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.