Dallas-area trainer helps make hoop dreams come true

Posted Monday, Mar. 03, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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Larry Johnson, Kurt Thomas, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, Sean Williams, Quinton Ross, Acie Law, Myles Turner.

For decades, the DFW area has been a hotbed for top-level high school basketball talent. But what appears at first to be little more than a running list is actually something much more impressive: a résumé.

Every summer, some of the NBA’s biggest names descend upon a tiny garage in DeSoto to meet with trainer Ken Roberson, a well-known name in NBA circles.

And in a league where self-promotion and aggrandizement is the norm, the 51-year-old former Roosevelt High School and Louisiana Tech basketball and track star has managed to create a cult-like following off little more than word of mouth and results.

Turner, a 6-foot-11 senior at Euless Trinity who was named to the McDonald’s All-America team, might be his next great project. The All-America Game will be held April 2 at the United Center in Chicago.

“Myles could be, if not the best, one of the top three to ever come out of Texas. It’s amazing. Time is flying so fast,” Roberson said. “Now I have the chance to work with Larry’s son, Lasani. He’s over at Bishop Dunne lighting it up. He had 103 points in two games during the Coca-Cola tournament, 40 the first game and 63 in the second game.

“I’ve worked with him off and on ever since he was 10 years old. So now it’s come full circle, the guys I’ve worked with, now I’m working with their children.”

You have a personal trainer’s dream résumé. How did you get your start in the business?

Karl Malone and I were roommates at [Louisiana] Tech. When Karl went pro, he decided to move to Dallas and when he got to town he called me and asked if I wanted to work out with him and help him stay in shape in the off-season.

How did that parlay its way into a career?

We were working out at this health club that his agent had set up for him. That was the first time I had been to an upscale gym and I kept noticing these guys wearing black shirts walking around. After a week or so, I called one of them over and asked him what he did. He said he was a personal trainer and explained what he did. I started thinking, wow, I think I can do that. I realized my basketball career was pretty much over at that point, but training could keep me around the game and give me a chance to stay in shape.

Did Karl formally ask you to be his trainer at that point?

Not really. It just sort of evolved into that. Back then, basketball players didn’t really lift weights. It would throw your shot off; that was the myth. I really got into it. I went to the Cooper Clinic and got my certification and enrolled in physical fitness technology and took some other courses. I went to Karl after his second year in the league and I said, ‘Hey man, I have an idea and I want to do an experiment with you’ and he said OK, what is it? I wasn’t in the business then, I was simply working out with my ex-roommate.

So what was the experiment?

I told him I wanted to train him like a sprinter. From my own experience, once track season was over with I knew I liked the way my body felt more so than during or even after basketball season. I was just experimenting with what worked for me.

How did the experiment play out?

Oh man, how’d it play out? Stockton to Malone, Stockton to Malone. Here was a big guy, 6-9 about 260 pounds and chiseled who had worked out five days a week the whole summer. He really started feeling the difference. I put him through running form drills, a lot of stretching, increasing his range of motion. Just training him like he was a 400-meter guy. He told me he’s told people later on that the biggest thing I have done for him is teach him how to run.

You honed your running skills on the DISD tracks. Have sports always been a part of your life?

I didn’t always have ability; I had to work for my game. I came out for basketball in the fourth grade and got cut right before the season started. I couldn’t play at all, but I could run. At the end of the year they had what they called May Day. We participated in different events and I ran the 75-yard dash and I won it. The coach said to me, ‘Hey man, why didn’t you come out for basketball?’ and I told him I did, but he cut me. I was so bad he couldn’t even remember me.

Did you come from an athletic family?

My father played basketball in high school and he used to take me to all kinds of games. We used to go to SMU and watch them play in the ’70s. We’d watch Jabari Parker’s dad, Sonny Parker at A&M. One year my father put me up a basketball goal in the back yard. He worked 9 to 5 and he would come home and work in the yard or in his garden. He’d come out there every once in a while, and when I say every once in a while I’m talking about once a year maybe he’d have a moment and he’d say, ‘Boy give me that ball, let me show you what I used to do!’ and he’d throw a running hook or tell me about some plays that he used to run back in his time. But if I had a sport I was playing, all he needed to know was the schedule and he was there. He didn’t miss.

How did you end up at Louisiana Tech? Were there other offers?

As a senior at Roosevelt, I was all-Metro and an honorable mention McDonald’s All-American. I also ran track, ran the 110 hurdles, the 300 hurdles and the third leg on the 1,600-meter relay. I had no guidance. I’d have boxes of letters and I didn’t know how to go about picking a school. I guess it came down to who seemed like they wanted me the most. Houston was on me really tough. It came down to Houston and Louisiana Tech. I heard that when I chose Tech, that’s when Houston signed Clyde Drexler.

What was Karl like at that time?

