Iron Men 2
The NBA season can be a cruel grind. Games stacked on top of one another and practices in-between, relentless travel, winning, losing and just the sheer physical pounding prevent even some of the world’s elite athletes from completing an 82-game schedule.
Like most teams, the Cavaliers found out just how cruel the grind can be – losing the league’s leading rebounder 25 games into the campaign and seeing several others shelved for extended periods.
This year, the Wine and Gold lost 165 player-games to injury. And when they face the Bobcats in the season finale on Wednesday night, they’ll again be without some key pieces.
Over the past few years, and again in 2012-13, Coach Byron Scott has had to make due with a partially-depleted roster. But one thing – (actually two) – that he’s been able to count on is that starting forwards Alonzo Gee and Tristan Thompson will answer the bell every night.
Gee and Thompson have been the Wine and Gold’s unquestioned iron men, suiting up for all 82 starts – something that isn’t easy in today’s NBA.
“You have to be very proud of those guys for being able to sustain and go through this season with all the other injuries we’ve had,” praised Scott. “It’s just a tribute to them to their hard work and the way they play every single night to be able to complete an 82-game season. That doesn’t happen often.
“I know I played about 14 years and I think I might have played in every game maybe three times. So it’s very difficult to do.”
It’s even more difficult considering the frontcourt duo’s job description. Every night, Gee draws the toughest defensive assignment from point guards to power forwards. Thompson bangs with the bigs every night, one year removed from starting the final 25 games at center as a 21-year-old rookie.
And anyone who’s watched the Cavs closely over these past two years has seen Gee take some spills that might’ve broken a mere mortal in half.
“Alonzo’s like a freak of nature,” laughed Tristan, recalling some of Gee’s hard tumbles. “Besides LeBron, he might have the next-best body in the league in terms of how chiseled-up he is. He’s built like a club bouncer. He takes care of his body and he eats well.”
Thompson – though not from Alonzo’s altitude – has taken his lumps in the paint as well.
“Me, guarding the best post players in the league, it definitely takes a toll on your body. But that’s why I get massages regularly, cold tub, foot baths, rest and the weight room.”
Both players credit their durability to time spent in the weight room and the guys who run it – Cavaliers strength and conditioning coaches, Stan Keller and Derek Millender.
“The weight room prevents you from getting injuries, keeps your body durable and, working out even during the season, it helps a lot,” said Thompson. “It keeps your body loose, it keeps strengthening your body, especially the functional stuff.”
“(Weightlifting) helps out a lot,” agreed Gee. “In the offseason, (you have to) make sure you stay in that weight room. Try to get as strong as you can. You’re not going to get too big; you’re going to run it off.”
But staying in the lineup for the duration requires more than weightlifting.
“Listen to the trainers, they know what to do,” added Alonzo. “If they tell you to get in the ice tub or get a massage, you best take care of your body. (Trainers) Max (Benton) and Steve (Spiro), they’re on us all day. There’s a lot of stuff available for you to take care of your body. You just have to get in there and do it.”
And while it might seem like plain old common sense for players to get their rest and eat right, it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Life moves fast and fast food sometimes seems like the way to go.
“Staying on top of your body and knowing that your body is what keeps you going in this league,” said Thompson. “So it definitely starts with eating right. Don’t put the fast food in your body. Yeah, there are a couple days where you want some Burger King. That’s fine, but you can’t rely on that stuff. You have to eat healthy, get your carbs, get your rest.”
“Getting your rest is a huge part of (staying healthy), especially for me, because I guard the best players every night,” added Gee. “So I rest a lot. When I’m not playing or in the gym, I’m off my feet.”
When asked if it’s hard to shut it down when he’s not in the gym, Alonzo laughed: “No. I’m very laid back, so I’m very comfortable shutting it down.”
Both players have been durable throughout their tenure with the Cavs. In last year’s Lockout-shortened season, Gee played in 63 of 66 regular season games, starting 31. Thompson played in 60 of 66.
And both players have had their blue-collar attitude for their entire basketball career. Thompson played in 36 games as a freshman at Texas. Gee never played less than 30 games in each of his four years at Alabama. And they’ve carried that toughness right into the professional ranks.
“(Alonzo)’s played hurt,” praised Thompson. “He’s got some bumps and bruises, but he’s a warrior and a tough guy and he’s not going to let anything stop him. If he can walk, he can play – that’s his mentality.”
On top of rest, weightlifting and eating right, Gee sites his most important source of strength.
“It comes from having faith in God, protecting me out there,” said the soft-spoken small forward. “That’s basically where it comes from.”
When the final game of a tough campaign tips off on Wednesday night, both men will know that they’ve accomplished something special. Both players have had solid seasons, especially Thompson, who’s one of the league’s most improved players this season. On Wednesday night, Tristan goes for his 32nd double-double of the year.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for us,” explained Gee. “Especially for me – coming out of the D-League into in the NBA, starting all those games. Being able to play every game is truly a blessing.”
“Being able to play a whole season, play every game and start every game means a lot,” added Thompson. “In this league, especially with the grind of the season, how much time and court time you put in, how physical the game is these days – it’s tough to play every game.”
Asked if he’s ever tempted to take a night off, simply to stem the physical and mental fatigue of the season, Tristan – one of the team’s true emerging leaders – answered easily …
“Some nights after you warm up, you lift weights and your body feels tired, but I don’t want to let my team down. I want to play with these guys and compete every night. I don’t like sitting on the sidelines in street clothes. I want to be out there fighting with my team.
“That’s what motivates me – being there for my teammates and battling it out with them.”