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Exclusive: NBA Trainer Chris Brickley on Working with the NBA's Biggest Stars, Building His Brand, and Making His Way to Manila

Chris Brickley talks to Esquire Philippines in New York.
IMAGE MIKKO ABELLO
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NEW YORK—Playwright George Bernard Shaw in his piece entitled Man and Superman from the early 1900s wrote, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” Although his words brim with spot-on truth for the most part, sometimes you have the rare ones who are great at both. 

Like Chris Brickley. The go-to skills coach of your favorite NBA stars, hip hop artists, and even your MyPlayer video game character on NBA 2K is more than just a basketball drill sergeant. Some of the best players in the United States, if not the world, seek the 35-year-old trainer's counsel to keep them motivated at staying at the top of their game. A kingmaker of sorts, Brickley has an unparalleled gift of anointing basketball royalty.

Brickley in the gym with Carmelo Anthony of the Los Angeles Lakers

Photo by Chris Brickley.

I met up with Brickley at his facility at the Summit in Midtown Manhattan, which is probably the most recognizable gym there is thanks to Instagram. Now on its second location, he had to move from his previous gym where there were just too many people trying to watch his star-studded workouts. Back then, some fans would even go as far as buying gym memberships just to be able to catch a glimpse of Brickley and his famous clientele. The open runs he would put together during the summer regularly populated by pros would always draw an uninvited crowd, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise if you have LeBron James in the building playing pickup basketball.

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“Me and Carmelo Anthony started doing these 5-on-5 runs that became really big. We’ve had eight of the last nine scoring champions. All these All-Stars,” Brickley shares about how their hoops project started. “We were like, let’s call it BlackOps. It's like a private, special thing.”

Apart from the cream of the NBA’s crop, musicians such as J. Cole, Quavo and Justin Bieber have also played ball at BlackOps in the past. “Everyone tries to figure out what the secret sauce is. Call it whatever you want but the guys come from all over to train with Chris,” explains Brickley’s manager Alex Koblenz. “Whether it’s the top players in the world, influencers, celebrities or rappers, people gravitate towards him. I have no idea how he does it.” 

Hoop Dreams and Detours

Chris Brickley was a bright, young prospect back at Trinity High School in New Hampshire in the early 2000’s. The two-time Athlete of the Year recipient led the state in scoring before becoming a walk-on for the Louisville Cardinals. NCAA Division 1 college basketball was a step closer to his childhood dream of making it to the NBA someday but the three years he spent down in Kentucky made him realize that playing in the pros just wasn’t for everyone. 

Brickley with Coach Rick Pitino during his college years at Louisville

Photo by Chris Brickley.
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“When I was in college, I wasn’t a starter. I wasn’t playing 20 or 30 minutes a game,” he says. Brickley, who began playing the sport at the age of six, slowly realized during his college career that basketball had a whole different role for him to transition to, one that athletes usually take on toward the latter part of their careers when they’re all played out. He was still in his early 20s with so much playing years left in him. 

“I guess it was a tough decision but then when I was at Louisville, I saw how the coaches lived,” Brickley recalls. “I saw how Rick Pitino was living, making good money. He was driving a nice car and he was the man in Kentucky. He was living a life almost like an NBA player. I was playing for a Hall of Fame coach so I was going to get as much knowledge as I can from him to get into coaching. I was like, okay, if I’m going to do this coaching thing, I’m going to do it as big as you can possibly do it. That was always my goal. And now that’s led me into training, and I’ve been able to do it as big as someone can do it.”

Working His Way Up

After college, Brickley got a job as a graduate assistant coach at the University of Mississippi for a year and a half before moving to Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and becoming the youngest NCAA Div. 1 assistant coach in the country. Just two years later, the NBA took notice of what he could do and the New York Knicks hired him. 

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At Brickley's gym in Midtown Manhattan 

Photo by Mikko Abello.

“I got there 2013-14. I went from being an intern to having a full-time position, director of player development for three seasons. I was basically running the whole player development for the Knicks,” he says. “It was Ron Artest, Kenyon Martin, it was like a lot of vets were on that team and Jason Kidd was just leaving that summer. Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas were just leaving. Carmelo Anthony, JR Smith—it was a very veteran team and it was intimidating, but I just told myself I was going to earn their respect.” 

With all these big names, none would compare to who Brickley would end up working for: then-New York Knicks President Phil Jackson. The multi-titled mentor counts 13 NBA championships in his resume, two as a player and 11 as a head coach for the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson also had the unique privilege of coaching arguably some of the greatest to have played the game in Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal. 

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“It was scary at first. He’s a very intimidating guy. You only know what you see from those Bulls days so you never knew if this guy was a nice guy or what type of guy he is. And he’s not really someone that opens up to you,” Brickley recalls of his first encounters with the Zen Master, who was equally known for his spirituality and new-age methods of working. “He’s a big meditation guy and he’s just big on the spiritual side of life. He didn’t put the light on in his office. If you went in there and it was 5 or 6 p.m., it’s going to be really dark in there. That was his thing.”

Working with former New York big man Kristaps Porzingis during his stint with the Knicks 

Photo by Chris Brickley.

