The newly-hired Kings Director of Athletic Performance dishes on his excitement about joining Sacramento, working with Hall of Famers including Michael Jordan and much more.
From Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on the six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls to Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant on title-winning L.A. Lakers squads, veteran athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach Robert “Chip” Schaefer has worked with many of the game’s biggest stars.
In addition to familiarity and long-held respect for Kings Director of Sports Medicine Pete Youngman and Head Athletic Trainer Manny Romero, Schaefer chose to bring his 25 years of basketball experience to the new-era Kings to contribute to a winning culture.
“I think this is an opportunity (in which) the organization is going through a renaissance period,” he says. “To be part of building something with new ownership, new management, new coaches – new everything – was very, very exciting and made it very attractive to me.”
In a recent Q&A with Kings.com, Schaefer – whose role as Director of Athletic Performance includes design and implementation of strength and conditioning programs, as well as assisting with injury prevention and health maintenance – evaluates the team’s roster, reflects on working with numerous Hall of Famers and much more.
How did you first get started in the athletic training field?
“When I started college, I thought I wanted to go into teaching and coaching. There was a very popular television show back in the ‘70s called ‘The White Shadow,’ which was ironically about an ex-Chicago Bull who had a career-ending injury and found himself out in Los Angeles teaching life lessons though basketball and coaching. I thought that’s what I wanted to do. Part of the curriculum at the University of Utah – where I did my undergrad – was an introductory course in athletic training – basic ankle-taping and injury evaluation. Just from that one course, I thought, ‘This is it – this is what I want to do. I love this.’ I enjoy helping people, I enjoy the sports science and the medical side, so it was just a natural fit.
“I’ve been an athletic trainer, as well as a strength and conditioning coach over the last three decades. I’ve always been passionate about exercise and the performance aspect of (sports).”
The NBA teams you’ve been a part of have won 11 titles in 20 seasons. How would your characterize your career to date?
“(The words) ‘blessed’ (and) ‘privileged’ come to mind. Just working with very, very talented people – I didn’t do anything to deserve it. Life takes twists and turns, and sometimes they’re fortunate and you find yourself in an opportunity that becomes available.
“Twenty-three years ago, I was the head athletic trainer at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and the head athletic trainer job with the Chicago Bulls came up – things just sort of fell into place … I had the good fortune that Summer League at that time was being held at Loyola Marymount, so the Bulls sent their team out there, along with (Head Coach) Phil (Jackson) and the coaching staff. They didn’t have an athletic trainer, so they asked me to cover the team. A big door opened up for me, and I decided to perform over that two-week span.
“I had the chance to go home – literally home. The Bulls practiced in the town of Deerfield, just north of Chicago – I graduated from Deerfield High School and grew up in that town. It was really a wonderful opportunity to go home to my family and friends.
“After eight really successful years with the team there, I decided to move back to Southern California … six months later, where does Phil Jackson land? He lands back in Southern California! Sometimes life takes these interesting twists and turns. I just had great fortune.
“I was blessed to bear witness to the success of a few franchises over a 20-year span. Over 20 seasons, (we) went to the Playoffs 19 times, the Finals 13 times and won 11 championships. I was able to be a small part of it, which (was) a real privilege.”
You’ve worked with numerous Hall of Famers. Who are some players you’ve enjoyed working with throughout your career?
“I can count on one hand the number (out of) the hundreds I maybe haven’t enjoyed working with – I’ve really enjoyed them all. Life is a rich tapestry and a tapestry is made up of all different personalities, from the really outgoing and verbose, to the more quiet, introspective personalities. The two teams I’ve worked with in the past, the rosters were full of people who are mature, hard-working and disciplined, who don’t need to be motived externally. That always made my job really easy, whether it was trying to help a guy rehab an injury or trying to take his strength to the next level.”
What comes to mind when you reflect on your time working with Michael Jordan?
“It’s hard to pinpoint just one story – obviously so many are well-documented from when he played sick or injured. Both Michael and Kobe (Bryant) just love to compete and their determination is unbelievable.
“(The Bulls) had a back-to-back situation where the first game was in Portland and the second game was in Sacramento (during the 1991-92 season). The first night in Portland, Michael pump-faked under the basket, and Buck Williams bit on the pump-fake and came down on top of him. As a result, Michael suffered a pretty severe low back strain. After the game, he just locked up – he couldn’t move. He was so immobile, he couldn’t shower – he stayed in his uniform.
“I treated him on the flight, all through the night and the next day. He was just determined to play – he loved playing against Mitch Richmond. He also had a tremendous sense of obligation to fans and to not disappoint them. He played a terrific game that night – (30 points on 13-for-21 from the field) – and it’s just one of many, many examples where his determination to play came out and he wasn’t going to be denied.”
How will your prior experience help with your role in Sacramento?
“What I hope is – whether I deserve it or not – at least in the beginning, I’ll come in with some credibility. But I’ll be judged critically here, as well … I have to produce like I would anywhere else.
“I do think (my experience) helps a little bit. Most of these guys are students of the history of the game. (They’ll) appreciate, I think, whatever experiences I have to share, and hopefully, on some level, it can help in their development, as well. (When) you do something for 20 years, you have a head full of experiences, so if there’s a situation where I can maybe recall with one of the players, ‘Oh, I went through a similar thing with Horace Grant in ’93 and here’s what we did to get him back and improve,’ that’s something the player may react to, as opposed to someone … (who’s) new to the NBA.
