NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

Brandon Payne is looking at RV rentals. Daily rates, weekly rates -- anything to help him get through the NBA’s COVID-19 hiatus. 

Since 2011, Payne has been Stephen Curry’s personal trainer and coach for Curry’s Underrated international tour, staying by the star’s side and coaching him through the highs and lows of his storied career. When Payne can’t be with Curry in person, the 40-year-old father of two sons, Carson, 12, and Collin, 9, uses text messages to stay connected from across the country. 

Payne doesn’t know when he’s going to be with Curry again. Payne’s company, Accelerate Basketball, is based in the Charlotte suburbs of Fort Mill, S.C., where Payne and his family live, just outside where Curry grew up and attended college at Davidson. Curry is currently following California’s stay-at-home order at his Bay Area home, a mandate that will likely last beyond April, according to California governor Gavin Newsom.

It’s a rainy Monday night in Charlotte and Payne can’t believe how quickly things have deteriorated. Less than four weeks ago, Payne had flown out to San Francisco to help prepare Curry for his return from a broken hand and then to Dallas for Curry’s next Underrated tour stop. 

 

Now, Payne is thinking about how to keep the lights on at Accelerate. 

Over the years, with Payne having to spend more and more time in Oakland and San Francisco working with Curry, hotel stays stopped making financial sense. In 2016, Payne signed a lease on a no-frills, one-bedroom apartment in Walnut Creek, Calif., that costs him about $3,000 a month -- a relative steal in the Bay Area, home to some of the priciest rental markets in the country.

With the NBA season in jeopardy and money getting tighter, Payne is trying to break that month-to-month lease and recover his belongings, a transaction that must be done in person. Months ago, that task seemed simple and straightforward. Get in an Uber, go to Charlotte International Airport, hop on a cross-country flight, snag a hotel. 

But in this climate, each stop on that itinerary makes Payne’s skin crawl. How do I get across the country without potentially exposing myself to the pandemic? 

To Payne, airports, planes and hotels are out of the question, so he’s researching RV rental rates so he can have a place to sleep on the 2,700-mile trek from Charlotte to the Bay Area. 

“I’ve learned very quickly, it’s not a cheap venture,” Payne says of the RV option.

The economic realities of the coronavirus pandemic are setting in. Curry is just one of Payne’s clients, ranging from six-year-olds to NBA draft prospects to NBA superstars. On a typical week, he and his staff will train hundreds of local young athletes at the small halfcourt gym housed inside a nondescript warehouse district. But with coronavirus spreading around the country, Payne had to take precautions to protect his clients from getting sick.

Normally, Payne supplies jump ropes, basketballs and tennis balls for his athletes. But on Monday, he texted, emailed and made phone calls to parents about an updated protocol. If anyone in a client’s household had traveled in the past 14 days or gotten sick in any way, Payne kindly asked them to stay home. He assured them that their paid sessions and packages would be honored in full at a later date.

If they were able to come, he wrote to them, be prepared for a different environment.

“We had a staffer standing at the door with hand sanitizer so that every person that walked in was hit with hand sanitizer,” Payne says.

The athletes were instructed to bring their own basketball, their own jump rope and be ready to do drills in a socially-distant manner, separated 6-to-10 feet from other athletes and receiving hands-off instruction from trainers standing across the room. Under normal circumstances, the players would train with two basketballs, dribbling with each hand. 

These weren’t normal circumstances. Only one ball, your own, to be safe. After each training session, Payne closed the gym and his staff wiped down every inch of the place to disinfect it. Then, they opened up the doors and repeated the process for the next round of workouts.

 

That was Monday night.

On Tuesday morning, after seeing the coronavirus spread in his county and news of a shelter-in-place rule being enforced in 48 hours, Payne closed his doors. He laid off four of his six staffers. Temporarily, he assured them. He’d reassess every two weeks.

“Very tough, emotional day,” Payne texted me.

The Walnut Creek apartment never seemed so far.

* * * 

Ask NBA athletes and coaches about whether they’ve experienced anything quite like this and most will point to the 2011 lockout. For months, players waited in limbo as the league and the NBA Players Association negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement. 

