Keeping Them Fine-Tuned

For athletes, staying fit, healthy and injury-free is of utmost importance. The physically demanding nature of NBA basketball requires a fine-tuned body capable of surviving 82-plus games each year. But bumps, bruises and, unfortunately, injuries are always a part of each season. Staying healthy and, where necessary, coming back as quickly as possible from an injury, are vital to any team’s success.

For the Minnesota Timberwolves, the men charged with keeping the players fine-tuned are head athletic trainer Gregg Farnam, strength and conditioning coach Dave Vitel and physical therapist Andre Deloya. This tight-knit trio work in unison to keep the Wolves on the court in peak condition.

Farnam’s main responsibilities include accessing and treating injuries, maintaining the inventory of medical and training supplies and working with the team’s medical staff in monitoring each players’ physical condition. Vitel develops and oversees individualized weight-lifting and flexibility programs for each player. Deloya works with injured players, prescribing and overseeing exercises and providing treatment to assist in their rehabilitation process.

From Whence They Came
Gregg Farnam tops the training staff seniority list as he is in his 12th season with the Wolves and his eighth as the team’s head athletic trainer. He began as an intern for the 1997-98 season under Chris Palmer. The 39-year-old Pine River, Minn., native came in contact with the Wolves while the team was using St. Cloud State’s facilities for training camp in the mid-90s. As a student at SCSU at the time, Farnam would help Palmer out during practices doing whatever task was asked of him. That relationship eventually led to Farnam being hired full-time by the Wolves.

Being an athletic trainer was not on Farnam’s mind when he graduated from high school, however.

“I didn’t realize athletic training was a career when I was growing up in a small town in north central Minnesota,” Farnam said. “They didn’t have athletic trainers at my high school at that time. But I discovered this career when I went to St. Cloud State. At college, I was first introduced to it through a class and through some other students that I had met there.”

As a result of being the Wolves athletic trainer, Farnam has had the opportunity to work other sporting events throughout the world. He was the athletic trainer for the gold-medal-winning United States men’s basketball team at the Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia. He was also the athletic trainer for the USA Basketball U19 team at the FIBA World Championships in Nova Sad, Serbia, in the summer of 2007. This past summer, Farnam had the unique experience of serving as the head athletic trainer for the NBA’s Basketball without Borders Asia program in New Delhi, India. This global basketball development and community outreach program unites elite young basketball players to promote the sport and encourages positive social change in the areas of education, health and wellness. The experience was one Farnam will long remember.

“It was a great experience as far as the community outreach that the NBA provides in those cities, also the teaching and the skill work that they also provide for the young athletes of that area. Being in New Delhi, that was the Asian region, and we had kids from China, Japan, Iran, Iraq and other countries from that area. It was a great opportunity to see the culture of that area. It makes you realize how fortunate we are to live here and how blessed we are to have what we have.”

At 31 years old, Dave Vitel is the youngster of the trio and the newcomer to the team having been hired prior to the 2006-07 season. The Elgin, Ill., native attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where he played football and was first introduced to a strength and conditioning coach.

“I wanted to coach and I loved football, but I didn’t want to coach football,” Vitel recalled. “I tried that for a year as a graduate assistant and it just wasn’t for me. I wanted to stay with sports and still coach in some aspect. So I got an internship at the University of Arizona and I really enjoyed being a strength and conditioning coach. I enjoyed that aspect of getting people better for their sport, for all sports — I loved doing that.”

From there, Vitel went back to his home state as an intern with the Chicago Bulls. That led to a job as the head strength coach at Loyola University Chicago when he was just 23 years old.

“It was nice because I didn’t have to go through the process of being a GA, then an assistant,” he said. “I went right from being an intern to the head job. Obviously, my time with the Bulls was great and I felt that that was where I did most of my learning. I was just fortunate to find a mid-major university that took a chance on me and said this kid has a good background and we want to start a program.”

Vitel also worked with several agents in the Chicago area helping train their clients for the NBA Draft Camp and he also helped when the Draft Camp was held in Chicago. Vitel also knew Wolves assistant general manager Fred Hoiberg from the time they were both with the Bulls.

When this job with the Wolves opened up three years ago, Fred had called some friends and they said, ‘Hey, you remember Dave?’ and he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember him.’ And I had met Jim Stack before because his sister Karen works for the Bulls. They didn’t really know me that well, but it helped me get an interview.”

Bringing the most experience to the Wolves training staff is 55-year-old Andre Deloya. This is Deloya’s ninth season with the Wolves and he has 30 years of experience in the field of physical therapy. Prior to joining the Wolves, Deloya was a supervisor for 10 years at the Institute for Athletic Medicine in Minneapolis.

Deloya also came the furthest, geographically, in his journey to the Wolves. Born in Oslo, Norway, Deloya and his family moved to White Plains in upstate New York when he was nine years old. He attended college at SUNY Buffalo as a pre-med student, then went to graduate school at Columbia University, getting his master’s in physical therapy and finally his doctorate in physical therapy from the Boston University.