“One of the things that’s helped me a lot is my M.A. is actually in counseling, and I’ve raised two people into adulthood. Even spending a year-and-a-half with college athletes (at the University of California, Santa Barbara), I think in its own way helped me a lot. I like to develop the appropriate kinds of relationships with players where they trust me and feel they can come to me if they have issues.
“(I hope to) provide a nice place where they feel they can come and get their work done, and (feel) whatever it is we’re doing together is going to help not only prolong their careers, but keep them healthy and on the court all year, work hard in practice every day and be successful.”
What have been your impressions of the talent and work ethic of Kings players?
“I’m just in Week 1 – literally my third day here – and there have been a lot of guys who’ve shown up to work this week. I was just saying earlier, I can’t recall in 20-plus years, seeing this many guys come in and work this hard, this much before the start of training camp. I think it bodes really well, and I think people are very anxious to work with (Head) Coach (Michael) Malone and his coaching staff and hopefully with me, as well, in my particular area.”
“I’ve obviously seen a number of these guys over the last several years. I can even remember DeMarcus Cousins in his rookie year and you could just see the talent was there. We had Isaiah (Thomas) in for a pre-Draft workout (with the Lakers) – I remember being really impressed with his athleticism. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Carl Landry over the last couple of days … I remember he and Chuck Hayes a couple of years ago really gave us fits when they were in Houston. They took us to seven games in the second round (of the 2009 Playoffs) – they really battled and had a lot of toughness, and hopefully that’ll transcend to the younger players. I remember having John Salmons in for a pre-Draft workout and being impressed with him – (I’ve followed) his career. So I think you have a (mix) of some veteran players and some youth and athleticism.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. People talk about cultural changes and hopefully those things are going to take place very quickly. I can tell already from the effort and energy this team is going to be a much-improved, terrific defensive team (which will) get stops and compete on every possession – you can already see it even after three days of voluntary workouts. It’s a long way to get to the top, but you have to start with a single step, and I think those things will start happening the first day of training camp.”
How would you characterize your day-to-day responsibilities during the season?
“I think health is always first and foremost. (I’ll be) working in conjunction with Manny, Pete and the team doctors, always trying to stay on top of whatever health issues a player may have and addressing those things with integrative programs that involve what we call prehabilitative exercises – stretching, isolated strengthening and things like that – as well as some performance-enhancement work that will take place before and after practice. I know Coach Malone will want me to warm up and activate the team before practice every day.
“I don’t have a problem with players who like to do their training before or after practice … I’m easy either way on that. Then, (my role includes) however else I can fit in, (such as) sharing experiences from the past.”
Do you prepare workout programs tailored to each player’s specific needs?
“I think it’s very important that programs are individualized – (players) have individual needs (and) individual health backgrounds. First and foremost, we want people moving well. You’d often equate it to a car that has a bad alignment – you drive 1,000 miles, you’re going to make those problems even worse. So we want to make sure the body is functioning and movement is fluid and efficient. After that, we can start working on the higher-level performance (areas).
“There are going to be very individual needs, so you may have 13, 14, 15 different programs completely. With some players, it might be more of a fitness thing (where) they’re trying to increase their endurance and their ability to keep making hard efforts throughout the game … it may have nothing to do with increasing their bench press (but) has to do with their metabolic output. Maybe someone else on the roster does need to gain 15 or 20 pounds of lean mass – they would be on a program where we’d be focusing on their diet and the appropriate type of strength training to make those increases.
“The other thing is communicating on a daily basis with Coach Malone and the coaching staff, where they may see certain physical deficiencies in a player. They may come and say, ‘We notice so-and-so isn’t moving laterally very well – can we do anything about it?’ Then, I can start targeting those specific needs. On top of that, I like to think after a couple of decades of this, I have a pretty educated eye, too, and I can see where people are deficient.”
How important is rest and recovery with the demands of an NBA schedule?
“There aren’t many things that are more important, especially with players who are playing heavy minutes. That rest, recovery and regeneration start the minute the game ends.
“(Management) is done through working with the coaching staff (on) scheduling of shootarounds and practices to allow players time to rest and recover. It’s our job to rehydrate them, provide the appropriate nutrients to replenish depleted muscle glycogen stores, as well as make sure they get plenty of macro and micronutrients to keep their immune systems strong. The best way to do that is through a healthy diet that’s full of nutrient-dense foods that provide all those things and allow for the tissue to recover and regenerate.”
What kind of food and supplements do you typically recommend?
“I like to see players focus on lean protein choices, whether it’s chicken, turkey, fish or lean cuts of beef. When it comes to carbohydrates, I prefer they go with whole grain to get the benefits of those nutrients. Then, of course, a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables that provides all the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that keep the immune system strong.
“I think in terms of supplements, we’ll always provide extra protein supplements for guys after practice and after games. There’s sort of a nutrient window I believe in – that first 15 to 30 minutes after the end of activity where a lot of the research has shown the body is really receptive to taking those nutrients. We’ll obviously provide good multivitamin sources for guys. A lot of the protein supplements provide all the vitamins and minerals that are necessary, as well.”