Minneapolis— Arnie Kander was retired. The well-respected physical therapist and strength coach had called it a career and was assimilating to his first summer out of the NBA in nearly a quarter century.
He helped his son move to Boulder, Colorado, for grad school. He took a trip to New York. He even skipped summer league for the first time in 24 years.
Just when Kander thought he was out, longtime friend Flip Saunders came calling and pulled him right back in. It took four trips to Minneapolis, meetings with Timberwolves players, coaches and staff and a couple of tours of the Twin Cities with his wife before Kander decided to pick and move to Minnesota to help his friend with one of the league’s long-struggling franchises.
“Originally I was retired. I was done,” Kander said about a week after the team announced his hiring as the new vice president of sports performance. “My connection with Flip was the primary (reason). Everything else had to mesh. If it didn’t, there’s not a chance. And there’s excitement. Coming in with a good young team. Players that are very open to hearing, seeing. Seems like the fit is right.”
Kander was one of the first full-time strength coaches to be hired by an NBA team when he started with the Detroit Pistons in 1992. Over more than two decades he developed an approach hallmarked by slow, deliberate, tai chi-centered warmups, unique “contraptions” personally designed to help a player test how his body is feeling and homemade lotions and creams that aid the healing process.
The former ballet dancer once used frozen banana peels to help treat a hamstring injury on Chauncey Billups, has a series of boards at the practice facility that players use to test their knees, ankles and hips before they start working out and makes it a point to never ask players about any injuries they might be dealing with.
“We say, ‘How is life? How was your dinner last night?’” Kander said. “If you think of the game, it’s amazing the psychological aspects of injury. Sometimes we stay too conscious on how is it feeling? The knee takes over the body, or the ankle or hip or ear or shoulder or whatever it may be.”
Kander worked with Saunders when he coached the Pistons from 2005-08, but the two knew each other long before that. Their families are close and Kander is also tight with new Timberwolves forward Tayshaun Prince, a longtime former Piston.
He also has a beautiful new practice facility that just opened this summer to call home. The Timberwolves partnered with the Mayo Clinic on the facility, which has a chef on site to cook healthy meals, an underwater treadmill and all the latest state-of-the-art training equipment.
The roster is also experiencing a renaissance, with Prince, Kevin Garnett and Andre Miller serving as veteran mentors to a group overflowing with young talent, including Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine.
“I’m just fortunate to come in here and say ‘hallelujah,’” Kander said. “This is awesome.”
Of course his arrival also comes at a time when Saunders has had to take a leave from the team after experiencing complications in his treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Sam Mitchell has been elevated to interim head coach and GM Milt Newton is taking over primary responsibilities with the roster while Saunders is away.
“We’re friends. We’ve been very straight with each other through life circumstances,” Kander said. “We all have kids. We all know what our journeys and struggles are throughout life. It’s a blessing to be here. Whatever situations are here, I’m here.”
In Minnesota he will collaborate with head athletic trainer Gregg Farnham to try to improve the health situation of a team that has been decimated by injuries in recent seasons. Rubio is coming off of ankle surgery, Shabazz Muhammad missed big chunks of time with an injured finger and Nikola Pekovic is recovering from surgery on his Achilles tendon aimed at repairing chronic foot issues that have plagued him the last two years.
“There’s a rationale and a method behind everything that you’re doing,” Kander said. “And probably for me most important, always have something else you can do. Never be, ‘We’ve tried, there’s nothing else we can do.’
“There’s always something else we can do to heal it.”
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