Interview: Tim Grover, trainer to NBA stars, talks Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and Durant
Longtime trainer of NBA stars Tim Grover outlines the philosophies that govern his approach to his work in a new book, “Relentless: From good to great to unstoppable,” set for release later this month.
Grover lays out the “Relentless 13,” a series of traits shared by Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and other star players he’s helped hone both physically and mentally. Examples include, “getting into the zone” and “thriving on pressure.” He also categorizes personality types, distinguishing between “Cleaners” (people who lead, succeed and exhibit the 13 traits while never being satisfied with their achievements), “Closers” (people who deliver when called upon but don’t push themselves to an “all or nothing” reality at all times) and “Coolers” (people who generally settle and are uncomfortable in leadership roles).
In an extended conversation with SI.com, Grover discusses his first-hand experiences with a number of NBA legends, recounts some of the best anecdotes in the book, and offers thoughts on the state of the NBA and some future stars.
SI.com: My favorite segment of the book is when you refer to Jordan as a “Black Cat,” detailing how he would briefly visit opposing locker rooms before games to instill a little fear and uncertainty into his opponents. You see that as an embodiment of Jordan’s mental greatness, correct?
Tim Grover: If you look at the “Relentless 13,” it says you’d rather be feared than loved. When he walks into that other locker room, he knows he has everybody else’s attention. They basically just stopped to look at him. His dress was impeccable, they knew his game was in there. Everybody was like, “What’s Michael doing in our locker room?” It was basically to set up shop in the other team’s head. “Hey, listen, I control this, I run this, you guys are in my house, no matter where I’m at.”
SI.com: Jordan is and was a legendary trash talker, and you assert that he did it mostly for himself. What did you make of his Hall of Fame speech that saw some of that edge come out in a way that made some people uncomfortable?
Grover: One of the 13 traits is knowing exactly who you are. He knew exactly who he was. He knew this is how he was going to come across and he wasn’t worried trying to put this speech out there to please everybody. He was just saying, “This is what I think about at this particular time, these are my thoughts.” This is what got me to this place and I’m going to share with it you.
SI.com: Don’t you think that there could be a downside to this, too. That perhaps Jordan’s edge can get in his own way or work against him, especially now that he’s an owner and no longer a player?
Grover: Everything we talk about in the book is not about feelings. It’s about being the ultimate competitor, he’s taken one challenge and he’s going to another. Everybody talks about what he’s doing as an owner has been a failure; I look at it the opposite way. How can you be a failure when you’re the first person to do something, the first player to own the majority, put your own money to own an organization? Not only are you running it from a win/loss standpoint but you have to run it from a business standpoint. That’s never been done before, you can’t be a failure. You’re the first at this. Will he make the transition to be a winner in the business and on the court? That’s yet to be seen but I still wouldn’t bet against him.
SI.com: Is he able to look at it like that, that he’s the first of his kind, or does the losing consume him?
Grover: It’s the end result that he’s looking at. Part of the end result is not only to run a successful business but it’s also the win/loss thing. I don’t work for Michael any more, I’m not with the Charlotte organization, so it’s hard for me to speak on that, but he knows that’s what everyone else is looking at for it to be defined as a success — the win/loss thing. He stepped up, he’s taken ownership for some of the moves that he’s done. But he’s going to do it his way.
SI.com: When videotape leaked of Rutgers coach Mike Rice abusing his players, some people responded by saying that Michael Jordan’s treatment of Kwame Brown in Washington wasn’t all that different. Jordan’s competitiveness in practice was legendary. What did you make of Rice’s actions and did you make the comparison to Jordan?
Grover: With Mike [Rice], he lost control. A Cleaner never loses control. Michael [Jordan] never lost control, that’s the big difference. He was just trying to get the best out of Kwame Brown and the rest of the players that he was with by trying to convey the message of how he did it and trying to instill it in those guys. In Relentless, we also talk about the ’6-foot-9 rule,’ where if you have a player or an individual over 6-foot-9 they don’t respond very well to that “in your face” kind of thing. It’s more of a positive reinforcement, a good job, a pat on the back.
