Tim Grover got a lot busier and way more popular in the instant it took Kobe Bryant to crash to the floor for the final time Friday night at Staples Center. In that moment, Grover went from being known as the sports trainer to some of the world’s and the NBA’s most elite athletes – clients that include Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Gilbert Arenas, Charles Barkley and the first and most famous, Michael Jordan – to someone with rare insight into the rehabilitation facing the Lakers’ superstar as he struggles back from season-ending and career-threatening surgery on his left Achilles tendon.
In what now seems a bit of timing both fortuitous and unfortunate, Grover laid out the “blueprint” for that rehab in a book released Tuesday. Sharing insights gleaned from more than 20 years inside some of the most exclusive and intense gyms and weight rooms, he wrote “Relentless: From Good To Great To Unstoppable” (Scribner, 2013). In it, Grover examines the mind-and-body commitment his clients put into their sports excellence. He lays out his three categories of competitors – “coolers, closers and cleaners” – and writes about the attributes that differentiate them.
He even explains why, in his opinion, Miami’s LeBron James isn’t yet on the “cleaner” level with Bryant and Wade among today’s greatest players.
Mostly, Grover wanted potential readers to understand that the lessons in his book can be adapted to life’s other pursuits beyond athletics. “This is the mentality, this is what goes through their heads, this is what I’ve learned to push their buttons,” Grover said. “It’s not about the physical, it’s about the mental.”
With the 2013 NBA playoffs fast-approaching, with Bryant’s rehab soon to begin, NBA.com talked with Grover about his book and the qualities that separate sports 1 percent from the rest:
NBA.com: You’re known for how hard you get players to work – in some cases, how hard they push to get you to push them – but you and I spoke recently about the need for NBA players to get their rest. Whether that means fewer minutes, skipped games, lighter or cancelled practices or more sleep away from the gym, there’s a tendency for more coaches to ease their guys into the playoffs. What do you make of the trend of sitting out games?
Tim Grover: Look at MJ’s championship seasons – the least amount of games that he played in any one of those years was . Out of the six championships, four of them were 82 games, one was 80 and one was .
NBA.com: Jordan was known for his extreme work ethic and competitive fires, to the point that “Relentless” could have been the title of his memoirs. When you look at that level of drive and current players who flirt with it, can you get a sense of whose teams is going to win a championship?
TG: Each round of the playoffs takes on its own personality. There’s enough pressure on an individual, but once the pressure mounts, the question is how each individual is going to handle it.
NBA.com: So someone like Kobe revved it up even well before the playoffs. Because, this year, he needed to?
TG: You saw it the last few games.
NBA.com: You put Bryant in the same category as Jordan and Wade and a few others: “Cleaners.” Explain the differences, though, between a “closer” and a “cleaner.” In sports, we think of a closer as someone great at what he does: the pitcher who gets the ball to lock down victories, the coach who tranforms a solid team into a champion, and so on. How does someone do better than that to become a “cleaner?”
TG: A closer comes in and does it one time. A cleaner comes in and repeats it numerous times. What I’m trying to say is, hey, there’s another level above a closer. That’s a person who comes in – like a Michael Jordan, like a Larry Bird – and repeats what he does, under different conditions, different pressures, and the results end up being the same. It’s extremely rare. But the way they think and the way they apply themselves can be applied to anybody and to everything. You aren’t going to play basketball like Kobe Bryant, like Chris Paul or Bird did, but you can still have the same mentality they had.
NBA.com: That might be a careful-what-you-wish-for predicament, because you make it sound almost grim to be a “cleaner.” You write about the “melancholy of victory” and describe these people as “predators.” It’s enough to make you wonder if Jordan or Bryant ever have felt satisfaction or basked in the joy of what they’ve done. They sound shark-like, as if they must move forward or not survive.
TG: It’s true. I wanted to make that point – it’s not about long-term happiness always, it’s about the price an individual pays to get that high of competing or whatever they’re trying to do. Once they get that high, they’re looking for the next challenge or they want to do it again next year. There are a lot of sacrifices with the family, personal time, childhood. It is grim. But it just doesn’t happen by accident. You hear all the successful people in the business world, they talk about how they had to max out their credit cards, how they packed stuff out of their basement, all the things their parents had to do. So it’s not a happy-happy place. It’s a happy place once you get there, but the relentlessness to get there definitely is not fun.
NBA.com: So what’s the average elapsed time a “cleaner” gives himself to enjoy the achievement?
TG: About 24 or 48 hours. We have an example in the book: If you’ve ever seen people like [Alabama football coach] Nick Saban or [Heat president] Pat Riley in the championship parade, their mind already is on next year and ‘What do we have to do to get back?’ I saw some highlights of Nick, Alabama won the thing and he’s holding the trophy up and you could tell by looking at him that he’s thinking, “Well, this player’s gone, that player’s gone. What do I have to do next year?” In his mind, this is already over. Done. Great. Time to move on.
