Blessed. It's a word Steve Hess uses a lot. It peppers his conversation, at least when he's discussing his approach to life and his career. I sat down with Hess to have a chat about his life's work, aspirations, the Denver Nuggets, and to get the opportunity to learn more about what drives the Nuggets strength and conditioning coach. If you've watched the Nuggets games closely, you've seen him sitting behind the bench, exhorting the players throughout the game. When you get to know the man a little better, you start to understand why he feels so blessed.
Steve has been the head strength and conditioning coach with the Nuggets for 18 seasons now. I happened to attend a Nuggets exhibition game during his first year with the team. I'd taken my then-three-year-old daughter, and she was fascinated by Rocky. I was fascinated by the gentleman in dreadlocks with the massive arms and interesting accent (especially when yelling from the bench, I couldn't tell what he was saying at times.) I had no idea where he might be from. I went home that night and started my studies. I learned a little that night, and a lot since.
Nearly two decades later, I got a chance to talk to Hess about what drives him personally and in his career with the Nuggets. Most fans don't know, but Hess is just as active in the community as he is with the team. It's a daily theme for Hess - health and fitness permeates his life.
"I'm so incredibly blessed in the fact that I've chosen a profession that has become an absolute lifestyle," enthused Hess. "So, I don't even look at it as a job. Now, that doesn't mean that everything in my life is easy sailing, but I like things to be challenging. The great thing about my chosen career is it's exactly what I want to do. So, generally speaking, it doesn't matter if I'm working out, working my kids out, developing a program with my wife, opening a gym, looking to re-structure an eating plan, or contributing to the educational board I serve on, it's all in the realm of the stuff I want to do. So, I'm excited. I'm really, really excited about it."
Hess' attitude is ingrained by keeping that long list of activities to a central theme - health and fitness, both for the Nuggets and the broader Denver community.
"It's really simple," Hess professed. "I'm really passionate about these things: proper nutrition, proper physical activity, proper rest, and feeling good from the inside out. Because I think that is the Fountain of Youth, if one exists."
The Fountain of Youth. If anyone could sell me on the idea, it's Hess. He certainly looks and sounds younger than his years. And it's hard to argue the logic behind his position: Feeling good physically makes it simpler to feel good mentally and spiritually, and those things can quite literally extend your life, as evidenced in several impressive articles on physical, mental, and spiritual (here, meaning inner happiness as you define it, no matter your beliefs) health, and the math is pretty simple. Health in any (or better, all) of those categories statistically leads to a longer life. But the healthy-to be-happy thing isn't just a one-way street with Hess. Happiness has its own juice in Hess' world.
"The other thing that I've been a huge proponent of, and I profess this to my kids daily, that people have one opportunity, and one responsibility, and that's to be happy," said Hess. "You have a responsibility to be happy. Now, I'm not saying that things will be easy... That's not what I'm saying at all, but it's a choice. You choose to make everything you do happy or unhappy. It doesn't matter how difficult it is, there's still a perceptual issue to be tackled. You still have to be happy. And I think sometimes that happiness is something we lack, or is the first thing we give up when life gets busy and asks us to make sacrifices. A long time ago, I decided I don't ever want to give up my happiness. So, I found a field that really really makes me happy. I'm so blessed."
It's hard not to get swept up in the earnest and sincere words Hess throws into each answer. You can feel his passion for life and his career bursting out of him, and it's an inspiring take. I wonder for a moment, when I was last so inspired by my work, and find that I'm not sure I have been. So, what's his secret? We talk more about his obviously rewarding job, and how he finds the meaning in those daily moments, even with the repetitive elements that can come into any gig. There's a method to the madness.
"I break it down into sections," said Hess. "What I do is, I try my best to live in the moment. I'm not a huge believer in multi-tasking. I believe that when you multi-task, you lose the excitement of the exact thing you're doing. So, I try and pay as much attention to everything I'm doing at the time I'm doing it and with whom I'm doing it, because the excitement and the joy I get from helping others succeed, and the achievements that they're able to obtain through things like physical challenges or coming back from injury, or even having a great game or helping a coach in a specific situation, watching someone succeed gives me this incredible feeling of excitement."
