The grandson of a pickle maker and a former ballet dancer himself, new Timberwolves Vice President of Sports Performance Arnie Kander has brought his rather odd, famed collection of home remedies and hand-built contraptions to Minneapolis in an attempt to provide normalcy to a franchise whose players far too often have been unable to stay healthy.
Longtime friend Flip Saunders lured him out of a very brief retirement last summer, bringing a former colleague in Detroit to town four times before Saunders finally convinced him to return to a life of after-midnight flights and dawn therapy sessions — just weeks after he had finished 23 years doing so for the Pistons.
With Kander came his lotions, creams, rubs, nutritional supplements and a holistic approach to healing in which he makes no distinction between two seemingly different hats — strength coach and physical therapist.
“No separation,” he said. “It’s not like church and state.”
He is the guy who once helped put Chauncey Billups back on the court in only four days by wrapping frozen banana peels on his split hamstring. He is the guy whose stature with the Pistons once inspired the team to add Kander’s training-table wheatgrass and organic lemon drink as well as quinoa, kale and lentils to the Palace of Auburn Hills concession stands.
Players who have had him tend to their both their bodies and minds through these many years are believers.
“I will say his style is a lot different than anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Wolves veteran forward Tayshaun Prince, who played all 82 regular-season games six consecutive years early in his career with Kander in Detroit and seven times in his 13 NBA seasons. “He was one of the reasons I was able to stay as healthy as I was. No matter who it is, the longer you spend with somebody, the more they learn your body and they can master it.
“Arnie has mastered my body for 11 years. Anytime something happens, that’d be the guy I call, no matter where I’m at, on whatever team.”
Basketball to ballet
From his grandfather — who made both pickles and wine — Kander learned early in life the healing properties of fermentation, what he calls an “old-school” process he incorporated into a lifetime of learning that, at age 57, has made him an innovator in injury prevention, rehabilitation and conditioning.
His interest in the body and how it works led him a short career with the Virginia Ballet Company, an art form he pursued after reading Chicago Bears receiver Willie Gault had learned it to improve his vertical leap. A degree in physical therapy followed, and Kander found his way to the NBA after independently helping Pistons star Isiah Thomas heal from a severely sprained ankle.
These days, terms and concepts such as “proprioception,” “neuromuscular control” and “activation” roll off his tongue like he’s ordering a sandwich. He has built anew on the job eight contraptions made from PVC pipe that players use to warm up, increase flexibility and, whether they know it or not, find routine.
“Everything is, be as good as you can be and be well,” Kander said. “It’s even how we speak to athletes, what we say. We don’t ask a guy about his knee, ankle or hip. It’s about his life: How was your dinner last night? It’s amazing the psychological aspect of injury. Sometimes you can stay too conscious on how it’s feeling that the knee or ankle or hip takes over the body.
“Guys in this league don’t know what city they’re in, what room they’re in. We establish normalcy through the body. The mind will catch up.”
He prepares players for practice and games by leading them through exercises that begin with the slowest and simplest of movements, many of them taken from the Chinese martial art tai chi. He incorporates moves taken from his ballet background, likening some of them to a basketball defensive slide.
Kander calls himself a big believer in hydration and nutrition — his arrival comes at the same time the Wolves have hired a chef to cook organic, non-GMO foods for players at their new training facility — as well as warming up very slowly. He also believes in herbalism, the use of plants for medicinal purposes.
“People might look at me and say, ‘What the heck are you doing here?’ ” he said. “But there’s a rationale and a method behind everything … These bodies are big, but they’re genetic marvels, incredible in their terms of healing, recovering. Sometimes we think because they’re big athletes, they can just go out and run. It’s like motor oil. We literally want to get the motor oil lubricated in the joints, so a lot of times we start by doing things very slowly.”
When Saunders coached Detroit a decade ago, one of his teams went through an entire season with essentially the same lineup, a long way from recent Wolves teams on which Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, to name two, have missed significant parts of seasons.
Prince and Ben Wallace played 82 games that year. Billups played 81, Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton played 80 each. One of their secrets on a team that won 64 games and lost to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals was something players simply called “juice,” a food-based secret formula that Kander still uses on players’ skin.
“I don’t know what was in it,” said Wolves assistant coach Sidney Lowe, a Saunders assistant with Detroit. “But guys would just say, ‘Arnie, juice,’ and he’d rub it on their knees, legs, thighs. You know, his track record is just phenomenal getting guys ready to play. He’s unique. If you tell him what’s wrong, he’ll just go get some stuff and crush it up. He’s so good at what he does. He makes your mind believe in what you’re doing.”
Those frozen banana peels prepped Billups to play in mere days during a playoff series with Orlando one year. Kander said the fat content in the layers of the banana helps bring bruises out of muscles toward the skin surface.
“The worst thing is a bruise you don’t see,” Kander said. “People look at one and say, ‘Oh, that’s a terrible bruise.’ I say it’s the most beautiful bruise I’ve ever seen because it’s out. The worst bruises are the ones that stay in.”
Kander tended to Prince for more than 10 seasons. He did the same almost daily for more than 15 years with Pistons owner Bill Davidson before he died in 2009 at age 86. It’s a relationship that started when Davidson came to him with a bum knee.
Just don’t expect Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell to follow in step.
“I leave Arnie alone,” Mitchell said. “As long as Arnie don’t come in my room and try to get me to do it, I’m fine. We had that talk already. I don’t play no more. But Arnie’s been good for our players. His primary focus is taking care of players and they’ve responded to him. That’s what you want. You want your guys to buy into your program.”