Sports medicine has advanced a long way, but the body still has to heal itself. We try to do everything we can to try and trick it and speed it up and stuff like that. —Gary Briggs
SALT LAKE CITY — He might be the most important member of the Utah Jazz organization that you've likely never heard of.
But before you ask "Who's that?" this unsung but very vital contributor to the NBA team's success is Gary Briggs — the team's head trainer, whose job it is to hopefully help prevent Jazz players from getting injured and, when they do get hurt, giving them the proper treatment and, if necessary, rehabilitation for their ailments so they can get back out on the court as soon as is safely possible.
"Trainers in the NBA wear so many different hats nowadays," said Briggs, who is wrapping up his 13th season with the Jazz after spending 18 seasons before that in the same capacity for the Cleveland Cavaliers, "mainly because in the old days, it was just the head coach and the trainer.
"I didn't have a full-time assistant for 14 years in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers were the first team to have a full-time strength coach back in 1984. Now everybody has a full-time strength coach, an assistant trainer, an equipment man, a traveling massage therapist and so forth.
"We've gone from traveling to the team hotel in a van to where now we need two buses, but you still have to manage it all," Briggs said. "We don't have to do as much hands-on stuff as we used to, but almost every trainer in the league handles travel as far as handing out boarding passes and tickets for travel, collecting baggage tags, things like that. But with team charters, it's the easiest thing going — they take the bags out and load 'em on the plane."
Briggs came to the Jazz almost 13 years ago in a somewhat fortuitous turn of events. A front-office shake up in Cleveland had just cost him his job — ironically, it was just a year after being voted by his peers as the league's 1999 Athletic Trainer of the Year — when he learned that the Jazz trainer was leaving to take a similar job with the Seattle SuperSonics.
Due to his duties with the Cavaliers, Briggs had known Utah coaches Jerry Sloan and Phil Johnson for several years, so he applied for the Jazz team trainer's job.
"I got fired by the Cavs in May of 2000, interviewed with the Jazz in June of 2000 and got hired by the Jazz that September," he said.
Along the way since then, he's had many memorable experiences, including an opportunity to work with not only Sloan and Johnson but also franchise cornerstones John Stockton and Karl Malone during the final years of their stellar NBA careers.
Briggs admires the great way that Stockton and Malone always took care of themselves.
"Obviously, the first three years I was here, working with John and Karl, was a tremendous opportunity for me," he said. "For one thing, they never got out of shape. A lot of guys 'de-trained' during the offseason and then tried to get themselves in shape two weeks before the season started. You can't do that.
"Anybody who's had (an) extended career in this league like John and Karl did, almost every one of them never got out of shape," Briggs said. "They may have changed what they did in the offseason, but they never took it completely off. That constant back and forth is what breaks your body down."
In light of how many current NBA players will take a night off with minor aches, pains or hangnails, it seems, Briggs maintains tremendous admiration for the way Stockton and Malone insisted on playing hurt and very, very seldom ever missed a game.
"Stock rolled his ankle in Orlando one night, then came back out and played the rest of the game," Briggs recalls, noting that while The Mailman was a physical specimen who was seemingly indestructible, Stockton was equally as tough. "That was the first time I knew how tough John was. One night he slapped at a ball, missed and hit a guy's leg. He had to have 15 or 20 stitches in his finger, but he never missed a game.
"He and Karl's mental toughness was the best I've ever seen. There was some peer pressure when John and Karl were willing to play hurt. Some guys probably would've sat out, but with Karl and John setting the tone for the team, that's where leadership and toughness comes in.
"One of the things you have to realize is everybody's got a different pain tolerance," Briggs said. "Some guys can deal with it and some guys can't. It's not something you can teach — some guys are born with it. It's something that, by the time we get 'em (in the NBA), if they don't have it by now, they're not ever gonna have it.
"Unfortunately, nowadays, you see a lot of guys who don't have it. It definitely has changed over the years. But not one trainer in this league would ever ask a guy to play if he thought that player would injure himself worse by playing."
Injuries have certainly played a part in Utah's 2012-13 season, just like they have for every other NBA team as well. In all, Jazz players have missed a total of almost 160 games this season due to injury.
Starting point guard Mo Williams suffered a thumb injury that forced him to have surgery and miss 32 games; swingman Gordon Hayward missed 10 games with a sprained shoulder; and Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, Marvin Williams and Mo Williams each sat out four or more games this season due to assorted ankle, foot and leg injuries.
What's more, a couple of weeks ago, backup big man Enes Kanter was lost for the season with a dislocated shoulder.
It's all part of the job — especially Briggs' job.
"Unfortunately, we had the injury with Mo and that took him out of 32 games, so that just is a constant thing," Briggs said. "... And then we had two big guys go down at the same time with Al and Paul, so each day takes on its own bit of a life, especially if you're struggling a little bit.
"Sports medicine has advanced a long way, but the body still has to heal itself. We try to do everything we can to try and trick it and speed it up and stuff like that.
"And, as much as some people don't like to admit it, some people do heal faster than others — whether that's physical or mental, you don't ever know," he said. "What hurts badly to somebody is just simply sore to somebody else."
Briggs, a native of Long Beach, Calif., moved to Tampa, Fla., when he was 12 years old and says most of his family still lives in Florida.
Having just turned 64 years old, some folks might figure he's leaning toward retirement in the near future. But Briggs is a guy who loves his job and has no intentions of hanging up his white medical tape, scissors and ice bags any time soon.
"Not until they pry the crumpled tape from my gnarled fingers," Briggs said with a laugh when asked when he'd be ready to call it quits. "I've still got a few years left in me.
"As an assistant coach once told me, the best thing about this job is it's all inside work, and there's no heavy lifting."
Maybe so, but the next time you see a Jazz player hobble off the court, be glad that Briggs is sitting there on the bench ready to do his job and get 'em back out there playing again as soon as he can.
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