Gut instincts told Aaron Nelson he was making the right decision to join the New Orleans Pelicans this spring, particularly after he kept hearing positive things about the franchise’s direction. Over a span of just five days, a series of events emphatically confirmed to Nelson that those intangible feelings were correct.
After interviewing with David Griffin and touring the team’s six-year-old practice facility – the Ochsner Sports Performance Center – Nelson accepted his new role as vice president of player care and performance on a Sunday. By Monday, Nelson’s entire list of renovation recommendations for the facility had been reviewed and OK’d by Owner Gayle Benson. Griffin called Nelson, who was in the initial stages of preparing to move his family from Arizona, to ask if he could meet Friday with contractors, to discuss the specific changes Nelson outlined. “I was like, ‘Really?’ ” Nelson recalled, alluding to the stunningly rapid timeline. “Griff said (in a phone call), ‘Everything on your equipment list was approved.’
“Right then, when I heard that, it re-affirmed why I came here. There is a sense of, ‘Let’s make this a great place for all of us.’ It showed immediately. The (Pelicans) knew there were changes that needed to be made, and they were all-in on them. It was fantastic.”
The addition of Nelson himself also fits well into that category of significant summer upgrades. Over his 26-year tenure in the Phoenix Suns organization, Nelson was one of the NBA’s most well-respected athletic trainers, credited with dramatically improving the late-career health of All-Star players such as Grant Hill, Steve Nash and Shaquille O’Neal. Around the league, many of his methods on injury prevention, rehabilitation and recovery have been considered cutting-edge.
During New Orleans’ summer league trip to Las Vegas in July, it was common to see Nelson filming video clips of Pelicans players jumping or doing squats, exercises that help identify whether a player is moving properly. Via technology created by the company Fusionetics – its founder, Mike Clark, has been a mentor for Nelson since 2000 – Nelson can quickly determine which corrections need to be made, sometimes based on lack of flexibility or muscle weaknesses. This identification is at the core of programs designed and tailored to the specific needs of individual players.
Nelson smiles when he notes that even when he’s not working directly with basketball players in his NBA role, it’s impossible for him not to notice if a person he sees is exhibiting a need for improvements in their movement.
“This sounds crazy, but when I’m at the mall or the grocery store, I’ll notice how people are walking or moving, and start thinking, ‘You know, I would do this or that differently,’ ” Nelson said, laughing at how his mindset has been affected. “It’s kind of my habit now. I look at things a lot differently than I used to.”
Clark was named a Visionary of the Year by Men’s Health magazine, a testament to being at the forefront of several aspects of athletic training.
“He was way ahead of everybody,” Nelson said. “He helped guide me and give me a new perspective. We decided to approach sports medicine differently and look at some of the mechanical movements differently, with deficiencies. More people are doing that now. It’s not just about strength, power and speed stuff anymore. They’re starting to examine some of the mechanical aspects of movement.”
In a surprising number of cases, subjects who make even subtle changes after undergoing testing will report rapid results.
“The point is to correct problems now, before you put players on the court,” Nelson explained. “The feedback from the athletes is usually very good. People will say things like, ‘My hips feel free,’ or ‘I have more range of motion in my ankle,’ or ‘I felt pain, but now it’s gone.’ ”
“If you try to drive your car with the parking brake on, you’re going to have to rev up your engine really, really high in order to get it to move,” Clark said, using an apt analogy to describe the correctable problems some players have. “If you’re running around a basketball court and your hips are stiff, or your ankles don’t rotate, you’re going to use way too much juice. Your body can’t recover. That’s why you’re starting to see so many of these young kids get hurt. They come into the league with tight ankles and tight hips, or their stomach (muscle) is weak.”
Using their new approach, Nelson and Clark began to see immediate results with Suns players like point guard Stephon Marbury, who had missed stretches of games with New Jersey to injury, but then played in 82, 81, 81 and 82 games over the next four NBA seasons after joining Phoenix in ’01-02.
“We started getting players who were coming to Phoenix specifically because of the sports-medicine system, such as Grant Hill,” Clark said, citing arguably the league’s biggest athletic training success of the past two decades. “(Hill) wanted the sports-medicine care there.”
After many around basketball realistically wondered whether the then-34-year-old Hill was on his way to retirement – injuries had derailed virtually his entire seven-year Orlando tenure – the Hall of Fame forward would play another six NBA seasons. During his age-36 through age-38 seasons with the Suns, Hill played 82, 81 and 80 games.