During the lockout, players were free to engage in grassroots pick-up games, train with personal coaches and work on their craft as long as they weren’t using NBA facilities. They stayed in shape by playing in regular five-on-five charity games around the country. At one point, LeBron James and Kevin Durant faced off in a “Team LeBron vs. Team Durant” flag football game at the University of Akron that was streamed online.

That’s actually when Curry and Payne first met at Accelerate, introduced by one of Payne’s clients and former NBA player Gerald Henderson, who was a member of the Charlotte Bobcats at the time. Curry has been with Payne ever since.

Of course, “social distancing” wasn’t exactly part of the cultural lexicon in 2011.

Players these days can only dream about such gatherings. Late last week, after several NBA players and staffers tested positive for COVID-19, the NBA sent a league memo to its 30 teams ordering them to close their training and practice facilities to all players and staff. The league also prohibited players from using public facilities like high school or college gyms to train. 

The NBA is not a social-distance friendly sport. As such, the basketball world has been in the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic. For at least one epidemiologist, the NBA’s decision to suspend its season on March 11 became a pivotal moment in the United States’ battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, signaling the severity of the crisis. NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s decision at least partially inspired other leagues, including the NHL and MLB, to put their seasons on hold, while the NCAA canceled March Madness entirely.

On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke at a press conference and urged New Yorkers to exercise outside in solitude rather than participating in team sports.

“You want to go for a walk? God bless you. You want to go for a run? God bless you,” Cuomo said. “There (should be) no group activity in parks. All sorts of kids playing basketball (on Saturday). I play basketball; there is no concept of social distancing while playing basketball. It doesn’t exist. You can’t stay six feet away from people playing basketball. You can, but then you’re a lousy basketball player and you’re going to lose.”

 

How do basketball players stay in shape when the simple act of playing basketball violates nearly all social distancing rules?

It’s a riddle that Payne is trying to solve for his NBA clients, most notably Curry. 

* * *

Inside the confines of a reported $31 million home he purchased last summer, Curry is keeping busy. 

Alongside his wife Ayesha and three young kids home from school, Curry is using his platform for philanthropic and civic causes. On Thursday, he hosted an Instagram Live Q&A with NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who may be the most sought-after doctor in the country (Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, Andre Iguodala and Common were just some of the names who dropped by). Two days after the NBA suspended the season, Curry and his wife Ayesha posted a video announcing their donation through their Eat Learn Play foundation to help ensure 18,000 Oakland children would have meals after schools were shut down. 

But Curry’s athletic pursuits have been minimal. Last Friday, while wearing a hoodie, sweat shorts and house slippers, Curry holed a trick shot with a wedge, ricocheting a golf ball off the inside of his front door and into a clear, plastic cup -- a video that generated almost 2 million views. Basketball hasn’t been on his mind much, according to Payne.

“To be honest with you, we’ve talked more about the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback situation than we’ve talked about anything else,” Payne says with a laugh. “We talked a little bit about workouts and what he can do, but it’s not a whole lot right now.”

Curry does have a workout-friendly basement that rivals a luxury hotel fitness center, but he doesn’t have an indoor court on which he can do basketball-specific training. Contrary to popular belief, almost no NBA players do. 

According to league sources, players are scrambling to find private indoor gyms in their cities during the lockdown. One NBA team, multiple league sources say, had to reprimand one of its players after seeing a social media post of him working out with several athletes in a private gym over the weekend, a violation of the league’s and public health officials’ social-distancing guidelines.

“Stephen is fortunate because he’s got a larger home with a workout area with some pretty nice equipment in it,” Payne says. “He’ll be able to maintain things physically pretty well because he’s got the tools to do so. Some of the other guys I’ve been talking to? They’re a little bit more challenged.”

 

Most of Payne’s NBA clients are younger and live in luxury apartment complexes or condo buildings in their team’s city, not in spacious homes in the suburbs. Payne has asked his clients to send photos and videos of their living areas in order to customize workout programs for their limited space. 

One young NBA player sent him a video of his apartment complex’s fitness room. Not an option, Payne told him, strongly discouraging him from using that space due to concerns of infection. To try to compensate, Payne has been on the phone with players’ agents working to get his clients the athletic equipment they need during the layoff. At the top of the list are home-friendly TRX resistance bands and stationary bikes “where they’re able to get some hard cardio in without disturbing the people under them.”

