transformations was Penny Hardaway. When he came to us, he was having a rough go, he was playing behind Jason Kidd and had a couple of bad years for us. Then one summer he went away and he came back a different guy. He played with all sorts of things, didn’t want to have surgery on his hand when he needed it. How about Charles Barkley?

Phelps: Charles was one of those guys who did not like to miss games. He would do whatever it took to so he didn’t miss games. I don’t want to say he was one of the toughest guys because he missed a lot of practices, but he was one of our toughest players when it came time to play. Even dating back to Philadelphia, he would play with injuries and give it 110 percent. How far as sports medicine come since you became involved?

Phelps: It really has evolved into a very respected, research-oriented, evidence-based sub-specialty. It’s really advanced. It would be remiss to not mention that it’s a big team effort. There are a lot of people that take care of the Suns. On a day-to-day basis, it’s Suns head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson and his staff and before him it was Joe Proski. When you think about it, to only have two athletic trainers in the history of the team, that’s pretty amazing. Both of them gave unselfishly and the highest level of care to the players. Then you have people like Tom Carter and Dick Emerson. It’s a whole coordinated effort to do this. What is it about the Suns' medical and training staffs that make them so special? What’s the secret sauce?

Phelps: It is really the personalized attention and care. Everybody from Aaron Nelson to the specialists that we work with provide that approach to the players. An example of that is the kind of effort it took to get someone like Shaq (O’Neal) into the playing shape that he was in. It really amounted to Aaron Nelson spending a significant amount of time with Shaq. It really is that personalized, hands-on care that the players are given across the whole staff and with good support from leadership and management. I never heard of an incident where the medical team wasn’t backed by the entire organization to do what was best for the player. Did you have a certain player or injury that you treated that you’re particular proud of?

Phelps: When Robin Lopez came back from his injury a couple of years ago to play in the 2010 NBA Playoffs, that was truly a combination of Robin’s drive, the coordinated medical care that he got and the hands-on treatment from Aaron Nelson and his staff. That was a good example of where the player, the medical staff and the training staff all came together to do what was best for the player. It was ultimately up to Robin to decide how hard he was going to participate in trying to return, because we never forced him to, but that’s the most incredible in recent memory. And then the day Dan Majerle played after having an IV in him before the game, but that’s no credit to the doctor - that’s completely Dan Majerle because only a few other players would have done that. Probably just Michael Jordan when he had the flu in the Finals would be a parallel to that game. Having worked with professional athletes, what’s the difference between the elite ones and the ones that don’t make it? Is it a mental or physical component that makes you go from out of the NBA and into the NBA, or from a journeyman NBA player to a star?

Phelps: It’s a combination of three things. It’s a combination of their physical abilities, their mental engagement in the game and an internal drive and spirit. The players at that elite level that I’ve been able to watch and take care of for 26 years have a certain spirit or drive that allows them to play a step above. When you think of players like Steve Nash and Charles Barkley, it’s a combination of physical gifts, intelligence and drive. One thing that I really noticed is that there are certain players that really love to play basketball. There are a lot of great players with great talent that are smart, but they don’t love the game. Or they lose that love of the game. When you think of the smile of Michael Jordan, you think of the love of the game. When you think of the players that excelled, they almost devoted 24 hours a day and seven days a week to the game. So it’s really a combination of the body and genetics, the mind and the spirit. It’s interesting that you bring up Steve Nash, because there are a lot of 6-3 Canadians out there. No player ever came out of Vancouver to make the NBA before him and here he is, a two-time MVP. So how does that happen? You remember him as a rookie here too, so what stood out about him then and now?

Phelps: When he was a rookie, he was really well-rounded. He was behind Kevin Johnson, but there was something about him. You knew that he was going to be in the NBA. But I don’t think anybody could predict at that time that he was going to rise to the level that he has. That really shows you that the mind and the spirit part are as important as the physical part. He is physically gifted, he just doesn’t happen to be 6-6. But was there something specific or a certain characteristic about him that stood apart from other players that you’ve treated?

Phelps: I would say that he really does his best to stay at optimal health. It’s hard to maintain that level of intensity for your health because there are so many distractions. And once you’ve rehabbed an injury, players appropriately say, ‘I’m done. I don’t need to continue doing things.’ And that’s really how we treat things. Steve has just taken a completely proactive approach to it. And that’s the biggest transformation I’ve seen in players since I’ve started. The players in the offseason in the past often had jobs, got out of shape and training camp was really uses as a time to come and get into shape. Now the players in training camp arrive in pretty good physical condition. Because of that we’ve seen fewer injuries, better performance and players improve during the offseason at higher rates than we’ve seen before. What is something that many players deal with today that most fans would be surprised about? What are fans often surprised to hear?

Phelps: These players are so young and they come into the limelight and financial success at such an early time in their lives. The definition of adolescence says that adolescence can last until the mid-20s and that’s the time when people physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially go out on their own. And these young men are often brought in during their late teens and early 20s. I think people sometimes don’t realize that they’re still growing in all of these areas and that they need time to grow in a community. I don’t think they equate that with players. We often think of them as tough guys that have everything and that are set for life because they have everything. But they’re just real young men. A lot of times we tend to think of them like we do some of our more mature stars. And we have to give them the opportunity to grow and mature, and communities have to be a part of that. You have to remind people that he’s only 20 years old. What were you doing when you were 20 years old (laughs)? And they say, ‘Gosh, you’re right. We just don’t think of that.’ So that’s the biggest thing. Sometimes fans expect a maturity level that simply isn’t possible in a 19, 20, 21-year-old. In the old days, someone like Alvan Adams would stay with us for a long time and play ball with us at that park and eat at the restaurant with everybody. We just don’t have that kind of ‘stickiness’ where players stay in a community long enough to really build their reputations. So do you think NBA players are born or created?

Phelps: I think both. Looking through the scientific portal, it’s always been nature vs. nurture. That really goes back to how we’ve always studied humanity and it certainly appears to be true when it comes to professional sports. How do you have the bedside manner that you do? Have you ever been in a bad mood? Is there anyone who can confirm that you have ever been in a bad mood?

Phelps: (laughs) I think it always comes from being aware and wanting to treat people as you would like to be treated or the way you would like your family members to be treated. I think that’s really the key and I think that goes across business in general. And I also love what I do, and that makes it kind of easy. Does loving what you do come from a sense of purpose?

Phelps: Yeah. I grew up in what we would consider the southern part of Phoenix and I could remember as a kid sitting there and people would go into my doctor’s office, Dr. Rodgers, and when they would come out they would have this relief. They would have a feeling on their face that their questions had been answered and that their concerns or fears had been addressed. They kind of walked in with a heavy feeling and then walked out with a feeling of being better. And I thought that would be a tremendous gift to have: to help people solve their health problems or their medical problems. So that was something I observed in grade school and thought would be a nice thing to be able to do. Now that you’re where you are, what goals are left for you?

Phelps: (laughs hard) Fortunately, there are many, many challenges ahead. For me, it will be working to provide opportunities for people to be in health care at many different levels and have successful lives. And then look to provide health care providers for underserved areas of our country, both urban and rural. That’s kind of the mission and the vision of the university. So it fits perfectly. Do you think this is the last job you’ll ever have?

Phelps: I’d say I hope to be productive for many years. Often times, presidencies can be short or long. So we’ll see.

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