LOS ANGELES — Chandler Parsons keeps winning. He’s playing a card game that has a profane name with Courtney Lee, his summer roommate and former Houston Rockets teammate, at the kitchen table of their West Hollywood Hills rental home.
The primary selling point of this house, where Parsons lived while waiting for the finishing touches to be put on his $10.9 million Bel Air mansion, is the deck with the pool and the beautiful views of downtown L.A. and the hills. But the house also has some history: It’s the site of the scene in “Scarface” where Tony Montana murders his best friend Manny Ribera.
The tension isn’t quite as high as that scene after Parsons’ winning streak reaches a summer-high five hands, but he’s pushing it. “Yee-yee-yee-yee-yee!” Parsons shrieks to celebrate each victory, the taunt seemingly louder, higher-pitched and more annoying each time.
“You cheat more than anybody I know!” Lee says, shaking his head and smiling, before getting a reprieve when Johnny Lopez, Parsons’ pony-tailed personal chef, serves a gluten- and sugar-free feast of grilled chicken and sea bass, forbidden black rice and strawberry salad. Lunches and dinners like this, prepared daily by Lopez in consultation with a nutritionist, have been essential to Parsons slimming down from the 245 pounds he carried last season to 228.
There is no cheating when it comes to Parsons’ primary challenge. He’s looking to revive his career, which is at a crossroads after season-ending knee surgeries in each of the past three years. And there is no polite way to put it: Parsons was miserable last season. During the first year of the four-year, $94 million max deal in Memphis, he provided precious few glimpses of the talent the Grizzlies deemed worth the risk despite his previous knee problems. He averaged career lows virtually across the board (6.2 points per game, 2.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 33.8 field goal percentage) and played in only 34 games. Parsons heard boos at home games even before being shut down in March to undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair the torn meniscus in his left (“good”) knee.
“You get paid a certain salary, you’re judged, and you’re expected to perform at the highest level when you’re getting paid at the highest level,” Parsons says. “To put it simply, I didn’t last year. I truly believe it was 95 percent injury. I don’t think I’ve lost my game or lost a step.
“Just physically, I wasn’t there last year. I was a step slow, I wasn’t athletic, I wasn’t fast. I wasn’t myself.”
To be himself again, Parsons enlisted a heck of a lot of help. This summer, he worked with a team of experts coordinated by Grizzlies executives hoping to maximize the forward’s chances of providing a return for the $72 million remaining on his deal. Parsons allowed ESPN.com to ride shotgun for a couple of days to witness the process, bouncing from Hollywood to Bel Air to work on his body with the industry’s best.
The first stop is a strip mall near LAX Airport. Parsons walks through the glass front door of the office sandwiched between a Bed Bath & Beyond and Office Depot, and takes the elevator up to the second floor, where the laboratory of physical therapist Dr. John Meyer is located. There are machines and advanced exercise equipment throughout the room, which is surrounded by 12 2-D motion-capture cameras mounted overhead and three more on the walls, monitoring every rep each athlete client takes and feeding biomechanical information into a computer across the room.
Parsons first visited Meyer last summer for a testing session at the request of the Grizzlies, who had extended discussions a year ago about hiring the doctor to head their medical and performance staffs before he decided to remain in L.A. Parsons’ exam did not go well.
Parsons wasn’t medically cleared for many of the movements required for routine testing, and the results were poor for most of the activities he could perform. Parsons has worked with Meyer four to five times per week since his surgery in March, rehabbing and working to regain the explosiveness he never had last season while focusing on improving the mechanics of his movements.
“There’s no more rehab,” Parsons says during a break between sets. “Now I’m just training.”
As Parsons finishes a set during this visit, Meyer thumbs through his phone until he finds a photo of Parsons playing basketball last year. The picture is noteworthy because Parsons is so poorly balanced in it, with arrows and biomechanical calculations scrawled around his body to illustrate the point.
“I dedicated my entire summer to my body. I can’t even really compare it to last year because it’s night and day how my body feels, the kind of shape I’m in.” – Chandler Parsons
“That was the old him,” Meyer says. “He was a mess.”
A silver lining to Parsons’ latest knee surgery, the scope of his left knee: He’d have plenty of time in the offseason to work on his frame and his game, luxuries he didn’t have the past two summers when he had to focus solely on rehabbing from more serious surgeries on his right knee.
“I dedicated my entire summer to my body,” Parsons says. “I can’t even really compare it to last year because it’s night and day how my body feels, the kind of shape I’m in. I’m lean. I’m playing 5-on-5, one-on-one, 2-on-2, 3-on-3. Working out five times a week. I’m doing stuff now that basically I couldn’t even do throughout the season last year. It’s completely different.”