“Even if you have a common area where you can get shots up, we’re learning that this thing can live on surfaces, sometimes days at a time depending on the type of surface,” Payne says. “You don’t know who’s been in there and who they’ve been around. It’s just very uncertain.”

Across the NBA, it’s becoming clear that the biggest obstacle -- beyond being limited to the space in your own home -- is uncertainty. Not just in the nature of the virus, but also the NBA’s undetermined schedule. 

As the coronavirus crisis unfolds across the country, players have no idea when the season will restart -- if at all. Silver said last Wednesday it was too early to speculate on a return date. Looking at other top basketball leagues around the world dealing with the pandemic, prospects of a quick return aren’t good. 

The Korean Basketball League canceled the rest of its season and the Chinese Basketball Association has pushed back its possible return date again to May 15, which would make for a four-month hiatus from play. For perspective, such a layoff would mean a mid-July return for the NBA. 

It could also be sooner. ESPN recently reported that NBA owners and executives viewed a possible mid-to-late June return “as a best-case scenario.” One such owner, Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, said on Tuesday he was hopeful the NBA season would resume in mid-May based on his conversations with the CDC. 

Without a hard return date in mind, players trying to stay in shape are essentially shooting in the dark.

“The target date is what sets everything,” Payne says. “It’s your North Star. It’s what you base everything off of. You set your work schedule, your rest periods, how heavily you load, how lightly you load, how many days off you get. Everything is based off that date.”

 

* * * 

There was speculation that Curry wanted to return during the regular season so he could prepare for the Summer Olympics, but Payne insists that wasn’t a factor. Curry has never participated in the marquee global event, which was set to take place in Tokyo from July 24 to August 9, but has since been postponed to 2021. Curry did win gold medals with two World Cup teams in 2010 and 2014 but sat out in 2016 Olympics in Rio to fully recover from ankle and knee issues.

This time around, Curry is rehabbing back from a different kind of injury, luckily not to his ankle and knee joints. In October, Curry broke his hand and required surgery and an additional procedure to make sure his bones were in place. He has since experienced mild numbness as a result of some lingering nerve damage.

It was hard to tell that it affected him at all in his Mar. 5 return from a 58-game absence. Curry tallied 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in just 27 minutes of action against the Toronto Raptors.

“For Stephen, the silver lining for him is that that hand gets a little bit longer (time) to round back into form and get that thing feeling exactly how he wants it to feel before he gets back out there,” Payne says. “And he gets more time with his family. That’s what we all really need to be thinking about.”

Payne has been splitting his time between taking care of his sons and getting to the Accelerate office, where he’s working to digitize his business. 

Last Friday, he gave a 75-minute Powerpoint talk on a virtual basketball coaches clinic site detailing Curry’s workout regimen, focusing on neuromuscular development, proprioception and strategies to game-ify workouts. Beyond virtual clinics, Payne is putting together workout video breakdowns on social media of Curry’s past training sessions with Luka Doncic and other star players. Everything is going online.
 
“As a coach, you’ve never had this amount of time to sit down and improve,” Payne says. “For most (coaches and trainers), this is going to be a really difficult time. It’s going to be extremely difficult. The hard point is, there’s going to be the temptation (to hold workouts and practices) because there’s going to be some players that are going to want to work out no matter what. And you have to balance the responsible decision with the decision that most affects your pockets.”

On Thursday morning, Charlotte-Mecklenburg county implemented a stay-at-home order, ensuring that most of Payne’s Charlotte-bound clients would be limited to virtual sessions, none at Accelerate. It’s not certain when they’ll be allowed to return to the gym or when Payne can re-hire his staff. Or when he can get to Walnut Creek to retrieve his things.  

Or when he can train Curry again in person.

 

“There’s so much uncertainty right now, not only with my business, but are NBA players going to get paid past this next pay period? What does that look like? What do my clients have (in their savings)? Will they continue to pay me? Those are the questions I have. If I can save that money for the next three to six months, then that’s what I need to do.

“For the foreseeable future, with what’s in front of us right now, money coming in is going to be pretty tight. That’s reality.”

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.