Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Being a basketball trainer is big business right now. NBA fans who use social media are conditioned to look for updates throughout the offseason, when most players post video clips of their daily workouts. The players talk about expanding their bag of tricks, adding new moves and “getting better every day,” as they show off the work they’re doing to make it happen.
Such hype videos usually include appearances by the players’ personal trainers. The latest guru to the stars, the trainer is the one throwing tennis balls at the players while they dribble through cones, or making them juggle Gatorade bottles as they shoot one-handed jumpers. It’s all part of the show.
You might not expect that show to reach a nondescript business plaza on the west side of Las Vegas, dominated by a patio furniture showroom. The only indication anything extraordinary might be going on? A small collection of high-end sports cars parked outside a blank storefront.
Next to the furniture warehouse is the Hoop City gym, home to Impact Basketball. If you’re not looking for it, it’s almost impossible to spot. Yet dozens of the best basketball players in the world go out of their way to work out there every summer.
On a Monday morning in September, Kyle Lowry of the reigning champion Toronto Raptors is pouring sweat as he runs pick-and-pops at full speed. Setting the screens is Philadelphia 76ers center Kyle O’Quinn. Lowry runs off the pick and flings a hook pass to O’Quinn, and the big man sticks a jumper. Over and over again.
It’s not pretty. Lowry and O’Quinn are gasping for air and pushing themselves to complete the circuit. The work is real, not staged for Instagram engagement. There are no cameras recording.
Joe Abunassar prefers it that way. As the founder and owner of Impact, Abunassar has spent more than a decade building one of the most impressive client rosters in the business—Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince were some of the first athletes to train with him. And he has done it without posting his workouts on Snapchat.
“That’s not us,” Abunassar says. “We don’t Instagram every day and put our workouts on video. You don’t see any Kyle Lowry workouts on video. I trained Kevin Garnett for 20 years and didn’t videotape one of his workouts to put on social media or anything. I don’t have any interest in having a YouTube channel.”
Abunassar has built his business with the idea that top-level players will recognize legitimate training methods when they see them. A former college basketball assistant coach, he founded the IMG basketball academy in Florida around the turn of the century, then began focusing on individual training as more elite players gravitated to his regimen.
After a few years, his roster expanded to the point where he had to make a move in order to keep everyone happy. “Many of the pro guys didn’t really want to go to Sarasota, Florida, anymore,” Abunassar says with a laugh. “So Chauncey Billups, Tyronn Lue, Tayshaun Prince—my original clients—we talked about where we could open up something, and Las Vegas was the perfect location. The pros like being here, [and] not just for the Strip. A lot of them have bought homes out here in Summerlin and Anthem.”
Abunassar took his services to Las Vegas in 2006, relying on word-of-mouth to attract players. This summer, he says, 75 to 100 professional ballers have come through his gym for workouts.
O’Quinn has been training with Abunassar since his days at Norfolk State in 2009. “I trust Joe with my career,” O’Quinn says. “This is my 10th summer coming here, and he knows my body better than anybody. I came here in college, and I met some of the guys that were already here. You want a career like theirs. That’s what Joe does here. He knows how to get us prepared for training camp. It’s good, trusted work.”
As Lowry and O’Quinn go through their morning paces, WNBA star Lexie Brown and longtime European league stalwart Tremmell Darden take turns running a full-court fast break. All told, there are five Impact staffers, not including Abunassar, conducting the workout.
Darden swears by Abunassar’s individualized training program. A Las Vegas native, he went undrafted out of Niagara University in 2004 and made his way to Europe. He hooked up with Abunassar early in his professional career and has stuck with the program ever since. Now 37, Darden is the type of no-nonsense player who appreciates a straightforward atmosphere as he puts in his summer work.
“You have to have a social media presence to get the younger generation, but veterans and players that have been here for years understand this is championship, high-level training,” Darden says. “It’s not a lot of gimmicks. You’re not going to see a lot of things that aren’t transferrable to the court. I’m not saying that other trainers don’t do this, but the things we do here are game situations, game speed, game tempo. Even in our pickups we have referees. We have defensive three seconds. It’s low-key, but at the same time, the vets who have been here and the pros who have been here know it’s proven results.”
Abunassar is based in Las Vegas full time from April through September. Once NBA training camps begin, he migrates to his LA office and spends much of his time flying to different locations to meet with clients who want year-round training.
What his clients don’t want, generally, is offseason attention from the outside world. When Lowry and O’Quinn wrap their workout, they walk to their cars and drive away without fanfare.
While the rest of the training world continues to hype, Abunassar remains confident in his no-frills approach. “It’s not about grabbing five NBA guys and training them and putting it on social media,” he says. “It’s about building a business and understanding that what we provide for NBA players is very legitimate. They’ll find us.”
This story appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.