UNC basketball strength coach helps reshape team

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 13, 2013 

— Jonas Sahratian comes to work every day inside of a weight room, his office a small cube tucked away in a corner near rows of dumbbells and barbells and weight racks and the remnants of all the sweat that has disappeared into these floors and into hundreds of North Carolina games over the years.

On one wall in Sahratian’s office are the books. Nutrition books. Books about medicine. Anatomy books. Olympic weightlifting books. Sahratian, the strength and conditioning coach for the UNC men’s basketball team, has drawn his philosophy from some of these pages, but he likes what Bruce Lee used to say, too.

“Take what is useful, reject what is useless,” Sahratian said recently, quoting Lee. “And add in your own that is unique to yourself.”

The meaning, as it applies to Sahratian’s work, is clear: There is no blueprint that can be followed time and again. Take what is useful in one case, which might not be in another, add a personal touch and then help transform former UNC forward John Henson from a skinny, light freshman into one of the most feared defensive players in the nation.

During his 10 years at UNC, Sahratian has helped Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson become faster, and Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough become stronger. He has been the muscle behind the Tar Heels’ muscle.

Sahratian plays a vital role for the Tar Heels regardless of the circumstances, but since the end of last season, his work has been magnified. He has been the man in charge of the Tar Heels’ physical overhaul and the one most responsible for a transformation that needed to happen – and one that is still ongoing at UNC, which hosts Kentucky on Saturday at the Smith Center.

Sahratian’s work leading into this season might have been the most difficult of his career. Never before had he encountered so many unique cases – so many players who needed to redefine their physiques, to add weight or lose it, to become stronger or better equipped to use their strength.

Marcus Paige, the sophomore guard, needed to add weight and muscle mass. So, too, did Brice Johnson, the sophomore forward.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were Joel James, a burly sophomore forward who needed to refine his body, and Kennedy Meeks, a freshman from Charlotte who arrived on campus weighing about 320 pounds.

In the middle of it all was Sahratian, one moment urging Paige and Johnson to eat – six eggs every morning for Paige – while in the next figuring out a way to mold James and Meeks into leaner, more efficient players.

Paige, a season ago, was too weak to excel against the strongest guards he faced. James was too raw and stiff on the interior. Johnson too light to handle the demands of defending bigger players in the post. And Meeks, well, Meeks might have represented the greatest challenge when he arrived at UNC in July.

“I knew there was going to be a lot of work (with Meeks),” Sahratian said. “I didn’t realize how much.”

That work, though, is why Sahratian is here, and why Roy Williams, in his 11th season as the Tar Heels’ head coach, brought him along from Kansas. During the past 10 years, Sahratian has shaped the physique of two national championship teams, and he has enabled Williams’ up-tempo style of play to be even faster.

Constant effort

Hansbrough proved to be Sahratian’s best student, and left behind stories that have endured about his maniacal devotion to lifting weights and working out. The nickname “Pscyho T” was earned within these walls, just outside Sahratian’s office.

“You wish you could bottle up a little bit of that and have more guys buy into that,” Sahratian said. “It’s like teaching – I’m a strength and conditioning coach, but I’m a teacher. Sometimes you have to be a motivator and a disciplinarian and all these different hats you’ve got to wear.

“But with (Hansbrough), it was never questioning effort or drive and things like that. And some guys you’re like, ‘Hey, if you just bought into these things right away, you could be great.’ 

Not everyone is like that, though – not because of resistance, but just because sometimes it takes a while to grow up and get it. Johnson, James and Paige are now in their second year of working with Sahratian. None of them were bad students during their freshman seasons – they were constants in the gym as much as anyone else, Sahratian said – but there’s an evolution.

The longer someone is in the program, the more is expected. In the case of each, Sahratian met with them individually at the end of last season.

“Jonas pulled me in one day, just walking around, he pulled me in his office and said we needed to have a heart to heart conversation about whether I really wanted it or not,” Johnson, the sophomore forward, said. “Because he could see that something was bothering me, (that) it just seemed like I didn’t really want it.”

Johnson and Paige both needed to add muscle, but it wasn’t as simple as bringing them into the gym and devising a weight lifting plan. There’s more to it than that and, plus, both players have their unique physical limitations.

“They’re just these skinny guys,” Sahratian said.

And that comes with its own challenges. In Paige’s case, Sahratian said, a digestive issue affects his ability to gain weight and keep it on. Johnson, meanwhile, has what Sahratian describes as “some biomechanical issues.”

“He’s got a tight thoracic spine,” Sahratian said. We can’t just sit there and load up 400 pounds on a bar and tell him to squat it, because he’ll get hurt,” Sahratian said.

Johnson has another issue, too, and one that’s more easily remedied: He needs to eat. A lot. Which is why he often receives text messages from Sahratian, reminding him about his next meal, of which there are supposed to be many throughout the day.

“The exact meal plan that it’s supposed to be is six to eight ounces of meat and vegetables every two or three hours a day,” Johnson said. “So you’re ending up with six meals a day. And then he wants you to eat snacks in between – at least a couple of snacks. … Something healthy, like nuts. He doesn’t like chips.

“He doesn’t want you to eat chips or cookies. Nothing with all that sugar. He wants you to eat a healthy snack.”

Johnson, 6-9, 210, said he put on about 17 pounds between the end of last season and the start of this one. Those pounds could be the difference between getting bumped out of the lane and staying put – the difference between getting pushed out of the way and making a block late in a close game.

