Florida’s hoop school

Just days after the NBA Draft, players from all over the world have come to the Tampa Bay area to begin the toughest part of their year – training.

One of the world’s most prominent


basketball training facilities is just an hour south of USF in Bradenton at the Pro Training Center at International Management Group (IMG) Basketball Academy, where some of the best players across the globe gather year-round to improve their game.

Though it boasts prominent alumni such as Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, Al Harrington, Tayshaun Prince and Chauncey Billups, the center is not just for elite basketball players.

“I think we have a very unique perspective on player development,” Michael Moreau, director of basketball operations, said. “We work with everyone from the NBA player trying to become an all-star to the kid learning how to shoot a left-handed lay-up.”

The basketball academy is just one of the many programs available at the sprawling 300-acre facility. Athletes can train for soccer, tennis, golf, baseball and even fishing.

Some of the most famous athletes in the world have spent a significant time at the IMG Academy, including soccer star Freddy Adu, tennis pros Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova and legendary track runner Michael Johnson.

The facility also provides a full-time residency program for the U.S. mens’ under-17 soccer team. Athletes from 46 states and more than 80 countries have come to the complex to train.

Although the IMG facility originally opened in 1987, the basketball program is still relatively new.

Humble Beginnings

Moreau was chosen to spearhead the newly-formed basketball academy in 2001 – in which he had to make due with the equipment originally provided – after spending more than 14 years as a high school head coach.

Instead of having a typical gymnasium, IMG supplied Moreau with the court from the 1999 women’s Final Four, which was imported from San Jose, Calif. The court was placed over what was once a tennis court. Then six baskets were set up in the in-air-conditioned facility.

Among the first clients at IMG were former USF players Altron Jackson and B.B. Waldon.

As his program gained popularity, Moreau’s basketball court again switched with a tennis court, but this time in a state-of-the-art indoor facility.

“We are now able to have a facility that rivals any (college or pro) facility that I’ve seen,” Moreau said.

The athletes who train there agree.

“The facilities are really nice, they’re like they are out in Sacramento,” Kings guard Kevin Martin said. “The facilities can get more people in the court and get a lot more things done.”

With more than 30 NBA players passing through the doors, Moreau combined his business with personal coach and ESPN.com NBA Analyst David Thorpe in May.

Thorpe ran the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, and the chance to work with Moreau at IMGn enabled him to bring his clientele to an upgraded facility from the high school gym he used previously.

Thorpe played basketball at Seminole High School. At the age of 22, he earned his first coaching job as an assistant at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg, the same school football coach Jim Leavitt attended. Thorpe credits his success to the work of his players, high school coach Ray Burkhart and Mike McPheron, who gave him a coaching opportunity at Dixie Hollins immediately after graduating from the University of Florida.

“I had a lot of great players as a coach,” Thorpe said. “When I was a high school coach, I ended up training a lot of really good players and they helped me as much as I helped them. They clearly helped me grow and understand how hard I can push a player.”

Thorpe then became a personal trainer and opened his own business. When Moreau contacted him about working together, Thorpe already had an impressive résumé, which included working extensively with Martin, Udonis Haslem (Miami Heat), Orien Green (Indiana Pacers) and Alexander Johnson (Memphis Grizzlies) in Clearwater.

At IMG, Thorpe serves as the executive director of the college and pro divisions.

Moreau began working with Thorpe in the early 1990’s at Five-Star basketball camps for high school players and felt he was the ideal fit.

“It was an easy decision on my part as to who to partner with, and I hope it was an easy decision for him,” Moreau said. “I think it’s been a perfect fit and we’ve had a great opportunity to finally work together.”

Together, Thorpe and Moreau have brought one of the premier basketball training complexes to Florida and are constantly attracting new clients.

“When he tells you that he works with (NBA players), that’s what really wants you to start working with (Thorpe),” USF guard Aaron Holmes said. “You want to get to that level and do the same things as guys in the NBA are doing.”

Most of Thorpe’s clients have been working with him for years. Holmes began training with him in Clearwater as a sophomore in high school, while Martin started training with Thorpe after his freshman year at Western Carolina.

“What kept me coming back was the knowledge of his game,” Martin said. “Coach Thorpe is a perfectionist, and he knows how to develop a player and caters to specific styles.”

Thorpe said Martin calls him his “Florida dad,” whom he talks to on almost a daily basis. After Martin registered a career-high 40 points against the Washington Wizards on Dec. 21, Thorpe was the first to offer congratulations after watching the game in person.

“I’ve been with (Kevin) five years now and it’s no different than when I see my son do something special in his daily life,” Thorpe said. “He has taken the league by surprise, but we’re not surprised overall – we thought he was really special and talented. Kevin more or less played to our vision, and he’s doing what we thought he could do.”

A Unique Basketball Environment

Most basketball hot spots are located in major metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, or highly enthusiastic basketball communities in Indiana or Kansas.

But one of the biggest selling points for IMG has been its location. Along with the impressive courts, the serene surroundings gives the athletes a nice change of scenery from the busy urban centers where they usually play.

“I came down here because of the facilities. I live down here and I really enjoy working out here,” New York Knicks forward Jared Jefferies said. “When you’re down here, you’re here to train. I love it down here – the fishing, the training – it’s beautiful. If you’re in New York or Washington D.C. there’s too many distractions.”

