It's a hectic time of year for the trainers of Utah's two professional basketball teams.
The Jazz are 92 games into their season and midway through the NBA playoffs, when every little nagging hurt can be exploited by the opponent, a player unable to perform up to par for one game can mean dire consequences for a franchise.The trainers provide the know-how, the up-to-date equipment and the educated hands for following doctors' orders and keeping players in the lineup or getting them back as soon as possible, but Mike Shimensky says, "It's nothing magic."
For the past four seasons, it's been Shimensky's business to keep Jazz players ready. For 18 years prior to Shimensky's arrival from Portland (he was with the Trail Blazers 1987-94 and the Clippers '81-87), Don Sparks was the Jazz trainer. Terry Clark has been the Jazz's assistant trainer since 1984-85.
For the most part, says Shimensky, Jazz players miss so few games, especially in the playoffs, because that's the way the players want it.
"If these guys weren't cooperative, they wouldn't be ready to play," Shimensky says. "I often tell people all the credit goes to these players. These guys, you ask them to do something, they follow the instructions.
Shimensky knows of teams "where you tell them to go home and do certain things, they don't do it. That's one way they miss games.
"With these players, they take a personal pride in playing," he says.
"The trainer's only as good as how hard the athlete works," agrees Starzz trainer Leanne Stockton, who spends most of her year as the head trainer at Kentucky Wesleyan College and accompanied the Wildcats to the NCAA Division II championship game little more than a month ago.
The Starzz are just beginning their WNBA year and are carrying extra players who are trying to win jobs. Once the playing schedule starts June 11, the Starzz will play 30 games in 58 days, busier than the busiest NBA schedules. That's Stockton's version of the playoffs, she says with a laugh.
Shimensky, Stockton and Sparks - the three S's of the two Z's (Jazz, Starzz) - are busy in springtime, but they all say heroic training measures to get players ready for the next game don't really exist. It's more following tried and true formulas.
Stockton subscribes to the RICE diet of rest, ice, compression and elevation for most player injuries and says each must be taken individually because people respond differently. Treating swelling quickly usually helps whether it's a short- or long-term recovery project.
Sparks says treatment depends upon whether it's a muscle or a joint injury. "If it's a knee, more than a mild sprain, it would be hard to get a guy ready (in a day or two)," he says. "Depending on the severity, a lot of times you can massage that and get the swelling out," he says. But care is needed. "I guess you could over-treat an injury," Sparks adds, "and agitate or aggravate it. If it's a contusion to where there's bleeding, if you do too much you could cause the capillaries to bleed, and you'd be better off leaving it alone."
Because basketball players are bigger than most people, Sparks, now retired, tried to get those with lower-extremity injuries on crutches quickly.
He recalls staying overnight to treat players but says it was "very seldom."
Despite the stakes in the playoffs, Shimensky prefers to send players home with instructions and perhaps an electronic muscle stimulator. They need to be with their families, he says.
With the Jazz, "The closest we ever came to overnight was when Karl (Malone) sprained his ankle years ago ('94), and John ('95) also," Shimensky says. With Malone, he and Clark worked in shifts through the night massaging Malone's ankle. It was thought Malone might be out for weeks, but he didn't miss a game.
Now that most teams charter flights, treatment of players on road trips is easier, Sparks says, and team doctors often ride along. In the playoffs, the NBA requires a team to bring an internist and orthopedist to road games, and home teams must provide those doctors for every regular-season game.
A variety of "modalities," mainly electrical stimulators that Stockton says can increase cell permeability, reduce spasms, re-educate muscles and provide some comfort, have been around for years. Some now have chips in them that can be upgraded when improvements come along, says Shimensky, but there isn't a great deal in the trainers' arsenal that's new.
And sometimes an injury that seems minor can defy treatments. Stockton recalls a college player whose injury - a sprained "little pinky toe" - took six weeks to heal.
In fact, modern technology might have been part of the problem for one of the Jazz's two most difficult injuries of '97-98 - Adam Keefe's plantar fasciae foot problem earlier this season. Shoes with air bladders for foot cushioning in some areas can strain others, Shimensky says. Another cause could have been Achilles tendon inflexibility.
Keefe's foot and Antoine Carr's hamstring pull near the end of the regular season were Shimensky's two most-frustrating puzzles of the year. "Really tough to deal with," he says. "That goes back to the other statement that I made: If these guys didn't make themselves available for treatment and having our medical staff work on them, they wouldn't be ready."
And with that, Shimensky was on his way out of the Delta Center with his family Tuesday night at a most respectable 9:30 p.m. after a 6 p.m. game start. It's a hectic time, but things were under control.