The Secret Sixth Man
How L.A. Clippers Head Trainer Jasen Powell works his magic in Playa Vista
By Gary Walker
It’s the day before their first game of the 2015-16 NBA season, and the Los Angeles Clippers Training Center in Playa Vista is a flurry of activity.
TV news cameras roll as superstar point guard Chris Paul, shooting guard J. J. Redick and reserve point guard Austin Rivers run passing and shooting drills on the practice court.
Off to the side, Clippers Head Trainer Jasen Powell is taping up Jamal Crawford’s right arm so that Crawford, recovering from a tricep contusion after being hit with an elbow, can join the action.
A few moments later, it’s Paul’s turn. Powell massages each bandaged finger on Paul’s right hand and scrutinizes his slightly injured thumb.
“How does that feel?” the trainer asks.
Paul nods in affirmation that he’s good to go.
“Over the course of a season, it’s all about staying healthy,” Paul says during a break in the action. “Everything [Powell] does is pretty much preventive.”
Powell, whom Clippers players and staff have nicknamed “JP,” is about to start his 17th season with the team.
While he may not be a familiar face to fans, those on the court and behind the scenes say JP’s work is vital to the Clippers’ success this season.
“In some ways, he’s the star [of the team]. Health is going to be one of the major factors in winning the Western Conference,” says Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. “You have to have a good trainer, and he’s definitely that.”
Trust, Communication, Balance
Powell says keeping his Clippers in top physical condition begins with building a solid rapport among players, himself and his support staff — a nutritionist, chiropractor, tissue therapist, full-time assistant and two interns.
“My three principles are trust, communication and balance,” Powell, 43, says during an interview before the Clippers Oct. 21 public practice at USC’s Galen Center. “A lot of it involves knowing what routines they like and dislike, getting to know them better, studying what dysfunctions and patterns that they have. You have to have a plethora of approaches.”
That also extends to the offseason. Powell, a former Western Conference representative of the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association, stays in touch with his guys practically year-round. He checks in to see when and where they are traveling, to find out whether they want to work out at home or at the training center, and to see if they’re following various conditioning routines.
During the season practices typically begin around 11 a.m., but Powell and his staff usually arrive about two hours early.
“Even if they’re not injured, players come in and out of the training room just to get tuned up. You can’t put oil in a gas tank, so we have to make sure that they have the right fuel so that they can perform their best,” Powell explains.
Working with big-ticket athletes who might want to play even when they’re injured is not as difficult as some might think, according to Powell, who played college basketball at Cal Poly Pomona.
“In my experience, a player will let you know if he can’t play. I try to get them to look at the pros and cons of playing with an injury. You lay down all of the parameters for them and then collectively, as a medical staff and as a player, make the decision,” he says.
Part of Powell’s training strategy includes alternative medicine and holistic therapies, an approach that Powell had long wanted to employ. He’s sought advice from naturopathic doctors about such practices and credits the team’s nutritionist, Meg Mangano, with keeping the players on healthy diets to maximize performance and longevity.
Another part of the balance that Powell talks about is players’ time on and off the court. He credits Rivers with understanding the importance of giving players time to recuperate during the grueling 82-game regular season.
“Doc and his staff have done a wonderful job allowing me to establish my ‘infrastructure,’ so to speak,” Powell says.
Relocating from The Spectrum to the customized Playa Vista training facility in 2008 has also helped Powell and the Clippers create an optimal environment for preventive and rehabilitative care, including a fully equipped weight room and their own water treadmill.
“The fact that we have our own home is huge. It’s really helped our guys be focused and dialed in when they need treatment,” Powell says.
Sports medicine has evolved quite a lot since the Clippers moved from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984 — especially when it comes to how technology is used to train and treat injured players, said Dr. Bert Mandelbaum of the Santa Monica Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Group.
“Now you have technology that can measure how a player has recovered from an injury, state-of-the-art heart monitors, recovery parameters and motion analysis that teams use,” says Mandelbaum, formerly chief medical officer for Women’s World Cup Soccer and physician for the U.S. Men’s National team.
“There are also strength coaches, nutritionists, physical therapists and psychologists in addition to the head trainer. We’ve moved to what I call ‘athlete-centric’ medicine,” he says.
