Theo Ratliff's Keys to Success in the NBA

Theo Ratliff, center for the Portland Trailblazers
Theo Ratliff, center for the Portland Trailblazers
Photo courtesy NBA

From his early childhood to his career in the National Basketball Association, Theo Ratliff has overcome obstacles that could have kept him on the sidelines for good. He has demonstrated an impressive ability to adapt to circumstances beyond his control -- from a congenital leg problem to a series of career-threatening bone and muscular injuries. Ratliff's work ethic is intense, but his easy-going attitude allows him to accept adversity as it comes. He has silenced critics by turning his most obvious disadvantage -- his comparatively smaller, leaner frame -- into an asset that places him in an elite class of shot blockers. Ratliff explains:


The last couple of years are the only years people haven't said that you need to gain weight. And I've already been in the league, going on my tenth year. It's always been something that people talked about ... but I always countered them by saying I'm more agile, and I'm quicker than a lot of the guys I play against, so that gives me an advantage. Me getting weighed down and getting slow, that would give me a disadvantage ... so why would I listen to you?

Ratliff's accomplishments back up his words. In the 2003-2004 NBA season, playing for the Portland Trailblazers, he led the league in both total blocked shots and average blocks per game. In this article, HowStuffWorks looks at Theo Ratliff's struggles with injury, his approach to the game and the changes in his routine that have contributed to his two most dominant and injury-free years in the league to date.

Early Leg Problems

Ratliff was born with a leg defect that required corrective surgery at the age of three. Doctors broke and reset his leg, and they inserted metal pins that remain in his leg to this day. He had to wear a cast and leg brace for much of his early childhood. Ratliff recalls:


I had to wear a cast for a couple of weeks, and then I had to wear like the "Forrest Gump" brace for a year [click here to see a scene from "Forrest Gump" that shows the kind of brace to which he's referring] ... I remember being back at home, chasing my brothers with my cast on, still trying to do the things I was doing before the surgery.

As he describes his leg surgery and recovery, Ratliff's characteristically constructive approach to life shines through. He's quick to downplay his disability and point out the advantages he had over other kids of his age:


But because I was always bigger than the other kids and taller than the other kids, I could do things they couldn't do. And plus, my mom never really made a big issue out of it. She always said that [I'm] special. We had this big three wheeler bike, but I was one of the only kids that could ride it because I had the long legs at my age.

A Skinny Kid From A Small Town

Ratliff grew up in the small town of Demopolis, Alabama. He and his two brothers, Thaddius and Timothy, were raised by their mother, Camillia. Although his tall, skinny build was suited to schoolboy basketball, he wasn't immediately drawn to it. He tried baseball and football in junior high before he found his sport of choice:


I originally started playing baseball because my older brother was playing baseball at the time. But I was never that good at it...

... At school, we would play tackle football. And then one of the kids got hurt, and then they stopped us from playing tackle so everybody was like, "Well, I'm not playing touch [football]," and everybody just went to the basketball court ... I enjoyed the game so much, I just never stopped playing.

Throughout middle school and high school, Ratliff remained fairly injury-free and healthy other than the scrapes, bruises and occasional broken bones that most kids experience. He excelled at basketball, particularly on the defensive side. At Demopolis High School, Ratliff helped the team to records of 19-6 and 25-4 his junior and senior years. During his high school years, he avoided the weight room, at the time believing the common misconception that adding more muscle to his frame would mess up his shot. As an undersized high school senior who hadn't completely filled out, he was realistic about his prospects for reaching the NBA:


My whole thing was to get a free education. I watched the pros, yeah, but I didn't think I'd get to play in the NBA. Because I was a small kid. Real skinny. I was tall but I was real skinny ... I didn't care where it was, I just wanted a scholarship ... I looked at is as a ticket to not having my mother have to pay for college.

From College to the Pros

Photo courtesy Theo Ratliff

Ratliff was offered a full scholarship at the University of Wyoming. Entering college, he was 6'7" (200.7 cm) tall and weighed only 160 pounds (72.6 kg). That's much smaller than most of the players he had to guard on a day-to-day basis. In his first year, he was regularly matched up against future Western Athletic Conference (WAC) player of the year Reggie Slater. Slater weighed almost a full 100 pounds more than Ratliff. As Ratliff describes it, "That's like me going up against Shaq at the time."

