SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. – Long before Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose could resume a relentless rehabilitation regimen, the youngest MVP in NBA history and Rob McClanaghan had to go back beyond all the fierce workouts – beyond the thousands of hours of shooting and slashing and sweat – and resume the most fundamental of grade school drills: form shooting.
"One hand, elbow in, eyes on the rim," McClanaghan remembered over dinner recently. "I think it was more mentally taxing on him than anything we did, because D-Rose always wanted to do more. My job was simply to tell him, 'Be patient. We have time.' "
Beginning over 18 months ago, shuttling between Chicago and Los Angeles, McClanaghan and Rose progressively did more and more. Once Rose had missed a full season and returned to the gymnasium in June, McClanaghan told him simply: "I'm going to work you out like you never got injured. Let's go back to what we did before you ever got hurt."
From his predraft workouts at the University Memphis to his MVP season with the Bulls, Rose has relied on McClanaghan to run his workouts, sharpen his skills and bring him back from the abyss of a torn ACL. Once again, with a torn meniscus costing Rose the rest of this season, they will return to the gymnasium together on the star's jagged journey back.
When Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love needed the summer of his life to restore him to All-Star status, Love was back with McClanaghan, his long-time trainer, in Los Angeles.
When Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant wanted to wash away the frustration of an early exit in the playoffs, he came to McClanaghan for a summer of early morning and evening workouts. When endorsement travels sent Durant overseas for a promotional tour, he brought McClanaghan with him. Golden State guard Stephen Curry left his old trainer and hired McClanaghan.
"He came with great praise from other players on the engaged style of his workouts," Curry told Yahoo Sports. "He gets out and defends and bangs with the players, adds a presence to his workouts that gets a little more out of you. He works well with the team I already have to get me better."
In trying times for the NBA's biggest basketball stars, at their most crucial crossroads, it is uncanny how they keep coming back with McClanaghan for the crux of the work growing their talents. Nothing about McClanaghan's background suggested he could become the most renowned ally of the sport's biggest stars, but slowly, surely, the kid raised hard by the beach towns of Rhode Island has done it.
From a consistent presence in players' lives to a solitary companion in rehab processes to the fixer of lost souls and games, McClanaghan has transformed himself into one of the most influential figures in pro basketball. When the next wave of college stars declare for the 2014 NBA draft, it's almost assured agents will hire McClanaghan to oversee the preparation process for several of them.
McClanaghan played high school ball in Rhode Island, made Syracuse as a walk-on and still proudly retells the story of defying Jim Boeheim's orders to hold the ball when inserted into the final stages of a blowout over Colgate.
"I hit a three," McClanaghan said. "What was he going to do, bench me?"
The confidence wore well on McClanaghan and began to buoy him upon graduation in 2001. After Syracuse, he spent a year on Seth Greenberg's coaching staff at South Florida but returned to teach physical education at his old high school, Bishop Hendricken, in Rhode Island. McClanaghan began hustling workouts with New England college players, including Ryan Gomes, into sure paychecks. Eventually, he landed as the full-time workout trainer for power agent Arn Tellem and Wasserman Media Group.
"I loved the college game," McClanaghan said, "but I didn't like all the rules. I wanted to be on the court."
Across the next five years, McClanaghan became the primary trainer for several of Tellem's clients, including Rose, Westbrook, Atlanta's Al Horford and New Orleans' Tyreke Evans. McClanaghan ran the predraft workout training for dozens and dozens of players, and soon referrals had him working with stars outside Tellem's stable. There isn't a general manager, or few high-profile coaches, who haven't sat in the gym for McClanaghan's workouts.
"Rob has demonstrated a real commitment to his craft over the years," Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti told Yahoo Sports. "In terms of offseason training, he has built a great reputation and understands the dynamic of how his efforts prepare players to contribute to their teams."
