Dwight Howard: Road to Recovery


The date is April 2012 and I have been training Dwight since the end of the 2005 season. Up until now, he has been injury free for the most part except for the occasional bumps and bruises that come with being an NBA player. The biggest injury up to this date was a strained hamstring when Dwight was messing around and racing his friends on the track one summer. All signs lead to a bright future, but things were about to change.

Most the training concentrated on increasing his range of motion and getting him basketball strong. I won’t go into a long explanation of this training but each summer was meticulously planned and recorded. I was always prepared for change but the goal was the same; get him in peak performance shape by the start of the season. Sometimes things don’t workout and this was the case with Dwight and his back surgery in 2012.

Before I go into more detail I want to say the NBA players are conditioned at a young age to play through anything and be a warrior. Dwight was no exception to this mindset and was and is the one of the biggest warriors I know to date. This can be a great attribute but can also be your biggest barrier to remaining injury free. People tend to forget that the NBA is a business. The players are putting on a show every night and the fans pay to see their favorite players; teams have to put their best products on the floor.

Leading up to the 2012 date of surgery these things happened:

  1. Since being drafted by the Magic, Dwight was expected to carry the load and play heavy minutes. Rest and recovery wasn’t an option for Dwight.
  2. Dwight was young and often times thought to be indestructible.
  3. Travel for an average team in NBA is about 54,447 miles per season over the 82 plus games according to weaksideawareness.wordpress.com This includes a lot of sitting in tight seats and small vehicles for very tall men.
  4. According weaksideawareness.wordpress.com, the average player moves 2.5 miles per game x 82 games (regular season) = 205 miles of quick stop and go movements for the regular season. Not your averages slow jog 2.5 mile run is it?
  5. The job off the court: this is during season and post season. Players have appearance obligations, events, commercials (many NBA mandated) and of course connecting with fans.
  6. In large organizations communication gets lost in translation leading to barriers in scheduling, training and player personal goals.

here is no book or manual on proper recovery or rest but every individual player has to listen to their body for signals. It is also important to take the proper precautions where possible. Every off-season I ordered MRI’s and tests to evaluate Dwight’s injuries and damage that occurred to his body. No matter what sport you play your body will take on the brunt of the war. Lets think of Dwight as a highly tuned Indy car that just finished a season or even one race. The crew normally takes apart the car and analyzes everything from the engine to the body and wheels. If the alignment is off then the car won’t handle at its optimum performance. It may still go fast but not be very efficient. An athlete is the same, tune-ups and maintenance is required. You can’t continue to drive 140 miles per hour 3-4 times per week for 82 races and practice and expect to be perfect.

Leading into the 2008-2009 Dwight’s knees and back were showing some wear and tear and his workouts were scaled to help with this and the process of preserving these joints and helping him have a long career was even more important. I got a lot of outside pressure from coaches and random sources saying he needed to be doing more explosive Olympic lifts and plyometric. It’s always easy to judge from the outside but without all the information you cannot make a snap judgment. It is important to remain levelheaded and let the science guide the way.

Injuries are not 100% preventable and they will happen. Being as prepared for them to happen by building a strong foundation and understanding the science of ones body will help in the recovery. Dwight’s injury could have been made worse if he did not listen to his body. He would not have made such a remarkable, quick recovery if a thoughtful plan had not been followed. This journey will be followed in the next case study.


The damage was done and Dwight was on his way to LA to have surgery and was still a part of the Magic at this time. Dwight’s manger and assistants flew with him to LA to meet his family and were by his bedside though the entire procedure. But it was clear that Dwight’s future with the Orlando Magic was almost done.

