MADDEN: Phoenix becomes Fountain of Youth

Daniel Madden

The Phoenix Suns are 26-19 going into the week and sit in seventh place in the Western Conference.  They by no means possess an impressive record, but it becomes impressive when one considers the ages of two of their most productive players and the injury history of arguably their best player.  The Suns ought to receive more praise, considering that they went 46-36 during the 2008-’09 season with the roster they had.  In the past two years, the Suns have had four starters with careers supposedly on the decline.

Steve Nash continues to dominate the Suns’ point guard position and averages a double-double in points and assists. He will start in this year’s NBA All-Star game at the age of 35. According to certain statistical analyses, when an average player turns 25, his productivity starts to decline. By the time an average player reaches 35, he starts costing his team wins. But Nash, who has played for the Suns since 2004, is putting up numbers now that either match or exceed those of the seasons in which he won his two MVP awards in 2005 and 2006.

Small forward Grant Hill has started every game this season and averages over 10 points a game. For several years, Hill has been sidelined with numerous injuries. He has sat out an entire season and has considered retirement. Yet Hill, brought to Phoenix in 2007, has thrived in the famous “run and gun” offense, despite the wear and tear on the legs, and has put up impressive numbers. He played in 70 games for the first time since before the new millennium in the 2007-’08 season, played in all 82 games last year and has started every game this season. So where does this multi-dimensional 37-year-old get his energy from?

Like Nash, the only things keeping this guy from living a life of infinite ease are Aaron Nelson and, I suppose, “love of the game.” But “love of the game” aside, Nelson has single-handedly given the Suns numerous seasons of continuous success. OK, OK, maybe a stretch. But he’s at least a part of it. Coaches have come and gone in Phoenix, but Nelson has served as the team’s head athletic trainer for 10 years and has been in the organization since 1993. 

Ask Amar’e Stoudemire who fixed his damaged knee cartilage and performed the microfracture surgery, and he’ll tell you a surgeon. But ask him who conducted his rehab and brought him back to full strength after feeling the effects of a surgery that often times effectively ends players’ careers, and he will tell you Aaron Nelson. After his disaster of a season in 2005-’06, Stoudemire came back in 2006-’07 to participate in the All-Star game. He has sustained a high level of success each season and is once again an NBA All-Star starter. Fluke? Ask Jamal Mashburn if he ever recovered from the same fateful and very serious surgery. 

Though Shaquille O’Neal no longer plays for the Suns, his time in Phoenix is responsible for reviving his career. O’Neal’s career appeared to be going down with the sun when he came to Phoenix during the 2007-’08 season. He failed to make the All-Star team for the first time in his career that season when he split time with Miami, and when he was traded to the Suns, he brought with him 35 years of hacking to his body and a nagging problem in his hip. He was both old and hurt. But when Nelson had a look at the hip thought to end O’Neal’s career, he determined there was no injury at all, but that a muscle in his posterior hip was not “firing” properly. After 11 months of corrective exercises and muscle retraining, O’Neal said he was in the best shape of his life. He regained his explosiveness, started 74 games, averaged 17.8 points and earned himself to 32 more nicknames.

Nelson became the second youngest head athletic trainer in the NBA when he was hired in 2000. He directs the prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries. Also, during his time with the Suns, he has added new medical equipment and programs to better serve the team, including the new Optimum Performance Training program designed to incorporate every kind of training, assessment and injury prevention. He is a certified specialist in every necessary category and a member of many athletic training and conditioning organizations. In honor of his work in keeping Nash, Hill, O’Neal and Stoudemire healthy and on the court, the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association named Nelson Athletic Trainer of the Year in 2009.


Daniel Madden is a junior classics major from Cincinnati, Ohio.  He can be reached at [email protected].