Inside NBA Trainer Irv Roland’s World with James Harden, Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker
LOS ANGELES -- It was the summer of 2012. James Harden was back in Miami, fresh off a breakout season as the Sixth Man of the Year that ended with him, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder losing to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat in the NBA Finals.
As James rode to a workout at the University of Miami, he asked his skills trainer Irving Roland, who’d picked him up from his hotel, “Do you think I could be a top-five player at my position?”
“Yeah, for sure,” Irv replied. “I think you can do it.”
With longtime legends like Ray Allen, Manu Ginobili and Richard Hamilton showing signs of decline at that time, and Dwyane approaching the tail end of his prime, Irv saw an opening for James to become “that next guy.”
James has gone on to do much more than take D-Wade’s throne among the league’s best two-guards. Since that chat, he’s become a perennial All-Star and All-NBA performer for the Houston Rockets, claimed his first MVP trophy and put together an historic streak of consecutive 30-point games (32 straight from mid-December 2018 to late February 2019).
James Harden is back in the MVP race after winning the NBA's most prestigious individual award last season. (Jake Albrecht)
Irv has seen every step of James’ evolution since linking with the then-Arizona State star at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio, back in 2008. Nowadays, he spends nearly every day with the reigning MVP—as a player development assistant coach with the Rockets since 2016 during the season, and as James’ personal skills trainer over the summer.
“Knowing James at 19, I never thought he'd be the player he is today,” Irv tells CloseUp360 during a quiet pregame moment at Staples Center right after the All-Star break. “I thought he'd be, you know, one of the best two-guards in the league and stuff like that. But to be an MVP candidate and one of the best playmakers this game has ever seen? I never thought he'd be that. And so to see his maturation process over the last 10 years has been incredible.”
Irv has been part of many an NBA player’s development over the years. From growing up as a hooper in football country to working as a skills trainer with some of the best players on Earth—be it with a team during the season or on his own over the summer—Irv has parlayed his passion for helping others into a longtime role at the highest level of professional basketball.
“This is what I love,” he says. “I'm addicted to it.”
Irv guards Chris Paul during the Rockets' pregame warmups in LA. (Jake Albrecht)
That Irv wound up in basketball at all is almost as much of an anomaly as his staying power in the NBA has become. He grew up in Oklahoma City as the son of a preacher, surrounded by two religions: Christianity and football.
Yet, Irv found his place on the hardwood. After earning a Big All-City honorable mention as a senior at Carl Albert High, he went on to play junior college ball at Carl Albert State before transferring to Division II Southwestern Oklahoma State.
Prior to his final year of college, Irv paid his way to a camp in Chicago run by famed NBA shooting coach Dave Hopla, where he hoped to hone his own on-court skills. Instead, Irv wound up connecting with Mike Procopio, who was a scout for the Boston Celtics at the time.
“He's very selfless,” Irv says of Mike. “He's always looking to help people.”
So much so that, during that camp, Mike promised to get Irv an internship with the Celtics upon graduation. Come the fall of 2004, Irv, fresh out of college, was grinding his way into the league as an assistant video coordinator in Boston.
When that role didn’t turn into a full-time job, Irv returned to his hometown, hoping to find another role in basketball somewhere. In 2005, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina begat an opportunity for him when the New Orleans Hornets, with a rookie point guard named Chris Paul in tow, moved the bulk of their home games for the season to Oklahoma City. With a referral from one of his old bosses in Boston, Irv was hired onto Byron Scott’s staff as an assistant video coordinator with the Hornets.
“It worked out perfect for me,” Irv says.
Chris and Irv have known each other since their days with the Hornets in Oklahoma City and New Orleans. (Jake Albrecht)
Having those local roots proved particularly helpful for Irv when it came to building a bond with Chris. In 2007, the Hornets had an off-day in Oklahoma City on Easter Sunday. At the time, Chris was looking for a church at which to worship with his brother C.J. and then-girlfriend (now wife), Jada.
So Chris hit up Irv—then in his first season with the Hornets—who invited the reigning Rookie of the Year and company into his father’s congregation.
“From there, our relationship just blossomed,” Irv says. “We were in church together pretty much every Sunday we didn't have practice or a game, and that was it.”
For five years with the Hornets, Irv worked with Chris as the latter morphed into one of the NBA’s preeminent point guards. And through his relationship with CP3, Irv got connected with more of the league’s elite—from LeBron, at whose summer camp he first met him, to KD and Russell, who worked with Irv during the summers after the Seattle SuperSonics moved to OKC in 2008 and became the Thunder.
Byron Scott’s ouster from the Hornets in 2009 put Irv back out on the job market. But rather than seek out another role with a team, he moved to Miami to start his own training business, which he named BluePrint Basketball.
