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Alex McKechnie - from Glasgow to the NBA

Alex McKechnie is sitting in his car outside the Kerlan-Jobe clinic, a Scotsman in Los Angeles glancing back and forth at the entrance as he waits for a player to emerge.

He is the Director of Sports Science for the Toronto Raptors and owner of five NBA championships. Now a member of the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame, McKechnie, from his front seat, is deliberating on whether he feels more Scottish or Canadian.

“I would like to say both”, McKechnie says in an unmistakable Glaswegian tone. “I do not think I can give up the accent.”

That trait has set him apart since 1974, the year he first arrived in Vancouver and the beginning of one of the more illustrious and wide-ranging physiotherapy careers imaginable. McKechnie has turned, twisted and drilled some of the biggest names in sports, wining and dining those who possess the greatest of stories.

“I am a long way from Glasgow, that is for sure.”

He finds himself in the very parking lot - McKechnie would not have known to call it that 50 years ago - where he originally connected with Shaquille O’Neal, the first NBA athlete he ever worked with.

“Where can you go from there?”, he asks with a chuckle.

Alex McKechie and DeMar DeRozan

McKechnie grew up in Easterhouse, the suburb six miles east of Glasgow’s city centre that was completed after the First World War. The Easterhouse scheme was the prescribed answer to overcrowding and deprivation in other parts of the city, but while the houses were a clear upgrade, no thought had gone into installing shops or other infrastructure, and Glasgow’s existing gang problem only expanded. Easterhouse was a battleground for youths; knives, hammers and bats were wielded on street corners between rival groups including The Skinheads and The Provvy Rebels.

McKechnie grafted in spite of the danger. He delivered the Sunday newspapers to local residents, worked on the ice cream trucks after school and played football for the Boys Brigade. He soon realised that helping athletes was a more realistic route than being one, and has been performing that role for almost five decades. 

During his early years, football was the one sport he really knew, but basketball found a way to introduce itself to McKechnie when the Harlem Globetrotters made their way to Lochend Secondary School in Easterhouse, a performance he graded as “a circus event.”

McKechie remained impartial to the sport, his curiosity levels hovering beneath his interest in physiotherapy. That began to change when his father, also named Alex - “I guess he named me” - was injured in a car accident when McKechnie was in his early teens, while one of his brothers once broke his femur. With prevention of injuries so dear to his heart today - ‘treat locally, rehab globally’ is one of his favourite philosophies - it was then that a connection with sports medicine first evolved. Witnessing first-hand his closest family members going through the motions around the house with no clear direction as to how they could return to full mobility and strength, it exposed him for the first time to the thought of changing that predicament for the many others who suffer.

That led him to Leeds School of Physiotherapy, and, ten days after being accepted, he was gone.

A community of Glaswegians was replaced by a dormitory full of people from all over the world. It was an environment in which he became closer and closer to the field of orthopedics, fascinated with fractures, surgeries and post-operative work undertaken at Leeds General Infirmary. This was still a time when ACL surgery did not exist, when baseball players did not talk of elbow replacement as if it were relatable to changing the bed sheets in the morning.

Having worked through those realities and graduated, McKechnie wanted to take advantage of being able to live anywhere in the Commonwealth. He applied for emigration with a view to a new life in Australia or Canada, perhaps making his way back to the UK afterward. He was not afraid to leave home; seeing the violence back home in Easterhouse, he had already witnessed what could happen if he stayed.

“I hit Vancouver and got stuck”, he says. McKechnie is yet to fulfil the latter part of the original travel plan.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Toronto Raptors - Game Three

McKechnie was hired as Head Physiotherapist at Simon Fraser University, a daunting situation for a 22-year-old who was one of only two in the training department. He was instantly impressed by the way North American athletes trained. Strength and power was such a big part of the process, and McKechnie was in awe of the high-quality equipment used to prepare players. He was grateful for his exposure to sports he had never dabbled in before, one job taking him to nearby Exhibition Park race course to help the jockeys. Familiarity came in the form of the local North American Soccer League team, the Vancouver Whitecaps, which placed McKechnie in the company of Willie Stevenson, who at one stage struggled mightily with his ACL rehab. The Scot has never forgotten how hard the former Liverpool player tried to return to action, and at the time it both angered him and hooked him into preventing sports injuries.

He would have plenty of opportunities to do just that, not least on his very first day on the job when McKechnie knew he would learn more in the place he had relocated to than anywhere else in the world.

That day, American football practice had started at three o’clock and within the space of ten minutes, through the small window in his office, McKechnie could see 15 behemoths walking towards him, all demanding that their ankles are taped or shoulders readjusted. The Scot had almost no idea what to do, inexperienced in dealing with sports injuries let alone athletes who measured up to sizes he had never encountered anywhere in life. Another challenge to overcome were the tape routines, completely different in Canada to the UK. The former used zinc tape, and in minutes, McKechnie was throwing out the basic strapping he had learned, inventing a new version on the fly.