Parsons didn’t break a sweat until a full hour into his session on this day. The first 60 minutes were focused on prepping his body for the specific exercises, as he bantered with Clippers power forward Blake Griffin and Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson during their workouts with Meyer. (Pelicans power forward Anthony Davis, Bulls shooting guard Zach LaVine and Suns rookie forward Josh Jackson are among Meyer’s other NBA clients.)
The process included using a vibrating foam roll to loosen up his legs, followed by 15 minutes in compression boots, stretching routines utilizing a steel stretch cage, and a manual therapy session in which Meyer pulled and prodded Parsons’ legs, hips and ankles using his hands and a deep-muscle stimulator, a vibrating, metal device that looks like a gun from “The Jetsons.”
Parsons didn’t touch a traditional weight heavier than 20 pounds during this workout. The focus was on cutting, jumping, balance and deceleration. It’s a program tailored for a basketball player, not a bodybuilder, and Meyer backed off of weight training as Parsons’ basketball activity increased throughout the summer.
“We had to give him a foundation of strength first, which is what we did, and then we moved to movement re-education and movement retraining,” says Meyer, who works with NBA skills trainer Rob McClanaghan on making subtle changes to Parsons’ on-court lower-body mechanics to reduce the burden on his knees. “We still had to give him a good foundation of strength and get his explosiveness back, because he just wasn’t explosive and confident jumping and landing. We spent a lot of time on landing mechanics and just controlling his trunk, hips, knees and ankles when he lands.”
Among the tools Parsons uses on this day: 7-foot poles he grips while doing one-legged movements, medicine balls, dumbbells, resistance bands, machines featuring resistive pulley systems, and a Sorinex roller, a flat metal device on wheels that he grips while gliding into a flat, face-down position an inch off the floor.
Improving strength, flexibility and mobility in Parsons’ hips and ankles, as well as core strength, have been priorities all offseason. (“The better those are, the more pressure they relieve off my knees,” Parsons says.) Meyer says he emphasizes “high-speed explosive movements” and “multidirectional lunges,” noting that Parsons wasn’t strong enough before to hold those positions.
The workout wraps up with Parsons on an arc trainer and versa climber, a high-tech, high-performance, full-body version of an elliptical machine. Meyer puts him through a series of sprint intervals, adjusting the times and resistance based on Parsons’ heart rate, seeming to take pride in how hard Parsons can be pushed at this point.
“He might have died if I’d have tried this last year,” Meyer says, smiling.
Parsons pulls his Rolls-Royce Wraith into the driveway of a West Hollywood home, opens the weathered, light-blue-painted, wooden gate on the side of the house and walks into the small, private Pilates studio in the backyard by the pool. He’s joined by his friend Erin Foster, a model who co-created VH1’s “Barely Famous” with her sister. They’re cheerily greeted by instructor Betsy Parker, a 63-year-old who could easily pass for half her age.
It’s a scene that is so very “L.A.” It’s also an important part of Parsons’ offseason routine.
He occasionally mixes in yoga and boxing, but Pilates has become Parsons’ go-to low-impact workout. He typically goes to Parker’s place on Wednesday and Saturday mornings and says he’s always “crazy sore” the next day.
“It’s about toning, flexibility, strengthening,” Parker says. “It’s finding all those tiny muscles that you didn’t even know you had. When you start working all these teeny-, teeny-weeny muscles, they help all your big muscles. Now you’ve got a fully functioning body.”
“It’s a great alternative workout to make yourself feel uncomfortable,” Parsons says. “You go outside the box and bubble to work out muscles that you never think about during the season.”
Parsons, wearing only a pair of black spandex pants, is clearly uncomfortable at several points during the hourlong session.
“Damn, that’s tough!” he says with a grimace while doing donkey kicks and extending his opposite arm. After finishing a set of crunches with a pair of fuzzy restraints around his knees, he grunts, “That’s 15 and I feel like killing myself.”
But Pilates certainly isn’t all pain for Parsons. There is a good-natured, flirtatious vibe between Parsons and Parker.
“You made my summer more fun,” Parker tells Parsons at the end of the session, his last one before leaving L.A. “You provided a little spark.”
Each summer, dozens of NBA players frequent the Jackson Center, the private Staples Center-replica gym built adjacent to L.A. Gear founder Steve Jackson’s mansion in a gated Bel Air community, where McClanaghan works out his clients. NBA teams often use the gym for practices and shootarounds while in L.A. during the regular season.
It’s a casual atmosphere, with Jackson, his wife and adult sons greeting visitors and mingling with the players. The family pups got out of the house and into the gym this afternoon, leading to a viral video of one of the dogs defending Warriors star Klay Thompson, who had just wrapped up his workout.
