3.11.2017

Pervis Ellison: Gym Rat?



November 25, 1997
There's a revealing sign above the entrance to Whelan's Strength Training in Washington, D.C.: "If you train here, you are not normal."

Call up the office and you hear an ominous message about commando-tough training, high-intensity stuff clearly not for the faint of heart or, for that matter, for the non-zealot.

Sounds like the perfect place for Pervis Ellison, huh? It was into this fanatical world that Ellison was thrust last summer, and things haven't quite been the same since. He is bigger, stronger, healthier, and actually playing regularly. The Celtics are reaping rewards after three years of on-again, off-again delays, malfunctions, and general chaos. 

The Celtics sent Ellison to Whelan's with a simple instruction: it's time. If Ellison was ever going to be a Rick Pitino Celtic, he had to add weight, add muscle, and be ready to work as he never had worked before.

Bob Whelan oversees the shop that bears his name. He had heard all about Ellison and, as he put it yesterday, "I wasn't overly optimistic." His gym is for the maniacal and fanatical. Ellison didn't seem to be either.

But after nine weeks of brutally intense workouts in which Ellison gained strength and 20 pounds, the results are starting to show.

Ellison is playing more confidently and, for the first time in years, he is pain-free. His summer of hell under Whelan's whip and watch has turned into an autumn of emancipation and rebirth.

"It was a lot of hard work," Ellison said. "But I had tried so many different things that I thought this might help. And it has. For me, this is almost like starting over. I'm 30, but it's like for the last three or four years, I haven't really played basketball."

The reclamation of Ellison has been arguably Pitino's master coup. Any team in the league could have had him over the summer for nothing. Pitino wanted wall busters on his team. Ellison was not viewed as such.

In July, the Celtics' new strength and conditioning coach, Shaun Brown, brought Ellison over to Whelan's place, which sits across from MCI Arena in downtown Washington. Whelan, who grew up in Sherborn and is a diehard Celtics fan, was suspicious from the start.

"Pervis brought his agent along and I think he was a little nervous about the whole thing. I kind of babied him in that first meeting," Whelan said. "Then, after that, I hammered him. I absolutely killed him. I have this plastic bucket which almost everyone has used after one of my workouts. Pervis used it more than once."

Ellison had two one-hour sessions a week. Lest you think that is not a lot of work, Whelan says, think again.

"It takes most people who are in great shape three weeks to even adjust to my one-hour workout," he said. "You just go from machine to machine with time maybe to breathe and have a small cup of water. By the end of the hour, you've had enough.

"It's none of this toning, body-sculpting, shaping, male-estrogen, '90s, unisex crap," Whelan added. "It's an all-out, kick-ass workout. Blood and guts."

Whelan put Ellison on a diet, which included two cans of tuna fish a day. There were also two running sessions a week around the outdoor track at Catholic University, where Whelan was once the strength and conditioning coach. Those were drills designed by Brown. Inside the gym was Whelan's exclusive domain.

"Bob is crazy," Ellison laughed. "He's this military guy and if you see any of those military movies, like 'G.I. Jane,' those are the kind of things he does. He had me walking around in a squat with an 80-pound bag of sand."

And that came after the workout.

"I have the bags all outside in an alley," Whelan said. "I call it Sandbag Alley. There are bags ranging from 50 pounds to 300 pounds. You have to carry them over a course that's about 250 feet long. And remember, this was outside in the Washington summer heat. It's brutal."

Whelan said Ellison was an excellent student. He hadn't had a name athlete come through his door before. But Brown had read about Whelan in a fitness magazine and the gym was near Ellison's summer home. Why not?

"I had heard and read that Pervis didn't work hard, but that was not the case with me," Whelan said. "Pervis worked his butt off. You have to. And we didn't cut him any slack with his knees, either. We told him to suck it up and then maybe he could be like Nolan Ryan and do some Advil commercials."

All of this would be immaterial, of course, if Ellison's basketball performance this season had been anything similar to the last few years. This is his fourth season with the Celtics and the first time he hasn't been hurt. There were the knees the first two years and then last year a shattered foot after a table fell on it. He played only six games.

There was a legion of skeptics, and Pitino was among them. During the summer, he said he looked Ellison in the eyes and said, "I just want to know if you want to play and are willing to pay the price. Because if you aren't, you can't play for me."

Now, Ellison not only has paid the price, he has morphed from the poster boy for sloth and indifference into something approaching a folk hero last seen in the person of Marty Conlon. He doesn't mind throwing his new weight around. He is making good use of his fouls, which, alas, he still manages to accumulate with regularity. And he has made two huge blocks in each of the last two games that were result-determining plays.

How soon before we hear a Per-vis, Per-vis chant?

"When I start seeing some signs, then I'll know," Ellison said. "The fans want a winning team and they appreciate it when you put it on the line. They see you put the effort out and they appreciate that."

What we all know from the last four or five years is that Ellison has a well-rounded, versatile game that can look utterly seamless when he's playing with confidence. There have been cameos in Boston, but mostly there have been too many DNPs, almost all because of injuries.

His main benefit now is defense and shot-blocking. His offense is basically stick-backs. Pitino is hoping to get 20-plus minutes a game, and the rest of the package, from Ellison.

"Before, when Pervis would get a pass, he would look all around for someone to pass to, including the coaches," Pitino said. "Now, he's taking that shot. He's coming around. We thought he would and we are very excited about that progress because that's going to mean a lot for us."

Whelan thinks he has an explanation for the turnaround.

"He was drafted by Sacramento and they stunk. He came here Washington and they stunk. He went to Boston and they stunk. He had always been on bad teams," Whelan said. "It's different now. From what I can see, this is an organization committed to keeping guys fit."

And for the first time in years, Ellison not only wants to be a part of something special, he actually can be a part of it. You wouldn't want all that abuse over the summer to have been for naught, now?

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