PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. – Getting to the gym first and being one of the last ones to leave. That usually is a sign you will see in a player on the verge of making it to the next level, or at least in a player who has the potential to be great. With the Northern Arizona Suns, most of the players get to practice early and stay late, but the ones who show up first and leave last are the athletic trainers.
Jonathan “Johnny” Mak and Michelle Ruan represent the Suns’ athletic training and sports medicine department. Both can be seen performing treatment on players on a regular basis on the sidelines and during practice, both will be in the building preparing for practice and games before the building’s staff arrives, and both absolutely love what they do.
Mak is the Suns’ head athletic trainer, head strength and conditioning coach, team nutritionist, equipment manager and assistant travel coordinator. With so many duties, you would think he doesn’t even have time to sleep.
“This season has been a grind. It’s been crazy, especially being on the road, it’s definitely a grind. But it’s really fun working with these players and seeing them go on the court,” Mak said after the Suns came back from 24 points down to beat the Sioux Falls Skyforce on Sunday.
Sioux Falls Skyforce AT NAZ Suns March 12, 2017 in Prescott Valley, Ariz. (Matt Hinshaw/NAZ Suns)
“(Saturday), Elijah Millsap was telling me, ‘Hey J-Mak, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to go tomorrow.’ That guy is 29 years old, but he takes care of his body like a pro. He does about an hour of treatment every day after practice, definitely more than anyone else on the team. He really takes care of his body. He just put up 42 minutes, 27 points, nine boards and seven assists; just crazy numbers. Xavier Silas is another pro who really takes care of his body. Josh Gray is another one who stands out. Alex Davis does all the right things; we’ve been working with him and Josh Gray on their nutrition. They go to the grocery store with me and I teach them to buy good foods and teach them some recipes that’s easy for them to make.”
In a sport riddled with injuries where players miss games (and seasons) often because of the never-ending workload on their bodies, the Suns have been able to stay healthy all year. It should come as no surprise that some players Mak listed in Millsap, Gray and Davis have played in every single game this season, as has Derek Cooke Jr.
Only three players have missed any playing time due to injury for the Suns, and if it wasn’t for a random spider bite to Silas’ arm in Texas, that number would be two. Askia Booker missed eight games because of a groin injury, while Derrick Jones Jr. missed just one contest because of an ankle sprain. So of the 18 players who have donned a Suns’ uniform this year through the first 42 games of the season, only three have missed a combined 10 games due to injury.
“I think the athletic trainer is one of the most crucial elements of a basketball team,” Mak said. “I mean, these are the guys that – like Elijah Millsap, he’s 29 years old and he plays anywhere between 36 and 40 minutes every single night. If you don’t have a good athletic trainer who’s willing to put in that time and have that compassion and care to really put everything that we have into getting those guys right, they’re just not going to be able to go out there and perform at their best day-in and day-out.”
By being able to keep the players so healthy, Mak and Ruan are big reasons why the Suns (21-21) are still in the playoff mix.
Mak is in his fourth year with the organization, as he spent the last three years with the Bakersfield Jam before the team was moved to Prescott Valley, Arizona. The 26-year-old is one of the most well-known athletic trainers around the league, spending the last two summers at the Summer League in Las Vegas working as the co-head athletic trainer for the D-League Select Team as well as assisting the Phoenix Suns Medical Staff with their Summer League games. He also served as the head athletic trainer for the D-League Elite Mini-Camp in Chicago the last three years, working with the best players and coaches around the league by himself.
Mak came to Northern Arizona in the move, bringing in Ruan as his assistant this season.
The 25-year-old out of California Baptist University, Ruan doesn’t travel with the team, but when the Suns are in Prescott Valley, it seems she never leaves the gym.
“(Ruan) really is the glue that holds all this team together,” Mak said. “She definitely is an important part of this team and the other half of the sports medicine team; it’s us two and there’s 12 guys. So she’s great and a hard worker.”
Ruan, who earned her Master’s degree in athletic training at CBU in Riverside, California, gets to the gym hours before practice starts to set everything up, staying hours after to make sure the players get the treatment they need and everything is taken care of. One of her big concerns is players’ hydration, so she constantly makes sure everyone has enough water and the proper nutritional value is available.
You could say she treats the players like family, which is exactly her goal and how she got started in the first place.
“My grandma fell and broke her hip and she went and got homecare, but the care she was receiving wasn’t exceptional. She shortly passed after that,” Ruan said. “After I saw that – no one should ever have to go through that. They should be treated with exceptional care. That’s how I like to treat all of my athletes, players, I want to treat them like how family should be treated, with exceptional care.”
Michelle Ruan looks on as the Suns take on the Sioux Falls Skyforce on March 12, 2017, in Prescott Valley, Ariz. (Matt Hinshaw/NAZ Suns)
Mak, like Ruan, gets to the gym hours before practice and stays hours after. He was inspired in his job by his old athletic trainer through his rugby team at Illinois State University, and when he decided to call it quits on a sport that gave him four concussions in an 18-month span, he wasn’t ready to give up on the team-aspect yet. He’ll tell you he gets as “jacked up” and “amped up” for the games just like the players, but besides that, he knows how important his occupation is for the team.
“We’re kind of like the hidden heroes of the sports medicine team,” Mak said. “You always hear about guys giving props to their coaches or you always get coaches getting interviews and all that stuff, but the athletic trainers are the unsung heroes in my opinion.”
Despite the excessive number of hours both have to put in to keep the team healthy and in good shape, both love their jobs and being a part of the Northern Arizona Suns. Each mentioned getting to the NBA as a potential dream landing spot, but both consider this an amazing job that they’d be happy at maintaining for a while.
“My dream job is to eventually make it to the NBA and work with these great athletes, but honestly I would be OK anywhere,” Ruan said. “Just being around sports, it doesn’t have to be basketball … as long as I’m able to keep doing what I do, provide care for them, making sure their health is at their optimum and their performance is at their optimum, I’ll love my job.”
Mak added, “I really feel like I’m already living my dream. Especially at my age, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished and I know that I’ve got a lot ahead of me. I just want to work for a good organization with good people and somewhere where I can make a difference.”
And if he joins that great organization at the next level and wins an NBA Championship?
“I could die happy if I do that.”
(Follow Mak on Instagram at @johnny_mak23)