Pistons head to Las Vegas for a week of MMA training and a dose of team bonding

Reggie Jackson, Stan Van Gundy
Reggie Jackson is one of the many newcomers to the Pistons roster since Stan Van Gundy’s arrival.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The players most critical to their future weren’t yet born when the Pistons won their first NBA title. But they’ve shown genuine enthusiasm for shaking down the echoes of that era, wearing Bad Boys gear and talking openly about emulating their toughness and defensive mind-set.

So it might evoke a few furrowed brows in NBA circles when word gets out that the current Pistons will spend next week in Las Vegas training with mixed martial arts instructors.

Not to worry. The Pistons are doing it not to hone their pugilistic abilities but partly for its benefit to their physical conditioning with training camp looming and mostly as a team-building exercise for a roster that’s turned over dramatically in Stan Van Gundy’s 15 months on the job.

The idea began with the players, led by Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, and they asked the team’s director of sports medicine, Jon Ishop, to help them find something that would be a unique experience and help them in their conditioning leading to training camp

Pistons equipment manager John “Kong” Coumoundouros has experience as an MMA fighter and he’ll be along for the trip. While he admits players were bemused and a little uncertain about the concept, he says they’re going to come away benefitting and – mostly – having fun with it.

“Their reaction was mixed, kind of unsure,” he said. “It’s the unknown factor for them. But when they get there, it’s a lot of fun. It really is.”

“Just to work hard, keep getting in great shape and bond with the guys,” Spencer Dinwiddie said were his goals for the week. “That’s the main thing. When you have guys here (before training camp opens), that’s what you’re going to gain from it the most.”

Most players will arrive in Las Vegas today from various parts of the country. Ersan Ilyasova will be a notable exception as he’s playing for the Turkish national team in preparation for September’s Eurobasket competition. For many newcomers, it will be their introduction to most of their teammates.

Darrun Hilliard knows fellow draftee Stanley Johnson, played Summer League with Adonis Thomas and Spencer Dinwiddie, roomed with Andre Drummond while training for two weeks in Santa Barbara, Calif., and briefly met Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Jackson in Orlando. So he’s looking forward to meeting everybody else, including Marcus Morris, who grew up in Philadelphia not far from his hometown of Bethlehem, Pa.

“I’ve never done MMA before,” he said. “I’ve watched it and I thought those dudes were crazy. How do you put your body through that? Well, I guess I’m going to do it for a week. It’s probably different because you’re using different muscles and the intensity is different. I’m all for using different things to stay in shape. I’m looking forward to it. Should be fun – Vegas and getting some team bonding.”

The team will go through twice-daily workouts, one organized by strength coach Anthony Harvey and the other under the direction of the MMA staff. Once the idea was first broached, it needed approval from Stan Van Gundy and even got the endorsement of Pistons owner Tom Gores, Coumoundouros said.

“(Van Gundy) wants to make sure no one gets hurt,” he said. “The No. 1 thing is the health of the athletes.”

There will be no sparring, no getting in the cage. “Some bag work, some mitt work, some jiu jitsu training,” Coumoundouros said.

When the staff did a site visit in Las Vegas to discuss the idea with UFC representatives, the MMA folks made a counterproposal to send six of their fighters to Auburn Hills to engage in a week of basketball conditioning work in advance of the week in the desert.

“They found it a big challenge,” Coumoundouros said. “They were very surprised. The first day, they were asking if there was a gym around where they could hit bags and get a little workout in. We were like, ‘No, no. Wait until the second day.’ The second day, they come in and they can barely walk.”

The MMA fighters were interested in learning about how NBA players handle recovery.

“In the NBA, we’re seven days a week,” Coumoundouros said. “We had four stretches of four games in five nights last year. They were interested in different levels of training, recovery, nutrition, how we deal with everybody. A lot of the gyms have lower-tier or mid-tier fighters. You don’t get the tools like some of the champions, so they’re trying to educate all of their athletes.”

The Pistons hope to come out of their week in Vegas a little better educated, in a little better shape, and that much farther along in the critical art of team building before they reconvene in Auburn Hills for training camp and the start of year two of the Van Gundy era.

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