In this new series, HoopsHype will look at the great lengths NBA players go to protect their bodies and maximize their effectiveness. We went behind-the-scenes with NBA players and coaches to learn about things like acupuncture, hyperbaric-chamber therapy, cupping, stem-cell treatments, intravenous vitamin infusions and restrictive diets prepared by personal chefs and more. Today, in part one of the series, we will focus on cryotherapy.
Maverick Carter, who is LeBron James’ close friend and business partner, has estimated that James spends nearly $1.5 million per year to maintain his body. He has strict routines that he follows, a ton of equipment in his home and plenty of people on his payroll whose primary responsibility is ensuring that James’ body can make it through an 82-game season (and seven consecutive NBA Finals runs) without breaking down.
While that may seem like a ton of money to spend on his body, it’s a smart investment for James. Rather than spending his paycheck on luxury items, he’s doing everything in his power to ensure that he can continue playing for as long as possible and keep collecting a huge salary every year.
Players – and not just the high-paid superstars – are spending more money than ever on their body and trying all kinds of things that could potentially give them an edge. In recent years, one such treatment that’s become extremely popular is cryotherapy, which many athletes (including James) use regularly.
The treatment is simple: The athlete spends two-to-three minutes in the cryo chamber, which is set at a temperature of negative-250 degrees. They must wear protective gear (thick gloves, socks and sandals) so that the player’s fingers and toes are safe. It’s basically an upgrade over the cold tub; Philadelphia 76ers swingman Justin Anderson told HoopsHype that it’s 10 times better than the tub.
Cryotherapy speeds up injury recovery, relieves pain and soreness, reduces lactic acids, helps inflammation, decreases spasms, releases endorphins and improves range of motion (since it loosens muscles that were tight or sore, which is a common issue for NBA players as they go through a rigorous 82-game season).
Kobe Bryant, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Rashard Lewis and Grant Hill were believers in cryotherapy relatively early, getting the treatment during their playing days. (Marion would sometimes sing at the top of his lungs to try to take his mind off the temperature, which causes temporary discomfort). The Dallas Mavericks had their entire team do cryotherapy during their 2011 NBA playoff run that culminated in a championship over the Miami Heat.
Cryo is more popular with today’s players, with LeBron, Stephen Curry, Karl-Anthony Towns, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Harrison Barnes, Vince Carter, Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, Dahntay Jones, JaVale McGee and many others trying it or doing it consistently as part of their regimen.
“It’s been phenomenal for me and my recovery,” Anderson said. “Now, I’m not sore at all during or after games because I’m doing the right things to take care of my body. There are so many benefits. It’s really cold when you’re in the chamber, but three minutes fly by quickly. Then, when you step out, it’s the best feeling ever. It’s almost like you never had any issues or soreness.”
“After I tried it the first time, my body felt amazing,” Memphis Grizzlies forward Jarell Martin told HoopsHype. “Now, I try to use it whenever I’m sore or my legs are feeling heavy. I try to get in the cryo chamber about once a week. We have one in our facility in Memphis. This summer, I put in a lot of hard work and I needed to find ways to get my body feeling right, feeling good. The trainers recommended cryotherapy and it’s been amazing.”
“I do cryotherapy now,” former Philadelphia 76ers guard Xavier Silas said. “I had tried everything – from the cold tub to icing to electric stimulation to dry-needling to ultrasound. Cryo has definitely helped me. Doing these things is just part of playing this game; it comes with this job. When you’re serious about your craft, you’re going to give anything a try if it helps you stay on top of your game. Our bodies are so important to what we do, but we break our bodies down every single day. Because of that, we have to do these things to make sure our body feels good and allows us to remain productive.”
It’s common for players to be shocked at how cold the chamber is and sometimes the body doesn’t know how to respond. Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton warns his players before their first cryotherapy experience, telling them, “The first time is the worst. Your mind is telling you, ‘I might die.’”
Walton is a big believer in cryotherapy, though. In fact, many executives and coaches have embraced the treatment, with some organizations buying their own cryo chamber and encouraging their players to use it.
