CHICAGO - Michael Jordan's new position is what basketball fans like to call “small forward.” Hardly seems fitting for such an extra-large return to the National Basketball Association.
Yet a few things about Jordan are indeed downsized. Like Jordan's golf course time, which has been practically nil for months. What's more, since he started working out again with long-time personal trainer Tim Grover back in January, the 38-year-old Jordan dropped from 248 pounds and a self-admitted gut to the rippled 215 leaping across a recent Sports Illustrated cover. That photograph of the new Washington Wizard said plenty about the six days a week that Jordan and Grover worked out between the fitting start date of Jan. 2 and mid-June (before a rib injury derailed the comeback for two months).
The trainer and his most famous client met for two morning hours of conditioning Monday through Saturday, plus two more hours each day of pickup basketball Monday through Thursday. Sunday was the only off-day.
The exact conditioning regimen has been a confidential matter between Grover and Jordan for more than a decade. But recently Grover agreed to discuss some of the details about getting Jordan ready for his 14th season. Two days a week were devoted to the upper body, two for the lower body, and two for a combination of upper and lower body. Grover said it is “much more than weight training or even strength training.”
Jordan goes to the hoop against the Seattle Supersonics.
The sessions combine weight lifting (machines, dumbbells, barbells), stretching (lots), core exercises such as abdominal crunches (“If you are doing more than 15 or 20 per set, you are doing them incorrectly.”), medicine ball and stability ball training, balance and agility drills, jumping exercises, and movements with a basketball in hand.
Some examples: Rather than simply ask Jordan to do a set of abdominal crunches, Grover has his client passing a weighted medicine ball on the up move of the crunch. While a machine bench press was a part of the acclimation routine in January, Jordan later might do a dumbbell press leaning back on one of those large inflatable stability balls immediately followed by pushups on a balance board, which sort of looks like a skateboard teeter-totter with only a middle roller. Don't try it at home.
“We were getting his body ready for basketball,” said Grover, 37. “That's my entire focus. I am concerned about stability of the muscles and joints, function, strength, and speed.”
Part of the secrecy about Jordan's training program was built-in. Grover changed the routine in some way every three weeks. Even during a three-week cycle, the order of exercises was altered during the final week, all in the interest of making the muscles work to full potential.
“The normal individual needs a change in routine every four weeks for maximum fitness,” said Grover, who trains more than 30 other NBA players during summer months and regularly advises them in-season as part of his Chicago-based Attack Athletics training company. “But with Michael it's more like two and a half to three weeks.”
No doubt Jordan is a quick study and pioneer on top of that. In late 1989, Jordan made the prescient decision that he needed a personal trainer beyond the Bulls coaching and conditioning staff. It was unprecedented among professional basketball players.
The first personal trainer Jordan tried lasted one session. Jordan wrenched his back lifting weights and wasn't about to risk any other tweaks. Bulls team physician Dr. John Hefferon recommended Grover, who was training business executives as part of his job at the former Athletic Club at Illinois Center.
After a brief meeting, Jordan proposed he work with Grover on a trial basis for 30 days. They have maintained a steady relationship ever since. One factor is that Grover, by all accounts, is the same down-to-earth, conscientious guy who grew up in the city and played basketball for the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he majored in exercise science. Another good reason, Jordan has said, is Grover's “second-to-none knowledge of sports training” that he describes in plain terms.
To illustrate, listen to Grover explain why most people who start working out on Jan. 2 fail to reach their goals - or their toes - come October.
“The body works on three planes,” Grover said. “One is front and back movements, the second is side-to-side movements, and third is twisting movements. When we started training in January, we started with strictly front and back moves. Then when I saw Michael's ligaments, tendons, and joints were ready (he checked by monitoring whether Jordan was lifting evenly or still favoring one side), we moved to the other planes.
“The mistake most people make is on Jan. 2, they go to the health club and jump on an exercise bike or treadmill for 45 minutes, then hit the weight room for an hour. They are working on all three planes at once before they are ready. They are inevitably going to wrench their back or pull a muscle.”
What's most impressive about the Grover-designed program is the mental lift it has afforded Jordan. Here's a guy supremely confident in his skills and who over the last 10 months has come to believe in himself even more.
One vital ingredient, Grover said, is there are absolutely no interruptions during Jordan's workouts. Grover made that possible by setting up a state-of-the-art workout facility at Hoops the Gym on West Randolph Street. “If you concentrate on your training, the results come faster,” Grover said. “So we shut out all distractions. If you want some Gatorade, it's right there. If you walk to the drinking fountain instead, you might start thinking about something that gets your mind off the workout. Or somebody might stop you and throw off your focus.”
Grover helps with the tunnel vision. During a slide-step drill, for instance, he might ask Jordan to visualize an upcoming opponent he has to cover on defense. Suddenly, an ordinary lateral movement becomes personal.
“If everything goes according to plan, Michael will be playing like he is 28,” Grover said.
Not bad if you recall Jordan was 28 on the magical June night in 1991 when the Bulls won their first of six NBA titles.
While neither Jordan himself nor Grover knew if there would actually be a second comeback, the early workouts and pickup games were immediately intense.
“Any time Michael starts working out, it becomes serious,” Grover said. “He didn't tell me whether he was coming back until he made the decision public [in September]. My job was to prepare as if that was his goal.”
The preparations started at the plush East Bank Club in Chicago's River North neighborhood. Grover and Jordan trained in the club's weight training areas and on its basketball court during January. The starting times were staggered to avoid any habitual onlookers but in some ways these early workouts were not much different than, say, any other businessman trying to get in better shape.
“He needed to get moving again,” Grover said. “We did some shooting and light running on the basketball court. The weight training program was basic.”
The aerobic conditioning was always on the basketball court. Jordan doesn't like “any of the stationary equipment,” Grover said.
Between February and June, Grover began adding the variety of conditioning activities. The progress was apparent to Jordan. He saw his weight decrease by some 20 pounds and his body fat was returning to the 3 to 6 percent range of his former playing days. Maybe most exciting was he was able to “do things on the court he used to do in the past,” said Grover.
Then two broken ribs caused by Bulls forward Ron Artest's elbow in a pickup game set back Jordan's timetable for eight weeks. When Jordan and Grover started working out again, they spent about four days making sure none of the exercises was putting too much pressure on the ribs. Jordan played pickup ball with a flak jacket to be safe.
The conditioning quickly ramped up. Jordan did some traveling in early September, but Grover adjusted by making the last day before a trip highly intense. Consequently, Jordan would need the extra rest. Grover said recuperation is underrated by most exercisers. “Rest is probably as important as actual working out in terms of making progress,” Grover said. “I have always said a person who under-trains is better off than someone who over-trains.”
There were raves about Jordan's play during the exhibition season. But Grover made an intriguing point.
“We're not back to where Michael was before the rib injury,” Grover said. “But we're getting there.” They usually switch to a maintenance mode when the season starts, but this year they are going to keep with the program.
For his part, Jordan is more than willing to work with the program, which includes a nutrition plan that emphasizes more carbohydrates than protein for breakfast, an even split at lunch, and more protein than carbos at evening meals.
“Michael asks more questions than ever about the workouts and nutrition,” Grover said. “He drinks more water these days too. He knows not eating right is detrimental to what he is trying to achieve.”
Jordan still enjoys a good cigar, which doesn't bother Grover one single puff.
“As a trainer, you devise an optimum program in a perfect world,” Grover said. “You sit down with your client and find out what he is willing to do. Then you meet somewhere in between. Michael has always done the hard work.”