His sports debut was a reminder that he had left the violence of Easterhouse behind and replaced it with the brutal world of American football, a reality that had pushed Clydebank Health Centre and the version of the game he thought he knew to the memory bank.

Not that McKechnie realised it at the time, this rapid study was all in preparation for bigger things.

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There is an old video on the internet of McKechnie putting Steve Nash, then with the Dallas Mavericks and looking somewhat pre-teen, through his paces next to the watchful eye of Chad Lewis, then the Mavericks' strength coach. Having tested Nash with medicine balls, resistance bands and other inventory, the pair are seen kicking a small pink ball back and forth in mid-air right behind Lewis, who is being asked for his opinion on the gruelling and uber-specific workout he just witnessed.

To anyone who saw McKechnie’s techniques, they were revolutionary, at least before he and Nash turned playful.

“It is all I can do, and that’s alright”, McKechnie laughs of his skills.

McKechnie’s formula can be whittled down to one acronym: ‘B.U.I.L.D’.

First of all, his ‘basic principles’ never change. “Joints move, so you have got to move them. Muscles move joints, so you better work them.”

All that which he moves and works begins and ends with the core. Ask McKechnie to explain why it is so important to him and he will respond with a question: ‘If I were to ask you to define your core, what would you say?’ Cue a blabbering response about the abdominals, which as learned from McKechnie’s tutelage is not the core.

Core strength is instead an endurance base, the epicentre of bodily movement from stationary to active. It is an area which prevents somebody from overcompensating for any action large or small by a single part of the body. Like a sports team, the whole should be in unison, and it has become the focal point of McKechnie’s rehabilitation strategy.

After the ‘B’ of basic principles comes the U of ‘utilising’, specifically your skill set and those of the people around you. ‘I’ is for identity, “and with identity you have integrity.”

McKechnie’s identity - along with his accent - could be any one of knees, groins, the pelvic floor or the system that helps them all, the Core X programme, which among many has been used by Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol with whom McKechie worked while with the Los Angeles Lakers.

It has blossomed into a commercial project, a training system that incorporates the use of elastic and rubber bands to move the body in straight and diagonal lines, establishing correct movement patterns in order to prevent injury and increase performance. McKechnie also invented the torsion board, a device that Reebok later sold as the ‘core board’ and something that was masterminded while walking his dog.

“I passed a park and a kid was on a spring, just bouncing around on it”, he says of the light bulb moment. It is for this reason that the original core board is, from top to bottom, a huge engineering spring on plywood.

Such invention will lead you to ‘L’, which stands for ‘longevity’. The reason you build that is because it allows you to ‘D’; diversify.

“And you must always deliver.”

By hitting on these points, McKechnie opened his own clinic in Vancouver within three years of working at Simon Fraser. Who would have thought a future client would be one of the greatest basketball players ever to live?

Alex McKechnie, Kobe, Shaq, Pau

The year was 1997, time for McKechnie’s big break to arrive.

At this stage, his speciality was ACL injuries, an issue that over time he understood to stem from the pelvis. That was a dreaded precursor to groin problems.

McKechnie, ever the all-rounder, was working with the NHL Players Association, their go-to guy for groin problems, and was at one point treating Hall of Famer Paul Kariya. Then playing for the Anaheim Ducks, his team’s medical coverage was based at the Kerlan-Jobe clinic, not far from the Lakers, and coincidentally the place McKechnie is taking this call.

Shortly after Kariya’s successful treatment, Shaquille O’Neal tore his abdominal wall. Having researched what McKechnie had done with the hockey star, one of the most glorified basketball franchises was suddenly calling his phone.

Once an intrigued spectator of the Globetrotters, McKechnie was now flirting with an entirely different circus: the Los Angeles Lakers. They asked McKechnie to evaluate O’Neal; this would be the most notable client he had secured.

Having said yes, the Scot cancelled his office one afternoon in order to see O’Neal at 1:30pm, his morning busy as ever with a clinic full of patients. O’Neal had finished with the orthopedic surgeon three hours before his scheduled arrival time and headed over to McKechnie, who politely told O’Neal and his team that he could only see him after lunch.

“Well, Shaq drove over the bridge and flew home. Did not come. So it might never have happened”.

The following week the Lakers were in town to play the Vancouver Grizzlies, and this time O’Neal was analysed before jetting back over the border.

Within the space of seven days McKechnie had gone from never working with an NBA athlete to almost losing one of the best, evaluating the prodigious young centre and later receiving a phone call from Jerry West asking if he would come to L.A. and work with O’Neal for the rest of the season.

Some 30 years prior to this, his move from Glasgow to Leeds had felt like a significant step, and yet here McKechnie was, in the City of Angels, on the cusp of an NBA career that continues today.

O’Neal never missed another game that campaign and the following summer came to stay with McKechnie for three months in Vancouver, focused on keeping his body in good order.