Jeffries spent four seasons with the Washington Wizards before signing with the Knicks on Aug. 8.

During the off-season, many players participate in legendary pickup games at New York City’s Rucker Park or catch five-on-fives in Chicago, where a vast collection of NBA players gather to keep in shape.

“There are other options for NBA players. If they want they can go to Las Vegas, Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. They have those options,” Thorpe said. “They have a great night life and can just play their five-on-five’s. If you’re dedicated and want to grow your craft, then I think IMG is the place.”

The quiet surroundings help players keep their focus on training and stay out of trouble.

“There’s a place in Los Angeles like this but there’s just too much going on (out there),” former University San Diego star Nick Lewis said. “Here, I’m either in my apartment or in the gym, and that’s a great advantage.”

A Workout Unlike Any Other

When players are in the gym, Thorpe and Moreau provide what they call “the millionaire” workout, because if players are able to get through it, that’s what they’ll become.

In order to last the entire work out, one of the biggest things Thorpe stresses is the difference between game shape and training shape.

“Game shape fluctuates based on playing time and how often you play. It’s hard to maintain,” Jeffries said. “Training shape just depends on how hard you push yourself.”

Renaldo Balkman, a teammate of Jeffries in New York, came to IMG after finishing his rookie season, in which he played 68 games.After training for 25 minutes, he had to stop because of the frantic pace.

“His workouts are a lot harder than anything that I’ve been through. There’s no breaks – (Thorpe) is always like ‘Lets go’ and after a minute you’re drenched in sweat. But he really teaches you good stuff,” Holmes, a redshirt freshman, said. “I wasn’t able to last the whole first day. I thought I was going to die.”

Holmes isn’t alone – Thorpe estimates 90 percent of college players aren’t able to complete their first day of training with him.

“We think no one in the country works as hard as we do. Our guys at the end of every day can barely walk,” Thorpe said. “As good as (NBA) workouts are, ours are harder, ours are more intense and that’s because that is what we do.”

Throughout a week, players work on scoring from all angles at every spot on the floor. Jeffries focused on a mid-range hook shot with both hands then exploded for a dunk after driving to the basket while being hit.

Other players were dunking in rapid succession to improve how quickly they can explode to the rim. Each player on the court had a specific workout regimented to his style of play.

Thorpe said his workout sessions are planned out to the second. This type of strict regimen is how players are able to show drastic improvements in a little amount of time.

“On a scale of 1-10, he’s made me a 10. I’d really give him a 10. I wish I knew some of the stuff he’s taught me beforehand,” Holmes said. “He’ll definitely make you a better player if you’re willing to work.”

Wide Collection of Talent

What separates the basketball academy at IMG from nearly every other training facility across the globe is the wide array of skill levels and the assortment of players.

During a single training session, players ranged from a 7-foot-4-inch Brazilian center to a forward like Jeffries, to a 6-foot-10 center trying to catch on with an NBA summer league team. After those players left, 20 high school and college players entered to run similar drills as the professionals.

“There’s definitely a little hierarchy because I’m looking up to the NBA guys while the college players are looking up to me,” said Lewis, a 6-foot-10-inch center with the Los Angeles Defenders of the NBA Developmental League. “Working with players who are where I want to be makes me work harder and in turn gets everyone else going too.”

Despite this hierarchy of admiration, all players are focused on improving themselves, not stargazing.

“Everyone here, whether in the NBA, NBADL, in the Euro leagues, whatever, is here to get better,” said Unicaja center Daniel Santiago. “It’s good to play with professionals instead of playing in a pickup game where guys try and hurt you.”

Unicaja is a Spanish basketball team in the NBA’s Euroleague. NBA players such as Charlotte’s Walter Hermann and Toronto’s Jorge Garbajosa have played for Unicaja.

Santiago, a 7-foot-1 center, spent four years with the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, but decided to play professionally in Europe making more money than he did in the NBA.

“A vast majority of those playing professionally aren’t in the NBA,” Moreau said. “(Most players) go on to successful 10-12 year careers overseas making better money than in the NBA.”

The European influx, along with an increase in talent in South America and Asia, saw a record 83 international players from 37 countries playing in the NBA last season.

In Thursday’s draft, 13 of the 60 players selected were from overseas, in what was widely considered to be the best draft in recent years.

“The basketball world is literally the world. There are 15- and 16-year-old kids training for the NBA who previously would have never given it a thought. More of those kinds of players are coming in,” Moreau said. “You don’t have to be the best guy in your town now – you have to worry about Germany, China, Japan and all over.”

IMG’s collection of talent exposes professional NBA players, such as Martin and Jeffries, to younger, hungry players as motivation to continue to improve.

“You know those guys are going to come at you, so I’m not going to let them have a good day,” Martin said. “I train 4-5 hours a day, Monday through Friday, and then shoot for a couple of hours on Saturday.”

Last season, Martin finished runner-up for the NBA’s Most Improved Player after nearly doubling his scoring average to a career-high 20.2 points per game. ESPN.com analyst John Hollinger listed Martin among his biggest snubs for the all-star game last year.

Martin said he isn’t going to take a vacation this off-season, instead opting to train at IMG and with his team in Sacramento. His philosophy is similar to most players across the league.

“The biggest myth is that summer is the time when NBA players really relax,” Thorpe said. “Younger guys – those in a contract year, or those who want to get more playing time – spend their entire summer in the gym.”