That excitement over helping others succeed leads to a broader purpose in how Hess sees those efforts - on a much larger scale.
"My belief is that the more people that succeed in the world, the better the world is," emphasized Hess. "And that goes back to my definition of happiness. I love seeing people happy. If I have an ability to affect someone in some way that helps make them truly happy, that's what excites me. I see it all the time in all different aspects of my life."
As with his lifting or teaching, Hess is throwing himself into his answers with all he has, and his enthusiasm permeates his every word. The funniest part: Hess was admittedly nervous about giving a boring interview. And instead, he's literally got me on my heels with his intelligence and intensity. He's taking complex questions and topics, and breaking them down like dissertations. With his commitment to being present in every moment apparent in something so small as a blog interview, you can imagine how it would impact some of his top priorities. What's becoming apparent in our chat is that Hess hasn't limited his passions to fitness, but that in any of his endeavors, he's got a passion for teaching. Hess is a teacher at heart, with the Nuggets, with his family, and in the community.
"Something as simple as taking my son to school, and us having a great conversation. He leaves having not only learned from me, but I've learned from him," said Hess. "The look he gives me, it's like, 'Dad, that was cool!' Similarly, I'll be working in the weight room with a dozen guys, and a few of the guys will have something happen in their workouts that makes them say, 'That was unbelievable!' "
Hess' impact with the team has long been evident. "Hessification" is a word shared by fans and the team alike, and players' physiques change notably under his tutelage, invariably to the better.
It's not just players who get to go through a Hess workout. New interim coach Melvin Hunt has had Hess put him through his paces.
"Just like him, it's intense," said Hunt. "He has a great feel, to improvise. He knows how to read when you're too tired, or when you're holding back. I mean, he's a pro. Our guys are pro basketball players, and similarly, Steve is a pro at what he does. He's one of the top guys in the league. He knows what he's doing. He's unique."
When I mention to Hess that I've long been impressed by his body of work (pun intended), Hess is quick to deflect. As always, Steve is focused on the team. Not just the players, but his own team. Any story about the players also includes great tales about the team of people he works with behind the scenes.
"We have an incredible performance staff," enthuses Hess. "My assistant, Felipe [Eichenberger], there are some things he does so much better than me, and I'll watch some of the stuff he does when he takes players out on the court, and say, ‘Dude, you're epic, you're so freaking epic!' With Randy Foye, he got Randy better, and Felipe got better as an assistant strength coach. It's these kinds of things throughout the day, that make my day."
Of course, Hess doesn't stop with his assistant. He's committed to being a team player.
"It all goes back to being a team effort," said Hess. "We have a great performance staff that works on all these things. I have coaches who let me do my thing. We have Dan Shimensky, who's our excellent head athletic trainer. Then we have Felipe Eichenberger, who's my assistant, and Steve Shorts, who does Physical Therapy. Jason Miller is an assistant trainer. Steve and Jason also serve as my assistants. We also have Margo Osborne, who's the team's massage therapist. They are all an excellent team."
That's a hell of a performance staff, seven bodies strong. Seven bodies focused on the needs of 15 or so players. That's a lot to configure when each of those players is at a different spot in physical health and strength.
"We all meet and decide on the program," explains Hess. "Which players are injured? What are we going to do with each specific group of players? How are we going to accomplish unique goals? We have a team meeting to see which guys can and cannot practice. Keeping the guys motivated, it doesn't matter how badly we're doing, this thing can turn on a dime. So, we have to make sure each of the players, especially the impressionable young guys like Erick Green and Gary Harris are ready to go, that even guys who aren't getting a lot of minutes are ready to go."
Get ahold of the youngsters, and get them into pro shape.
"You have to make sure [Jusuf] Nurkic is firing and ready to go," said Hess. "Jusuf came in at 310 pounds and 24% body fat, he's already down to 285 and 13% body fat. This is work that he's continually done, and he's ready to go."
