- Despite stepping down as the Nuggets' strength and conditioning coach, legendary trainer Steve Hess has left indelible fingerprints on a young Denver team.
Within the leafy fields, traversing through weeds and lanky Jokic brothers, a man, apparently less than a decade shy of 100 years old, sprinted back and forth, donning nothing but white underpants. He strode and strode, flipping tires after each lap. Legend says The Professor, Sombor locals call him, can continue this exercise of insanity for 12 hours. “He didn’t even take water,” Steve Hess recalls. “I saw this cat with my own eyes.”
Now 51, perhaps Hess witnessed a glimpse into his own future. The Denver Nuggets’ former longtime strength and conditioning coach still is—and likely more than ever—built like a superhero. Muscles most aren’t even aware their body harbors cartoonishly bulge throughout his 5’3.5” frame. The South African’s tawny skin sports his typical Hollywood-caliber tan. A Baker Mayfield-style headband wraps the grey dreadlocks sprouting from the top of his head. He’s in New York this August afternoon to help pitch Met-Rx’s new whey protein cookie bites, and there may be no better fitness demigod to do so.
After all, one could argue Hess is equally as responsible as Denver president Tim Connelly or head coach Mike Malone for the Nuggets’ gleaming bright future. The training guru morphed Nikola Jokic from a pudgy, second-round pick Joker into a lean, conditioned franchise center, overseeing the Serbian’s 30-pound weight loss after slogging through his first NBA Summer League in 2015. Hess guided budding point guard Jamal Murray’s rehab from offseason surgery on a double sports hernia following his rookie campaign. “It was a lot of fun being around him every day and having his energy influence my mornings,” Murray says. Hess spliced filming corny Instagram Met-Rx ads in between exercises, compiling nearly as many bloopers with Murray as sets on the squat rack.
Hess brazenly claims he wanted to be some sort of medical professional ever since he was six years old scampering around Cape Town. There was simply an innate feeling, he says, driving his interests towards orthopedic surgery or physical training just as his learned to read. He played rugby, cricket and soccer as a child before determining he needed to flee his native land for college, appying to 22 schools in Great Britain and 10 institutions in the United States. Only New York’s Ithaca College granted acceptance, on the condition he spent a first semester adjusting to the American education system on the school’s London campus while maintaining a 3.5 GPA throughout his undergraduate tenure. Finally touching down in upstate New York that December, Hess stepped off the plane having never owned a winter jacket. “I’m like, I’m gonna frickin’ die,” he remembers.
Hess’s foreign student visa required finding work within a year of graduating with his degree in sports medicine. That’s when he fell for a beautiful girl during senior week, flew down to Texas where an uncle resided, purchased a car, and drove 13-plus hours through the southern evening to meet his love in Boulder, Colo. Hess arrived before the sun rose, and awoke to the Rockies piercing the sky. “I didn’t even know they had mountains,” Hess says. “I was like. ‘Holy s**t this place is beautiful.’” The relationship lasted just two weeks. Brimming with pride and trademark charisma, Hess refused to move back to his father, now living in London. He signed for an apartment in downtown Denver and landed a training job at The Denver Athletic Club. It’s where he met his wife, Alicia, an aerobics instructor, rooting the outsider to the city, steering him towards a fortuitous encounter with pro basketball.
In 1997, word circulated around the local fitness industry that Nuggets’ general manager Allan Bristow was seeking an additional training facility for Denver’s players, spearheaded by a new strength and conditioning coach. By then, Hess had married his bride, and co-owned a club with the Ritz Carlton. He refused to sacrifice stake in the business he had built up as much as his body, but craved the challenge of shaping the Nuggets’ training department.
“I saw the parameters,” Hess said. Only a madman oozing his palpable energy could have dared shouldering the double-duty. “This is my gig. I can do both jobs,” he surmised. For the ’97-98 NBA season, Hess managed his club while serving as the Nuggets’ part-time strength and conditioning coach, working more than 100 hours each week, jetting to east coast road trips and counting private clients’ crunches. The Nuggets gig only paid $27,000, yet Hess still never came up for air. Landscapers erected a new housing complex across the street from his an Alicia’s home, only Hess never noticed until the project was completed by year’s end. “I was so locked in,” he says. The following season, Denver anointed him its full-time head of strength and conditioning, a post he held for 18 years before becoming the Nuggets’ director of performance for his final three seasons with the franchise.
Years of research and thoughtful questions passed before Hess fully grasped the rigors NBA basketball, the league’s schedule and travel impress upon players’ bodies. Diet and training regimens fluctuate between position groups and based on the minutes each individual sees. A starter’s game-day workout differs drastically from a reserve's and even moreso from the 15th man’s routine. All those factors impact a player’s sleep and nutrition. “Initially I was just lost,” Hess admits. “But I kind of think that’s the best way: Just jump in and do the best job you can.” Eventually he determined how to balance aiding Carmelo Anthony’s conditioning, at one point trimming the All-Star to 219 pounds and 7% body fat, while simultaneously packing necessary weight onto Kenyon Martin’s skinny torso.
Hess met Anthony as a 19-year-old prodigy in 2003, joining the Syracuse product at his house to embark on four-mile, early-morning runs. He shuttled Anthony to the Red Rocks’ towering hiking trails, urging him to sprint up the mountains to the point Denver’s superstar ducked his cornrowed head into the shrubbery, hiding vomit from his new guru. Hess was the Nuggets’ lone bridge from the Anthony era, flirting with the 2009 title, to today. Before Gary Harris’ rookie campaign, he brought the team to the Colorado Springs’ Manitou Incline, famous for gaining over 2,000 feet of elevation in less than one mile. He ordered players sprint for 30 seconds, resting with a two minute walk, only to burst into a full stride once more for another 30-tick trial. “He just figures out different ways for you to have fun and get your work in,” Harris says. “You definitely feel it in your thighs and lungs,” Murray adds. “But you can’t quit on him.”
Hess built that equity over years of unrivaled enthusiasm. He’d routinely poke his silver head up from behind the sea of 7-footers on Denver’s bench, barking about the officials and his own scouting of the opposing defense. Coaches often looked back at the tiny trainer, incredulous at his energy level. He yelled “Smash!” more than anything, his rugby and weightlifting background colliding. “It can get annoying when someone’s in your ear 24/7, but if it’s coming from the right place, with a big heart, it’s fine,” Murray says.
That persona made Hess a natural fit to endorse Met-Rx. He’s long been a consumer of the brand’s products, and his excitement for the company’s new cookies is genuine. Hess rattles off the ingredients—natural nutrients, including real eggs and real brown sugar—from the top of his head. “And here’s the best thing about it: It tastes good. I sound like a commercial, right?” he laughs.
He’s naturally more comfortable as a trainer than a pitchman, fully invested in his new venture, The Panorama Wellness and Sports Institute, co-owned with former Nugget Chauncey Billups and former Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley. In jest, Hess is entering his second season as a consultant with the Nuggets, stepping away from his full-time duties. Yet as Denver hopes to rise up the Western Conference ranks this winter, he’s left an indelible mark on the franchise, its players’ bodies finely sculpted, his jubilant South African accent still emanating throughout their newly-brand Steve Hess Weight Room.