Michael never — well, I won’t say never — a majority of the time never physically went after anybody. There was a confrontation he had with Steve Kerr in practice but that brought Steve even closer to Michael and Michael decided to trust him because he knew he wasn’t backing down from him.
SI.com: So it sounds to me like you see an invisible line that Jordan generally had an instinctive feel for that Rice just blew past?
Grover: Once you lose control, there is no line and [Rice] crossed that line. You just can’t do it. His assistant was the same way. You’re supposed to teach these individuals, you as a coach are not supposed to intimidate them.
SI.com: I read that you’ve said Jordan could still play at his age. Where, exactly, would he fit in right now?
Grover: Right now [without training], he wouldn’t fit anywhere. But from a mental standpoint he still has everything that’s out there. He still has the relentless attitude — [he's] not intimidated by the pressure. The one thing that Michael has, out of the 13 traits, that really stands out, is that he doesn’t compete with anyone else, he competes with himself. He looks for the opponent’s weakness and he’s always going to attack. He would get himself ready from a physical standpoint; he wouldn’t step back on the basketball court unless he knew he could compete at an extremely high level. There’s a lot of work that would have to be involved, of course. Is it going to happen? I highly, highly doubt it.
SI.com: But a comeback at 50 years old is possible?
Grover: If he decided to do this, his skills, when he was playing, were so high, from practicing over and over again. He was able to do things, it became instinctive. He played off of pure instincts and in the zone all the time because his skills were so good. Do you lose that? No, you don’t lose that. You get practicing back out there, that stuff comes back. The part that’s going to be difficult in coming back would be making sure the body could hold up and do some of the stuff that it used to do at the same level. That’s the big variable.
SI.com: There are a lot of people out there that are true believers in Jordan, that no one will ever top him, no matter what. Are you one?
Grover: I lived it. I was one of the people who got a chance to see him go from fighting and having to see that wall — not an imaginary wall — that was there in the Detroit Pistons. Figure out how to get through it, won three [titles], walked away, came back, wasn’t himself when they got beat by the Orlando Magic. Watched what they did all summer, watched him work all summer to see him get back to three more. It’s difficult to see [anyone comparing].
If he didn’t retire during those two seasons, we wouldn’t be talking about six, I’m a firm believer we would have been talking about eight. The only reason Houston was able to sneak in those years was because Michael wasn’t playing. Michael kept everybody else from getting those rings in that era. The Patrick Ewings, the Charles Barkleys. Those guys will even tell you that, “We were just in the wrong generation.”
SI.com: OK, switching this up to Kobe Bryant. You have a great vignette in the book from the 2012 All-Star Game in Orlando, where Bryant refuses to receive medical attention after the game until he speaks face-to-face, man-to-man with Wade, who broke his nose and gave him a minor concussion during what was supposed to be an exhibition. Why was Bryant so insistent?
Grover: It’s Kobe wanting to go up to Dwyane and say, “Listen, I still own this. We went through this, I’m good. You didn’t take me out, I’ll see you down the road. You hit me with something that would knock most people out and I just wanted to stand up and see you and say that I’m good. The battle will continue.” Going from great to unstoppable, that’s the moment of making a player unstoppable. “I played through something that nobody else plays through or has played through.”
SI.com: Kobe Bryant scored 47 points in 48 minutes on Wednesday night and yet he keeps talking about retirement. Doesn’t he have years left in the tank?
Grover: Listen, Kobe can play at an extremely high level, in my estimation, for anywhere from another three-to-five years. The way he takes care of his body, the way he takes care of himself mentally, the time he puts in. Being one of the ultimate Cleaners, it’s a full-time lifestyle. A lot of stuff has to give, a lot of stuff has to be sacrificed. Are you willing to continue to make those sacrifices throughout the years to play at that high level? That’s a decision only he can make. It’s tough. It’s a one-track, one-goal mind. The ultimate prize is getting to the top. Once you get to the top, you breathe for a split second and you’re at it again. You’re thinking about what you have to do to get back there next year.