Although he felt undersized at first, he was never comfortable with the idea of bulking up quickly. He was convinced that once his body had fully developed, he would not need to add on extra weight for its own sake. Instead of trying to become something that he wasn't, he exploited the size difference. In the course of his college career, he found a way to guard much bigger players by taking advantage of his superior quickness and agility. By the end of his time at Wyoming, Ratliff was named the second-best shot blocker in NCAA history and WAC defensive player of the year. Ratliff explains:


I've always been able to play against bigger guys, because I can use my quickness, and I can try to learn the game of how to make guys get off balance, and take advantage of that situation. And therefore be able to block their shots or put them in an awkward situation where they have to check me.

By the time he was chosen by the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the 1995 NBA draft, Ratliff had grown to 6'10" (208.3 cm) and weighed about 225 pounds (102 kg). That's about average for an NBA player in general, but smaller than many of the centers in the league.

Changing Workout Priorities

Ratliff had stayed away from the weight room in high school for fear that it would affect his mechanics. In college, his workout regimen focused almost entirely on weightlifting. At that time, workouts for college basketball players weren't that much different from those for football players. The belief was that the greater muscle mass a player could get, the more effective he would be. Trainers felt that the best way to gain muscle mass and stay fit was by performing many repetitions of gym-based exercises involving heavy weights. Ratliff recalls:


I just did a whole lot of weights in college. You did the squats, you did the power clean. You did a whole lot of football stuff. For basketball guys, it was still the football stuff. So I lifted a whole lot of weights. Curls, dips, and all kinds of stuff.

In the transition from college to the NBA, Ratliff's workout routine evolved. It began to better reflect his approach to the game, emphasizing quickness, agility, and functional stability rather than strength for its own sake. Instead of lifting weights in ways that did not relate to the motions of basketball, Ratliff's preparation and training became rooted in the kinds of things he needed to do on the court:


Now that I'm in the pros, my workout routine is more about maintaining agility, gaining strength and keeping my core as strong as I can keep it. It's not about me pumping 300 pounds up on the weight bench laying on my back. Everything I do now mostly deals with movements that I'm doing out on the floor, strengthening movements that I'm doing out on the floor.

Injuries in the NBA

He saw limited playing time in his first couple of seasons in the NBA, but still managed to lead his team in blocked shots. Then, in the summer before his third year in the league, Ratliff experienced the first of a series of painful and debilitating injuries:


My third year in the league, in the summer league after my second year, I banged knees with a guy and got a crack in my kneecap. It was my contract year, so I didn't have the surgery. So I played the whole third year with the cracked kneecap -- which was extremely painful, knee blowing up, swelling up.

To manage the pain and avoid surgery for as long as possible, Ratliff took anti-inflammatory medications like Advil and Vioxx. Because he had to stand up to daily practices and games, he needed to take frequent doses of the medications. Soon, Ratliff started to notice side effects he wasn't happy with. He began to question his treatment approach and eventually did something drastic. He explains:


I noticed a change ... in my kidneys, as far as me being able to urinate or lack of control I had with my urination. And so, I stopped taking it. Because I knew that's what it was. So I said I'm not going to take it anymore, so I played in total pain for that whole second half of the season.

Ratliff decided that painkillers alone weren't helping the situation. He had the same problems with cortisone shots that he had with Vioxx and Advil. With the pain artificially masked, it was hard to tell how much additional damage he might be doing to his knee.

Over the next several seasons, from 1999 to 2001, Ratliff experienced injuries to his ankle, wrist and hip. He missed 25 games in 2000. In 2001, he was able to play only 50 of the 82 regular-season games. In total, he missed 134 of 246 games from 1999 to 2002. Growing increasingly frustrated, he took a long, hard look at his routine but couldn't figure out what was making his body so vulnerable to injury:


I'm a guy who maintains his body, keeps himself in great shape all season and all summer long. And then these things were just happening to me, and I'm doing things to myself that weren't happening before.

