Pistons' new, outside-the-box medical team being put to the test
Auburn Hills — It’s been a busy first couple of months on the job for Bernard Condevaux.
It tends to be that way during the early part of the basketball season and Condevaux, the Detroit Pistons’ new medical director, had a significant scare before the regular season even got started.
During a preseason matchup at Little Caesars Arena, guard Reggie Jackson exited the game and felt something wasn’t quite right.
With Jackson’s injury history in the past two seasons, any abnormality is cause for concern — and that put the Pistons’ new medical team on high alert. Condevaux and head athletic trainer Jim Scholler assessed the injury and Jackson was taken to the locker room for further examination.
Arnie Kander sat in the stands — next to Jackson’s brother, Travis — not panicking about the situation. Later, the pair would go and check on Jackson, but the diagnosis brought good news: It was just groin tightness.
It was one of the first calls to action for the Pistons’ new training staff, which was revamped this summer. After Pistons owner Tom Gores parted ways with Stan Van Gundy as team president and head coach, he hired Ed Stefanski to run the team. Following his assessment of each department, Stefanski decided to go in a different direction with the training staff, including adding Kander, the Pistons’ trainer and strength coach for two decades, as a medical consultant.
“When I interviewed everybody (on the former medical team), I didn’t feel comfortable,” Stefanski said. “I felt there was a disconnect there and we needed to bring some new people in — not that they didn’t do a good job.
“I definitely wanted Arnie — that was key to me. Knowing Arnie and the years (the Pistons) kicked my butt when I was (with the Nets) and how Arnie had everybody in great shape and ready to go. With Bernard as our medical director and Jim Scholler as the trainer, we have a really good, cohesive group.”
It’s a homecoming of sorts, as all three have ties to Michigan: Condevaux graduated from Wayne State, Scholler from Michigan and Kander is a household name from his work, including the 2004 championship run.
Kander is renowned for his vast knowledge and techniques of keeping the team in playing shape and minimizing time on the injured list. That’s especially important for the Pistons, who were without Jackson for 37 games last year and 30 more in 2016-17.
The concern level rose again when Luke Kennard suffered a shoulder sprain Oct. 25, which kept him out for 16 games. He also suffered a knee strain that kept him out of the Summer League. Last season, forward Jon Leuer had a mysterious foot injury that was diagnosed as a sprain initially but got worse, causing him to miss 74 games.
Now, a recent rash of injuries has put them on high alert again, with four rotation players dealing with minor injuries.
The approach with the new medical staff has been conservative, limiting the basketball activities for Jackson, Kennard and Leuer in the summer and advising Blake Griffin to take things slowly in the preseason.
It has paid off for Jackson, who is healthy and had a solid start to the season.
“My experience with Arnie has been amazing, from working with him in the half-year when I first got traded here (in 2015). It was outstanding building a relationship,” Jackson said. “To realize he was going to be on staff, he knew how excited I was.
“I don’t think I’ve stopped glowing and since we’ve been in connection, it’s been a very important summer in terms of getting my mental and body right.”
The new medical staff has disparate backgrounds and skill sets but came together with the Pistons because of their local connections. It was some out-the-box thinking that brought the team together, instead of just finding another basketball-heavy group.
“The most attractive thing was that there was a pretty good diversity of experience of careers that they had,” Pistons assistant general manager Pat Garrity said. “Bernard had worked with Olympic athletes and been exposed to different types of systems and teams and competitions and he also had been practicing for a long time in a clinic, so he had the clinical experience but no NBA experience.
“It was pairing that up with a guy like Jim, who did have a lot of practical NBA day-to-day experience, and dividing up the day-to-day grind and things you have to do in the NBA and the job of looking out there and seeing where you can improve — which you don’t get to do during the season because it’s hard to catch your breath. That was the type of thing that made those two guys, in particular, attractive.”
Condevaux had been working in a clinic in the Denver area with athletes from some of the pro sports teams but he never lost his Detroit roots.
“When I worked with the Avalanche in Colorado, they’d come to the clinic and I would have a picture of (Steve) Yzerman holding the Stanley Cup — so they knew I’m definitely a homer,” Condevaux said.
“Claude Lemieux, I had a hard time looking at him in the eye.”
Scholler was on the training staff with the Memphis Grizzlies for 10 years, including the last two as the head trainer. He also worked with former Piston Tayshaun Prince, who recommended him to Condevaux and Kander. Scholler recalled his love for the Pistons through the years and cherished the opportunity to return to work with his home team.
“I was all about the Bad Boys. The Pistons were my team for years and I followed them even through 2004 — all that,” Scholler said. “It’s a little surreal to be here, to be back.”
For Kander, it was almost like he never left, having been with the team with Van Gundy until 2015, before pursuing other interests. But when Stefanski presented this opportunity, he was ready for a homecoming.
“I wouldn’t have done it for another team — it wouldn’t have been the right,” Kander said. “Because of my years of dealing with the (Detroit) community and all the people I know and then getting to meet Ed too. The whole thing feels really good.”
His role is only as a part-time consultant, but he sees it as a fulfillment of his personal goals, having spent so much of his career in the glory days of the Pistons, but also returning to usher in a new era under new head coach Dwane Casey.
“To to be part of that in a consulting way feels like a completion in my NBA career. I’ve done a little bit of everything,” Kander said. “For me, it kind of feels like a really good ending. I don’t want to say ending of a career.
"But it really feels good to be back in Detroit.”
Creating a system
It’s a commonality among the staff, as Condevaux and Kander knew each other in high school, having lived in the same community. When Stefanski wanted to get some candidates to become the new medical director, he sought Kander’s opinion.
“I said I have one guy. They said, ‘Not five or six?’” Kander recalled. “I said I have one. We interviewed a few more (candidates) to get a feel but I could tell you many reasons why for Bernard.
“It’s not just who he is with the clinical skills but way beyond that, what he brings to the plate, what he does in regard to creating a system.”
Under the new training staff, the Pistons have begun something different: a regimen of stretching, often led by Blake Griffin or one of the veterans. It’s not a revolutionary addition, but it’s a small thing that can help reduce injuries.
“That’s something that came really from Arnie, something that he had suggested that had been used in the past and we’ve taken that on as a staff,” Scholler said. “It’s another way to get these guys as a team to get a little stretch in and help their bodies start the recovery process.”
Where injuries have been a major concern in the past couple seasons, there’s more of a confidence that players will return quickly, and the medical team will have a keen eye on injury prevention, maintenance and treatment with the new staff, especially with Kander and his experience and alternative methods.
“I think just his, for lack of a better term, his aura definitely as a positive impact and it gives people confidence,” Condevaux said. “For some of the athletes who have worked directly with him in the offseason, it’s been a, a huge positive and certainly, from my standpoint it’s nice to be able to reach out to Arnie.”