This former sprinter now trains pro basketball players — and has a track record for results.
Robert Hackett ’88 was fast.
As a sprinter for the Badgers, he won NCAA championships and qualified three times for the Olympic trials, competing against the likes of Carl Lewis. But Hackett didn’t just run fast — he also knew precisely why he could. And that has made all the difference for him and for the professional athletes he now trains.
Hackett’s path to becoming assistant coach for strength and conditioning with the reigning NBA-champion basketball team, the Dallas Mavericks, started when he arrived on the UW campus to join a track program known more for distance than speed. The Milwaukee native, who grew up as one of nine brothers and sisters in the inner city, had been nationally recruited, but he chose UW–Madison to stay closer to home and family. As he began working with Badger track coach Ed Nuttycombe, Hackett became a student of the sport.
“I wasn’t being defiant. I was just always asking questions like, ‘Why are we doing this? What is it going to help me do?’ ” he says. “I learned about the body itself — how to train the body — and it led me into coaching.”
Nuttycombe saw Hackett’s potential and hired him following graduation to work as an assistant track coach while Hackett trained for the Olympic trials, events at which a hundredth of a second can separate those who make the team from those who watch from home.
As his sprinting days were winding down, Hackett started to think about a career move.
After going 1 and 10 in his first season with the Badgers, then-head football coach Barry Alvarez saw big improvements during the second year. But entering his third season in 1992, he wanted his players to be faster. He turned to Hackett for help.
Hackett knew he would be making big changes. “Football mentality is, ‘If you’re not moving, you’re not working,’ ” he says. “But I said, ‘If you’re trying to get faster, you’re going to have to have down periods. [You] have to rest and recover.’ ”
After six weeks, 98 percent of the team was running a faster forty-yard dash, and players could make tackles they previously missed by inches. The following year, the Badgers put up a winning season that culminated in victory at the 1994 Rose Bowl.
Around the same time, Stu Jackson, the new UW men’s basketball coach, drafted Hackett to help players gain speed and strength on the court. Hackett trained them the way he had been trained, and they got faster and stronger without bulking up. “If you’re in better shape than everybody, you give yourself a better chance of competing, no matter what sport you’re in,” he says.
The team earned enough wins to get its first invitation to the NCAA tournament in forty-five years. Jackson soon left Wisconsin for Vancouver to become president of the Grizzlies, an NBA expansion team. Not long after, he offered Hackett a job, hoping he could do for the Grizzlies what he had done for Badger athletes.
Do the Work
Hackett arrived in Vancouver in January 1995, joining a team that lost a lot of games at the start of its fledgling season. “I came in and said, ‘Hey, we have to do this extra running. We have to lift these weights’ — and they looked at me like I was crazy,” Hackett recalls.
Attitudes changed after a conversation with veteran player Byron Scott, the Grizzlies’ team captain who had won three NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. Scott confessed that he had never bench-pressed more than 300 pounds. Hackett told him, “Give me ten days, I’ll show you a couple things, and you’ll bench over 300 pounds.”
Ten days later, Scott benched 310 pounds, got off the weight bench, pulled Hackett into the locker room, and told his young team, “If Hack tells any of you guys to do it, you better do it.”
From that point on, Hackett was known as someone who has high expectations — but gets results. He commanded respect from both NBA stars and journeymen alike.
Hackett joined the Mavericks’ coaching staff in 2002, after receiving one warning from the team’s general manager before his interview: “Whatever you do, don’t come in here in a suit.” The trainer initially balked at the idea of looking anything less than professional, but the reason for the advice became clear when he met Mark Cuban, the team’s outspoken billionaire owner.
“That’s how Mark is,” Hackett says. “Mark walks around [in] jeans and T-shirts, and he’s got shoes on like he just cut the grass.”
In Dallas, Hackett designs team and individual workouts to help players build the endurance needed to play four games in five nights in three time zones. His approach to training paid off for the Mavericks during the fourth quarters of last year’s NBA playoffs.
“The strangest workout [Hackett] has ever put me through was when he made me lunge-walk uphill for fifty yards … five times,” says Mavericks guard Jason Terry. At age thirty-four, Terry has increased his bench press, vertical jump, and endurance under Hackett’s direction, and he ranks among the league’s leading fourth-quarter scorers.
“For me, he is more than a coach; he’s a friend and a motivator,” Terry says. “His knowledge of training at a high level is his biggest strength, and he’s always been a positive influence in the locker room.”
Hackett credits his time at the UW for his ability to work with a variety of personalities from diverse backgrounds and cultures. And he makes it a point to treat all players — from rookies to superstars — the same. “They think I’m a drill sergeant sometimes, but I also make the workouts fun. … They know they need it, and I’m trying to help them. It’s not punishment,” he says.
Traveling with the team gives him a window into the ways that he can help. Among other lessons, he has educated young players about fast food, noting that it won’t help them succeed on the court. When they respond that they’ve always eaten those items, he tells them, “You ate that because you didn’t have any money. You have money now. You have to eat better.”
Hackett acknowledges it’s tough to be away from his wife, Renee (who was also a sprinter at the UW), and their three children during the season. But the job’s rewards — such as courtside seats at every game — balance out the sacrifices.
“It’s just unique to have a job where it’s fun every day,” he says. “I don’t think most people can say that.”
Jenny Price ’96 is senior writer for On Wisconsin.
Published in the Summer 2012 issue