“Shaq would come in to the clinic, sit down at the reception desk and sign people in for treatments”, McKechnie says, who watched O’Neal bring lunch to the employees every day. “Just Shaq being Shaq. A wonderful guy.”

O’Neal bringing in hot-off-the-grill burgers to the workplace was only the start.

McKechnie soon found his dinner partner in long-time Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, who knew all of the best Italian spots on the NBA map. Phil Jackson arrived in 1999 and McKechnie helped the Zen Master every morning before practice the same way he did his players, the pair still meeting for food to this day. He also played golf with the General Manager at that time, Mitch Kupchak, at the Beverly Hills Country Club. Alongside his wife Sandy, he attended O’Neal’s wedding and describes current Lakers head coach Luke Walton as “one of the nicest guys you will ever meet.” He was a guest at Walton’s wedding in Aspen, perhaps the only time they met without the Core X system involved. The pair first got together before Walton was even drafted by the Lakers when his father Bill, another Hall of Famer, sent his son to see McKechnie during his playing days at the University of Arizona.

Employed by the Lakers until 2011, McKechnie worked with Kobe Bryant every single day, taping his ankles on the training table, taking him through the Core X workout before anyone had arrived at Staples Center, even observing Bryant passionately read the Harry Potter series. “But when it was about basketball with Kobe, it was all about basketball.” Bryant’s coach Jackson would often also say to McKechnie, ‘Alex, I do not like what I see with that player’, and then expect him to fix the movement issue.

“That was the beauty of Phil. His ability to empower people was second to none.”

McKechnie was working for a coach challenging Red Auerbach’s legacy, and in succeeding with his inventions alongside the most prolific of players, was developing into the world’s foremost core and pelvis expert in the sporting field.

Alex McKechnie and Kobe Bryant

Over time, McKechnie’s methods garnered huge respect across the league and as a result of his contractual agreement with the Lakers, his list of clients grew from Baron Davis to Tracy McGrady.

Sport has historically been reactive, but McKechnie works proactively. He abides by a three pillar system; management acquire players and it is his job to deliver them consistently healthy to the coaching staff. He pulled that off in L.A. and thus was able to enjoy working with disciples such as Bryant, O’Neal, Derek Fisher, Devean George, Rick Fox, Pau Gasol and Robert Horry.

“It is not an accident that those guys won”, he says.

McKechnie won with them, first a three-peat between 2000 and 2002 followed by back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. From the east end of Glasgow, he was spending his winters in Marina Del Rey and the summertime in Vancouver, where this epic journey began. He flew privately with the Lakers, who practically invented the rulebook on chartered transportation. “A pretty tasty lifestyle”, he says.

When Jackson left in 2011, the lockout season was around the corner, and McKechnie's contract was simultaneously up for renewal. Despite this, McKechnie had established connections long before his NBA career began, and that helped him continue on.

He received a call from one of the first people he had ever treated at Simon Fraser. It was Jay Triano, who had once played on the basketball team there and had gone on to coach the Toronto Raptors. He had read in the L.A. Times that McKechnie was out of contract and informed his old friend that their general manager at the time, Bryan Colangelo, wanted to talk to him.

At first, the Scot was not interested, acknowledging instead that the Lakers would pursue the renewal of contracts after the lockout.

Triano called him back a couple of days later with the green light, persuading McKechnie and his wife to fly to Toronto where he told Colangelo he would not accept the role unless he ran the show. Seven years later, his impact is such that the Raptors are about to spend their fifth consecutive training camp in Vancouver. Keeping players on the court remains the biggest challenge, and he is assisted by a medical staff that throw out terms such as ‘sleep hygiene’ and have Raptors players running on aqua treadmills.

Just as things have changed in his professional world, so too have they in Easterhouse, as the area has undergone a recent revival thanks to local projects that educate youngsters on the perils of their involvement with gangs and violence. McKechnie is unlikely to go back any time soon, though, often joking with his wife that he would only return to work in Scotland for his beloved Glasgow Rangers. He speaks of a possible return to the UK in very light terms. Canada is home now.

McKechnie sits on the sports science committee at the league office, as involved as one can be when it comes to the future of the NBA. That can only be a positive, for he is solely concerned with bringing accountability to his work. He did so when posting newspapers through letterboxes as a teenager, using zinc tape to treat American football players, eradicating a career-threatening injury for Shaq and winning the Gold Cup with Canada’s soccer team in 2000. From the east end of Glasgow to the absolute highs of the NBA, it has worked for McKechnie.

“I have had an incredible career, but nobody has sacrificed more than my wife Sandy, two daughters Alexis and Danielle, son-in-laws Atiba and Mike and my grandson Josiah. It is OK having all of the bright lights, but that does not come without challenges, and my family have supported me more than anybody else.

“But let me tell you something. If it works, it is worth it.”

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