Throwback Thursday: The New Guard

This article originally appeared in SLAM #198

The country’s top conditioning coach, Chappy Callanta, is watching Jimmy Alapag pass the torch to Chris Newsome and Baser Amer, one rep at a time.

Jimmy Alapag walks into the gym. He says hello to everyone, exchanges pleasantries with some of the members and then sits down in the bench as he recovers from practice and mentally prepares for the workout ahead.  It’s 4:30 in the afternoon in 360 PRO, our performance facility along Pioneer Avenue in Mandaluyong. I’m just wrapping up with my previous group of clients, a mixture of triathletes, radio DJs and a chef. I ask Jimmy how he feels, how practice was, if anything feels particularly sore today.

I ask him if he’s okay to go today, and of course he says yes. Jimmy always comes prepared.

At his age, he says, you gotta be as efficient as you can be on your energy; one of the reasons why he likes going here. As his trainer, I know that every workout has to be just the right amount of tension and volume if I want him active until the end of the conference.

In walks Baser Amer and Chris Newsome: the rookie guards of the Meralco Bolts and two-thirds of the Meralco contingent that works out in the gym. They play with my kids who have taken a fondness for them, say hey to the trainers and regulars and then go straight for the foam rollers and trigger point tools to roll out a few sore knots. I finish with my clients and approach the guys. I check on some of their issues and ask them how they are doing.

One thing I learned from working with athletes of all levels is that everyday is a different day. We say “Everyday is gameday” and we’d like to think that day in, day out, you can give the same amount of effort and focus. Truth is, there are just some days when your body will make the decision to rest for you. This is why I always check first before we even start a workout. The boys say all is well and that they are ready to go. Jimmy joins them and they begin their warm-up routines: foam rolls, a series of hip and shoulder activation exercises, their inchworm routine (which they have a love-hate relationship with), and their movement patterns to get them ready for the workout. We haven’t been working out for long – as of this writing, 4 months for Chris and Baser, and 7 months for Jimmy – but they already know the routine by heart, I leave them to it and start preparing the equipment they will be using for today.

How I became the trainer of a Philippine basketball legend and his willing proteges started when Jimmy decided that he wanted to come out of retirement back in September 2015. Being the professional that he is, he wanted to be fully-prepared for the upcoming All-Filipino conference. He liked the program enough that he invited the rookie guards to join him at the conclusion of the Philippine Cup to prepare for the next chapter of the season.

Contrary to what others might see, being a professional athlete is not all glitz and glamour. We see the games, the billboards, posters, and endorsements, but we don’t see the preparation it takes to develop and improve their game, outside of the limelight. True, some athletes get away with sheer talent. I remember the very talented twin towers of a now defunct PBA organization who were notorious for skipping practices, sometimes even sleeping in the bathrooms while their teammates were sweating it out doing conditioning drills. The team management let them get away with it because they were franchise stars and they were still pretty effective because of their height. But once we got an influx of Fil-foreign players, and once the younger generation saw the importance of strength and conditioning, our Sleeping Beauties were left behind and gradually faded to retirement.

These days, you can’t get away with just talent, and if anybody knows that, it’s Baser Amer.

I first saw Baser when I coached in the Nike Elite Basketball Camp held in Brent International School. More than the natural skills I knew he had, I saw a soft spoken kid who had the heart of a lion. Pretty fitting the he ended up going to San Beda and flourishing in his high school and college career. But before all of this, he was just a kid from Davao who seemed to put all the intensity that he had inside him, on the basketball court. He was going against some of the more notable names in high school ball back then. Terrence Romeo, Russel Escoto, Kyle Neypes, Kiefer Raven, Jeron and Jeric Teng, and Baser showed why he belonged.

Back in 360 PRO, back in present time, Baser is still the same soft-spoken guy I saw back in Brent. He jokingly asks me if they only need to do 3 reps of the inchworm complex, and I of course say five. “Come on young guys.” I tell him and Chris and they know right away that if Cap can do five, these 25 year-olds should be able to do five. They finish their routine and the joking comes to a stop.

Instantly you see the boys focus on the tasks at hand. Jimmy leads the way, “Time to work fellas”, and the young guys follow his lead. I’ve seen my fair share of professional athletes and after meeting these three, I knew I wouldn’t have trouble getting them to do what I say in the weight room. It starts with Jimmy, and Baser and Chris know that having this opportunity to work with him is golden; and they will not let it go to waste.

They start working on their core, some anti-rotation and medicine ball exercises for today. I remind them about form and instantly they tighten up and get their postures right. They go through both exercises in rapid succession, never letting up on effort. They know that each rep counts and in a physical game like basketball where you get bumped and hit everytime you get into the lane, they know how having a strong core helps.

Chris knows this especially well. One of the changes that he wants to feel is being able to withstand the punishment the PBA big men give guards who slash and drive into the lane. Chris is a highlight film waiting to happen, and it’s no secret that pro bigs love to go after strong finishers to prevent the new trending video from even happening. Everyday he says to me he feels so much stronger when he finishes, and I see it with our drills.

When I started training Chris, we got his vertical. I knew he was a high flyer in college but I wanted him to not only be a high flyer, but also be a powerful finisher. He could get away with it in college because he was a pretty big guard, but the pro game is different. That’s what he felt in his first conference, and after that, he knew he had to bulk up and get stronger. So aside from his vertical, we also tested his upper body strength. That’s where I saw room for improvement. He started with 4 pull-ups in our first day, now he does 10 for three sets with a 10-pound weight vest, a fact that he’s proud of. Baser now does 10 straight. On day one? He was doing zero.

