By Brendan O'Hallarn
I've now seen the ODU men's basketball team work out at least a dozen mornings, doing preseason conditioning workouts in advance of the formal start of camp.
At 7 a.m., when many fellow students are still quite a ways from getting up, the players get put through a battery of tests, drills and skills. All without ever touching a basketball.
One day they might run two miles on a track, as fast as they can.
Other days they do agility work, conditioning for power and flexibility, to build up the explosive energy needed to play Division I basketball.
Overseeing all of the activity is Paul Helsel, ODU athletics' head strength and conditioning coach.
Helsel came to Norfolk from Southeast Missouri State in Cape Girardeau, Mo., where he had been since 1998.
As a student and then graduate assistant at the University of Alabama, Helsel worked with the Crimson Tide national champion football team in 1992.
But at ODU, it's Helsel's job to oversee fitness testing for every team. And nowadays, they all take part in conditioning away from the field of play.
"A lot of that has to do with the creation of my position at universities. Twenty to 30 years ago, strength and conditioning coaches didn't exist," Helsel said.
"Now it's just part of the student-athlete experience. Even our sailing team spends time in the weight room." Each workout is recorded, so players can track their improvement, and aim for faster times and heavier weights to motivate themselves.
"The enjoyment for me is seeing the enjoyment in them. Seeing how much they improve from when they first arrive here until they leave."
In an effort to show what good athletes play basketball at ODU - and in the process, humiliate myself - I went through the same fitness test each player does at the start of offseason workouts.
To sum up - I am not fast. Or strong. Or flexible. Especially not flexible.
I met Paul in the weight room of the athletics building. The first thing he did was take me into his office and pull out a plastic device with a pincher on it, like a pair of pliers.
To measure my body fat percentage, Helsel pinched me in four places - my tricep, my "love handles," my stomach and my quadriceps. Each time, he latched the device on my skin, and read the number from a scale on the other side.
The gruesome news? My body fat percentage is 17.9 per cent. By way of comparison, Keyon Carter and Marquel Delancey from the team have body fat percentages of 4.8 per cent.
I hopped on the scale and got weighed (Oooh. 193.4 pounds. That's about 10 pounds heavier than I was when I ran my last marathon.) Then it was off to the gym, and four drills designed to test speed, power, agility and flexibility. First up, vertical jump. Helsel had set up a pole with a bunch of plastic disks hanging from the side, a half-inch apart.
The idea is to jump up and slap the highest disk you can. When the players did it, I watched point guard Darius James, who's quite a bit shorter than me, slap 10 and a half feet from a standing jump.
I didn't get that high. Not even the rim. Nine feet, 10.5 inches, which amounts to a 22-inch vertical jump. Kent Bazemore's leap is 32.5 inches.
Given a single step, I managed 10 feet on the nose, or 23.5 inches. Bazemore? Thirty-five inches. I've always been relatively encumbered by gravity, but I used to be able to dunk on a good jumping day. I know it's been a few years, but I was shocked at how ground-borne I've become.
"As we get older, we lose power. You see it, even in professional athletes," Helsel said.
After the jump test we went to the lane in front of the basket, which had orange cones set up on the four corners.
The drill involved running from the foul line to the baseline, sliding across to the other side of the lane, backpedaling to the foul line and across, to complete the square. Then you immediately do the whole process in reverse.
I did my best, and actually cut half a second off my time between my first and second try. I think I was halfway out to the three-point line the first time, after trying to switch from sliding sideways to running backwards.
My best time was 13.35 seconds. I thought it was pretty quick until I saw the Monarchs' Trian Iliadis did it in 9.86 seconds, and Bazemore and Marsharee Neely stopped the clock in 9.93.
The next test was a three-quarter court sprint. My best time was 3.78 seconds. Delancey did 3.06. Bazemore did 3.07. If we were racing together, I think they would have lapped me.
Then we measured my flexibility, reaching for my toes while seated. I knew this test would go badly. My lack of flexibility is a party trick. I was 8.5 inches from my toes. Again, comparison. Chris Cooper reached eight inches PAST his toes. One final humiliation awaited me back in the weight room.
The players are graded on how many times they can bench press 185 pounds. A push from the bar on their chest to straight arms counts as one. Keyon Carter did 22!
Paul took a look at my angular frame and said: "We're going to start you at 110 pounds."
I managed to lift that bar the five times I was asked, but Paul had to almost catch the last one, when the bar started to list sideways on me.
Then we moved to 135, then 165. Each time, Paul had to give me a little more help getting my arms to a locked position. Finally it was time to try my 185-pound lift. By this time, there were spotters on both sides of me, in case the bar dropped down on my throat and I couldn't move it.
"I'm not going to help you with this one. I want you to take it down by yourself, and lift it off your chest as best you can," Helsel said.
I pushed as hard as I could. I lifted the bar a measly inch.
After the various tests, I was dog tired. In fact, after doing the lane agility drills I had to lie down on the gym floor for a second, because I wasn't used to sprinting and changing direction at that intensity.
"This would be a light day for the guys on the team," Helsel told me, smiling sympathetically.
As I packed up my stuff to leave, I watched Paul and assistant coach John Richardson designing a diabolical drill. It involved jumping rope, hopping back and forth, doing defensive slides back and forth across the key and other exercises focusing on speed and agility.
The next morning, still stiff from my test, I watched the team do the drill. Seven stations, each with a grueling exercise. Players did each one twice, as hard as they could, for 30 seconds, before rotating to the next station and starting the next test immediately. If I'd done that drill, I would have required a stretcher and oxygen.
But as soon as it was finished, Helsel blew a whistle.
"OK, everyone on the end line."
The players had more drills to do before their workout was done.
I walked out of the gym, shaking my head.
If there's a fitter team in the country right now, I'd like to see it.
Brendan's Blog 46