Dr. Ramsey Nijem has a lot to brag about, but good luck getting him to talk about himself. The closest you might get is the pride in which he speaks about the Kings’ weight room in Golden 1 Center. It was Nijem who designed the weight room, down to the logos on the dumbbells. He said he was pretty much given “free rein” over everything outside of the paint on the walls. So Nijem put his focus on technology, maximizing the space for optimal workflow, going heavy on branding with Kings logos everywhere. There’s a reason Nijem spent hours drawing up designs on a whiteboard to come up with a setup players and coaches would like.
Alex Bazzell is focused on his laptop. His eyes track every pivot foot and shot release, and he stores the details away in his memory for future use. It’s late June, and the 28-year-old basketball skills trainer is in his St. Louis home watching film of Bulls forward Bobby Portis to prepare for an upcoming trip to Chicago. Later that night, he’ll mimic the moves he wants to practice with Portis in front of a mirror to replicate them on the court. Suddenly, his phone rings. Bazzell doesn’t recognize the number, so he rejects the call. A text message follows almost immediately. Hey, this is Kobe Bryant. Call me back. At first, Bazzell thinks it’s a prank. It’s not. Bryant wants Bazzell to train his daughter’s seventh-grade basketball team the following weekend—a two-a-day Friday, six hours Saturday, and another two-a-day Sunday: 14 practice hours in total.
Bazzell is a part of a new generation of skills trainers who have utilized social media to their advantage and in the process turned the profession mainstream. Today you would be hard-pressed to find an NBA player who doesn’t have “their guy,” whether they’re team-affiliated or from the private sector. Players work out with their trainers in the offseason, do film work with them, and keep in contact—sometimes in person—throughout the season. Some have even been hired on their trainees’ teams. In recent years, these trainers have become more than just another face in an NBA player’s entourage. They are highlight-reel curators, entrepreneurs, and newsmakers. To the chagrin of some of their peers, some are even social media celebrities.
Guevara and Jrue go back to Jrue’s second season in the NBA, when Jrue requested to work with Guevara at a training gym in Los Angeles. The relationship turned into an even stronger friendship when Jrue’s wife, pro soccer player Lauren Holiday, was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in 2016 while pregnant. Jrue took a leave of absence from the Pelicans and asked Guevara if he would move with him to North Carolina, where Lauren was going to receive treatment. Guevara didn’t hesitate. “At that point, I knew that I had to be there for my family, essentially. Jrue’s my family,” Guevara says. After shadowing Jrue for the 2016-17 season on his own, Guevara was hired by the Pelicans as a contractor before last season. “We feel like he’s more family than just our trainer,” Jrue says. “We all went to Disneyland recently, and we were like, ‘Mike G has to come with us.’”
Grover has seen the evolution of the business firsthand. He says the bar for entry has been lowered—“now any ex-athlete that doesn’t make it to the pros suddenly becomes a skills trainer”—the training being done has been “diluted,” and social media blurs what success looks like and the role of trainers in the basketball ecosystem. “If social media was prevalent around that time, the story would be not that [Jordan and Bryant] were working out, but it would be when they’re not working. Because if they would have posted when they’re working out, that would have been every single day,” Grover says. “Now there’s a lot of trainers that want to live the same life and be as well-known as their client is. It doesn’t work like that.”