A day in the life of Chris Brickley, the NBA’s most sought-after ‘influencer’
His gym’s All-Star open runs — including LeBron and Carmelo — made him a viral sensation, but he’s way more than a trainer
NEW YORK — It’s 10 a.m. on a September Tuesday, and Chris Brickley is coming home — to go to work. Home is quite literally in the Sky: a 71-story luxury apartment complex pretty much at the corner of West 42nd Street and the Hudson River in Manhattan. Lamborghinis, Bentleys and Mercedes-Benzes populate its kiss-and-ride entrance. It’s one of the newest and most chic addresses in midtown.
Brickley’s workplace is in Sky’s gym, Life Time Athletic, a facility he placed on the basketball map this summer via Instagram clips that feature a nauseating number of NBA players, including some of the league’s brightest names: Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Chris Paul and LeBron James. Throughout the summer, these athletes learned together and competed against each other, often with more intensity than in an actual NBA All-Star Game — and they went viral in the process.
A trainer is a person who runs athletes through drills. Run here. Take 20 shots there. Give me wind sprints now. And, yes, Brickley works sometimes in this way with some of the most talented household names in America. But according to him, he’s not a basketball trainer, he’s a basketball influencer. “There’s a million trainers that have NBA guys,” he said. “That’s the reality of it. I don’t feel like I have competition because I don’t think I’m a trainer. These guys look at me as someone who can help them on a day-to-day, help them with basketball, help them with [life].”
NBA training camps sit on the horizon. And at Sky, NBA stars squeeze in their final workouts with basketball’s offseason MVP: Brickley, a man whose roller-coaster, almost Forrest Gumpian journey is inked onto his skin.
10:11 a.m. | Brickley arrives at his own gym from another gym — and a session with former New York Knicks second-round pick Cleanthony Early. Early’s trying to work his way back into the league after missing much of 2015-16, and all of last year. He was robbed and suffered a gunshot wound to the knee while leaving a Queens strip club in December 2015. Early, from Brickley’s Instagram stories, looks good. And, given the capital that now comes from being associated with Brickley, an opportunity could well be on the horizon.
Ball is indeed life for Brickley, 31. “Anyone who knows me knows that from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day I’m in the f—ing gym. I do get tats. I do go shopping. But my life is in the gym.”
The two-time Athlete of the Year was a Top 100 player his senior year at New Hampshire’s Trinity High School. A combo guard, Brickley led the state in scoring with 28.7 points per game. He bounced around colleges, starting at Northeastern University in 2005, where he backed up future NBA champion J.J. Barea and befriended then-assistant coach Richard Pitino (now head coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers), son of the legendary Rick Pitino. Brickley soon transferred to the Division II Southern New Hampshire University. And in ’08 he moved to Kentucky and walked on at Louisville, playing under Rick Pitino. There, Brickley befriended teammate Chris Smith, Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith’s younger brother.
It was also at Louisville that Brickley made the bulk of the connections that made him the most in-demand “basketball influencer” in America. “My time there,” said Brickley, “was dope.” The senior Pitino, a two-time national champion with a 770-271 career record in 32 seasons, was recently suspended for five games. Louisville’s 2013 championship is in danger of being stripped after a 2015 sex scandal. (Sources told ESPN’s Michael Eaves Wednesday morning that Rick Pitino has lost his job along with athletic director Tom Jurich in light of federal corruption and fraud charges. It was reported Tuesday that the Louisville basketball program is alleged to be involved in the investigation.) But Brickley’s brief time with Pitino was anything but controversial. Pitino saw passion for the game in his walk-on. Brickley saw his willingness to mentor. Both fed off each other. “Coach Pitino,” he said, “taught me a lot about work ethic.”
After graduating from Louisville in 2010, Brickley became the youngest assistant coach in Division I. At New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University, he worked out both Smiths during the offseason. J.R. Smith played for the Knicks at the time, which led to additional connections within that organization. That included a deep brotherhood with the team’s former superstar, Carmelo Anthony (whom New York traded Sept. 23 to the Oklahoma City Thunder). The Knicks — on a recommendation from J.R. Smith, and after a call from Rick Pitino to Knicks assistant general manager Allan Houston — hired Brickley as a player development coach in 2013. As Rick Pitino said at the time: “Chris wanted to be a coach. … I knew he could do a really good job. I’m not one that makes phone calls and recommends people that I don’t think would impact the franchise.”
“I definitely owe [J.R. and Chris Smith],” said Brickley. “They were important to getting my foot in the NBA door. But Coach Pitino was just as important. If I didn’t have Coach P on my side, I’m not sure everything would have progressed the way it did.”
Brickley worked for the Knicks organization until last May. For a multitude of reasons — concerns about competitive advantage, and the New York media community — the entire time he was with the team he was placed under a social media embargo. “The Knicks wouldn’t let me use my Instagram to put out anything basketball-related,” he said. “I’m doing all this dope stuff and I can’t even post about it.” They didn’t want him to post anything training-related. The Knicks wanted his social media sponged clean of basketball. A rather old-fashioned take, though. A lot of what Brickley’s done this summer is to simply pull back curtains normally closed to the general public. People love what they can’t see.