In the past year, McClanaghan parted with Tellem and has gone out on his own. When troubled free agent Lamar Odom needed two weeks of intense work to springboard his comeback, his advisers flew him to Rhode Island to work with McClanaghan.
"You're going to have four or five different coaches in your NBA career – maybe more – but I'm always staying the same," McClanaghan said. "Every season you're going to get attention from me. Every summer, you're going to get it. It's never going to change. You're going to get emails and texts and calls from me. I'm watching your games and we're talking about what you can get better with, what you can add next.
"I'm going to be that consistent person in your life. Your GM isn't going to fire me. I'm going to grow with you, and you're going to help me, help you get better."
His influence has been unmistakable, too: His counsel played a part in convincing Oklahoma City Thunder management that UCLA's Russell Westbrook was worthy of the fourth pick in the 2008 NBA draft. Somehow, Syracuse center Fab Melo worked himself into good enough shape and cleaned up his act in four months of working with McClanaghan to convince Boston to take him with the 20th pick in the 2012 draft. Melo faded fast upon entering the league and has been unloaded three times within a year.
In the end, his most profound influence comes working with superstar players. Over the past several summers, the balance of power in the NBA played out in McClanaghan's gym in Santa Monica. And in a lot of ways, his court turned into comeback and redemption central in the summer of 2013.
"One of the best summers we ever had," McClanaghan said. "Derrick is coming off his injury, K.D. is coming off a disappointing end to his team's season, Kevin Love and John Wall are coming off injuries and they just came in there and killed it.
"What makes it so incredible is that the way the very best players bring it every day in the gym. There's an aura to it, a level of competition that I think can be intimidating to other players who come and work out there. If you don't bring it like them, you may get called out. They will bring it harder than the guys who are free agents, who are fighting to stay in the league. And sometimes I think lesser-talented guys don't come to the gym because of that. They ask themselves, "Do I want to work that hard? Do I want to bring it?'
"There were nights when Rose and Durant and Love would come back for a second workout of the day on a Friday evening, at the end of a long weekend. 'Just shooting,' they would say. 'Nothing too serious.'
"And then the next thing you know, they're doing step--backs. And they're dribbling once and dunking. And then, all of a sudden, it's a dunk contest. Here comes K-Love off the backboard, and K.D. with a reverse dunk, and you're thinking, 'So much for just shooting around.' "
Through the years, Tim Grover had been the most famous trainer in basketball world. While Grover's work was far more on the star athlete's body and mind than pure basketball training, his years of working so closely with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade has made him the gold standard and ultimately cleared the way for McClanaghan and his generation of peers.
"The question I get all the time is: 'How do you get the top players to trust you?' " McClanaghan said. "I think the first guy who showed that the top level guys can trust you was Tim Grover. You could earn that trust without having been a great player yourself – or really much of a player at all."
McClanaghan has had chances to join teams, but so far it's makes no sense for him. First of all, he can be connected to most of the league's stars in this capacity, and, ultimately, make far more money on his own. He's constantly on call these days, parachuting into Washington, D.C. (Wall), Oklahoma City (Durant) and Cleveland (Dion Waiters) to work in recent weeks.
"I am always talking with front offices and coaching staffs about how we can work together to improve the players, but I'm working for the player. I'm trying to get them better. A lot of my guys have had a bunch of different assistant coaches, but only one trainer, with me. "
And sometime, should you ever stumble upon a gym where McClanaghan has come to the end of a workout with the biggest stars on the planet, it isn't uncommon for the most simple of basketball games to break out: Horse. All these years, all these players, and McClanaghan has worked hard on a closeout move of his own: "The lefty runner from just inside the free-throw line, always when you're trying to put an 'E' on someone," he said with a laugh.
People tell McClanaghan all the time: You've got the greatest job in basketball, and he believes that to be the truth, too. A long way from that Carrier Dome 3-pointer that made Boeheim cringe, McClanaghan has completed one of the improbable climbs in the sport. In a league where the superstars trust so few, never have so many trusted only one.