Deloya and his wife came to Minnesota in the early 1980s.

“I guess with the cultural draw, my Norwegian heritage, I had to somehow settle here,” Deloya kidded. “Actually, my wife and I moved here in 1983 as I was finishing up my master’s thesis. My wife wanted to go to school to become a midwife. She wanted to get her master’s in midwifery. The University of Minnesota had a very good program, so we came here. Then we had a kid within the first year and we decided it was a great place to raise kids. For me, I love snow and I love the four seasons and the topography here, the climate here. This is home.”

Deloya first began working with the Wolves on a consulting basis during the truncated 1998-99 NBA season and came on full-time several years later.

“During the lockout year, that abbreviated season, I had a chance to work with quite a few of the athletes because the condensed schedule made it hard to travel with injured people,” Deloya recalled. “Chris Palmer asked me to see people at Target Center while the rest of the people traveled. I had done some work previously with Christian Laettner when he tore his Achilles, and I had done some work with some Twins players, so I had gotten into the sports community and people knew that I was out there. When Chris left and Gregg took his position, the Wolves decided to have two different people serving those roles: the rehab side and the athletic training side.”

All Together Now
Working well together is crucial for the Wolves training staff. Not one of the three does his job in a vacuum. Rather, they are dependent on each other to achieve the team’s overall physical well-being by restoring, maintaining, and promoting overall fitness and health.

“We all have our strengths and I think we work well together,” Farnam said. “The key is communication and everybody accepting their role. We have the personalities here that make it work. We’re all pretty easy-going, but very up on what we are supposed to be doing and what our responsibilities are. Communication is key when we’re dealing with someone who has an injury. Andre may be rehabbing him and it’s important for Dave to know what’s going on as that player works back into the weight room or back into activity. Everybody needs to be on the same page.”

Deloya likened the staff members’ connectivity to a triangle, where any one of the three may be at the head of the triangle at any particular time, but still dependent on the others to complete the triangle.

“I like to call it a revolving triangle,” he said. “We all have specific areas of expertise that we like to direct. So when you’re dealing with strength and conditioning, Dave sets the agenda and Gregg and I will often act as his assistants. During a game, I will defer to Gregg and help him out if I can. But when a player is in the rehab mode, I take the apex of the triangle and Gregg and Dave kind of follow and execute some of the programs that I set up. So we have revolving roles that are constantly shifting. It works very well. It’s about communication and about respecting each other’s unique skill sets and trusting that person to take what you’re presenting and then running with it.”

Vitel says the trio realizes the importance of working together and putting the players and the team first.

“We’re really good at communicating and talking to each other,” he said. “That’s important because we’re in it for the players and we’re trying to get them healthy, back on the floor, strong, in shape... We’re trying to do all that and you have to have good communication. We feed off of each other. If a guy is hurt, Andre and Gregg will assess the injury and start the player on some sort of rehab and then it carries over through me to finish it and get him back on the court. We’re always discussing where a guy is at, how he’s doing, and what can we do to get him back on the floor faster.”

Building Rapport
Because Farnam, Vitel and Deloya work so closely with the players, it’s vital that they gain their trust.

“I think the key thing is just to be consistent when you deal and interact with them on a daily basis,” Farnam said. “A lot of times they won’t need anything from me or Andre, but when they do encounter an injury or illness, the key is to be compassionate and understanding and show that you really do care about them. And just being available when they need you. I think that’s how trust is built over time.”

Rashad McCants, Randy Foye, and now Corey Brewer, have each had a significant injury over the past three years that has required extensive attention from the Wolves training staff to get them back into playing condition. It’s a long and arduous process to come back from a major injury — and potentially a lonely one. It’s at this time that a player especially appreciates a top-notch training staff.

“When you’re injured, you tend to stop believing in yourself a bit — you start wondering if you’ll ever be able to come back the same,” Foye said. “But if you watch me in my rookie year and watch me now, I feel as though I’m back to where I was at health-wise. The things I did with Andre and Gregg and Dave last year is something that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life because I learned so much from them about strengthening other muscles than the main muscles and I think that will help add years to my career. And those guys were like my teammates during my rehab because I was with them all the time.”

It’s also crucial that the training staff communicates and builds trust with the coaching staff.

“I think we lean a lot on each other,” said assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff. “I think they have an insight into the players that we don’t always have. The most important thing about your team is your players’ health. You can’t get anything out of them if they’re not healthy. I think training staffs are an under-appreciated group around the league. From the fans’ perspective, from the outside looking in, you don’t realize how important those guys really are. From a coaching perspective, you really love the effort they put in. They are with the guys probably more hours than the coaches are because they’re here early working on the guys, making sure they get ready for practice. Then they stay late afterwards with them. They do a lot of things that sometimes we don’t even see, but they’re there in the corner doing it for us.”