“For the first few months, he was very cold,” Brickley remembers. “His meetings were in the dark. It was kind of frightening for a young coach. I think what opened us up was Thanksgiving came and I gave him this long email just saying thank you for having me be part of the staff and he responded with a really nice email in return and our relationship kinda changed at that moment. It’s funny sometimes it takes an email for someone to let their guard down.” 

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The experience of having worked with the legendary basketball guru as a young coach still learning the ropes is something that Brickley carries with him on his ongoing journey. “He gave me a lot of books to read, like a Tex Winter book which was on the triangle offense, and then he just gave me a lot of books on meditation and on being mindful, some that I have taken to this day on my workouts and how I deal with players.”

Setting Up Shop

After three seasons with the Knicks, Brickley saw the potential of starting his own business of basketball skills training and being able to work with more athletes.

“How did I start? I’ve never said this before but I was thinking about it the other night. I think that the actual training side of it when I first decided that I can leave and start my own business was when I was working with Kawhi Leonard,” he says. “Kawhi reached out and he knew I was working out with Melo and said, ‘Can you teach me some of Melo’s footwork, can you teach me some of Melo’s moves’, and I did that and we worked for like two weeks and he ended up having a breakout season. I was like, wow, this player development thing is real and I think I can impact a lot of players. I would say Kahwi Leonard was a big influence with that.”

Brickley working with Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers

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Photo by Chris Brickley.

Today, the roster of NBA talent that Brickley caters to is a who’s who of the league’s established stars and up-and-coming hotshots. His ever- expanding rolodex includes the likes of Anthony, Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, some of whom are part of the NBA’s selection of 75 all-time greats for this season’s celebration of the league’s diamond anniversary.

“It’s about loyalty with guys,” Brickley says. In fact, he counts Anthony as one of the most influential people in his career together with Pitino and Jackson. “When he was in high school, he was my favorite player. Me and my dad went to go see him play in an NCAA tournament and I had no idea that one day I’d be working with him. That one day I’d be one of his best friends so yeah, he’s definitely one of my influences.”

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Social media has also played a major part in getting the word out about Brickley’s burgeoning enterprise and by effect, has attracted a slew of brands that have signed him on as their pitchman from athletic brand Puma to Bodyarmor sports drink and even his own signature line of Wilson basketballs. His online marketability has introduced him to a global audience and made the world smaller for the young mentor. 

Brickley in the gym with Grammy-winning hip hop artist J. Cole

Photo by Chris Brickley.

“I think social media helped change my life in the sense of being able to build my brand and put out content that younger players see and it’s an easy way of growing and evolving and showing the world what I'm doing,” he says. “People say all the negative effects but, in my mind, there’s only been positive that’s come out of it. You’re from the Philippines and you know who I am. If it wasn’t for social media, that probably wouldn’t be the case. You don’t really realize how many people you’re influencing until moments like this and it’s definitely a great thing to be able to touch people from all over the world.” 

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Taking it to the Philippines

Manila isn’t that foreign to Brickley. Back in high school, he played on the varsity team with former San Miguel Beerman and Smart Gilas Pilipinas national player Chris Lutz. “I grew up with him since we were little kids,” he shares. “He always told me how big Manila is and I think he even played against Kobe Bryant there one year in the summer. He always said basketball is huge in the Philippines. I knew about that and I’ve always wanted to go there and do a camp for the youth and do a camp for the elite professionals. Kind of like a version of what I do here in the United States.” 

Being someone whose voice resonates in the basketball world, Brickley is aware of the influence his position comes with and hopes to use it to help kids get a ranking or a recruitment offer. “I would like to go to the Philippines or Europe or anywhere I could use my platform to shed light on some of these elite players in these countries.” Traveling the world to share what he does with basketball talent outside of the U.S. is something he plans to do and rumor has it, his team is already in exploratory talks with a local brand about hopefully bringing him to Manila. “I haven’t been able to do that yet since I’ve been focused on building my brand but I definitely want to do that for sure eventually.”

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Brickley has expressed a desire to visit the Philippines

Photo by Mikko Abello.

“Keep Grinding, Keep Working”

Further down the road, Brickley sees himself back in the NBA either as a coach or in a front office capacity or possibly taking on a college coaching job when he finally calls it a day doing player development. But for now, he hopes to continue impacting the basketball world with what he does.

“It doesn’t happen overnight and you really have to work hard and not get frustrated,” he says. “People don’t understand all the way that I went 8-10 years where I was just grinding. I wasn’t making that much money, working super hard. I’d wake up every morning and, whether it was driving to New Jersey at FDU or driving to the Knicks facility, I was just grinding. I wasn’t thinking about one day I’m going to sign a sneaker deal or one day I’m gonna have my own gym or one day I’m going to work with an NBA All-Star. I was just thinking about doing my job so I think my biggest advice is whatever you’re doing right now, just be the best at that and then focus on the next thing when the season’s done.”

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Brickley says all the success he’s had so far still has not completely sunk in yet. “Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Talking to you it does but maybe like an hour ago, it doesn’t.” With his busy schedule, there’s really not much time to rest on his laurels especially when the work is far from over. “I think having that mindset is what’s allowed me to build my brand because I’m just never really satisfied and that’s also something I would say to that young kid that wants to do what I’m doing,” he says. “You can’t be satisfied. You can’t think that what you’re doing is something amazing. You just have to keep grinding, keep working.”

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