SI.com: So the fact that Bryant will have to mentally process not being able to play at a top-five level will spur the retirement move rather than his body breaking down?
Grover: Exactly. Kobe won’t retire because he’s not physically capable of playing anymore. If and when he decides to do this, it will be more of a mental challenge more than the physical.
SI.com: In the book, you make it clear that Jordan, Bryant and Wade are Cleaners but that LeBron James isn’t, at least not yet. You put him in the secondary Closer category. What is James missing that separates him from the other three players?
Grover: LeBron, one, he’s younger than everybody. Being a Cleaner is being able to do it year after year after year. LeBron came into the league very highly-touted, the savior in Cleveland, never went to college, never got to experience the ups and downs of college basketball, playing in the NCAA tournament, losing a big game, going into your opponent’s backyard and seeing how the crowd is constantly getting on you.
When [LeBron] made the transition to Miami, Dwyane had already gone through that. He’d gone through the championship year, the lottery years, Dwyane was able to teach him from the mental standpoint. “This is what’s going on, this is what’s coming, this is how to handle this situation.” Even LeBron, when he was first there, he was trying to be disliked, he was trying to play the villain.
Now, when he really got into his groove again, he got back to being who he was. He knew exactly who he was. That’s what has elevated him to this stature with the Heat. He’s been playing unbelievable basketball. He’s going to win his fourth MVP, rightly deserved, no question about that. He’s unbelievable from a physical standpoint, from a basketball skills standpoint. Relentless, what we talk about in the book, is training from the neck up. They win the championship this year, he leads them the way he’s been leading them all season, he will definitely be in the Cleaner status.
SI.com: What exactly would be powering that change in perception? What change will allow James to finally stand next to those other three in your eyes?
Grover: It’s how you take your learned experiences. Some people take what they consider a failure and are like, “All right, that’s enough. I don’t want to go through this any more.” Others take that and take what people consider failure and turn it into fuel, decide to take into another direction or to a higher level. Anybody can be a Cleaner, it’s how you handle those situations, not from a physical standpoint, but from a mental standpoint. That determines which level you’re going to fall into or fall back into.
SI.com: In the book, you point out past situations in which James maybe didn’t handle media pressure as well as he should have, or as confidently as someone like Jordan might have. Do you see him handling things better now that he’s won a title?
Grover: No question. There’s no knock on LeBron in the book. He’s just held to a higher level than everybody else is. I hold him to that higher level in the book. If I didn’t think he could be at that same level as a Michael, a Kobe, I wouldn’t mention it. It’s there, it’s there. It’s how he’s handling things and how he will continue to handle things that will determine whether he’s going to be able to get to that level or surpass some of those individuals.
SI.com: Where does James stand in the “Greatest Of All-Time” discussion and can he reach Jordan?
Grover: The one thing I liked about what LeBron said is that “he’s not MJ, he’s LJ.” That’s good. Separate yourself from that individual. If you have to look at it, Michael Jordan was six-for-six in Finals, never lost a Finals, never needed a Game 7 to do that. Just by saying that alone, that puts him in a category I don’t think anybody else is in, except maybe a Bill Russell. Other than that, I don’t know if you can really put [Jordan] in the same category [with anybody].
I think what [James] should do, instead of worrying about where Mike was at, he should be trying to get to the accolades, get to the Finals, as many times as Kobe had. That’s more of a comparison for LeBron than M.J. LeBron is more of a Magic Johnson type of player where he fills out the stat sheet. He’s not trying to lead the league in scoring, he’s trying to keep everybody involved. He tries to go across the board. I think the comparison should be more toward a current player he’s playing against now because of what Michael already did, and LeBron, in the early part of his career, faltered two times in the Finals. I think that [the Jordan/James] comparison can’t be made, just from that alone.
SI.com: When I look at the list of traits that you value — self-confidence, a dark side, playing in the zone, being self-motivated — I see Kevin Durant embodying a lot of those and flashing them more and more as he gets older. Do you agree?
