Charlie V: ‘Dying to Play’

Success can be a fragile thing in the NBA. When coaches strike upon a winning formula, the reasons to consider tinkering with it must be compelling. The Pistons have played winning basketball since opening the season 4-20, a turnaround that almost exactly coincided with Lawrence Frank’s decision to make Jason Maxiell the starter at power forward and bring Jonas Jerebko off the bench behind him.

The Pistons have, by and large, hit it straight between the uprights ever since on Frank’s blueprint of playing hard, playing smart and playing together – and that’s translated into much-improved defense and winning basketball.

Good news for the Pistons, good news for Pistons fans … bad news for Charlie Villanueva, at least as it translates to an opening to playing time for the third-year Piston who, like so many of his teammates, got caught in the crosswinds of turmoil that upended his first two seasons with the franchise.

He’s itching to play – “dying to play” as he told me Friday night, headed to the court for a pregame workout in Atlanta. Is he disappointed that he’s not in the rotation, playing in only two games since missing 32 with a right ankle injury that cropped up in training camp? Absolutely. Is he allowing disappointment to spill into a frustration that erodes his hunger? Nope.

Nobody has spent more time with Villanueva over his injury-marred season than strength coach Arnie Kander, whose well-documented knack for concocting unique remedies has helped Charlie V get in the best shape of his basketball life.

Villanueva has lost 30 pounds, Kander said, since training camp and is at his lightest, with his lowest body-fat percentage, since he got to the NBA. He’s done it with a workout regimen centered around sweating in the sauna.

“It’s worked for me,” Villanueva said. “It’s been tremendous. I think everything happens for a reason. Being hurt with my ankle, I wanted to stay in shape, but I couldn’t put weight on my ankle. So me and Arnie came up with this program – Arnie came up with it; it was all Arnie – and at first I was a little hesitant. But I just saw results every week. I got used to it and I felt real good. I saw how my body was changing.”

“I asked, ‘How am I going to get Charlie quickly back in shape, missing as much time as he did, without having to run, pound, beat his body up and beat up that ankle that we’ve rehabbed?’ ” Kander said. “So I said, ‘Let’s use old, traditional methods of wrestlers and boxers and we’ll do short-duration exercises in heat.’ ”

It started on the Stairmaster or exercise bikes for 10 minutes, then built to 20, in the 185-degree heat of the sauna at the team’s practice facility. Kander added abdominal workouts, plus boxing and wrestling techniques, as Villanueva took to the regimen. Kander also introduced temperature extremes, taking Villanueva from hot to cold and vice versa

“I call it ‘thermogenesis,’ ” Kander said. “It’s my coined phrase of tolerance of temperature. He’ll go in there and work out, then he’ll come out and I’ll wrap him in a cold towel. It was literally for the body to tolerate anything coming at him. You think about it, during a game, a guy is hitting you and beating on you and a coach is yelling at you, maybe things aren’t going exactly your way. Can you tolerate it? Can you work that part of your brain?”

“I’ll be in the sauna working out, then he’ll put me in the cold tub right away,” Villanueva said. “I’m in the shower with my clothes on and cold water is hitting me. From there, I go straight into the sauna and it shocks your body. And after that, I have to take a nap right away – right away. I’m just tired.”

The Pistons haven’t had many opportunities to practice since Villanueva was cleared to return in early March, but he felt surprisingly good – given the time he’d missed – immediately after getting thrown into the mix.

“Once I got out there on the practice court for the first time in two months, I was running really well, no problems,” he said. “I feel a lot lighter. I feel lose. I feel good. I see it and I feel it. I lost weight, but at the same time, you do the sauna work but I’ve been religiously in the weight room, as well. Maintained my strength.”

Villanueva, who has a sauna in his home, says he will maintain Kander’s sauna workouts in the off-season to maintain his level of conditioning. His time in Detroit hasn’t matched expectations when he and Ben Gordon signed as free agents in July 2009, and because the team has experienced little success on top of Villanueva’s injury history, he’s borne the brunt of fan unrest.

“I wish people would know Charlie the way I know Charlie,” Kander said. “Anything I ask him to do, he’s willing to do, anything that other people might look at as being different, off the wall. He’s not taken one day off. When I’ve asked him to work, off days, he’s working out. Days that we don’t even come in the building, Charlie was in the sauna, doing his routine. I have nothing but accolades to say about Charlie.”

Frank, too, has extolled Villanueva’s work ethic – he just is reluctant to mess with a lineup that’s helped the Pistons go 17-15 since Maxiell, with the team at 4-19, moved into the starting lineup.

“It’s not a knock on Charlie,” Frank said. “Charlie’s working hard. He’s doing what we’re asking. My thing is Greg, Max, Jonas, Body – they’re all doing basically what we’re asking. In order to put Charlie in there, one of those guys has to sit and right now those guys have played well on a consistent basis. Charlie has proven what he can do in this league. It’s unfortunate he missed so much time with the injury. Hopefully, there’ll be an opportunity for him to get in there, but the guys in front of him have played well.”

The Pistons have just 11 games left this season with no obvious opening, aside from injury, for Villanueva to force his way back into the rotation. But he’s determined to sweat it out through the summer, working out in the sauna and on the basketball court, and come back next season lean and hungry.

“I’m staying with it,” he said. “It’s made all the difference. Can’t wait to play.”