June 5, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- There was the inevitable reality check for Erik Helland when he began working as an assistant strength and conditioning coach with the Chicago Bulls in the late '80s.
"It was a little bit surreal at first," he said. Understandably so. He was making the jump from a Chicago health club to an NBA locker room and had no prior experience with pro athletes.
"But it's not in my personality to be awed," said Helland who was named Friday as the new strength and conditioning coach for the Wisconsin men's basketball program.
Once you begin a relationship, he said, at some point in time you recognize that person (high profile or not) for human qualities (good and bad) breaking down any illusions or preconceived notions.''
Michael Jordan, of course, was a special case. Upon being in Jordan's presence for the first time, Helland admitted, "I was kind of in awe of Michael."
Helland joined the Bulls shortly after Jordan had won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest over Dominique Wilkins during the 1988 All-Star weekend at Chicago Stadium.
The Bulls went on to win 50 games that season - their best mark since 1974 - under head coach Doug Collins, but they were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Detroit Pistons.
Jordan was the league MVP and scoring leader with a 35-point average. It's no secret that Jordan had his own personal trainer. Helland adapted to the situation accordingly.
Conceding "I'm not that fanatical of a basketball fan" to be in the "Oh, my God" mode around NBA players, superstars or not, Helland just went about his business. Celebrity was not an obstacle.
"When you start to have an interaction and you have a job to do," he said, "it comes down to, `Now I have a personal relationship with these people and I have responsibilities to perform.'
"It becomes your world pretty quickly."
In 1989, the Bulls promoted a Collins assistant, Phil Jackson, to head coach. Over the next nine seasons, Jackson guided Chicago to six NBA championships.
"He was probably the most thoughtful, broad-thinking coach I've ever been around," Helland said. "He's got a wonderful grasp for the human aspects of the game.
"He's got a brilliant perspective on a very broad view of things. He's a very big picture thinker - a very abstract thinker and that's just in his personality.
"His coaching staffs were filled with former NBA head coaches. He was about getting the best people and empowering them because they've got a track record and need to be challenged.
"He was a master of all the component parts. I don't know anyone in professional sports who has been able to do that as well as him."
No discussion of the Jackson era would be complete without some mention of Dennis Rodman, the eccentric rebounding and defensive specialist. Helland, for one, enjoyed the Worm.
"Dennis was phenomenal," he said. "That's where you see public perception replaced by the personal interaction. Dennis is a very quiet, private person.
"You didn't really engage Dennis in conversation. But we'd be on a bus going to the game, or on a plane, and he might come over and sit down next to me. It probably happened a half-dozen times.
"We'd talk about something, it might be training, it might be something else. Dennis was not a difficult guy to be around. He had his personal issues but he was a very caring and giving person.
"He's still the only player we had (in Chicago) that would give everybody on the staff and their wives a Christmas gift. He did that every year."
Such memories are the gifts that keep on giving and Helland will now be sharing many of those NBA stories with a most willing audience, the UW players. He will become a part of their world in July.