Every morning, when Steve Hess swings his legs from under the covers and sits on the side of his bed, he gives himself a simple, yet important choice.
“I have two options today,” he tells himself. “Get better, or get worse.”
For 20 years as the Denver Nuggets head strength coach – the only head strength coach the Nuggets have ever had — that answer was always and unequivocally to get better.
He has left that stamp on the Nuggets. And now he’ll step aside. Hess is moving to a new chapter of his working life, and Felipe Eichenberger takes the reigns of the Nuggets strength and conditioning program, said Nuggets president and governor Josh Kroenke. Hess will stay with the organization as a consultant while he starts work as chief performance operator at Panorama Orthopedics & Spine Center.
“It’s something that took me a long time to come to this decision,” Hess said. “And it’s going from great to great. It’s an opportunity for me to expand what I’ve learned, and to learn more things.”
It has been a magic carpet ride of a life with the Nuggets for Hess. He recalls peppering executive Allan Bristow, coach Bill Hanzlik, and head trainer Jim Gillen, “every day for like three months” with phone calls to persuade them he was the right man for a job they were essentially creating. The Nuggets never had a coach solely focused on strength and conditioning coach before.
“I think out of sheer just get away from me, they were like, ‘give this guy the job,’” Hess said, smiling.
From that moment, Hess dedicated his life to helping professional athletes.
“The one thing that I’ve done through my whole career is everything that I choose to do I hold myself accountable,” Hess said. “So, I think through it. So, when I’m looking at basketball, I’m not just going to impose on them what I think they need to do, I need to understand lever arms, I need to understand body segments, I’ve got to understand the height of the players, how a power forward is different from a point guard, how much wear-and-tear on their body, how much workload. These are all things that you continually research.”
So much of that research was on the job, going through the grind. How do players’ bodies react after a back-to-back? What about three games in four nights? During a strike shortened season, Hess was faced with sometimes getting players ready for three games in three nights. What happens when the food options are severely limited? Hess’ knowledge base filled sorting through each situation.
And his on the job training spilled into the classroom as well. He had an insatiable appetite for learning more.
“I’ll go take continuing education courses or certification courses, where, honestly, I’m the oldest one in there,” Hess said. “And I know they’re looking at me like, ‘Really? The dude’s got gray hair.’ But I don’t care.”
This is why: “I don’t want to know what I know,” Hess said. “I want to know what I don’t know.”
Spend any time around Hess and one thing radiates…
“Energy, and dedication to one’s craft,” said Kroenke.
“Passion, energy, positivity,” said Nuggets president of basketball operations, Tim Connelly.
It is unmistakable. His energy was as much a Hess trademark as his dreadlocks. And it was contagious.
“Steve realizes that at the beginning of every day he has the ability to impact everyone in the organization,” Kroenke said. “Steve’s energy is genuinely contagious. I was joking with him that you could easily say that Steve never has a bad day. But over the years, I’ve learned enough and been around Steve enough where you realize that on his bad days, he’s extra hyper. He brings it even more.”
And he did off the court as well. One of the little-known aspects of his impact on the team was his willingness to listen and his knack for giving advice – from players to front office execs.
“Steve is an absolute legend,” Connelly said. “He’s a guy that you can seek out for counsel, a guy that you can ask and offer advice to. He’s just become a dear friend.”
And Hess will always be loved by the Nuggets organization. What will he miss most?
“Without a doubt, the possibility of winning a championship,” Hess said. “Being around a group with one common goal. Being in that group where there’s so much work and dedication being put in by those guys, when they succeed it’s the greatest feeling.”
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.