“Every guy has to find their own treatment or regimen that will help them,” said Jared Jeffries, who played in the NBA for 11 seasons and now works in the Denver Nuggets’ front office as a pro personnel scout. “You play so many games and it’s a long season, so you have to try different things. Be creative and [open-minded].”
“Each year, you hear about something new that comes into play on the recovery circuit,” said a Western Conference coach, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. “This is a copycat league, so if someone has success with a certain recovery method or treatment, it catches on quickly. I remember, back in the day, Stephon Marbury took ballet classes so everyone was like, ‘Ah, ballet! It makes you limber and helps your body without putting impact on your knees! Let’s try it!’ Then, yoga took over. And yoga is great – I used to take all of my players to yoga sessions to work on flexibility, breathing and things like that. But my point is that if a team finds something that helps their players, other teams will try to duplicate that success.
“The cold tub has been around forever, but now the cryo chamber has taken it to the next level and everyone is using it,” the coach continued. “We used to have guys go in the cold tub for three minutes and then go in the steam room for three minutes and then keep alternating. Some guys still do that, but cryotherapy is a game-changer because it’s only two-and-a-half minutes and some experts say you get the equivalent of being in the cold tub for an hour. It’s so effective.”
Cryotherapy’s increased popularity in the NBA has largely been due to word of mouth. Players rave about feeling refreshed and no longer dealing with soreness, so naturally their teammates and friends around the league want to try it too.
“During my rookie year with the Mavericks, a few of my vets told me that cryotherapy was definitely something that I needed to try rather than doing the cold plunge every day after practice,” Anderson said. “The NBA season is so long and the schedule is tough, so my vets always told me, ‘Hey, make sure you take care of your body; the best investment you can make is in yourself.’ So I would do cold tub, cold tub, cold tub. Then, eventually, Harrison Barnes, Deron Williams and Dwight Powell taught me about cryo. They were like, ‘You’ve never done cryo before?!’ I was like, ‘No! I’ve seen them, but we didn’t have access to that kind of stuff in college!’ They ended up taking me and ever since then, I’ve used it. That’s when I started figuring out that if I want to play at an optimal level, I need to invest the time and money into my body.”
“Now, I’m the one getting a lot of my teammates into cryo,” Anderson continued. “With our team in Philly, we’re young and we’re all trying to figure out what’s best for our bodies. Bringing in veterans like JJ [Redick] and Amir [Johnson] will obviously help a lot because they have experience and can offer great advice. But Markelle [Fultz], who is a really good friend of mine, had the same reaction to cryo as I did when I was a rookie; he had heard of it and seen a cryo chamber, but he hadn’t tried it. He’s only 19 years old and, at first, he didn’t see the benefit because he had never played an NBA schedule and had never dealt with the soreness that comes with 82 games. Then, after training camp, he was like, ‘You know what? I’m sore, so let me give this a try.’ Guys on the team are definitely getting more into it and seeing that it helps.”
Another reason it’s caught on is because respected veterans do it often since their bodies ache more than their younger teammates’. The young guys see this – or hear that superstars they look up to like Kobe and LeBron have done it – and they want to give it a try too. This is great because it leads to young players being proactive in terms of their body maintenance rather than waiting until they’re older or get hurt.
“Veteran players have really helped get the young guys into this stuff, which is great to see,” the coach said. “The guys who can play at a high level into their mid-30s are the guys who get it. They know their body and completely understand what they need to do in order to remain effective. They put in the time and energy so their body can handle the NBA schedule. Simply getting through a week of NBA practices can be tough for some guys in their 30s. People don’t realize how intense it can be. The players who are in their mid-30s and can get through an entire 82-game season, and in some cases thrive? Those are the true professionals. And you love to have those guys around your young players so they can develop similar habits. It’s not uncommon to see young players who don’t get it and don’t take this stuff seriously until it’s too late, which may impact their effectiveness and the longevity of their career.
