Meet The Staff: Trainer Joe Sharpe

After accumulating his share of injuries as a three-sport athlete in Virginia, Joe Sharpe figured that if his high school wouldn’t supply a full-time athletic trainer, he might as well learn how to become one.

Now, that’s not to say that Sharpe was some Doogie Howser clone growing up in Bedford, Va.

But it’s safe to say he had an inquiring mind, so much so that he did an ample amount of research on athletic training, wrote a term paper on it his senior year, stumbled into sports medicine and found his calling.

“I thought that was pretty neat, that I could get involved and help people and still watch sports,” Sharpe said. “I think my joke to my mother was, ‘I’m going to get a job where I can watch sports all day because I was just a sports fanatic.’ I just enjoyed being around the atmosphere.”

And to this day, Sharpe hasn’t strayed from that atmosphere.

From nearly a decade spent working at the University of Connecticut to stints with USA Basketball as well as jobs with two NBA teams, Sharpe finds himself working for the Thunder as the team’s head athletic trainer.

His job in a nutshell: provide athletic training services to Thunder players, whether it’s taping appendages, giving treatment or light massages, applying ointments or helping assess injuries. On game days his role expands to resident bookkeeper, which has him sitting next to Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks as he keeps track of timeouts, fouls and other important information.

But on a larger scale, Sharpe’s job requires so much more.

And over the years, he’s learned his share of tricks of the trade.

“As far as caring for the athlete, it can be done in 30 different ways by 30 different trainers,” he said, “but the end result is it works for the athlete and the athlete is taken care of.”

Had it not been for his high school’s lack of an athletic trainer, who knows what career path Sharpe would have pursued.

During his high school years, Sharpe said that having a full-time athletic trainer wasn’t state-mandated. Sharpe, who played football, basketball and baseball, and had to rely on the coaching staff for treatment and taping.

“I thought that was pretty unique in that, here I’m getting hurt, there’s no one to take care of me so maybe it’s something I can create,” Sharpe said.

By the time his senior year came, Sharpe was applying to colleges with athletic training programs before settling on Old Dominion University, where he completed his undergraduate and graduate work.

It was there that Sharpe got exposed to various sports, including rugby, baseball and, of course, basketball. Since ODU didn’t have a football team at the time, he went to neighboring Norfolk State to meet his collision experience before he was eligible to take the Board of Certification exam. Sharpe took the exam during his first semester of grad school and ended up passing.

From there, he finished school and started job hunting.

His first job was at the University of Connecticut, although Sharpe readily admits he had no clue what position he was interviewing for, only that it was in the training department.

As it turned out, it was to be the athletic trainer for the men’s basketball team.

And it was an interview process Sharpe will never forget.

He remembers interviewing with the athletics director for about five minutes. The AD led him downstairs to an office where basketball coach Jim Calhoun and his three assistants were holding a meeting. Sharpe pulled up a chair and remained there for two hours.

Calhoun spent the first hour, 45 minutes explaining his vision for UConn basketball. That was followed by 15 minutes of questions. By the end of the interview process, Sharpe still hadn’t a clue whether he got the job or not. But he eventually did, and went on to spend the next nine years there, during which he won a national championship in 1999, met his wife, Jennifer, who was also an athletic trainer, and forged a strong friendship with Calhoun.

Both Sharpe and Calhoun had their fathers pass away at an early age in their lives. Together, they spoke more about life than sports. They rode bikes together. They swam together. In a book that Calhoun wrote shortly after winning that title, he referred to Sharpe as a son.

“He was a part of my family,” Sharpe said. “He was a friend and a father figure for years while I was in Connecticut.”

To this day, Sharpe still visits UConn, usually during the off-season for The Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic Golf Tournament and later for his celebrity basketball game.

Every time Sharpe revisits UConn, it’s a chance to connect. He often runs into former players he used to work with, including Donyell Marshall, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Rudy Gay and Ben Gordon.

That UConn bond also was there during Sharpe’s transition to the NBA, where Sharpe broke into the league as the assistant athletic trainer/strength and conditioning coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves. After two seasons there, Sharpe headed back east to become the head athletic trainer for the Charlotte Bobcats, a position he held for four seasons.

Sharpe landed with the Thunder while he was without a job last summer. Having verbally committed to be the Washington Wizards’ assistant athletic trainer, Sharpe received a phone call out of the blue from Thunder Director of Pro Player Personnel Bill Branch, who asked Sharpe if he was interested in the head trainer position with the Thunder.

“I said ‘yes’ right away,” Sharpe said.

At the time the Thunder reached out to Sharpe, he was on his way to Argentina with the USA Basketball U18 team. When Sharpe returned, he flew to Boston to have dinner with General Manager Sam Presti, Director of Medical Services Donnie Strack and Dwight Daub, the Thunder's Director of Athletic Performance/Assistant Coach.

A week later, Sharpe was back in Charlotte, closing on his house when Presti called with a job offer. It was a no-brainer.

“I think it was, what I call it, an act of faith,” Sharpe said. “Again, I can’t explain it but I’m very appreciative for it.”

Soon thereafter, Sharpe was in Oklahoma City making decisions on counter space and cabinets for what would be his trainer’s room at the INTEGRIS Health Thunder Training Center in Edmond.

Sharpe has his daily routine down pat.

On game days, he’ll arrive at the practice facility by 6:30 a.m. to work out for an hour or so. Then he’ll prep for shoot-around and the players’ arrival around 8 o’clock, when he’ll do treatments and taping for close to two hours. Sharpe gets to watch shoot-around ,then cater to what the players need before they leave the facility shortly after noon.

It’s then that Sharpe starts prepping for the game itself.

First, he’ll gather all the supplies he needs for the game before heading home for lunch with his family. He’ll arrive at the arena by 4 p.m., when he’ll begin taping players. From 5-7 p.m. he’s doing more prep work, and while the team is in its final meeting before tip-off, Sharpe is changing into his suit. Once the game begins, he’s seated next to Brooks.

“I just get to enjoy the game,” Sharpe said. “But at the same time I’m thinking of situations and how to handle situations on the court, and while I’m thinking of those situations I’m keeping track of timeouts and fouls and possessions of quarters. Reminding scorer’s table if something is wrong; alert Coach of foul trouble, make sure coaches know about bonus situations.”

At halftime, Sharpe will give a quick assessment of the players. During postgame he’s giving out ice bags and making sure players get proper treatments. On an average game night, Sharpe will return home no later than 11 p.m.

During the off-season, Sharpe is continuing his education, whether it’s reading, watching video or experimenting with new techniques.

It’s a never-ending process.

“I still have a lot to learn,” Sharpe said. “I’ve been doing it for going into my eighth year now and I’m not even at the tip of the iceberg as far as what I need to learn there. I’m below the water still. There’s so much more. It’s such a broader aspect to learn. I’m not sure if I’ll ever learn it all but I’ll keep trying. As long as I bring something new for me to the table every year, I’ll be happy with that.”

Contact Chris Silva