Mandelbaum says trainers usually focus on three components: Prevention, treatment of illness and injury, and optimizing performance.
“Prevention often allows you to do the other two, and it’s a collective effort between the player and the trainer,” he says.
Each year all Clippers players go through what Powell calls a movement screen test, which allows his staff to look at the areas that the players need to strengthen.
“We monitor how they move so that we can see what we need to do for each player. We also work with our strength coach to make sure that we synchronize a work regiment where they do manual therapy, joint mobility, range of motion exercises and hip and ankle mobility,” Powell explains. “Then they go into the weight room and do their functional strength tests.”
This testing happens during the preseason, at midseason and again if the team enters the playoffs, which the Clippers have accomplished each of the last four seasons.
One new technological advance that Powell favors is a therapy device called the Shock Wave, which delivers shock impulse waves to muscle tissue.
“We’ve been able to use this for chronic injuries and acute injuries. It helps relieve a lot of muscle pain,” he says.
Powell has also invented Pure Powder, a non-medical herbal salve that’s made from five or six natural plant ingredients.
“We use different types of treatment to help players recover — cold therapy, tissue therapy, massage and chirotherapy [a method of treatment that diagnoses problems associated with the joints, nerves, tendons and ligaments],” he says.
Patience and Optimism
Before becoming the Clippers’ head trainer, Powell worked as the San Francisco 49ers’ assistant athletic trainer for four years — an experience he said pre-
pared him for some of the more challenging injuries he’s addressed in the NBA.
“Football really honed my skills and ability to be a professional athletic trainer in basketball. In football you see a lot of contact injuries, acute injuries every Sunday. In basketball you see a lot of overuse and wear-and-tear injuries,” he explains. “You’re talking about 82 games a year, and sometimes the playoffs. Some players have what I call a timeline of injury patterns that date back to the time when they were in high school, in AAU [American Amateur Union] or in college. In football you had six days to get them ready to play again, but in basketball there are fewer [recovery] days.
The mental portion of rehabilitation can be grueling, and trainers play an important role in making recovery time as easy as possible for the injured player.
“It’s the psychological and analytical aspect of the game that fans and family don’t see. You really have to help them understand what to expect during rehab and to be optimistic about their return,” Powell says. “Sometimes they can get down on themselves, and sometimes there’s a lot of pressure on them to get back to the level that they were before. So it’s about minimizing the pressure as much as possible.”
Powell refers to a devastating injury that former Clippers guard Shawn Livingston suffered in 2007 when he dislocated his kneecap and tore the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his knee.
The late Dr. Tony Daly, the Clippers doctor at the time, was quoted as saying, “I’ve never seen an injury like this in basketball.” Several basketball commentators called it the worst sports injury they had ever seen, and a few predicted that Livingston would never play again. But last year Livingston was part of the Golden State Warriors team that won the NBA championship.
Michael Tillery, a certified athletic trainer who writes for a variety of online sports blogs, credits Powell with potentially saving Livingston’s leg.
“If Jasen Powell didn’t pop Livingston’s knee back in place after he suffered the injury on the floor, there was a chance his leg would have been amputated, because blood circulation would have been affected with his knee and leg basically going in different directions,” Tillery wrote in the sports blog Shadow League.
“It’s probably the second worst injury I’ve ever seen, the first being one that I saw in football,” Powell says, referring to a gruesome compound leg fracture of a 49ers lineman. “We did our part as athletic trainers and medical staff to prepare [Livingston] to get ready mentally to endure the long road that he had to travel to get back to where he is today.”
A Clutch Performance
Paul, no stranger to the media spotlight, says that while much of Powell’s work goes unnoticed by the public, the players appreciate it.
“Fans don’t always see what goes on behind the scenes in order for us to able to go out there and perform the way that we want to. Our bodies have to be in great condition. JP exercises every possible option to keep us healthy and get us back on the court,” Paul says.
Powell treated Paul in May after Paul suffered a hamstring injury early in the Clippers’ dramatic Game 7 first round Western Conference series against the then-defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. Paul’s fast return was a key factor in the Clippers advancing in the playoffs — with one second left on the clock, Paul scored the go-ahead basket on a pull-up jump shot to win the series.
“JP and our chiropractor worked their magic on me,” Paul says. “That’s what he does.”