- Joe Abunassar has spent 20 years training NBA stars such as Kevin Garnett, Kyle Lowry and more. Now it's his turn to practice what he preaches at the Ironman World Championship.
Every offseason for the past four years, Tayshaun Prince has spent the summer in Las Vegas. The 36-year-old NBA vet doesn't while away his days lounging poolside in the desert sun, and he doesn't stay in one of the many lavish five-star hotels that dot the city's Strip.
Instead, Prince stays with a friend, Joe Abunassar, who is also his coach and the owner of Impact Basketball, a facility near McCarran International Airport where the likes of Kevin Garnett and Tyronn Lue and Chauncey Billups have spent many offseasons training.
Even though they sleep right down the hall from one another, Prince rarely sees Abunassar at the house. The longtime coach and trainer has worked with more than 300 NBA players, including 14 of the 2016 draft class, and basketball certainly dominates his life. But while one game may define his career, Abunassar’s life is also defined by a starkly different sport: triathlon.
“Every morning he gets in his runs, swims, bike rides, all that before he even comes to the gym to train us. And then once he’s through with all of our training, he does part two at night,” says Prince, who has trained with Abunassar since the start of his NBA career. “It’s just amazing to have that type of schedule and have the determination to stay focused. Me and the rest of the guys know how serious he takes this.”
Abunassar has raced 16 Ironman-distance triathlons since he started competing in the sport almost 15 years ago, but this year marks the first time he has qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, a goal he had been shooting for since 2004. On Oct. 8, Abunassar will join more than 2,000 athletes for the event’s 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and the 26.2-mile marathon as a “legacy participant,” a designation awarded to 100 athletes each year, based on performances in at least 12 completed races.
“As a triathlete, it is like going to the NBA finals,” Abunassar says of the Kona race. “This is what I’ve been waiting for all of these years. The process has been enjoyable but I’ve never raced in Kona. The world comes together to do it and it’s just a deep tradition in the sport.”
Before starting Impact Basketball, which now has three locations around the country, Abunassar began his coaching career alongside Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight at Indiana University and as an assistant coach at Wyoming University. From there he went on to develop his own performance training business in Bloomington, Ind., and started IMG Basketball Academy in Sarasota, Fla., where he was introduced to triathlons.
"I've always worked out and was always an over-the-top fitness guy. I taught spin classes and step aerobics classes," he says. Because of this, one of the families at IMG suggested he try triathlons—Abunassar grew up as a swimmer—so he bought a bike, started training and raced his first Olympic distance race in Orlando shortly after. It was love at first tri.
"I just loved it. I loved the competition of it. Being on the bike, running, swimming. It was an easy fix for me to say, ‘If I am going to work out for something, and work out so much, I might as well work out for something, instead of just going to the gym,” he says.
An early group of clients, including Garnett, Billups, Al Harrington, Prince, and Dahntay Jones, helped build Abunassar’s skill-and-performance-training business. But his initial attempt at triathlon didn’t produce the same immediate results as his basketball venture.
“The first year I raced a half Ironman but I bombed it because I had no idea how to train and no idea about nutrition,” he says. He went on to hire a coach and learned more about the sport, drawing inspiration from the handful of NBA stars coming in and out of his gym every day.
“Ironman for me has been my chance to train for something, prepare for something and stay focused on something, just like these guys—it’s that same type of achievement,” Abunassar says. “I remember all the times we spent in the gym, traveling and trying to find a court to shoot on, weights to lift. The day when the guy signs that deal, wins the championship or comes back from Game 7 down—for me, Ironman is that day. When I get out there, I have the opportunity to do that for myself.”
To prepare for the Ironman World Championships this weekend, Abunassar had to balance a busy summer of NBA offseason training with a two-a-day, strict workout schedule of his own. Sessions varied from interval days—two-hour bike rides in the morning and nine-mile runs at night, both with sprint periods mixed in—to distance days, with 100-plus miles on the bike or a three-hour long run, all in the desert heat with Impact business meetings and practices mixed in. Longtime client and Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry says that despite Abunassar’s non-stop agenda, he never complains or misses a session.
“He’s never the guy that shows weakness. It’s crazy because he’ll bike or swim hundreds of miles and come into the gym and look fresh. He’s always ready to go,” says Lowry, who credits Abunassar’s training for helping him lose 15 pounds during the 2015 offseason. “That’s the thing about him—he wants you to be in extremely tip-top shape, endurance and cardio wise. He’s going to keep pushing you so that you’re in the same type of shape that he’s in.”
Every morning when Prince wakes up, Abunassar is already out of the house. He’s up by 6 a.m. every day to make sure he completes the scheduled ride or run before going to Impact in the late morning or afternoon.
“When I show up to the gym to work them out, it’s a natural respect like, ‘What do you want me to do? I’m probably gonna do that because you’re probably doing it yourself,’” Abunassar says of players like Prince, Lowry, Demarcus Cousins, Kristaps Porzingis and Emmanuel Mudiay, who all trained with him this offseason. “They are very inspiring to me. And I think what I do in Ironman just naturally inspires them.”
Over the years, Prince says that he has learned from Abunassar’s Ironman preparation, especially when it comes to nutrition. Just as he teaches his players, Abunassar’s dietary habits are directly related to his training goals. He sticks to a good mix of lean proteins, carbohydrates and vegetables, plus no caffeine or soda, very little butter or oils and no cheese or dairy. Prince says he’s been able to adapt Abunassar’s strict approach to fit his lifestyle.
“I probably eat some things differently than him but the one thing we have in common is that we watch what we eat and we see what gives us energy and what foods make us more sluggish,” Prince says. “As he does these things, I kind of watch him and see how he eats and what he does to train his body at a high level. And some things rubbed off on me. We have definitely formed a bond over the last five years.”
After spending the last 20 years preparing, motivating and designing plans for some of the best basketball players in the world, Abunassar says Kona is his moment “to do what I tell people to do.” And although his players won’t be able to support him at the race because of NBA training camps—“They all take such a strong interest in it that if this thing were in September I may have 10-15 guys there, because no one is going to moan about going to Hawaii,” he says—Abunassar will use all of the motivation he’s gotten from watching them play and train.
“I feel like I'll let them down if I don’t do well,” he says. “I am going to represent what I am about as a person, what I have tried to teach them about for 20 years of doing this.
“I do all the work behind the scenes. I don’t want all the glory and credibility. I just want the feeling that I did it. That’s what Ironman is for me.”