NBA.com: So for an NBA general manager, is it simply rounding up as many cleaner personalities as you can?
TG: The Miami Heat are a great example for how to do this. We call Pat Riley a cleaner and what he did, he put the three personalities together in LeBron, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. He knew that at some point they are going to jell together. Each one has a defined role, but their egos can be put aside so another individual can shine one day and somebody else can shine another. It’s just the end result that matters among the three.
NBA.com: Explain your point that LeBron is a closer, not a cleaner.
TG: He can shift from one to the other, he just hasn’t had the longevity enough to be placed into that cleaner mode. He’s definitely progressing – he’s going to get his fourth MVP this season. They won the championship last year. But it’s the end result. Are they going to win again this year? Is he going to be able to lead them there? Time will tell.
NBA.com: Many have said it – James included – that winning a ring has taken pressure off him and allowed his entire game to flourish perhaps as never before. How does that mesh with this notion that the most competitive athletes never relax, never dare to feel satisfied?
TG: What was amazing about Michael was, if you watch films of their championships, he would put up fingers for how many they’d won and what was next. After he won one, he put up two fingers. After two, it was three. He was always putting the pressure on himself to get ready for the next one. So I think the pressure is off LeBron in the regular season. But once the playoffs start, they know they put this huge payroll together, they brought these three superstars together, possibly three Hall of Famers, and one championship is not going to be enough. The pressure is going to mount even more and now we’ll see if, from a mental standpoint, he can break through that next barrier.
NBA.com: You had high praise for Charles Barkley as the most athletically gifted person with whom you’ve ever worked.
TG: C’mon, you look at that body – he’s not even 6-5 and to be able to do the things he was able to do? It amazed me. I worked with him when he had his knee issues and he would have a leg brace on, totally immobilized. And he could still stand underneath the basket and, off one leg, go straight up and dunk a basketball two-handed 10 consecutive times. The way he could get up and down the floor, the way he could change directions, you just don’t see an individual that size being able to do the things he did.
NBA.com: But no ring for Chuck. What about the mental side?
TG: In that era, they all faced the ultimate cleaner in Michael. If he hadn’t retired those two years, the Houston Rockets would not have won their championships [in 1994 and '95]. I know that’s hearsay, but there are a lot of people who believe that. From a mental standpoint, Charles was extremely strong. He was like Michael, too, and Larry Bird in the way they trash-talked. It wasn’t to get on the opponents, it was to put pressure on themselves to back up what they were saying.
NBA.com: Like some proponents of advanced stats, you’re not a big believer in “clutch.” That label gets applied – or misapplied, depending on one’s view – to Bryant all the time. What’s your gripe with it?
TG: To me, “clutch” means you’re ready for that particular moment. But where were you those other 48 minutes of the game. To me, the level above clutch is, you’re ready for anything, any time, in any situation, in whatever you do. Whether it’s basketball, whether it’s driving a bus, whether you’re the CEO of a company. You never know when that moment comes, so you shouldn’t have to raise your game when the game is on the line. It should always be raised.
NBA.com: Talk about your “over 6-foot-9 rule” and how it relates to NBA big men.
TG: It’s funny, when I get a guy who’s over 6-9 and I get into his face and start yelling and cursing at him, telling him ‘You need to do it this way!’ he just shuts down. There are exceptions, but I think it has something to do with growing up, they’re always taller than everybody else, people are always looking at ‘em, they just stand out. I think they need to be motivated more from a positive standpoint. They need to be patted on the back. They need to be talked with eye-to-eye. Of course, I talked to Kobe and he said Shaq was the complete opposite. “You had to get into his face.” … The little guys? You can just get into ‘em. They can take it.
NBA.com: Legend has it that Jordan didn’t adjust his treatment of teammates much based on their sensitive natures.
TG: Michael wasn’t the most … let’s see … the most gracious teammates at giving out accolades to individuals. You really had to earn it. Scottie Pippen earned it, Steve Kerr earned it, Ron Harper earned it. But there were a lot of guys, no matter what they did, it just wasn’t good enough. He’d say, “If you could play this well today, how come you can’t do it all the time?”
NBA.com: You don’t have Derrick Rose as a client, so I get it if you’d rather not comment specifically on his injury or rehab. But you are based in Chicago [Grover's gym not far from United Center, Attack Athletics, was where President Barack Obama played pickup basketball on Election Day 2012] and you have had plenty of guys coming off injuries. What’s your take?
TG: The one thing I can say is, this is his first ‘cut.’ When it’s your first, it takes a little bit longer mentally than after your second and third.
NBA.com: Last thing: You write about Kobe’s insistence, after he suffered a broken nose and a concussion in the 2012 All-Star Game, that he play in the very next game. That he wanted to know how his body would respond to the trauma and what he was capable of. If he brings that same urgency to his Achilles rehab and what has been framed as a 6-to-9 month recovery, can he really – as Lakers trainer Gary Vitti suggested – be ready for the start of next season?