The surgery was to repair a herniated disk on his lower back. The disks are cushions between the boney parts of the spine. When one becomes weak from wear and tear or trauma it bulges out and can push on the nerves. The nerves come together and go all the way down the leg. This was the most painful part for Dwight, as the pain shot down his leg sometimes causing him to lose feeling in his leg. The bulging part of the disk was removed which immediately took pressure off of the nerve root. He was stitched up and placed on his back. I know I made this surgery seem relatively simple but anything with your back and nerves is very complex but Dwight’s medical team was one of the best. Dr. Watkins and his team did a great job, which was the first step in a long road to recovery.

Dwight was on bed rest for few days with only short walks around this room allowed. Gradually we added in longer walks and he progressed to walking around the hotel property, which was close to the rehab facility. At our first meeting with the physical therapist, I listened to Dr. Schlink’s assessment and had a list of questions prepared to ask. Diet and mental health were also an important part of the equation to full recovery. I , along with other family members and associates, took the role of cheerleader, confidant, chef and of course friend. None of us spoke of it, but the thought that the body may not heal loomed over all.

Late PM walks around the hotel block progressed and the real rehab was almost in sight. People don’t realize that he couldn’t do a simple calf raise or sit on a normal chair for months. We used to take the small things for granted but soon simple wins became huge victories; watching Dwight complete 1 set of 10 calf raises with no pain was a highlight in my day. Every day we build on our plan with small progressions. Soon 1 set became 5 and after 3 weeks we advanced to visiting Dr. Schlink 1-2 times a week. I become very fond of Dr. Schlink as he was realistic with his goals for Dwight. At this time it was about getting Dwight back to optimum performance, not how quickly we could get him on the court.

Here is a breakdown of the months after the surgery:

First 3 weeks

  • Every few hours, small walks around the hallway and never sitting more than 45 minutes. 5 – 6 laps two times a day was our goal.
  • Special chair and toilet were used for the first month so no flexion of the spine was done.
  • Eating was strict as this was his important fuel to recovery, allowing one day a week to cheat (Usually a burger on a pretzel bun with sweet potato fries, which we all looked forward to).
  • Activities to keep up with our mental health which included reading, movies and games.
  • Proper planning with progressions for the week ahead.

Week 4-10

  • 2 – 3 hour rehab sessions with Dr. Schlink 1 – 2 times per week.
  • Afternoon walks and late PM walks around the block (Big night out).
  • Starting week 7 – floor CORE work began between rehab sessions.
  • Hourly check INS with Dwight and lots of video game sessions continued.

Week 10 and on

  • Started adding in strength and flexibility training at the gym
  • 1-3 hours in the gym with strict progressions on his CORE program and monitoring by both doctors.
  • Training in front of the doctors was done daily to ensure proper communication. All therapies and progressions were done thoughtfully with all of us on the same page.
  • Rehab went from 1-2 X daily to every other day and random check INS during the week was needed.
  • Easy court work and spot shooting was monitored to 45 minutes.
  • We still had our cheat day Friday night as we went to movies and had our burgers and sweet potato fries.
  • (Trade had happened) The Lakers staff was introduced to Dwight and his team and I begin training Dwight a few times a week at the Lakers facility with his new performance team.
  • The Lakers staff spent a few days a week helping with rehab and doing what they felt was best late in the summer.

Pre-Season and Season Begins

  • Meeting was set to talk about timetable with coaches his manager Dwight and myself.
  • He was set to play 10 minute his first game and be on a strict minute restriction to ensure his recovery was slow and steady.
  • Unfortunately he played 34 minutes and could barely walk the day after.
  • The plan was not implemented and the season was a nightmare filled with stress and frustration.
  • Each training session was about keeping Dwight together and felt I was playing catch up and progressing Dwight was very difficult when he was playing so many minutes.
  • Dwight exits the Lakers and the true potential of the greatest team on paper was never seen.
  • His rehab continues and a new chapter starts in Houston.

So that is brief outline of the events that surrounded his surgery in 2012. Overall a very frustrating time but when I look back we all did what we had to do at the time.

By | 2022-03-29T14:18:49+00:00 June 1st, 2017|