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NBA stars refine their games at low-profile Grgurich camp
By Shira Springer, Globe Staff | August 8, 2004
LAS VEGAS -- By Sin City standards, it's an ungodly hour, shortly after 8 on a Monday morning. A short drive from the Strip, campers carpool to a local high school. They filter into the gym wearing all kinds of official NBA gear, slightly bleary-eyed but ready for the first of the day's two workouts. The voice of camp director Tim Grgurich cuts through the gym and its four full-length courts, calling the morning session to order. He makes a few opening remarks that, in essence, articulate a mission statement and set the tone for the weeklong camp.
"Forget whether you're a starter, coming off the bench, or getting [expletive] by your coach," says Grgurich. "This is not the time to worry about that. We're here to learn and work. One week from now, the players and coaches that are here should be better because they learned about the game."
The campers and staff gathered around Grgurich nod in agreement. Since the camp started eight years ago, its focus on developing game savvy and drilling fundamentals has drawn an impressive and attentive crowd to the desert. The list of campers past and present includes Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O'Neal, Paul Pierce, Baron Davis, Bonzi Wells, Gary Payton, Amare Stoudemire, and Shawn Kemp, not to mention top NBA rookies and role players looking for a better foothold in the league.
This summer, the presence of O'Neal, Pierce, Stephen Jackson, and an impressively fit Zach Randolph probably would be enough to make the Olympic selection committee slightly jealous. But they account for only a fraction of the nearly 40 NBA players representing 16 teams at the camp. That number does not include free agents such as Tom Gugliotta and Michael Curry, looking to prove they can still play. Add to that approximately 20 college players, including Providence's Ryan Gomes, eager to test themselves against NBA competition.
Despite the big names and big numbers, the camp remains, for better and worse, one of the NBA's best-kept secrets. Grgurich would have it no other way. He shuns media attention, believing it interferes with his purity of purpose and distracts the players.
By Day 2 of this year's camp, he has restricted access to the gym, even though few outside the NBA inner circle are aware of the sessions. The camp's blue-collar, college-like approach runs contrary to the perception of how NBA players spend their offseason, especially in light of so many stars turning down Olympic invitations.
"This is probably the best workout that I'm going to get this summer, as far as being around coaches and other talented players," said Pierce, who has attended the Grgurich camp for the past three years. "I always say I've got to be here. The stuff that they're doing here helped make me the player I am. I'm not overly fast, I'm not jumping higher than everybody out here, but they're teaching the game, angles, and how to read different situations. This helps build you as a player. Continued...
Page 2 of 4 -- "[The camp] refreshes what I do. I gear my game around trying to be fundamentally sound and I try to refine things every year I come here. I think I'm one of the more coachable players at my position in the league. But you know what I learn the most here? You've got to keep working hard because these young guys here are coming after my job. I see how hard the other guys are working, and that keeps me going. During the summer, people lose track of NBA players. They think we're sitting on our [expletive], but we're here working out."
Drills but no frills New Celtics assistant coach Tony Brown conducts the first breakout session of the camp, a walk-through of a drill on team defense. Player by player, he talks about each individual's responsibilities, placing emphasis on communication and help. He covers nuances in positioning and highlights the importance of active hands.
As the players break into smaller groups to practice what they have just watched, Brown offers one last reminder, shouting, "We should hear you talk and say, `I've got your help.' " Moments later, defensive chatter echoes throughout the gym.
"Working hard is not about just going out and shooting basketballs," said Brown. "You have to do actual game-type drill work. You've got to understand defensively what type of philosophy teams are going to have. Are you going to be able to absorb that stuff and use it in a game? Here, you have an opportunity to get ahead of the game in a certain way, as far as NBA formations on offense, the type of shots you're going to be looking for on offense, the kind of things you're going to have to do individually on defense within a team concept.
"This is invaluable experience for players. And these are avenues where coaches can see whether or not a kid can play at our level. I think it's a great tool for the player and young coaches. It's just a great atmosphere."
Unlike the Pete Newell Big Man Camp, which ran concurrently at another Las Vegas location this year, Grgurich has declined sponsorship offers and does not charge for -- or profit from -- his camp. Players pay their own way, usually relying on a coach with a rental car for a ride to the gym. The operation is no frills; the players get practice jerseys, and as much water and instruction as they want. That's all.
"There have been two major forces in the development of players and coaches over the last 20 years: Pete Newell and Tim Grgurich," said Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who has worked at the Grgurich camp for the past three years and at the Newell camp for seven years. "The irony is that in this day and age of marketing and self-promotion, neither Pete nor Tim would ever want any publicity for what they do or the part they've played. Continued...
Page 3 of 4 -- "Gurg's camp is the purest environment in our game today in terms of the development of players and coaches. Nobody pays or gets paid. Basketball people are here for one reason: basketball."ADVERTISEMENT
Coaches benefit, too With two sessions per day, the Grgurich camp looks and sounds a lot like NBA preseason workouts. Lots of drills. Lots of walk-through demonstrations. Lots of explanation. But with no concerns about performance dictating playing time, the environment is more conducive to learning. It helps that instruction does not focus on team-specific schemes, but on fundamentals such as defending the pick-and-roll, the importance of spacing, and the proper way to take a step-back jump shot.A who's who of NBA assistant coaches, along with video coordinators and scouts looking for coaching experience, put players through their paces. Carlisle and George Karl, whose resume includes 16 years of NBA head coaching experience, also work the camp. Portland coach Maurice Cheeks attends every session, and New Jersey coach Lawrence Frank checked out the action.Three to four camp coaches are assigned to every group of 10 players, an impressive ratio enhanced by the fact that veterans such as Pierce, O'Neal, Jackson, Jason Terry, and Eric Snow serve as mentors during drills."If you don't know what's going on, ask someone; younger guys pull aside veterans or ask an assistant," instructed Grgurich. "There will not be a lot of standing around."Grgurich heeds his own instructions and paces among the courts. He oversees the operation and makes sure the voices of assistant coaches are heard."Guys like Mike Brown and Tony Brown are going to be head coaches in this league in large part because of their experience here over the last several years," said Carlisle.These days, Grgurich has considerably more ground to cover than he did when the camp started somewhat by accident with a handful of players receiving instruction from himself, current Indiana associate head coach Mike Brown, and current Memphis assistant Lionel Hollins. Back then, Snow was the only NBA player present; college kids, most from nearby UNLV, where Grgurich once coached, filled out the roster.According to Mike Brown, Grgurich is like "the pied piper of basketball," drawing a crowd to whatever gym he visits. The size of the camp today reflects the popularity of the 59-year-old Grgurich among younger players, along with the desire of those players to learn fundamentals and find a place for productive workouts in August and September as training camp nears. Top NBA players know they will not only receive good instruction but face good competition.It was not surprising to find Pierce and Jackson diving to the floor for a loose ball during one scrimmage or Randolph and O'Neal engaged in an intense matchup during another. Continued... Previous 1 2 3 4 Next
Page 4 of 4 -- Importance of winning Full-court scrimmages conclude each afternoon session, with referees brought in from outside, giving participants an opportunity to apply what they've learned. But the lessons are not always about X's and O's.ADVERTISEMENT