LAS VEGAS – When it comes to trainers, Dallas Mavericks head athletic trainer Casey Smith is arguably the LeBron James of NBA trainers.
Smith is so highly sought after that he’s been on the training staffs of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team for the Pan American Games in 2003, the World Championships in 2006 and ’10, and the Olympics in ’08 and ’12.
That means, on a daily basis, he’s constantly dealing with the world’s best players while helping them stay physically fit.
“He’s the best of the best, in my opinion,” Mavs assistant coach Jamahl Mosley said. “I’m not taking anything away from anyone else, but I just love how he approaches all of it.”
Smith will be working his 15th season with the Mavs after arriving in Dallas from working with the Phoenix Suns. His distinctive style and approach to his job is unprecedented, and the unique way in which he solves problems has the Mavs knowing they’ve got a good one on their hands.
“He’s been an absolute godsend to us with the Mavericks,” said Donnie Nelson, the Mavs’ president of basketball operations. “Relationally, he’s as plugged in as anyone I’ve ever been around in the NBA.”
This past week Smith was a trainer on the USA Basketball Men’s National Team that went through a two-day mini-camp at the Mendenhall Center. The mini-camp, which ended Friday, afforded Smith the opportunity to work with – among others — the likes of Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Paul George, Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin, DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond and the Mavs very own Harrison Barnes.
“I like it because it’s a chance to get to really know these players and these coaches away from the stress and the heat of the NBA competition,” Smith said. “It’s serious, but on a personal level it’s much more relaxed.”
So how did Smith, who was born in West Virginia and moved to Ohio as a teenager, get to become so influential that he’s now working with some of the best players and coaches in the world? Smith, who graduated from West Virginia University in 1994 with a master’s of science degree in athletic training, probably wants to pinch himself whenever that question comes up.
“I started with USA Basketball as a member of the United States Olympic Committee,” Smith said. “Their medical staff for travel tournaments is a volunteer staff, so they have an education and vetting process that you’ve got to go through with the Olympic Committee and one of my first assignments was the 2003 Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic with USA Basketball.
“I had an Olympic commitment with boxing in 2004, but then in 2005 when Mr. (Jerry) Colangelo (the director of USA Basketball) and Coach (Mike Krzyzewski) and everybody came on board (with USA Basketball) they had asked me to be a part of that initial staff.”
For Smith, the rest is history.
Keith Jones, who is the head athletic trainer for the Houston Rockets and one of the trainers working this week’s USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas, said Smith is highly respected throughout the basketball circles. Jones and Smith even worked the 2006 World Championships, the ’07 USA Basketball Men’s National Team mini-camp and the ’08 Olympics together.
“I’ve known Casey since he first got in the league, and I’ve always liked him from the beginning,” Jones said. “We struck up a big friendship and then we got to do the Olympics together, so we’ve had three summers really hanging out.”
Jones describes Smith as a trainer who is on the cutting edge, and always looking for the next big thing that’s going to help elevate the Mavs and their players.
“Casey, I’d say is one of a handful of guys – probably three or four guys – that looks to advance what he’s doing constantly,” Jones said. “He’s looking at new technology, looking at new methods and everything.”
Smith said he’s always thinking towards the future because of the encouraging talks he’s had with Mavs proprietor Mark
Cuban, coach Rick Carlisle and Nelson.
“It’s good to have the support of the bosses,” Smith said. “Mark pushes us to stay current. We try to evaluate as many of the new ideas and try to question the status quo as much as we can.
“Mark and Donnie and Rick have been very supportive of those types of things, and there are a lot of teams doing a lot of great work out there. The ability for these players out here to recover from some of the injuries they’ve had is a real testament to some of those staffs.”
The fact that the Mavs are generally known to have the best medical staff in the NBA is in large part a credit to Smith, who received a Bachelor’s of science degree in exercise science from Arizona State in 1992.
“Casey’s the hub of the whole thing,” Carlisle said. “He’s the guy that coordinates everything with our doctors, with the entire training staff, the entire strength and development staff.
“He’s the best I’ve ever been around.”
Jones even went so far as to declare Smith as the unsung hero of the Mavs, a person who juggles a lot of balls and makes them all successfully land where they’re supposed to land.