A ‘holistic’ approach
Throughout much of Alvin Gentry’s four seasons as New Orleans head coach, health has been a major determining factor for how the Pelicans have performed. Gentry’s very first regular season game in October ’15 was a bad omen – a series of injuries forced New Orleans to sign point guard Nate Robinson as a street free agent, then immediately place him in the starting lineup against Steph Curry and defending NBA champion Golden State. That same night, 13th-year NBA veteran Kendrick Perkins was pushed into starting duty at center, while Ish Smith logged 38 minutes at backup point guard, mere hours after Smith joined Robinson as an emergency signee. Although the Pelicans have produced spurts of excellence, including a 24-8 stretch in ’17-18 that culminated with a first-round playoff sweep over Portland, momentum and consistency have frequently been stunted by injuries. While some of the issues can be chalked up to bad luck, one of Nelson’s primary objectives will be to keep the Pelicans healthier as a group.
“We want to improve every aspect, from injury prevention, to rehab, to sports performance, to strength and conditioning,” said Nelson, who brought former Phoenix staff members Tom Maystadt and Stan Williams with him to New Orleans. “I don’t know what was going on here before, because I wasn’t here, but from my perspective coming here, we want to enhance all of those areas. It’s also about recovery, nutrition and tying all of those areas together. It’s going to be holistic where we utilize all of our unique skill sets and help each other.”
While touring the Pelicans’ practice facility with Griffin this spring, Nelson pinpointed changes the team needed to make to the layout, such as creating more open space. Some previously-existing walls have been removed, in order to improve sight lines and communication between various departments, while also creating a better work environment for players, coaches and staff.
“I wanted flow. Flow is important,” Nelson explained of what is a vastly different looking interior, which allows for the ability to simultaneously keep an eye on multiple work areas. “I don’t want the training room closed off in one area. I don’t want the weight room to be closed off. We all work together. We need to be able to interact.
“(The changes made) weren’t only about aesthetics and from a flow standpoint. You want to have camaraderie among everyone, and (players) want to have a sense of pride when they’re working out.”
Clark: “When you go around not just the NBA, but all pro sports and high-level collegiate sports, oftentimes you see the weight room and training room are not connected, and that’s not an athlete-centered model. You have this inundation of new technology, but the athletes are doing their own thing and have their own external trainers. What Aaron does is build a culture that delivers evidence-based solutions that are proven. That’s why he’s been able to get amazing results for more than two decades.”
A new home
A native of Iowa and graduate of Iowa State, Nelson’s first exposure to the medical field came from his mother Joyce, who worked as a nurse and EMT in his hometown of Manning (population 1,400).
“I learned a lot from her, including about the bones and the muscles at an early age,” said Nelson, whose mom now lives in Arizona, along with other family and relatives. “That’s something I teach my kids now. I think that’s important to have a little bit of knowledge. She was a big influence. She worked from 8 to 5, and then week-on, week-off, she might have a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, where if something bad happened in rural Iowa, maybe a car accident, she’d go out to it. So a big thing for me was seeing her work ethic. It taught me that you don’t quit, and you work hard to get where you want to be. There is no easy road. She worked really, really hard, and I saw that.”
After 26 years with the Suns, including winning the NBA’s 2009 Trainer of the Year award and garnering significant praise around the league, Nelson has brought that mindset to his new organization. It wasn’t easy for him to leave Phoenix and what had become extremely familiar surroundings for his family – he and his wife Jessica have three children (Andrew, Logan and Emma) who began school in New Orleans in early August – but the presence of Griffin and Gentry helped make him comfortable. When Nelson arrived in New Orleans to discuss coming to the Pelicans, Gentry picked Nelson up at the airport. Over the years, whenever Gentry’s NBA team played in Phoenix, he’d always stop by Nelson’s office to say hello before shootarounds.
“Almost immediately I saw Griff’s vision and what Alvin needed here, and felt a sense of rejuvenation,” Nelson said of the initial hours of his visit. “On the third day here, when I was finally about to leave (to fly back to Phoenix), I told my wife, ‘This just feels right.’ ”
The ensuing months have made Nelson feel even more strongly about his new NBA home. Six days after the hire of Nelson was officially announced, the Pelicans won the draft lottery in Chicago. June and July were filled with positive additions, both on the roster and within the organization.
“You see everything that’s taken place,” Nelson said of the Pelicans’ summer. “Not only getting four good rookies in the draft, but the veteran guys who wanted to come here (in Derrick Favors and JJ Redick). You just get such a sense that good things are happening here.”