Chasing a championship

Athletic training alumnus Dice Yamaguchi, ’05, helps lead the San Antonio Spurs to an NBA title

Before the National Basketball Association’s San Antonio Spurs could win the 2013-14 NBA championship, each player had to run hundreds of miles during a season’s worth of practices and games.

Dice Yamaguchi’s quest for a place in the NBA took him from Japan to Terre Haute to San Antonio, Texas. His journey was roughly 7,500 miles … with a handful of stops in-between.

Once Yamaguchi had made his way to the U.S., learned English and graduated from the university with a bachelor’s degree, there was still the matter of needing to be noticed by the league that he had first laid eyes on when high-flyers such as Michael Jordan were showcasing their skills for the world to see.

“One year, there was a National Athletic Trainers Association annual convention in Indianapolis,” Yamaguchi said. “I worked there as a volunteer. Somehow, I ended up working with the head athletic trainer with the Indianapolis Colts.”

Yamaguchi’s request to join the Colts’ summer training camp in Terre Haute was given the green light. Seasonal internships with both Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia Eagles gave Yamaguchi some solid footing in terms of a resume. When the San Antonio Spurs needed an athletic trainer for their NBA Development League squad, Yamaguchi got the call. Moving to the big stage did not happen overnight. Four years later, the Spurs promoted Yamaguchi to serve as their assistant athletic trainer.

“I was the assistant athletic trainer and equipment manager for the team,” he said. “I assisted the head athletic trainer with player rehab, recovery, treatment and injury prevention while taking care of washing, packing and carrying equipment.”

Dice Yamaguchi

Dice Yamaguchi

After that first year of being thrown into the fire, the Spurs brought in a full-time equipment manager. Yamaguchi’s duties shifted strictly to focusing on caring for players. Considering that NBA players face 82 regular-season games plus any playoff games during the span of several months, rigorous strength training is not a big priority. Focusing on recovery through massage, cold therapy, aerobic exercise, stretching, hydration and nutrition are first on the game plan.

“In general, younger players still need to build up their strength (especially during the off-season),” Yamaguchi said. “Veterans tend to have good strength, or at least they know how to use their strength in the league. So they need more mobility-based exercises.”

Yamaguchi’s foundation in athletic training knowledge came at Indiana State. He also learned how to carry himself in a professional manner. Yamaguchi said the process was by no means fun. Dressing casually was not an option. A nametag was always necessary, as was a commitment to hard work at every turn. However, if Yamaguchi had not been exposed to that degree of professionalism, he doesn’t think he would have received the opportunity to work in the big leagues.

That description, coupled with the feedback Timothy Demchak receives from other Indiana State alumni, make him proud.

“We had a company (Multi-Radiance Medical) donate lasers to the university,” said Demchak, an associate professor in the College of Nursing, Health and Human Services. “These are the same lasers used by pro sports teams. That puts our alumni in good shape. We take it seriously to make sure students are on the cutting edge. We have students who hated going through the program, but they love what we taught them. It’s nice to hear alumni say that — ‘Thankfully, you made us do those things.’”

Whether athletic trainers are working at rural high schools, college campuses or for pro sports teams, attention is paid to the appropriate details. “We put students at high schools or Rose-Hulman or DePauw and have them go through rotations at St. Ann’s Clinic to get experience in various types of settings,” Demchak said.

Yamaguchi’s setting in San Antonio mirrored that strong work environment at the university. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, an Indiana native, is an Air Force Academy graduate who has helped build the Spurs into a consistent contender for NBA championships during the last two decades. Stars such as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have utilized their individual talents within a team concept through Popovich’s no-nonsense guidance.

“Coach Pop always tells his teams to be modest and keep pounding the rock,” Yamaguchi said. “That’s the mindset for everybody on the team — not only the players, but the front office staff, coaching staff and performance/medical staff understand the mindset. Everybody understands how hard it is to win. To do so, you have to keep working hard every minute of every day. It’s just like you try to break a big rock by pounding it over and over.”

After traveling from Japan to Terre Haute and pounding the rock for several seasons, Yamaguchi became a champion with the Spurs.

“It was very special, because you never know when you can be part of the team like that again,” he said. Since helping the Spurs capture that title, Yamaguchi has returned to Japan to provide his assistance for Japanese athletes. He plans to keep his options open … as long as the job is challenging and he can enjoy life.

Chris Kingsley, who earned a master’s degree in athletic training from Indiana State in 1995, was a Stanley Cup champion many times in his hometown of Greenfield, Mass. Those triumphant moments came after a street hockey clash between teams.

The step up to National Hockey League champion came 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles. Kingsley is the head athletic trainer for the Los Angeles Kings, who have hoisted the cup twice in the last three years. That accomplishment brings another honor: Players, coaches, management and staff members of the annual winning team get their names engraved on the cup.

It is an honor that resonates back to campus, especially for Jack Turman Jr., dean of the College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services. “I am a huge hockey player and fan, and I’m proud of one of our grads being a trainer for the L.A. Kings,” Turman said. “I am from Southern California, and I am a fan of the Anaheim Ducks.”

As Sycamores continue to provide care for athletes in small towns and big cities throughout the U.S and beyond, Turman enjoys seeing and hearing about their efforts in high school gyms, on college fields and underneath the bright lights of professional sports arenas.

“It makes me have a lot of pride in our faculty,” Turman said. “Not only are they providing students with a great education, but also they are grooming students to be great professionals who have critical thinking skills.”

For Yamaguchi and Kingsley, that translates to success in Indiana, Texas, California or Japan. “My mentors and teachers always cared about how professional we are,” Yamaguchi said. “I always had to work hard, but once I left school, everything seemed to be easier.”


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