Nurkic's baptism by fire has come as part of a roller coaster year for the team, as far as a lot of ups and down via wins and losses. We've seen the players struggle on occasion in games after a difficult stretch. Hess' mission: keep the players dedicated to their strength and conditioning, especially when they've been through a tough round of losses.
"What I can best do for these guys is absolutely and continually fight against feeding into any possible negativity," said Hess. "I have to get a positive light on it, I need to tell them that this thing is going to turn around, and we all need to do our work to be ready for it when it does."
But, if a player has been feeling down through a tough round of losses...
"So, if a player's feeling down, you come up with a solution," explained Hess. "If a player comes in on the negative side, I'm not doing that. So, whatever we do in the weight room, in conditioning, in preparation prior to practice, we're not dealing with the negative side. If the guys are having a negative day, it's gonna pass, let's just do the best job that we can today. We profess that through our entire staff. So, when you go into the training room, the massage room, the weight room, the practice courts, you're going to get the whole vibe."
All seven of the staff, this positive with each of the players daily. The mind fairly boggles.
"We're all one unit," said Hess, "We all preach positivity, we also understand that this is an incredibly challenging field we've chosen, it's professional sports, we all have one job, and that is to win, so we do whatever it takes to get every single player as prepared as possible, every single day. No days off, that's our motto. You got to work 24/7/365, no days off."
Hess And Danilo Gallinari being not negative. Courtesy of Hess' Facebook page.
Intense. Funny. Focused. Smart. The questions I was asking him were semi-complex (read: too lengthy for my own good in an interview), and he was returning with layered, multi-paragraph answers wrapped up in a neat bow. He was practicing this "in the moment" stuff on me. And it was working. Frankly, it's inspiring.
You can see that passion in Hess' demeanor onscreen, if you're paying attention. Watch any Nuggets game when the cameras catch the action around the bench, and you'll regularly see Hess exhorting the players on as they run the floor. I've always wondered if Hess was cheering or coaching in that moment, and told him as much. It took Hess over a minute to stop laughing enough to let me in on the joke.
"Here's the thing, and it's a great thing," laughed Hess. "If you asked this question of Melvin Hunt or Patrick Mutombo, they'd say, ‘This dude is the worst', because I'm behind them, screaming and spitting on them. Melvin would be like, ‘Steve, you gotta shut up. You know just enough to be dangerous.' I'll be screaming out for the team to speed it up, or set a pick, and the coaches will say, ‘Bro, you gotta let us coach.' "
Coach Hunt was laughing along in agreement.
"Heck, yeah," smiled Hunt. "First of all, the accent. Sometimes things get lost in the accent, so sometimes the word ‘here' sound like ‘year' and he'll yell to the players ‘come over YEAR!' and we all try to figure out what he said. The pronunciation for ‘clear path' is ‘clee-uh pah-th', and sometimes the pronunciations will even catch the attention of the referees. We've had a few referees stop and say, ‘WHAT?!?!", and we have to tame him a little bit."
That said, Hunt acknowledges that Hess has become an integral part of the staff, even from the bench.
"That's the good thing," said Hunt. "He's a student. He's learned a lot of basketball in these years with the Nuggets. Sometimes he yells out some insightful things. He's actually helpful."
Hess knows exactly how he's struck that balance.
"Here's exactly what it is," explained Hess. "I'm so ingrained, and we're a family. When these guys go out to play, I'm so excited. It's honestly the most exciting thing I've ever seen in my life. I'm so blessed to be a part of it, and I'm also really emotionally invested. I really really, REALLY want what we do to work, and I want the players to succeed in any way they possibly can, so I'm just like that annoying parent that's on the sideline, and it's such a real emotion, that I'm just lucky that the coaches have not turned around and punched me."
I get where he's coming from. When my buddies and I would sing the national anthem before Nuggets games years back, two of us would stay behind for the games, and would yell so loud as to clear whole sections. It's cool that Hess gets to see the hard work he does pay off in successes with the players on a daily basis, in good times and bad. I admire that he keeps the faith with them, and likening the team to family really hit home with me. Got me excited. Or maybe that's Hess that did that.
