VANCOUVER — He’s worked with some of the world’s top athletes and could fill an entire hand with his NBA championship rings, but the man tasked with keeping Kawhi Leonard healthy for the Raptors last season says winning the league’s trophy with Toronto was a special point in his career.
"From a personal standpoint, winning it as a Canadian was more important than anything," Alex McKechnie, director of sports science and assistant coach with the Raptors, told reporters gathered at the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in Vancouver on Tuesday.
The Scottish-born physiotherapist was inducted into the hall in 2018, recognizing his innovative work with an array of athletes, from NBA hall of famer Steve Nash and hockey superstar Paul Kariya to Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan and English-Canadian soccer great Owen Hargreaves.
McKechnie — who spent years working in suburban Vancouver and still has an off-season home in Coquitlam, B.C. — brought the Larry O’Brien trophy to the West Coast to give basketball fans there a glimpse of the NBA’s most-coveted prize.
Seeing the hardware is nothing new for the famed physiotherapist, however. Before joining the Raptors in 2011, he spent more than a decade working with the Los Angeles Lakers and won five championships with the team.
McKechnie said that group, stacked with superstars like Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, seemed destined to win, while questions consistently loomed around last season’s Raptors squad.
"Winning the championship in the past was terrific, but this, it really was organic," he said. "It grew from nothing, it exploded through the course of the year. It was a belief that we had and the belief just continued to roll. And in the end, winning it, the climax was amazing."
Getting to that moment wasn’t easy, though, and neither was McKechnie’s job of keeping Leonard in playing shape for an extended post-season race.
The star forward had suffered a quadricep injury while playing for the San Antonio Spurs in 2017, forcing Raptors staff to carefully consider what his body could handle.
After Leonard was traded to Toronto, McKechnie said he received a message from someone in the organization — he wouldn’t name who it was — saying he was now the most important person in the organization.
Suddenly there was new weight on the director of sports science and his team.
"Yes, it puts pressure on us," McKechnie said. "But at the same time, it’s a challenge and, quite frankly, I kind of like it."
Leonard ended up playing 60 regular season games for Toronto, spurring discussion of the term "load management" through not just the NBA but professional sports as a whole.
People don’t entirely understand what the term refers to, McKechnie said, explaining that the NBA schedule is punishing and every aspect needs to be meticulously managed.
Load management doesn’t mean that a player simply gets the day off, he added.
"You have to understand that certain injuries respond to load and certain injuries don’t respond to load. …They’re not resting and doing nothing. It’s about building a load and managing to identify the load and sustain the load on a consistent basis so there’s no peaks and valleys, no yo-yo effect," McKechnie said.
"Players want to play. We had an unusual situation that we had to deal with. But players basically want to play. It’s about identifying where you need to make a change or take a rest at some point."
As technology has evolved, it’s become easier for staff to collect more information on an athlete’s performance. Everything from minutes played to heart rate are now meticulously tracked.
McKechnie said having access to that data is a great tool for helping players, but the basic principles of his job haven’t changed since he first became the head of physiotherapy at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., back in 1974.
"The bottom line is you bounce the ball, you put it in the hoop," he said. "The bottom line in my world is joints move so move them. Muscles move joints so you’ve got to work them."
Ultimately, the tools McKechnie and his team used with Leonard worked — the 28-year-old played in all 24 of the Raptors playoff games, posting an average of 30.5 points per game. He was named the Finals MVP.
After Toronto won the championship with a 114-110 victory over the Golden State Warriors, Leonard came up to McKechnie on the hardwood and embraced him.
"He said ‘We did it.’ And it was quite amazing," McKechnie said. "It was really meaningful to me."
The pair won’t be working together again next season. Leonard signed with the L.A. Clippers as a free agent earlier this month.
The superstar chatted with McKechnie before inking the deal.
"He just said thank you for everything," the physiotherapist said.
Saying goodbye to Leonard was disappointing, McKechnie said, but it’s always tough to part with a player you’ve built a relationship with.
Now he’s on to focusing his attention on helping the athletes still with the Raptors defend their title. The team still has a solid backbone including point guard Kyle Lowry, forward Pascal Siakam and centre Marc Gasol.
"We have it all and we’re good enough to do it again," McKechnie said.