Paige, meanwhile, has added about 15 pounds. It doesn’t look like it, necessarily.

“I’m a skinny dude,” he said.

But one now better prepared to defend the bigger, more physical guards he’ll see regularly in the ACC. Paige has played an average of 35 minutes in UNC’s first eight games, and he said recently that his work with Sahratian has better equipped him to handle such a grind.

“The work I did in the offseason has helped me prepare for that,” he said. “… I think being stronger and having a year under my belt, working the weight room has allowed me to (play so many minutes) without being absolutely gassed at the end of games.”

Like with Johnson, nutrition challenged Paige the most. He had to learn to eat when he wasn’t hungry.

“You can lift all the weights you want, but unless you eat right, and rest right, it’s not going to make much of a difference,” Paige said.

The daily diet plan that Sahratian came up for Paige went like this: Six eggs to start the day. A snack between classes. A big lunch. Some sustenance before practice, and after. And then one more meal before the end of the day.

Sahratian still wants Paige, 6-1, 175, to eat more, but sometimes there aren’t enough hours. Then there are the digestive issues.

“That’s held him back a little bit, but it’s just trying to get him to eat better,” Sahratian said. “But he’s gotten boatloads stronger. … It’s just a slower process. Like if he loses one pound one day from conditioning, it’s a big deal. Where Kennedy, if he drops five pounds, it’s not a big issue.”

Drastic change

More than any of Sahratian’s summer projects, Meeks underwent the most drastic physical change. He arrived at UNC weighing 320 pounds, and Meeks recently spoke with a sense of embarrassment about how heavy he had become.

“When I got here in July, I was just kind of disappointed in myself that I allowed myself to get that big,” said the 6-9 Meeks, who now weighs about 285. “So I think that was the biggest problem for me. Basically, it was just my confidence – it was shot.”

Sahratian was among those most responsible for rebuilding it. That, though, has been a delicate balancing act given the work Meeks had to put in before the start of preseason practice, and the work he has yet to do.

Not long ago, Sahratian said, he had a “big talk” with Meeks. It was one of many. They met when Meeks first arrived and began building a relationship that Sahratian hopes will push Meeks to his physical pinnacle.

“Kennedy is 18 or 19,” Sahratian said. “But he’s spent that many years getting to this point, and then it’s like, hey, we’re trying to change this now.”

With bigger guys, like Meeks and James, losing weight and getting in shape isn’t as easy as spending hours on a treadmill, or doing high-intense cardio. In fact, Sahratian said, that kind of thinking can hinder the final goal.

And the final goal with James, who is 6-10, 280, and Meeks is to be solid. Weight training – and, specifically, Olympic-style weight training, with free weights only – is at the center of Sahratian’s strength and conditioning program.

Danny ball

Basketball players spend plenty of time running, too, and that can take its toll. The heavier the player, the greater the risk for injuries to knees, ankles and feet. With both Meeks and James, that has been a concern, Sahratian said.

One way to mitigate the risk is to find ways to exercise on softer surfaces, like grass and sand. Which is what Sahratian had Meeks and James – and even smaller players, like Paige – do at various points throughout the summer.

Next to the dorms across the street from the Smith Center are some sand volleyball courts. Sahratian, during the summer, uses them as a kind of workout and conditioning space – where guys can go as hard as they would on the hard court and not take the pounding on their joints.

In the sand, the guys often play a game called Danny ball. It’s just like two-on-two beach volleyball, except with a medicine ball that weighs 10 pounds.

“At first it doesn’t feel that heavy,” Sahratian said. “But you start throwing it a couple of times, with guys moving, and you’re trying to move around – it’s really tough.”

Danny ball is just one of the sand activities. There’s also lateral slide drills, some jumps, some sand-suicide running. As Sahratian goes down the list in his office, James walks by.

“How do you like doing stuff in the sand, Joel?” Sahratian asks.

“Uh, it’s pretty fun,” James says.

“So it’s fun but it’s tough?”

“Yeah, it’s hard.”

James is often Sahratian’s favorite student, in part because of his dedication and in part because of how far he has come in the past year, Sahratian said. A year ago at this time, he said, James couldn’t walk up and down stairs without knee pain.

He had played organized basketball for only a few years by then, starting in high school. He had never really been a part of any kind of strength program. In addition to the physical challenges, there were mental ones. After a couple months of working out at UNC, Sahratian said James was getting mad, wondering why he didn’t already look like Dwight Howard.

James still doesn’t, and he might never. But he has a better understanding now. His physique has come a ways, too.

“He’s revamped his body,” Sahratian said of James. “He’s put on a ton of lean muscle mass, and he just looks like a completely different person. And he’s able to move better and more efficiently, pain free. And I finally feel like right now we’ve gotten to the place where he’s trainable. Like we’ve basically spent all of last year and this year just trying to get him healthy, and to the state where he can show what he can do.”

Different players reach that point at different times. A few, like Hansbrough, arrive already there.

On the wall behind his desk, Sahratian has a framed Hansbrough jersey. It’s the real deal, a light blue one that Hansbrough wore in a UNC road game. Hansbrough signed it, and scribbled a short note to the man who helped him during his years at UNC as much as anyone:

“Jonas: A lot of blood, sweat and tears for years. Thanks for helping me achieve my goals and dreams!”

Sahratian is proud and appreciative of that note. Yet he understands, too, that Hansbrough’s greatest assets at UNC were things that can’t be taught. Will. Drive. Those come from within, yet Sahratian tries to lead players to discoveries about themselves that they didn’t know existed.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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