By the time the NBA lockout took effect during the summer of 2011, Irv was ready to host a slew of superstars in search of quality pickup games and skill development. He would run “boot camps” for 10-15 players at a time at the University of Miami, with upwards of 40 guys overall, including Kyrie Irving, Joe Johnson and, of course, James and KD.
“I kind of got a reputation for player development doing that,” Irv says.
Nearly two years later, that notoriety landed Irv another role in the NBA—this time as a player development assistant under Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek. There, Irv worked with a revolving door of young players while helping a little-known, thick-bodied forward named P.J. Tucker hone his game as a versatile defender and improving perimeter shooter.
By early 2016, the Suns’ once-surprising success had long since faded. Amid that slide, the axes fell on Jeff and his staff, with Irv’s job among the casualties.
Shortly thereafter, Irv’s phone rang. It was James, who wanted Irv to serve as his skills coach that summer. So rather than return to Miami to run BluePrint, Irv spent most of those three months in Phoenix with him. And whenever and wherever his superstar client traveled—say, to Paris and Amsterdam—Irv tagged along, tasked with finding gyms and scheduling workouts whenever time and obligations permitted.
Though they’d known each other for years, the two worked so well together that, by July 2016, Irv had fielded an offer from the Rockets to join the organization’s development staff under Mike D’Antoni, who’d just been hired as Houston’s new head coach.
Since then, James has gone on to claim league MVP honors and lead the Rockets to within a game of last year’s Finals. Despite being all but attached at the hip to James—following him from Houston and LA to the Bahamas, Spain, Australia and China—Irv declines to take credit for his client’s subsequent success.
“I'm blessed to be a part of the ride, you know what I mean?” Irv says. “I push him as best I can, encourage him as best I can, but to see him grow as a young man, as a player and stuff like that, it's just been awesome for me.”
Irv has known James since the reigning MVP was a 19-year-old rising star at Arizona State. (Jake Albrecht)
After spending day after day, over the course of years and years, with James, Chris and P.J., Irv barely has to say a word to any of them as he runs them through their respective pregame warmups, prior to the Rockets’ return from the All-Star break against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Not that they would be able to hear him if he tried to speak. Chris goes through his routine of isolations, midrange shots and three-pointers with a pair of red Powerbeats3 wireless earbuds. James and P.J., meanwhile, take their shots—James with a steady diet of step-back threes and isos, P.J. with corner threes and floaters—with big, red Beats headphones covering their ears.
As much as Irv does for them between shagging rebounds, dishing out setup passes, offering some resistance and setting screens on imaginary defenders, he’s just as grateful to his guys on the Rockets (if not moreso) for revealing the secrets of their success to him.
“I learn more from James and Chris than I can give to them,” Irv says.
In turn, Irv takes that knowledge—from James’ obsession with hooping in just about any setting (including LA’s Drew League in the summer), to Chris’ persistent film study—and shares it with whoever asks, be they curious kids, rising high school stars or eager observers sending him DMs on Instagram.
“I don't even know if these people have ever touched a basketball, but as best I can, I try to help if they have realistic advice,” Irv says. “Don't ask me, ‘How can I be better than James Harden?’ But ask me realistic questions. I'm going to do my best to try to give you the knowledge that I have. That's all I can do.”
Irv and P.J. Tucker first connected during their years with the Phoenix Suns. (Jake Albrecht)
Likewise, Irv hopes to share what he’s learned with the next generation of aspiring skills trainers and development coaches. After getting help from the likes of Mike, who now serves as the Dallas Mavericks’ director of player development, Toronto Raptors assistant coach Phil Handy and Tim Grover—who practically pioneered the profession by training Dwyane, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant—he does what he can to pay it forward to hungry, young coaches.
“Too many people come into this business with the wrong mindset,” Irv says. “They want to be around players, they want to hang out with players and be in the club with players. And you won't last long in this business doing that.
“They see these big lights and stuff like that, and they get sidetracked and starstruck, and next thing you know, you're out of it, you know? So it's just, like, you just got to remember what you got into it for. Stay focused, keep your head down and just get your job done.”
That approach has served Irv well. Between coaching for the Rockets during the season, and training James and running clinics over the summer, he’s busy with basketball year round.
After 15 years in and around the NBA, he would be plenty justified to join the rat race to become a head coach or general manager in the league. But Irv insists that he’s happy both helping a team compete for a title in his current capacity and extending his services to individual players during the offseason.
“I love doing what I do,” he says. “I love working with players one-on-one. I love helping guys get better. For me, I'd never want to be running the offense or defense. I love just being on the floor and being active with guys.”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.