Was he doing something wrong or was it just a streak of bad luck?

Next, we'll examine the solutions that Ratliff believes have helped him remain injury-free and at the top of his game for the past two seasons.

Keys to Success: Strengthening The Core

After he tore the cartilage on the right side of his hip during the 2001 season, Ratliff sought advice from trainer Alex McKechnie. Ratliff credits McKechnie's approach as a key to his full recovery from hip surgery and is a cornerstone of Ratliff's workout program to this day. The McKechnie approach focuses on what is known as core strengthening. Ratliff believes it improves his game and helps to keep him out on the court:


He [McKechnie] worked with Shaq and Kobe and those guys on how they can become better players by having more command of their core ... where if somebody hits you, you have the strength enough to come right back on balance. There's never you falling over or getting in awkward positions, causing you to have injuries. It's you always maintaining a certain balance when you're playing the game.

Instead of weights, Ratliff's core training involves oversized rubber bands called Thera-Bands. He wraps the bands around his upper and lower body to provide gentle, steady resistance. With the bands on, he performs motions that are similar to the things he does on the court. Unlike weights, which usually only provide resistance in one direction, the Thera-Bands create resistance in both push and pull motions. Because the motions are slow and controlled, Thera-Bands also do a better job of exercising entire groups of muscles and tendons, rather than isolating individual muscles. According to Ratliff, "It's like a whole body workout in one movement." With the whole muscular system equally in shape, the body becomes better able to absorb awkward motions and bad landings.

Core strengthening is now a part of the training routines of many NBA teams. In addition to helping prevent injury, it's a perfect fit for Ratliff's approach to the game. Since his defensive tactics depend on his advantages in movement and quickness over bigger players, it makes sense for his training routine to promote agility, balance and control.

Keys To Success: Vitamins and Minerals

Photo courtesy Theo Ratliff

In addition to core strengthening, Ratliff attributes his recent stretch of perfect attendance to the attention he now pays to vitamins and minerals. He believes his previous vulnerability to injury was due in part to a deficiency in certain minerals that are key to the body's proper functioning, including calcium and magnesium. After Ratliff was traded to the Hawks, Atlanta commentator Mike Glenn put him in touch with Dr. Joe Wallach, who runs a company called American Longevity:


They gave me these forms telling me about how osteoporosis can cause a hundred different diseases in your body because of calcium deficiency ... Why do older people start to get knee replacements and hip replacements as they get older? It's because they have a deficiency in calcium. They are not putting calcium back in their bodies. Therefore their bones can't stay strong. They become brittle, and you get the arthritis, and you get the broken hips and things.

Ratliff relies on daily vitamins and minerals to replenish what he sweats out during the grueling NBA season. Here's a breakdown of what he takes every day:

  • 70+ essential minerals
  • Vitamin C
  • EFA - essential fatty acids ("EFA keeps your ligaments elastic, so they don't tear.")
  • Glucogel - gelatin pills for cartilage health, muscular nutrition and flexibility
  • Osteocal - calcium for strong bones and joint health

American Longevity also developed a special sports nutrition drink tailored to Ratliff's needs as an NBA player. He explains:


With my drink, you have the 70+ minerals in it, you have vitamin B12, you have vitamin A, D, you have potassium, you have ginseng, you have green tea, you have all these different things that your body can use to regroup. And it's been great for me. I drink it while I'm playing, and my energy level comes right back. I get tired, I have to sit down. I take a drink, and I'm right back at 100 percent.

Ratliff is clearly on a path that works for him. His numbers in the 2003-2004 season were outstanding. He posted a career-high nine blocks in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers on February 24. At the end of the year, he ranked number one in blocks per game, total blocks and blocks per 48 minutes. Perhaps most impressive, Ratliff has remained pain-free and injury-free for the longest stretch since his first two seasons in the league. His openness to new ideas and dedication to self-improvement have helped him refine both his game play and his approach to day-to-day fitness.

For more information on Theo Ratliff, nutrition and exercise, check out the links on the next page.

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