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Athletes, draft prospects molded into pros at Indy training center


At first glance, the inside of the St. Vincent Sports Performance Center, a warehouse-like facility tucked into an industrial park off of I-465 in Indianapolis, looks like a lot of college varsity athletic training centers. There are training tables on one side, state-of-the-art cardio and weight machines lined up in the middle, college banners hanging from the ceiling and, through a doorway, a bunch of female soccer players stretching on a vast expanse of turf. Then you notice the pile of racing slicks in one corner. The tires, it turns out, are not for an agility drill.

Professional pit crews train here, as do race car drivers, NFL players, NBA players, Olympic gymnasts, divers, track and field athletes, high school soccer players, middle school basketball players, rock climbers and weekend warriors of all ages. The most recent additions to this flexing, leaping, sprinting congregation are 10 of this year's NBA draft hopefuls, including Butler's Gordon Hayward, Kentucky's Patrick Patterson, BYU's Jonathan Tavernari, Western Kentucky's A.J. Slaughter, Purdue's Chris Kramer and Northern Iowa's Adam Koch. The players are spending as many as nine hours a day, six days a week at the center trying to transform themselves from very good college players into eye-popping, must-have NBA prospects.

"Our mission is to make these players into the best players and best athletes they can be," St. Vincent director Ralph Reiff said. "It's a full-time job."

A certified athletic trainer, Reiff gets the process rolling by talking to agents and GM's about a player's perceived weaknesses. It might be ball handling, defensive balance, three-point shooting or strength. The staff of a dozen experts, which includes coaches, physical trainers, physical therapists, sports psychologists and a nutritionist, takes that information and then performs a battery of physical assessments. Once the staff knows the players' actual weaknesses, be it a chronically stiff ankle or an inflexible inner thigh, trainers and therapists work on it. "When that player is handed off to the strength coach and the speed coach and the basketball coach, that player is a better athlete," Reiff said. "It's a big process."

The players' day includes a morning session of basketball-specific skill work with coach Ed Schilling, a college and NBA coaching veteran, and afternoon sessions of agility, speed and strength training, as well as recovery sessions and meals that have been created according to personalized nutrition plans. There are also meetings with former NBA players and personnel to help the players mentally transition from being a college teammate to "an independent gunslinger," as Reiff puts it. Along with tips on budgeting and reading contracts, players are fed some hard truths. When some of them hear certain grim statistics -- the average length of an NBA career is less than five years and 60 percent of players are broke five years after they retire, for example -- "Their eyes pop," says Reiff. "It gives them a real dose of reality."

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St. Vincent isn't the only facility that prepares NBA prospects, but it might be the most comprehensive. "There are a lot of places that do a really good job," said agent Mark Bartelstein, who represents Hayward and several NBA players. "St. Vincent does a terrific job. Everyone has the same facilities to a degree, the same machines to do all the athletic testing and strength, speed and agility work. I think the difference is in the people you're working with, the time and the attention to detail that they are putting in to you. Those guys do a great job. They love what they do, and they are very meticulous with it. They love seeing guys get better."

After working on ball handling for 30 minutes daily for the last six weeks, Hayward reports that his handle is much better, "though it still needs a lot of work," he said. "They work you out really hard. And everything you do is tailored for basketball, so it's not like you're just becoming a better weightlifter."

Hayward lives about 10 miles from the center, so he goes home at night. But many of the players stay in a nearby hotel, following meal plans designed to help them gain, lose or maintain weight. While Hayward needs to significantly increase his caloric intake, Patterson needs to maintain his weight while largely cutting out the apple pie, ice cream and banana pudding he is so fond of. Patterson admits that sacrifice has been tough, but his agent, Odell McCants, isn't complaining. "They got his body right for the strength and agility testing at the (Chicago pre-draft) combine," McCants said. "His tests were great."

If things go as expected, both Hayward and Patterson will join St. Vincent pre-draft program alums Greg Oden, Mike Conley, Daequan Cook and Jeff Teague as first-round picks. Another client who began the program with far murkier prospects came surprisingly close to joining that circle as well. While working out at St. Vincent in 2007, former Purdue forward Carl Landry improved his draft stock dramatically. "Going into the draft (NBA scouts) thought I was undersized and not athletic, that I wasn't quick, (that my) agility and mobility wasn't that great," Landry said. "After working at St. Vincent, I became stronger in my upper body, my core, my legs; I became a jump shooter." He also became a hot prospect, rocketing from off-the-board to the top of the second round, where he was plucked by Seattle with the 31st pick. The St. Vincent pre-draft program, says Landry, who now plays for Sacramento, "changed my life."

Indy car star Tony Kanaan says St. Vincent saved his life. Kanaan lives in Miami but spends a lot of time in Indy; his team, Andretti Autosport, is based there, as is the biggest race of the year, the Indianapolis 500. A self-described workout freak, Kanaan approached the St. Vincent staff six years ago to try to create a workout to specifically address his athletic performance in the car, where he pulls four or five Gs into corners and his heart rate gets up to 180 beats a minute. During last year's Indy 500, Kanaan's suspension failed and he slammed into a wall at 190 miles an hour. But Kanaan was able to walk away from what he calls "the worst crash of my life" with just two broken ribs. "My body strength and the work that we did to reinforce the muscles we use a lot -- not just to drive but those around the spine and the lower back, I think it saved me," he says.

After spending several days at the center receiving electric stimulation and other recovery treatments, he was able to race the next weekend. "They are my angels," said Kanaan of the St. Vincent staff. "They fix me when I'm broke, and they help me get stronger when I'm good. It's a very unique place."

One of the side benefits of working out at St. Vincent, says Kanaan, is that you never know who you're going to run into. Last winter he got to know Colts tight end Dallas Clark and this spring he met Hayward, the player whose half-court heave at the buzzer came thisclose to giving Butler an unlikely NCAA title. "I told him, 'You rock,' " Kanaan said. "I said, 'Dude, even though you missed that three-point shot in the last second of the game, it doesn't matter. Just look where you are going now.' "