Under every socially distanced player seat in the gyms in the NBA bubble is one of the newest pieces of league technology — and it has Kobe Bryant’s fingerprints on it.
Last month, the NBA announced a partnership with Hyperice, an Orange County-based recovery technology company that provides every player their own percussion therapy device called the Hypervolt Pro.
These massage guns, which have become popular with pro athletes over the past several years, allow players to treat muscles while resting on the bench during the game. Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, for example, was using one on his ankle during his team’s overtime win over the LA Clippers on Sunday.
The story of how they got there, oddly enough, dates to Bryant demanding a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers in 2007.
During that summer, Bryant was trying to engineer a trade to the Chicago Bulls and had sworn off going to the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo, California. Instead, he worked out closer to his home every day at the UC-Irvine campus.
It was during his soon-to-become annual summer workouts at UCI that Anthony Katz, a local high school history teacher and former basketball coach, met Bryant and presented him with his rough design for leg wraps. The goal was to help players more efficiently ice their knees.
An avid Lakers fan, Katz had noticed that at the end of blowout victories, Bryant would start icing his knees on the bench. The leaky plastic bags wrapped in bandages became a mess.
“It was like an art project. I had zero business experience, I’d never taken a class and I didn’t know what the word entrepreneur meant,” Katz says. “But I had this idea and I knew that if I could get Kobe to wear it, then it would give it credibility and exposure.”
Katz met Bryant through friend Ryan Badrtalei, a longtime assistant basketball coach at Irvine who worked out Bryant in the offseason. Late one summer night after the second workout of the day, Katz brought Bryant the black neoprene sleeves that were his idea.
Badrtalei wasn’t sure Bryant would be receptive. He’d seen the intense way Bryant judged anyone and anything around him. He saw how Bryant would banish fellow pros or prospects from working out with him if they didn’t compete to his level.
“Sometimes guys would come to play, planning to be there for a week or two. And after one practice Kobe would make a call and say, ‘Don’t ever send this guy to workout with me again,'” Badrtalei says. “Everything he did was vetted. He would see if you would get comfortable with him. That would be his test. The people who he carried around him were never comfortable. He liked it when people would get comfortable because then he knew who you really were.”
After working through some prototypes and redesigns for which Bryant suggested an air valve so the ice could remain tight to the skin even after it started melting, eventually there was Bryant wearing the black wraps on his knees on the Lakers’ bench.
Katz called them Hyperice as a play off the shoes Bryant was wearing at the time, the Nike Hyperdunk.
Within a short time, numerous other pro athletes had taken notice and were trying to get their hands on the product. LeBron James tried it and instantly wanted several dozen. Blake Griffin used them and was so impressed with it that he became one of the company’s first investors.
“The difference between Kobe and LeBron is that when Kobe first got it, he didn’t want anyone else to know about it. He thought it was an advantage,” Katz says. “When LeBron first tried it, he immediately wanted some to share with Carmelo [Anthony], Chris [Paul] and Dwyane [Wade].”
NFL players soon followed after running back Adrian Peterson got the equipment from University of Oklahoma friend Griffin, and it became a mainstay in pro locker rooms.
Katz decided to make it his full-time job, launched a website and set up a company so he didn’t have to fill orders with his phone. He started manufacturing other recovery products, including vibrating foam rollers and portable heating pads.
Bryant worked with Katz over the years in developing the products, all of them with Bryant’s needs in mind as he headed into the twilight years of his career.
When Bryant tore his Achilles in 2013, Katz made him a special icing sleeve for his ankle. As he rehabbed, Bryant would have long conversations with Katz about the business, sometimes texting to ask about ideas in the middle of the night. They talked about business, Quentin Tarantino movies and kids.
Eventually, Katz developed the massage gun after consulting with numerous players and trainers on what they needed to improve recovery after games and workouts. It has become a game-changer for many athletes. Katz gave Bryant one of the first designs, and Bryant gave it to his basketball-loving daughter Gigi to use. With Bryant retired, Gigi used it more than her father.
Late last summer, Katz stopped by to see Bryant and present him with one of the first Hypervolt Pro prototypes, the product that NBA players will use by the hundreds in training facilities, arenas, planes and hotel rooms as part of this new long-term deal. Bryant looked at the device and laughed.
“Damn, this is beautiful. I remember when you brought me an ugly-ass cardboard box to ice my knee and now I see guys using your stuff every day,” Bryant told him. “I can’t believe you’ve come this far with that stupid name. I’m proud of you.”
“I named it after your shoes, though,” Katz protested.
“I know,” Bryant said. “It was still stupid.”