Wolves trainer Farnam aiming for Olympics
MINNEAPOLIS – Before the Team USA men's select basketball squad held its first practice in Las Vegas early in July, USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo sat down the young group for a talk.
He told the players, who range in age from 20 to 27, that they should aspire to play in the Olympic Games. They have the talent, he said, and the select team, which plays against Team USA in training camp, is the logical precursor to a bigger stage.
In the middle of the group, Gregg Farnam was listening. Colangelo may not have been directing his message at the Minnesota Timberwolves' athletic trainer, but that was no matter. It still applied.
Farnam, who has been working with USA basketball off and on for 11 years, would ultimately like to become an Olympic trainer. He doesn't know when that will happen or how the promotion process works, but he's put in the time and built relationships with the people in the organization, and that should give him a fair shot.
In 2001, Farnam had recently taken over the job as the Timberwolves' athletic trainer when coach Flip Saunders was selected to lead the U.S. team in the 2001 Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia. Saunders brought Farnam along as the team's trainer, and the U.S. men finished with a 5-0 record and a gold medal. Since then, Farnam worked for the U.S. women's volleyball team at the Olympic Training Center in the summer of 2003, and he also worked with the U.S. men's basketball team at the 2007 FIBA Under-19 World Championship in Serbia.
Farnam got his biggest break in 2010, when he replaced Knicks trainer Anthony Goenaga as the select team's trainer. That year, he worked with a roster of players that included Jimmer Fredette, Kemba Walker, Nolan Smith and Marcus Morris. In 2012, Farnam worked with the select team again, this time with DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, DeJuan Blair and Kyrie Irving, among others.
Farnam said that throughout his years at various levels with USA Basketball, he's been proud of the players with whom he's been able to work. In 2001, the roster included Wally Szczerbiak, Jason Terry and Baron Davis, players who are now either retired or seasoned veterans. Farnam has enjoyed watching them grow throughout their careers just as much as he now relishes the chance to meet the league's up-and-coming players.
"The thing about USA Basketball is they select guys that are high-character, good guys," Farnam said. "Depending on what level they are, sometimes its a process that they select guys that they might be interested in and want to work with."
In 2007, Farnam even coached Michael Beasley on the U-19 team. At the time he was the best high school prospect in the country, and just three years later, he was playing for the Timberwolves. Beasley might not have panned out the way the world expected, but just as many of the young players whom Farnam has worked with have gone on to impress in their careers.
It might sound like a lot of fun, meeting young players who might be the future celebrities of the league. And it is. But in reality, Farnam's job involves more work that one might imagine. Before the team begins training, Farnam must work to get all of the equipment he needs to treat players. He spends hours on the phone with or sending emails to teams' trainers, compiling assessments of each players' health conditions. He needs to know past injuries along with current ones, all the tiny details that could prove crucial during his time with the team.
There's a reason these trainers come from the pool of NBA teams. There might be other qualified trainers out there with interest in working for USA Basketball, but they would lack the relationships that make Farnam's job both easier and more effective.
"We like these NBA trainers because they're used to working with NBA athletes," USA men's national team director Sean Ford said. "But also, they share information; they know each other. If there's something that an athlete needs or an injury of some sort, they can communicate with each other."
Although the national team is the highest-profile training position, it's almost more difficult to prepare for the select team. Most years, trainers know the national team's roster in the spring. At the bare minimum, they have a 20-player pool of candidates to work with and can start preparing based off that. But the select team isn't chosen until later in the spring; this year it was announced May 21. That means less time for Farnam to prepare, and in addition, he might not be as familiar with the players. Instead of dealing only with NBA players, guys he's watched many times in games, he has to work with college stars, too. There's less familiarity and a larger gap to bridge in a short period of time.
In many ways, an appointment like Farnam's is all about the relationships, both those files of notes and in-person contact. The players are the easiest part; once a trainer gets in the door with USA Basketball, it's up to him to build the connections within the organization that are necessary to remain within the system.
"It's kind of a feeling-out process," Farnam said. "They're evaluating you and your interaction with the players and coaches and what your role and responsibilities are. They evaluate you as much as you are evaluating the situation to see if you want to continue doing it."
Farnam also had to grow a close enough relationship with the Timberwolves that they'd even entertain permitting him to work with USA Basketball. To be a trainer with the select team, Farnam must spend a good chunk of his summers away from the team that's his primary duty, and he said that he has to credit the Timberwolves' training support staff for stepping up in his absence. If it didn't, none of this would be possible.
The perfect set of circumstances has allowed Farnam to get to where he is today. He had a coach who vouched for him all those years ago, without whom he might never have gotten in the door. He's worked with a staff that for more than a decade has been willing to support his absence and promote his career advancement so that now, in 2012, he can still hope to someday be the Olympic trainer.
It's easy for Farnam to place that credit on others, but he wouldn't be where he is today without significant effort on his own part. He's been willing to juggle two jobs, to fly across the country and the world and to carve out his place within these squads. Trainers might be the last people on the court whom a crowd notices, but that doesn't make them any less important, especially when these teams are cobbled together, composed of players from all over the country.
"He's someone that contributes to us becoming a team," Ford said. "Those are the type of people that we like around as much as we can."
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