“You’ve got Mark, and you’ve got Donnie and you’ve got (assistant general manager) Keith (Grant) and you got everybody else there, but Casey makes that thing work on all levels,” Jones said. “He keeps the players in a good spot, he keeps the coaches in a good spot, and it’s tough doing what we do.
“You’re in the middle and you’ve got proprietorship coming at you, management coming at you, players coming at you, coaches coming at you. You’ve got to be able to handle it and give everybody the right information without throwing each other under the bus. He’s got so many balls in there at one time, but he handles them and he doesn’t panic. Even though he’s panicking, he doesn’t look like he’s panicking.”
Smith, nonetheless, doesn’t want anyone thinking he’s using smoke and mirrors to get injured players back on the court quicker than another team.
“I think some of our success we felt has come from getting players that maybe had some previous injuries that they’ve been able to maybe recover from during their time with us,” Smith said. “I think we get a lot of credit for Dirk (Nowitzki returning quicker than normal from an injury), but that credit goes to Dirk – it doesn’t really go to us.
“We’re fortunate to be able to work with Dirk. It’s not that he’s fortunate to be able to work with us.”
Of course, while Smith’s job with USA Basketball has taken him to various places around the world, it also has its challenges.
“With USA Basketball I think one of the most unique experiences we’ve had is we did a military base scrimmage at a place in South Korea called Camp Casey,” Smith said. “It’s five kilometers from the North Korean border, so it’s an Army base – the closest U.S. Army base to active nuclear warheads in the world. It’s a whole different level of seriousness.
“Here we are playing a game for a living, and when we go there those men and women are literally on the front lines. That was a sobering experience, but a really amazing experience to be able to take these Olympic athletes to one of the most remote Army bases in the world and for them to be able to see them and interact with them.”
While Jones marvels at how utterly organized Smith is, with Gregg Popovich in his first year as the USA Basketball Men’s National Team coach, Smith isn’t sure if he’ll be a part of the 2020 Olympics.
“As they’re kind of reshuffling right now with Pop coming on board, they haven’t quite set the medical staff for the next World Cup and the Olympics,” Smith said. “So he asked some of us guys who have worked previous tournaments to come back.”
Smith’s commitment to his craft and knowledge of his craft is legendary. That’s why he’s highly sought after.
“He’s a veteran of this,” Carlisle said. “(USA Basketball) always are interested in having him back because he does such a great job.
“He’s helped them out this time. He’s the best of the best and there’s a reason that they love having him on board.”
Smith was even marching up and down the court and leading the players in various exercises prior to Thursday’s practice session. It’s all part of a tremendous resume he has built throughout the years.
“I think the Mavs are lucky,” Jones said. “They’re not going to let him go. He’s a lifer. He is good, and he’s a great guy.”
And the Mavs know it.
“We’re so incredibly blessed that he said yes to us years ago,” Nelson said of Smith. “He’s just been an ideal employee, personable, a good partner and I couldn’t say enough about him.”
NOTES: Mavs point guard Dennis Smith Jr. was added Friday as one of the players who will be playing in the NBA Africa Game, which is scheduled for Aug. 4. in Pretoria, South Africa. Mavs forward Harrison Barnes will also be playing in that game. “I couldn’t be more proud and excited,” Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. “I’ve been to Africa on multiple occasions and it is a life-changing experience. I’m really excited that both Dennis and Harrison can have that opportunity.”. . .Mavs assistant coach Jamahl Mosley was one of nine assistant coaches at the USA Basketball Men’s National Team mini-camp this week in Las Vegas. “To me this camp was great,” Mosley said. “We got the guys a chance to recognize, come together and start building a family with USA Basketball. Just getting together and being around these coaches is — I said it before — it was an honor and an privilege. I can’t even put into words how fantastic it’s been.”. . .Harrison Barnes said he learned a lot from this two-day mini-camp. “I definitely see some areas that I can improved on moving forward,” Barnes said. “It’s been good to be here. We had a good two days, but the maddening is going to keep continuing as we get ready for September. I just look at it as more motivation just to continue to get better, continue to keep working. I get an opportunity to try to be the best player I can for the Mavs.”