Grover: He does, he does have that same personality [as Jordan, Wade and Bryant]. I’m sure he is the factor that is pushing LeBron to continue to go to a higher level. LeBron knows that this young kid is on his heels, from a physical and mental standpoint. Kevin is very, very special and has a chance to really surpass anybody else that’s playing in there right now, and the No. 1 guy to pass from a skills standpoint would be LeBron.
SI.com: In the book, you also point to Russell Westbrook as one of the younger players in the NBA that has the “Cleaner” traits. Which other NBA guys are in that group?
Grover: [Westbrook is] one of the younger ones that really, really does. Another player is Chris Paul — I see that in him.
We worked with [Rajon] Rondo during his pre-draft training and we knew back then that Rondo had the characteristics to be a leader on the team. We knew he was going to butt heads with players, coaches, but we could see that if things went right he was going to be a star in this league. He’s having his first major setback since he was at Kentucky when him and Tubby [Smith] just didn’t get along. He was able to work through that fine. I see him coming back as good, if not better than before.
The one I’m concerned about is Derrick Rose. This actually is his first major setback. Any time you get cut one time, it’s not the physical stuff, it’s the mental things. Everybody talked about how the doctors cleared him, and yes, they did physically, but no one knows what’s going on from the neck up. That’s where he needs to be 110 percent, so that the physical can follow the mind.
SI.com: At this point, shouldn’t the Bulls just shut Rose down for the season?
Grover: I do think that but I’m not part of the organization. I don’t know what they’re thinking or doing from a basketball standpoint or from a business standpoint — that’s their decision. Having the unknown, of whether he’s going to play or not play, is definitely a distraction.
SI.com: How long do you think Rose will be feeling the mental burden of this injury? Into next season?
Grover: You can practice all you want, play all the pick-up basketball, it doesn’t matter. Until you step out against your opponent in a regular season game, not even in the preseason — in a regular season game — and you get to the part where you don’t have to think about your injuries any more and you don’t have to think about your movements, that’s when you’re back to 100 percent. If you’re still thinking, there are emotions involved, and as we say in the book — emotions make you weak.
SI.com: So much of your book is about the mental approach. You mention Jordan’s statistics a few times but it’s clearly not your focus. What do you make of the advanced stats approach to basketball, which might be seen to value numbers and production over personality or other characteristics? Are stats-first thinkers missing something in evaluating players?
Grover: They’re a missing a huge part. Numbers are a factor but they are not the only factor that’s out there. They say you should have certain players taking certain shots in these situations. Listen, what determines whether an individual is “clutch” is whether they are clutch from the first quarter through to the end of the game. It’s not about just that last moment. I think too much emphasis is put on numbers and not on individuals and what they are capable of doing. Find out what the person can do. Everybody harps on what they can’t do. I want to know what the person can do.
SI.com: Social media is a new element players are dealing with these days that they didn’t have to deal with in Jordan’s days. Some players have said they limit their use because of negativity they receive, but the marketing demands on these guys are huge, they have to take part. Are you a fan or not a fan for elite athletes that need to reach such high levels of focus?
Grover: As long as it doesn’t take away from the end result, I have no problem with it. It’s a factor now that has to be dealt with. I have an unwritten rule: if you send out more tweets than points and rebounds that you get in the game, then you’ve gone too far. That, to me, is a distraction.
SI.com: What do you want readers to take from your book?
Grover: It’s a culmination of over 20 years of hanging out with these guys, listening to them, hearing what they say, me telling them different things, and just me being able to pass on the knowledge from these guys. It’s not a basketball book. This isn’t about your physical skills, this is about your mental toughness, how to be relentless, and that anybody can be a Cleaner. If you’re willing to do the work, you can get there. This is about doing the work. It’s not about day-dreaming or fantasizing, it’s not about “Follow your passion.” I go the complete opposite way, passion is about feelings, success is about the action. You don’t follow your passion, you work for it, you strive for it.