“The way I’ve explained it to my players is saying, ‘If you had a machine that prints money, are you going to treat it right and take care of it and check up on it constantly and put the right fuel into it? Of course! You’re going to make sure that machine is always in tip-top condition so that it can continue to print money. Well, NBA players have a machine that prints money: their body. They need to make sure they’re putting the right things in their body, taking care of themselves and doing regular maintenance to prevent issues rather than waiting until there’s a problem. Too many of these young guys finish a practice and are quick to get back in front of their Xbox One. Relaxing is fine, but take an extra hour to have a proper cool down, do a recovery massage, use the cryo chamber. Call of Duty isn’t going anywhere!”
These days, even G League prospects have these resources at their disposal, which should have end-of-bench NBA players looking over their shoulder and implementing cryotherapy and other body work as well.
“The gap between a G League player and an NBA role player isn’t nearly as big as people think,” the West coach said. “And there are G League guys who are grinding like crazy and doing all of these things – from cryotherapy to acupuncture to super restrictive diets to hyperbaric chambers – because they desperately want to get called up by an NBA team. If you’re a fringe NBA player, you should absolutely be doing all of this stuff to improve your job security because there’s someone out there who’s doing everything possible to get better and trying to take your job.”
While most players don’t have the money to spend $1.5 million on their body like LeBron, a lot of NBA players do put a significant portion of their earnings toward their health.
“I’ve spent money on equipment for my house, treatments, healthier foods and stuff like that,” Silas continued. “There are other expenses too. For example, there’s a woman who’s a masseuse for a number of BIG3 players like Jermaine O’Neal and Al Harrington. They just keep her on their payroll and fly her out to wherever they’re playing; I’ve used her and flown her out too. That’s an expense, but I’m ensuring that my body is feeling good and I’m ready to compete.”
“You have to invest in yourself,” Anderson said. “Investing in yourself is one of the first things that I learned when I made it to the NBA because in addition to having a locker room full of veterans in Dallas telling me that, I also heard it from my cousin, Jermon Bushrod, who plays for the Miami Dolphins and is in his 11th NFL season. He always harped on that and made sure I understood the importance of investing in myself. Some guys are out here spending all their money on jewelry and cars and things like that, but I’m choosing to invest in myself so that I can keep getting better, help my team as much as possible and get that next contract. My cousin broke that down really well for me. I pay for my cryo membership and pay for my personal trainer and even though it can cost a pretty penny, I’m confident that I’ll make it back soon.”
Older players and coaches are amazed by the recent advancements that help recovery and performance. Xavier’s father, James Silas, was a two-time ABA All-Star and his No. 13 jersey is retired by the San Antonio Spurs. He sees all of the resources available to his son these days and is jealous.
“Sometimes, he’ll be like, ‘Well, look what I was able to accomplish without all of that stuff!’” Silas said with a laugh. “But usually, he’s saying, ‘Man, I wish we had this stuff when I played!’ A lot of guys from their era feel that way. Because my dad played with Ice [George Gervin], I’ve been around him a lot and he’s always told me, ‘Make sure you take advantage of all this stuff. We would’ve loved to have all these things!’ They’re blown away by a lot of the stuff and want to make sure I’m utilizing all of it.”
Even the way that coaches and trainers work out their players has drastically changed over the last decade as teams gather more info on how to get the most out of their players.
“What we’re seeing is a commitment to a holistic player-development routine,” the Western Conference coach said. “Back in the day, you incorporated weight-lifting, conditioning and then on-court work. Now, it’s changed a bit. Weight-lifting is no longer weight-lifting – it’s performance training and now includes speed, agility, quickness and sport-specific lifting, which preserves certain muscles while recreating game-like conditions and building the specific muscles you actually need to be effective in your sport and at your position. We customize a plan based on the player’s position and what they’re asked to do in their role. Years ago, if you walked into a college weight room, you’d see the basketball players and football players doing the same workout. Now, we’ve made big advancements. The conditioning element and on-court element are the same, but we’ve also incorporated a pre-habilitation element that focuses on injury prevention and a recovery element. And that’s where things like cryotherapy come in.”
It certainly seems like cryo chambers are here to stay, especially as more and more players try them out for the first time and NBA franchises purchase them for their respective facilities.
In part two of this series, NBA players discuss their use of acupuncture and dry-needling.
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