But the sessions are serious, with McClanaghan frequently pushing his clients to exhaustion, stressing the importance of executing while fatigued. Parsons has a unique appreciation for the grind after being denied the opportunity to work on his game the previous two summers due to knee surgeries.
Parsons also worked out with Steve Nash a couple of times and played some pickup ball at UCLA. However, the majority of his offseason on-court work has been here with McClanaghan since being medically cleared in mid-May, often with Grizzlies assistant coaches attending to monitor Parsons’ progress and supplement the skills training.
“They’re impressed,” Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace says. “They say, first of all, his mobility is at a significantly higher level than it was last year at this time. Chandler also when we discuss his progress with him is very buoyant and upbeat about where he is. He feels that he has more lift, more explosiveness, better movement. This is really his first legitimate offseason in a couple of years.”
The Grizzlies’ staff consults with McClanaghan, who has counted Parsons as a client for four years, but gives him the freedom to run his workouts as he sees fit. Memphis assistant coach Keith Smart sits on the sideline during a late August session in which Parsons is joined by Knicks shooting guard Courtney Lee (his summer roommate and regular workout partner) and Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, who is in town for a few days before heading to Hawaii for former Ohio State teammate Greg Oden’s wedding.
“He feels that he has more lift, more explosiveness, better movement. This is really his first legitimate offseason in a couple of years.” – Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace
Smart chimes in occasionally as they drill one-on-one moves — “Stay low, Chandler! Stay low!” he says as they work on spin moves — but waits until the group is finished before working individually with Parsons on shot mechanics.
“I think they respect that I know his game pretty well, maybe better than them because I’ve had him longer,” McClanaghan says. “They trust me with that.”
McClanaghan’s workouts vary by the day as he decides which facets of the game to focus on. He emphasizes conditioning as much as skill development, with his transition sessions dreaded by players, who do such drills as shooting jumpers off of full-court sprints. With Parsons in particular, the intensity of the workouts has steadily increased over the summer, starting with primarily spot shooting and stationary drills and advancing to full-court work and half-court drills with a defender on him.
It hasn’t always been pretty — despite Parsons’ near perfect shooting percentage on the videos he posts to Instagram — but it’s the kind of work Parsons desperately needs to get his career back on track.
“He’s come a long way since May,” McClanaghan says. “He’s probably 75 percent right now. He can get to 100. Explosive, he’s getting there. His balance is getting there. His conditioning early in the summer hurt his balance and hurt his jump shot, but that’s increased so greatly. Everything’s improved as we’ve gone on.
“I’ve tried to do my best so that when he gets to training camp, he’s in really good shape. I don’t want to push it too early, obviously coming off surgery and things like that. So I’ve tapered it up to a point where hopefully by the time he gets to camp he’s 90 percent, and by Week 1 he’s 100 percent.”
“It was a huge team effort to get me back to being me,” Parsons says.
He’s especially grateful to the Grizzlies for coordinating the entire process and remaining hands-on despite a distance of nearly 2,000 miles, via frequent conference calls and visits from coaches and members of Memphis’ medical and athletic performance staffs.
But everybody involved understands that Parsons’ offseason work offers no guarantees. Parsons understands his knees will be a concern the rest of his career and will require consistent maintenance. Wallace, meanwhile, won’t look past training camp when discussing Parsons.
“I’m not worried about expectations,” Wallace says. “We just like what we’ve seen so far with the improvement and progress that he’s made. Now, we can’t wait to get him out in actual training camp here soon and then we’ll go from there. We expect him to be a full participant.
“Right now, he’s way ahead of the game from where he was last year, and that’s good news for us.”
It’s premature to discuss minutes restrictions — Parsons never played more than 25 minutes in a game last season — but those are decisions that the Grizzlies’ staff will make in consultation with Meyer. Yet for the Grizzlies to make the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season, they’ll likely need a significant contribution from Parsons, who is cautiously optimistic that his offseason work will pay off.
“This is a huge year for me,” says Parsons, who moved from a rented suburban mansion that was a 40-minute drive from FedEx Forum to a downtown Memphis penthouse apartment so he could spend more free time at the arena. “Obviously I’m under contract for three more years, but I want to perform right now. I think I can be a huge difference-maker for this team, and this team needs me. I understand that, and I think I’ve put myself in great position to come into camp and help right away.
“Look, no one can control injuries. At the same time, I can put in all the work that I’ve put in this summer to limit or lower the chances of it. I can’t see the future; I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I can look myself in the mirror this summer going into training camp knowing that I did everything possible to get in unbelievable shape.”
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