"It's just so exciting to see these guys succeed after all the hard work they've put in," said Hess, "And such a blessing to see the coaches do a great job with that as well. The best part of it all, the tough times never last. I have a belief: If we stay the course, we're going to win a championship, I promise you. I don't care what anyone says. I just want to be a part of an organization that's heading in that direction."
It's evident in his tone, Hess firmly believes that the Nuggets will win that championship if they continue to demand excellence from each other, even when times are tough through organizational changes. But the intensity remains, and Hess, as always, brings it back around to the balance of being a fan from the bench, and mentor in his role.
"My enthusiasm isn't just at Nuggets games," laughs Hess. "When I go watch my sons play sports, I have to go in the corner and sit by myself, so I'm not one of "those parents." I do that, as otherwise, I'd probably get arrested. It's raw emotion and excitement. With the Nuggets, do I think I'm a coach? No, not at all."
For Hess, the difference is simple and clear.
"I help develop the physical aspects of players," Hess explained. "But our coaches do an unbelievable job, and when it comes to coaching, I let them do their thing. I don't cross the line. When we have a guy who's coming back from injury, we take him to a certain level, where he can move symmetrically and is not compensating in any way. From there, we let the coaches, we are so blessed with, do their thing."
So, with a life constantly revolving around these topics: family, fitness, focus, and the Nuggets, you'd imagine there are a lot of area where his life intersects... including how his family feels about basketball and the Nuggets.
"My youngest son, Kory, who's about to turn 13, plays basketball," said Hess. "And he's a very smart basketball player. He loves the game so much, he would stop attending school tomorrow and come with me to the Pepsi Center every day. And I mean every day. If I roll in there at four in the morning, he still wants to come with me. He loves the organization, in part because it's all he's ever known. He loves the sport, he loves being part of it, and he loves the Nuggets.
"My eldest son, Jordan, he loves it as well, even though playing basketball is not his thing, he's a huge, huge Nuggets fan. And then my wife is such a huge supporter of me on the whole, the things I do in life, that we do in life, it not really a job, it's just who I am," said Hess. "Without my wife's support, it would all be incredibly challenging, because it would be an added stress and because of her, it absolutely isn't. She's a huge supporter of the direction we've chosen to live our lives. With the Nuggets, she knows to sit down and talk to me after a win, and leave me alone after a loss. She supports me in every way."
Steve Hess and his sons. Courtesy of Hess' Facebook page.
That's pretty amazing. Steve preaches "team" in everything he does, and the whole Hess family works as a team as well, with all of them supporting the dedication and hours Steve puts into his job and passion. Even with that level of focus and dedication, he also gives back to his family, and he's learned to channel that energy.
"In giving back to them [my family], the good part is I've been with the team 18 years," said Hess. "And I'm finally able to shut it off when the time is right. At the beginning of a career like this, it's really hard to shut it off. These days, I'm doing a slightly better job of shutting it off so it's not ALL basketball all the time. (long pause, and then starts to laugh) But admittedly, it's still about basketball a lot of the time."
It has to be. To have achieved as much as Hess has in his career, he has to be focused on his career a ton of the time. To keep looking for things to improve, in all aspects - study, workouts, learning, education, and practice. How does he keep one-upping himself day over day? There's a lot of monotony and repetition to the gig, so victories come in huge leaps at times, but more often in tiny, Sisyphean increments.
"It's professional sports, and the bottom line is: we have to win," said Hess. "We absolutely have to win. Coming in, you don't realize how much it takes out of you when you lose, or guys don't play well. But you just have to keep grinding it out, and grinding it out, because this is the life we've chosen. It's part of the most brilliantly exciting life, so we keep those tough times in perspective. More than anything, I just have to keep remembering, it's not about me, it's about the players. It's about our coaches. About our fans. When I put it in that perspective, there's no space for me to be down, and it's easy to keep that positive attitude in each moment."
Hess is very clear on these points about staying positive, and that positivity is a very conscious and purposeful choice, even when it's not nearly as simple as it sounds.
