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He Has Great Patients

J.A. Adande

Physical therapist McKechnie goes to the core to work wonders with O'neal and the Lakers

December 18, 2003|J.A. Adande

After the signings of Gary Payton and Karl Malone had receded from the front pages, the Lakers roped in their other free-agent coup of the summer.

He is the man Shaquille O'Neal credits with bringing his career back to life.

He is an innovative person who can find inspiration in a textbook or in a children's playground.

What he does is as broad a mixture as who he is. He came to the Lakers from Glasgow via Vancouver, a journey that's reflected in his Scottish accent tinged with Canadian pronunciations such as "a-boot" and "special-eye-zation."

His name is Alex McKechnie and he's a physical therapist. He has no official title with the Lakers, but there's no shortage of suggestions.

"He's an artist," said Chip Schaefer, the Lakers' athletic performance coordinator.

"He's the resurrector of injured players," O'Neal said.

McKechnie's exercises can look like bizarre choreography and he tosses out such terms as "sequential firing" and "cognitive learning," but his approach to physical therapy is actually quite simple.

He believes that muscle movements are not isolated but rather a series of related actions -- actions that can be trained. And it all begins with a strong, stable core (defined as the area between the lower chest and upper thighs).

"My ideas, they're really an eclectic approach to rehabilitation," McKechnie said. "When it comes down to movement patterns, movement patterns are the same. The one thing is, the hardware doesn't change, it's the software programming that changes."

If muscle movement is software, McKechnie is Bill Gates.

"His approach is so unique," General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. "Our medical staff and players gravitate toward him. The results are astounding."

McKechnie holds a degree in rehabilitation medicine from the Leeds School of Physiotherapy in England. But he made most of his breakthroughs when he was working in Vancouver, surrounded by an innovative group of doctors and therapists that included Vancouver Canuck trainer Larry Ashley. He combined various ideas and put together his own programs.

One day, while walking his dog in the park, he saw children rocking on spring-mounted plastic horses. He noticed the torque and the recoil, which gave him the idea for the core-board, a workout platform that creates three-dimensional movement and forces the body to use its core muscles to maintain balance. Reebok bought the idea in 1999 and mass-produced it.

Beginning in the early 1980s, McKechnie worked at Simon Fraser University, with the Vancouver Whitecaps of the North American Soccer League, and the Canadian national soccer team. He began working with the Canucks and later, through the NHL Players' Assn., with several other pro hockey players. He credits his work with former Mighty Duck Paul Kariya with helping him to gain more recognition.

McKechnie, 52, entered the Laker world six years ago, after O'Neal had suffered a strained abdominal muscle. The injury wasn't responding to treatment, and O'Neal was facing the option of a surgical procedure that would sideline him for up to 10 months. Through a doctor in Vancouver who knew both McKechnie and Laker team doctor Steve Lombardo, they found McKechnie.

"He gave us some ideas and they seemed a little hokey," Laker trainer Gary Vitti said. "But at that point we weren't doing very well, so even hokey was better than what we were doing. We hooked up with Alex, and even though some of the stuff was hokey, it started to work."

O'Neal returned to the lineup after sitting out 21 games.

"He brought me back," O'Neal said. "I was dead, and he brought me back."

The Lakers used his services increasingly every year, up to 40 games a season. But McKechnie was also gaining in popularity with other teams and other sports.

Former Dodger Eric Karros hired McKechnie to help him with his troublesome back two years ago, and he wonders how any athlete could not use McKechnie.

McKechnie helped Baron Davis of the New Orleans Hornets recover from back problems last year, and now Davis is playing like an MVP candidate.

"He just maintained everything and took me over the top with my conditioning and training," Davis said. "I noticed the difference from the time he came and assessed me and told me all my problems. He told me things that doctors couldn't tell me."

Besides the Hornets, the Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks, Seattle SuperSonics and Memphis Grizzlies have used him.

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