It’s been more than three months since COVID-19 began to tear its way through the nation. Since businesses around the country locked their doors and the quarantine began. Since Commissioner Adam Silver announced the NBA season would be put on hold.
“I’ll go to Saturn to play basketball at this point,” Frank Kaminsky III said. ”I’ll go pretty much anywhere. You tell me where to be and I’ll be there ready to play. It’s been a long time for me.”
Fortunately, for Kaminsky, space exploration isn’t necessary. However, some engineering was.
Since the inception of the franchise in 1968 until 1992, Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, affectionately known as the “Madhouse on McDowell”, was one of the most electrifying buildings in the Valley. Home to some of the most legendary players to ever rep a Phoenix jersey including Suns Ring of Honor members Alvan Adams, Paul Westphal, Connie Hawkins and Walter Davis, it has also hosted some of the most memorable moments in franchise history such as Tom Chambers’ 60-point performance and the 1976 NBA Finals.
Fast forward to the summer of 2020, with Talking Stick Resort Arena undergoing a landmark transformation and a state-of-the-art practice facility under construction, the Suns returned to their original home.
“This building has a lot of history from when the Suns started in 1968,” Suns Manager of Equipment Operations Jay Gaspar has been a part of the franchise since 1987, when he was a junior in high school. “With that being said, there was a lot of things that had to change and had to happen to keep and stay updated with today's needs of an NBA season, the growing staffs and the growing technology.”
When the NBA deemed it safe to resume individual workouts for the first time since mid-March, most other teams were simply able to return to their facilities. The Suns needed to design a new one.
“We had crews working around the clock,” Gaspar said. “They set up a weight room. They trucked it over and built it from scratch. We had to build a Suns locker room. We had to redo the old Suns locker room to make it a Mercury locker room. We had to update all the training rooms, all the amenities involved, the I.T., the televisions, the WiFi. This building just wasn't set up for it.”
Everything from the paint on the walls to the carpet on the floor desperately needed an update. Suns staff worked tirelessly to modernize the Madhouse on McDowell and in doing so were able to build a training center on the fly and virtually from scratch, with one of the biggest highlights being the transformation of a storage area into a high-functioning weight room.
“This weight room is very special because it was such a collaborative effort,” Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Cory Schlesinger said. “We were able to make a space here that, quite frankly, might be better than most spaces in the NBA. We were able to put this thing together over a week span. We have things that we didn't have in our old facility that are now allowing us to train even better than we were before the pandemic.”
While the timeline to plan, design and execute was short, the trainers made the most of the opportunity to provide the players with the necessary tools to return to basketball.
“We have a square space, which allows us to put in turf, which is a nice addition for us to do our low-level plyometrics, sprinting and just general cool-down and warmups,” Schlesinger said. “Also, we have a med ball wall that's the size of the room. Now we have a lot of ways that we can throw med balls into the wall, which makes it very exciting for our explosive training.”
Transferring everything to a new location hasn’t been the only adjustment for the Suns staff. In the days of COVID-19, health and safety are the primary concern as the Suns are going above and beyond when taking sanitary precautions.
“We had a lot of challenges to try to work with, like most teams,” Sr. Director of Health & Performance Brady Howe said. “There's been a lot of league recommendation, CDC recommendations and some of them change daily. Everything that we're trying to do is to be over-precautious. Everybody from staff to players have to be comfortable coming in and we have to make it comfortable for them.”
These precautions begin from the moment someone walks through the doors.
“When the players come in or anybody comes in, they're doing symptoms and temperature checks to make sure that there's nothing there,” Howe said. “If there is, we have protocols and emergency action plans in place so that we know how to handle that.”
Once in the building, players adhere to clear directions and guidelines such as marks on the floors showing exactly which routes to take to and from the court, the restroom and the locker room. The players are also staggered throughout the day with alternating schedules to allow enough time for a full training session, but without too many in the building at once.
The changes haven’t been lost on Kaminsky.
“It’s definitely weird coming into the arena and getting your temperature checked every single day,” Kaminsky said. “It’s different having to come in with a mask on, go to your spots and pretty much try to stay away from people as much as you can and also get workouts in.”
The setting has moved, precautions have been revved up and the training itself has also been adjusted. What would normally feature multiple coaches and multiple players training side-by-side throughout a workout, now has been simplified to one-on-one training. As the players enter the gym, each of them have their own location courtside dedicated solely to them.
“We have to space everybody 12 feet apart,” Gaspar said. “Their chairs have to be sanitized. Everybody gets their own couple of basketballs that are sanitized pre- and post-practice. Nobody else can go into this area, give them towels or water. That's just one of the many things you have to do to keep these guys safe.”
Once each player is done on the court, the staff then steps in to provide a deep cleaning that includes sanitizing the main floor, courtside and basketballs before the next player can enter.
Kaminsky missed nearly two months of the regular season due to injury and on the day he was cleared to finally resume basketball activities, it was announced that the NBA season was to be put on hold due to the spread of COVID-19. Now, five months since he’s seen game-action, Kaminsky returned to hardwood, but in a way he’s never witnessed before.
“It’s weird,” Kaminsky said. “You’re used to in your workouts having someone be close to you, setting screens, playing defense on you, doing all that kind of stuff. Sometimes it’s tough during a workout to be 12 feet away from the people who are working you out. It’s weird, it’s different, but you get used to it pretty quick. Right now, this is the norm. If this is the way we get access to basketball, I’m sure everyone is going to take it.”
Like so many others around the league, this lapse in basketball has introduced unforeseen changes in lifestyle and normalcy for these players.
“None of us have played competitive basketball for a couple of months,” Kaminsky said. “That’s the longest any of us have been away from playing the game maybe ever. These workouts definitely help. A lot of people are out here taking advantage of it.”
While so much has changed and so many new challenges have presented themselves in regards to the precautions and what the actual workouts look like, it has also sparked some positives including a deeper attention to detail required by the coaching and training staff.
“When we're trying to work with our athletes, with the restrictions of distance, it does one or two things,” Schlesinger said. “It makes you a bad coach or it makes you a really good coach. In this situation, it gave us the ability to make us better coaches via our communication skills. Our ability to talk to our athletes is so much more important now, more so than just showing them how to do what they do. So, this has made us better coaches. With that respect, I hope it makes our athletes better as well.”
With the potential of the season restarting soon, Kaminsky is excited for the opportunity to once again take the court and head to battle with his teammates.
“I came here for the opportunity to play with a lot of the guys that are on this team. Deandre being one of them,” Kaminsky said. “I didn’t really get the opportunity to do that this season. I just want to get back to that. I really want to play in this system, in this style, with the guys that we have on this team.”
Until then, it’s all about building back his endurance and finding his rhythm on the hardwood.
“It’s good to finally be back on the court, start to build towards something,” Kaminsky said. “You can do all the cardio and conditioning in the world that you want at your house by yourself, but nothing can really prepare you for playing actual basketball. It’s different movements, things you can’t really do on your own. For me, the workouts are just trying to get my wind back up. Trying to get my legs back underneath me. Get a lot of shots up, get a lot of movement in, work on the stuff that I’ve been away from for so long.”
For a more in-depth visual look at the new sanitary and safety precautions the Suns are taking, be sure to tune-in to our social channels and YouTube page this Sunday as we take you into the Madhouse and behind-the-scenes as the Suns prepare for the resumption of the 2020 NBA season.