Nuggets athletic trainer recognized as one of best in business
Steady as a spring rain.
Calm as an explosives expert.
Humble as a high priest.
Dependable as your best friend.
For 19 years, Jim Gillen has been a picture of consistency, professionalism and even-temperament as head athletic trainer for the Denver Nuggets. In recognition of his work, he was inducted to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Trainers’ Association hall of fame on Saturday night.
In typical Gillen style, he accepted the honor with a dismissive humility that friends, coaches and players have grown to know so well over the past two decades.
“Of course it’s a dream job,” Gillen said. “I never had any idea I would get to this level. This was never a goal. I was lucky.”
In any profession – particularly the high-stakes world of the NBA – luck only takes you so far. Gillen has endured because he is among the best in his field.
Not only does he know his stuff in the training room, but he has a unique ability to gain the trust of the players whose lucrative careers frequently and literally rest in his hands.
“Jimbo is one of the best I’ve ever seen, without exception,” said former Nuggets media relations director Tommy Sheppard, who is now vice president of basketball administration for the Washington Wizards.
“You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can’t communicate and the player doesn’t know you care for him and care for his health, then all that knowledge is wasted. With Jim, everybody has the sense that he genuinely cares about them. They allow him to help them get better.”
A sardonic sense of humor and knack for gauging a player’s mood are among Gillen’s secrets to success. His jokes can be described as corny, at best, but their wry delivery and impeccable timing are invaluable over the course of an 82-game season.
“He’s a comedian,” Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony said. “He always comes in with some jokes. He’s always got a little funny quote. He just spices up the locker room a little bit.”
Known for his mustache – “He’s had that mustache since he was in third grade,” Sheppard said – and game-night sweater vests, Gillen embraces the image of a country boy just trying to make it in the big city.
Raised in Meade, Kan., a rural town of about 1,800 people, Gillen gravitated to sports, playing football, basketball and baseball. He enjoys telling Nuggets players that he was second-team all-city: “We had one high school and I played second-team.”
Undersized and modestly skilled, Gillen realized he wasn’t talented enough to play sports in college, but he knew he wanted to stay in the game, so to speak. His high school counselor suggested he look into athletic training while attending Fort Hays State University.
Steve Antonopolus was the Fort Hays head athletic trainer when Gillen arrived on campus, and he proved to be a great mentor. Antonopolus later became the athletic trainer for the Denver Broncos, and he hired Gillen as an assistant in 1987.
Gillen’s jump to the pros came after seven years as a high school teacher and athletic trainer in San Antonio and Aurora. When he left Overland High School to join the Broncos, the principal tried to make an 11th-hour plea for Gillen to stay.
“The day I was leaving, he says, ‘You know your contributions will never be as valuable where you’re going as it was with kids in high school,’ ” Gillen said. “Sometimes I think there’s some truth to that.”
Twelve years into his tenure with the Nuggets, Gillen found a way to reconnect with prep athletics, establishing the Excellence in High School Athletic Training Award in 2003. Each year, five schools in Colorado and Wyoming received a combined $7,000 for supplies and education within their athletic training program.
“High school trainers typically are underpaid,” said Nuggets assistant athletic trainer Dan Shimensky. “They teach in the morning, and then they spend afternoons with their sport. Jim knows how tough and how frustrating it is. You’re basically doing two jobs. He understands what they go through and that’s why he tries to reward them.”
Though the pay and prestige of the NBA are unquestionably better than the high-school ranks, the stress level and expectations are commensurate with the high-profile job description.
The challenge to stay upbeat was never more evident than in 1997-98, when the Nuggets went 11-71. One of the more memorable moments of that season came when Gillen convinced point guard Bobby Jackson that Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines required players to wear a life vest in the training-room hot tub.
Being a rookie, Jackson strapped on a swim vest and tried in vain to keep his chest submerged while bobbing up and down like a shipwreck survivor.
“You have to have a sense of humor and you have to be open-minded about what’s going on (with players), know when they’re not having a good day,” Gillen said. “Sometimes you can use a little levity to break up the bad day. I did that even when I was teaching school.”
More often than not, one-liners are an easy way to lighten the mood. Among the quintessential Gillen-isms:
On everyday life: “Some days are just gooder than others.”
On his disdain for the phrase wingspan as it pertains to athletes: “I’ve never seen a player with wings.”
On a referee giving star players favorable calls: “I’ll get his shoes signed for you at the end of the game.”
On breaking open a Coors Light: “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”
“Jim hasn’t changed the entire time I’ve known him,” said Eric Sebastian, who spent 15 years in the Nuggets’ media relations office before becoming direct of basketball operations at Memphis University last fall. “His jokes are the same but they’re still funny. You know they’re coming but they still make you laugh.”
Gillen also embraces the philosophy of a sign that sits on the shelf of his Pepsi Center office. It carries a quote from a good friend, “Judge less … seek to understand more.”
“If you wanted to, you could stay mad at these guys every day,” Gillen said. “You could question their motives every day, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time around Gillen would never question his motives. He’s all about helping the players and the team get better.
In his 19 years with the Nuggets, Gillen has never missed a game or a practice. In fact, the only game he remembers missing in his career was when he was at Aurora Central High School. The absence was due to the birth of his second daughter.
“My thing in life is consistency. Jim is always consistent every day,” said Nuggets strength-and-conditioning coach Steve Hess, who has worked with Gillen for the past 14 years. “You know where to find him and he’s always going to be there. It inspires me”
JIM OF ALL TRADES
Hess calls Gillen a “rock star” for everything he does for the Nuggets.
In addition to his duties as athletic trainer, Gillen works with director of basketball administration Lisa Johnson arranging hotels and flights throughout the season. He also bears the unofficial titles of psychologist, in-game statistician and general troubleshooter.
“If people knew how much Jim does, it’s amazing,” Hess said. “Whenever there’s a problem, everybody goes to Jim. If I’ve got a personal problem, I go to Jim. If you’ve got medical problems, personal problems, plane problems, mechanical problems, car problems, you go to Jim. Room problems, we got to Jim. He’s the problem-solver.”
When you’re in professional sports for two decades, there’s not much you haven’t encountered.
Gillen has tracked fouls and timeouts for more than 1,500 NBA games, sat at the left hand of 12 head coaches and administered treatment to more than 150 players ranging from All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to benchwarmers Mark Pope and George Zidek.
“From the star of the franchise to the summer league invitee, he treats everybody the same,” Sheppard said. “I think that’s what separates him.”
Having endured some of the leanest years in Nuggets history, Gillen is enjoying Denver’s latest run of seven straight playoff appearances. He has worked as the athletic trainer for Team USA (2002) and at three NBA All-Star games (1995, 2003 and 2005), but he has never been to the NBA finals.
Gillen, 57, figures he’s got a few more seasons in him. After that, who knows?
“It’s been a fun run,” he said.
To most people, that would seem to be understated. To those who know him, that’s simply Jim Gillen.