In order to get stronger, healthier and even richer, Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic first must regress all the way back to his baby days.
Three times a week, he’s in the Target Center basement weight room down on his stomach or elbows or all fours, making small, measured movements intended to replicate how an infant learns to crawl, roll, sit and eventually walk.
The tattooed, self-declared “real man” whom opponents call probably the NBA’s strongest also will deliver, if the mood strikes him, sound effects along with the delicate motions designed to strengthen and stabilize his smaller muscles after he has spent a lifetime pumping the biggest ones.
“Waaaaaaa,” he says, contorting his face and mimicking a baby’s cry.
It’s a striking juxtaposition from a mountain of a man — inked with a bed of skulls and a shielded warrior rippling across his biceps — who opponents consider the strong, silent type, even if his NBA career until this season has been sidetracked by a series of nagging little injuries that betrayed his power.
“I’ve never heard him say anything, not even to a teammate,” Utah veteran Marvin Williams said.
All his life, Pekovic believed bigger is better and more is more when it came to building a body that former Timberwolves basketball boss David Kahn once likened to “an Adonis,” the Greek god of beauty and desire.
Newly hired Wolves director of sports performance Koichi Sato came along last summer, and he asked Pekovic — and his teammates — to improve their posture, breathing and balance as well as rethink everything they thought he knew about their bodies.
Unconvinced at first, Pekovic now calls himself a believer in “baby reaches” and “bear walks” that, among other methods, have helped balance his body’s major muscles with its smaller ones. They’ve also helped him reach the halfway point of this season without a missing a game on a new five-year, $60 million contract that adds incentives for games played.
“Until now it helps,” Pekovic said. “I think this is the biggest stretch — 40 games I already played — and it’s first time I don’t got any injury. For now it really helps. Some things you can’t avoid, if you turn an ankle or something. But I can really see my body is accepting it really good. I can see that it really helps my body. I’m more flexible. I’m moving better.”
Born in Japan and educated at Tokyo and American universities, Sato brought with him from the Washington Wizards last summer training philosophies and techniques learned from Czech Republic experts in a field of study — called Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization — used to test babies, rehabilitate injured adults and train professional athletes and Cirque du Soleil performers.
Those techniques are intended to balance the body by integrating fast-moving big muscles that move heavy weight with slower-moving small muscles that stabilize the big muscles.
“One muscle doesn’t do all the job,” Sato said. “It’s like a basketball team. It’s not Pek and Kevin [Love] do all the work. Everybody has to function together.”
A man who once only pumped more and more iron, Pekovic now walks with a block atop his head on a beam placed on the weight-room floor, not all that unlike a beauty-show contestant from days gone by who balanced a book on her head to improve posture.
When Sato worked in Washington, Wizards forward Jan Vesely impersonated his former European teammate at the mere mention of Pekovic’s name by scrunching his shoulders toward his ears and furiously pumping his arms to mimic Pekovic’s unbalanced running posture.
“Koichi’s the first guy who told me I did that,” Pekovic said. “I never think about it until he told me.”
Now Pekovic is conscious of how he runs, walks and sits.
“He doesn’t do this anymore because I think his body is changing,” Sato said, impersonating Vesely’s impersonation.
Now Pekovic himself impersonates a baby, a bear and a beauty queen in the weight room without hearing so much as a snicker from a teammate.
“I think he enjoys the baby ones better because then he gets to make the noises,” Love said. “He’s a big baby. A big teddy bear, too, though.”
Light on his feet
Sato calls Pekovic “one of the most nimble guys I’ve ever seen” after watching him progress through a program that shares a bit in common with yoga.
“No, I never done yoga,” Pekovic said. “Or 80 percent of the stuff we’re doing, I’ve never done in my life.”
So, might he have been a dancer?
“No, even my mom tried to take me to dance when I was like 14,” Pekovic said. “She was like, ‘We have to start,’ and I was like, ‘No, no, no.’ I’m kind of a little big for that. I don’t know how that would look.”
But his footwork on the beam is almost graceful, even if he and teammates such as rookie Gorgui Dieng drip sweat from seemingly the simplest of movements while Sato demonstrates the exercises seeking “reflexive stability” with nary a drop of perspiration.
“Their muscle is not working the way it’s supposed to,’ ’’said Sato, whom Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders hired after they worked together in Washington. “The little ones function very efficiently so you don’t feel fatigued. That’s why I can do this all day because I don’t have to use a big muscle to do it. If the only choice is to use big muscles … big muscles are strong but they fatigue quick.
“That’s why you see those guys sweating profusely. You’d be surprised: It looks like a simple exercise, but if you make sure they are in the right position, many of them struggle.”
Pekovic credits Sato’s work with keeping him healthy, which has kept him on the floor and allowed him to deliver in the past six weeks what coach Rick Adelman calls the most productive stretch of his four-year NBA career. He scored a career-high 34 points in a game last month, has nine 20-point and 10-rebound games and has led his team in scoring in five of the past 10 games.
“His consistency where he just keeps playing has been terrific,” Adelman said.
If Pekovic plays 60 games, he’ll start receiving a bonus that increases based on how many games he plays.
Pekovic gives his trainer the credit for his good health, but have they made a deal to give Sato his cut should Pekovic reach those bonuses?
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I don’t know about that,” he said, laughing. “We didn’t make that deal.”