Coach [Andy] Russo decided we would be a good fit to room together. I didn’t know much about Karl, hadn’t seen him play, but when he came on his visit we played, he was 17, 18 years old, and I was on his team. Oh Lord, he was bouncing around those juniors and seniors like … it was unbelievable. He was about 6-foot-8 and he was mean, man; mean and strong. He could play all day. After we finished playing, we were all tired and he went and played with some more students at another gym on campus. That motor, he just couldn’t stop.

Did you guys hit it off right away?

We really clicked. As a matter of fact, he was my best man at my wedding. I didn’t even ask him. He told me he was going to be and he made my wife and I pick a date that would allow him to get there.

Skyline great Larry Johnson was your next project. How did that come about?

[My philosophy] worked with Karl, so I realized I could do this again and again and again and again. Word got out. I had been in Sports Illustrated with Karl and people used to see us together around town. Larry used to see us at SMU’s track during summer run and open gym. After UNLV won the national championship, he was slated to go into the draft. Larry got my number from a coach we both knew and he left a message on my machine saying he wanted to get ready for the NBA Draft. At that time, the NCAA was thinking about putting him on probation. He wanted to be ready [for the NBA] if they did and he wanted to be with somebody who had experience so we got started the next week.

Did you put him on the same program you used with Karl?

Very similar. School was out and it was summer. I’d pick him up and we’d work all day. My main thing was to make sure he was fit. To make sure his body was strong and he could run up and down the court better than any of the other rookies.

Some people say Larry was the most physically gifted basketball player to ever come out of the Dallas area. In your opinion, where does he fit in that discussion?

With the potentially great ones, the drive is there. You don’t have to worry about that. That’s an added benefit. Larry came ready-made. With that body and with that athleticism, the way he thought about the game, he had an extremely high basketball IQ. He was athletic, fun to watch, serious about his business. I was with Larry for 12 years. He didn’t play the game for glamour, he was just glamorous.

After back-to-back hits like that, you must have had players knocking down your door for your services.

It wasn’t a secret, but I never chased business. I always relied on the ones who saw the results. My business has come from word of mouth. I’ve never, ever advertised. I’ve got some business cards at home that I’ve had for about 15 years.

Who found their way to you next?

Kurt Thomas came to me from Hillcrest. He knew that if he came to me he’d be ready to play. He played in the NBA for 18 years and I trained him 14 of the 18. After Kurt, Chris Bosh’s mother contacted me and said they were trying to find someone to get him ready. He was going to go one-and-done at Georgia Tech and Kurt’s agent knew them and set it up between us.

Bosh has a really laid-back persona. How did he take to your grueling workouts?

Chris is so funny because, back in those days, I started my track sessions at SMU at 8 in the morning. We would all be sitting around waiting on him and here he’d come around the corner dragging. But after the warmup, when it was time to get it in, he got it in. He definitely wasn’t a morning person. The environment he grew up in, he went to Lincoln so in Oak Cliff, in what we call the ‘Sunny South Dallas’ environment, you have to bring it. If you didn’t bring it, it was like the Apollo, you got talked about, laughed at, so he had to bring it and he sure did.

Do you stay in touch with all these guys?

Most of them, especially the notables. They carried their franchises, so when you get with guys like that you’re either going to hit or miss. If you miss, they won’t come back to you, but if you hit, they’ll keep coming back, and they all kept coming back. After a while when you really connect, they become like family to me. My family became Larry’s family. Karl, same thing. Karl stayed at my mom’s house, woke up to breakfast. We were like brothers. We have some great memories.

What is Karl up to these days?

He’s hunting and fishing. He has a restaurant back in Ruston [Louisiana]. He has so many things going on. He has a car dealership. Last I talked to him, he had spin bikes in his home and he was running classes for some of his neighbors. He’s big into cycling.

What does your family think about your journey?

They love it. I’ve been called Mr. Mom because my whole life I’ve been able to take my kids to school, pick them up. Whatever they have to do, I’ve always been able to be there. My son and I, we have a very special bond. It’s obvious that he loves me as his father but he has respect for me as well. I’ve learned a lot because I’ve trained so many young people and had the chance to observe so many different parents, single parents, grandparents. The do’s and don’ts. There are a lot of parents that are trying to get their kids ready for the NBA in the fifth grade. They should be doing stuff fifth-graders do.

What is your philosophy with regard to training a young athlete?

In my opinion, the body is more than just muscle and bone and blood and nervous system. You’re dealing with a person, emotions, and maturity levels. To be able to tap all of it brings the whole puzzle together. My intention is to tap into your greatness, if allowed, and see if my style of doing things can help you become the best you can be. If you shine, I shine.

Do you see yourself retiring anytime soon?

This is fun. I definitely don’t work for a living. Helping people become better. I don’t ever think I’ll give it up. My wife and I have been together since our days at Roosevelt and I’ve been doing this for 26 years. I’m a man of consistency. As long as I have a sound mind, I’ll be doing this until they throw dirt on me. I’m truly blessed and feel very fortunate to build the track record that I have.

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