It just so happens that pull-ups were on the menu today. The guys smile and egg each other on. “I knew we were doing this today” Chris says with a smile.

We have enough space for an entire team of 15 to do pull ups together. However, I let the three of them do it one at a time. This is one of the opportunities where having teammates with you in the weight room really helps.

Chris leads the way with his weighted vest on. He blasts through 10 reps with Jimmy and Baser shouting and clapping him on.

“Light weight! Light weight!” Jimmy shouts, as Baser claps with every rep.

Then it’s Jimmy’s turn, he shakes his arms and breathes deeply.

“Let’s go baby”, he grabs the rings and starts his set.

Chris cheers him on, “Let’s go Cap! Easy! Easy!”

Baser steps back to mentally prepare for his set while Jimmy finishes his 10 reps. It’s been a week since Baser finally got to 10 reps but he still sees pull-ups as a weakness. I walk over and tell him just focus on his form, keep his abs tight and breathe through the reps.

He steps up and Chris and Jimmy stay close. They were ecstatic the week before when Baser first did 10 and they’re gonna make sure that he stays on that number.

He steps up and struggles through the 10 reps with his two teammates shouting him on. But he does it. Because they wouldn’t allow it any other way.

Everyday I work with this trio, I see many small victories like this. Every personal best is recorded in my head and everyday I try to give them a challenge they can overcome to be better. My personal small victories come in the form of seeing them getting “cleaner” reps in. It’s one thing to lift a weight or get over a plyo box, it’s another to do it efficiently. When I see them land well and lift well, those are my victories.

The improvement that Baser and Chris have shown has been more than satisfactory for me. I see how effortlessly Chris lands and jumps and turns 90 degrees onto a 24-inch box, landing perfectly like a cat. I see how Baser stops on a dime on our overspeed drills, something that he’ll be able to apply when he drives into the lane and needs to avoid a charge. I make them do resisted and assisted sprints and change-of-direction drills that are designed to overload the brain and nervous system as much as their legs. How they process information in a split second when they have to make a decision of going left, right or stopping, can be trained and I’ve seen how much they have improved here.

With the heavy lifting done and the pull ups out of the way, we get down to business with our cardio complexes that we call “finishers”. They are called that because of two reasons, they finish the workout, and they finish you. It’s not a good finisher if you don’t get your heart rate north of 80% max. Success here is measured by how quickly you can recover and blast out another set with similar quality. For today we do a combination of dribbling drills, battle ropes and some footwork drills. The guys take a moment to recover and focus.

Jimmy says “Let’s go baby! Winning time, winning time right here!”

Chris and Baser follow his lead as they set themselves up in the battle ropes station. If you’re not familiar with battle ropes, these are the thick ropes you usually see on shipyards. They’re about two to three inches thick, 30 feet long, and weigh 20-30 pounds. Then you hold on to the ends and slam them as hard and as fast as you could. It feels like you’re sprinting, only with your arms.

Now you may start to think, didn’t they just come from practice? Why am I putting them through this now? Two reasons: first, I only give them as much as I know they can handle. I push them hard but never to the point of pain. Second: they WANT to do it. It’s one thing to be required to do extra work; it’s another to actually seek it out yourself.

I asked the rooks what drives them to do more. Chris knows that his first two years in the league are the most crucial in establishing who you are and what you can do. “I want to establish myself as one of the best two-way players in the PBA. I’m very eager to show the PBA community that I’m capable of playing at this level and that I can hopefully influence and raise the level of play in the future.

Baser has “extra work” written in his biography. It has been and continues to be part of his training regimen and he relishes the time he gets to spend with his teammates and his mentor in Jimmy. Whenever Baser has an off-day or he feels low on energy, he reminds himself that he’s doing what he loves the most, and that’s playing basketball. He also reminds himself that this isn’t just one man’s dream, but also the dream of his family.

They get into position and I count them down for their first set. Whenever this happens, the gym gets a little bit quiet in anticipation of the hard work that’s to be done. They blast through the ropes into their footwork drills, a series of hops and jumps from side to side. They finish with some stationary dribbling drills designed to keep them stable, even with fatigue. I count down the set and they finish. 45 seconds of work, but trust me, it wasn’t easy.

They rest for a minute, and repeat the set twice.

On the third set, you can see them getting tired. This is when Jimmy reminds them what time it is. Winning time. This is where you earn that extra energy for the fourth quarter. When your opponent’s already huffing for oxygen and you’re sprinting with the same efficiency, that’s what this is about. And the boys know it. They finish the set well and walk it off exchanging high fives with each other. They thank me for the day, and I thank them for the work.

Afterwards Jimmy sits down and looks at Chris. Breathing hard he says “We got better today.” Chris and Baser both nod in agreement and proceed to cool down. Chris knows that days like this, when you’re tired from a long practice but you “still find it in you to go that 5th or 6th gear that only a very few people can reach. That’s what will separate me from the rest.”

When you’re a trainer, this is music to your ears. They wrap up their cool down routines and head out. I’ll be seeing them again tomorrow, the master and his students. The legend and the future. Another day done, on to the next one, each day getting better, til your idols become your rivals.

With each exercise and each rep, two things are clear.

One, Jimmy Alapag has chosen whom to pass the torch to.

Two, Baser Amer and Chris Newsome know: they’re not being handed a flame to hold, they’re being taught how to play and live with fire.

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