"I know it's very black and white to say, but my attitude is you can choose to like something or hate something," Hess emphasized. "I often see that people tend to do all of one, or all of the other. If you choose to start bitching about something, pretty soon you find yourself bitching about everything. I purposefully choose to try to like everything, or look at the positive side of everything. I have this amazing career, and this amazing family, including the Nuggets.
"Does that mean that every day I do everything like I'm floating on a cloud? No, it doesn't. It means I accept the challenges, and I am excited by them. Because you know what? My best lessons have come through my biggest challenges," said Hess.
We talk more about family and team, and how the two intermingle. As that carries us into the last two seasons, and the highs and lows associated, another name comes up... A gentleman I long admired on the Nuggets bench staff, former head trainer Jim Gillen. Gillen worked closely with Hess throughout his Nuggets career until his retirement at the end of last season. We ruminated on closing out a career as Gillen did.
"So first things first, Jim Gillen is an amazing human being with a huge, huge heart, and I was just blessed to work with him," said Hess. "Jim Gillen put up with a lot of my [crap] in the beginning, when I couldn't stand myself, because sometimes I'd get too over-the-top with my passion. Jim taught me a lot of patience, and I'm so blessed to have spent any time, let alone so many years with him."
Sounds like there's a "but" in there... and I know it's not about Gillen, who Hess effuses about.
"But retirement, for me? I will never, ever retire," said Hess. "I'll be 120, no ... (laughs) 90 years old, still doing stuff. My dream is to stay with the Denver Nuggets as along as I want to be a strength coach in the NBA. I love the organization, I absolutely love love love the city, I love the people."
It's apparent when you hear him speak, the accent is decidedly NOT from the Front Range. But that doesn't change Hess' passion for Denver. There may be more of that "B" word in his thoughts.
"It's weird, I'm blessed," said Hess. "I grew up in South Africa, I lived in Zimbabwe. From there I've lived in London, I've lived in New York, both the city and upstate, and Denver is the best place I've ever lived, and it's the only place I can truly call my home. So again, as long as I can be in the NBA, I absolutely, unequivocally want to be with the Denver Nuggets, and I'm so excited that someday when I choose to leave the NBA, when I'll be 75 or 80, depending (Hess laughs when I remind him he'd said 120 two minutes earlier), that my next venture will be as brilliant, and will absolutely be in Colorado."
Man. Steve Hess wants to be a Nuggets lifer. I love that passion in particular, as it's one we share. Voluntarily or not, I am a Denver Nuggets lifer. But as a fan, my role is a great deal simpler. I also especially appreciate that he practices what he preaches, a skill I think could improve upon, after my chat with Hess. For him, that practical application of his daily outlook has set him free, in a way.
"I'll tell you this, and this is how I live my life," said Hess. "It's the same thing I profess to my sons, I don't care what you do, I really don't. Whatever it is you want to do, as long as you give it 100%, you're good. I told you I learn something when I teach my boys something. And this is something I've learned over and over with them. I've learned that passion is a 100% transferable energy. So, if you pass that energy about, you can find a way to be passionate about anything. You just have to rearrange your thought process, and be committed to always trying."
Keep trying. A motto I could certainly utilize more often, and one that should be the backbone of any professional sports endeavor, let alone our individual lives. It takes a lot of strength to keep trying "24/7/365" as Hess consistently asks and acts upon those around him. The man literally grades his days by how much he gave to others before going to bed, a practice I've co-opted since our conversation. I think I've been "Hessified" in my own way. His positivity, consistency, and focus are remarkable.
Having those qualities combined in one person is an incredible asset for any pro team to have. As Nuggets fans, we're lucky to have someone who cares for the players, team, and organization to the degree he does. As a fan of Steve Hess the man, I was wildly lucky for the time he gave me for a conversation, all to end up teaching me something. At the end of the day, it was I who was blessed.
***many thanks to Denver Stiffs' Nate Timmons for providing the interview with Melvin Hunt and his quotes for this article.