“I don’t just go to the gym and do drills with these guys,” said Brickley. “That’s not how I get their trust.” Brickley is making his way through a dimly lit hallway, from his unit toward his “office,” Life Time Athletic. Carmelo Anthony and real estate magnate Joseph Moinian designed the full-length basketball court. An Anthony-trademarked “M” rests at its center, and the court feels personal. Intimate, even. The baselines behind the baskets are all but invisible, and aside from a handful of small benches, the court is strictly business. The drills Brickley runs here eventually play out in NBA arenas across the country. The stars he influences, who call him a “guru,” wouldn’t have it any other way.
11:00 a.m. | Brickley’s gym at Sky has become a New York City basketball landmark in just a few short months. Roughly 10 to 15 NBA players, he said, live in the building during the offseason. It’s easier in terms of scheduling. They know where he is. He knows where they are. Meeting him at the gym this morning is one of those residents, Portland Trail Blazers star shooting guard (and birthday boy) C.J. McCollum.
The fifth-year man out of Lehigh University was referred to Brickley through several people, including Chris Bernard, then the Knicks’ vice president of player development and now senior vice president of athlete relations at The Players’ Tribune. But McCollum’s introduction to Brickley, fittingly, was via Instagram. There’s a trust factor, along with a level of commitment from Brickley, that endears McCollum to the influencer. McCollum’s game improved last season, after their rookie offseason, with increases in field goal percentage (44.8 percent to 48 percent), free-throw percentage (82.7 percent to a league leading 91.2 percent) and points per game (20.8 to 23.0). They’re in their second summer together. If he finishes more efficiently in the paint and passing out of the pick-and-roll sees an improvement this season, McCollum will credit this summer’s marathon sessions with Brickley.
Brickley, as he does with every player he spends time with, watched tape of every offensive play from McCollum the season before and came to him with a fully prepared breakdown of his game. According to McCollum, a bond between a player and trainer is similar to the one between a man and his barber.
“You see guys go without haircuts because they don’t wanna cheat on their barber,” McCollum said with a laugh. “People are more faithful to their barbers than their friends, in some circumstances. With a trainer, you don’t wanna waste your time. You wanna get in and get out. You wanna work on stuff that’s gonna translate to gamelike situations.” It’s gamelike situations that Brickley and his colleague Kevin Harrington send McCollum through.
But it’s not just the sophisticated drills. Music, in particular hip-hop, has always been a major part of who Brickley is. He can’t have a workout without it. McCollum requests J. Cole, so Brickley obliges with “Dollar & A Dream III” and “Born Sinner,” infusing the gym with energy. The two run through a gantlet: elbow jumpers, baseline-to-baseline layups, coming off screens into free-throw line jumpers, bouncing off contact into floaters. At one point, McCollum nails 41 of 50 3-pointers. Near the end of McCollum’s workout, even he’s wiped.
But as he grabs his shorts to catch his breath, McCollum gets a second wind. He’s no longer the only star in the gym. Anthony walks in — and yes, so does his hoodie. Thanks to an Instagram hashtag from Brickley, #HoodieMelo became the offseason’s most talked-about alter ego.
“We were just joking around in the gym one day when he told me to come up with something,” Brickley said later that afternoon. “We never knew it’d become [the cultural phenomenon] it is now.”
11:30 a.m. | Melo’s one-on-one session with Brickley is par for the course — extensive stretching, shooting drills from about all parts of the court — including baseline-to-baseline jumpers and a stretch where Melo hit 13 consecutive 3-pointers. No one kept time, but for what seemed like five minutes, Anthony never missed. The ball never even hit the rim. Neither he nor Brickley said much, instead allowing basketball poetry in motion and the squeaking of shoes on the hardwood to drown out the Anderson .Paak playlist. It’s a far cry from Meek Mill’s Wins & Losses album, which became a way of life for both this summer. “People rarely talk about their f—-ups,” Brickley told me after the session. “That [Meek] album was our motivation.”
If the two seemed in sync during their workout, it’s because of lots of, well, practice. Brickley and Melo’s friendship extends beyond basketball, through good and bad times, controversy and frustration, trade rumors and ultimately confirmed trade deals. Their loyalty to the other has never wavered. And for as much acclaim as Brickley’s received this summer for the open runs, it’s the 10-time All Star who is equally deserving. Brickley’s adamant about that. The idea, called “M7 Pro Week,” was born during Melo Weekend 2014. The duo was able to round up 12 NBA players to play at New York’s Terminal 23.
While the event was very small, compared to what it’s now become, they decided to make it an annual summer vibe. As fate unraveled, Melo was rehabbing a knee injury in 2015. The next year he participated in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, where he became the only three-time gold medalist in Team USA history as well as the program’s all-time leading scorer (336) and rebounder (125).
Brickley branched out solo, training guys such as McCollum, Iman Shumpert, Kelly Oubre, Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter, Joel Embiid, Devin Booker, D’Angelo Russell, Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Joakim Noah and others. So this summer the inseparable duo decided to revive the runs. Word spread like wildfire in NBA circles, and a league within the league was born. If there’s any setback with the open runs, though, it’s that they’ve taken a toll on Brickley’s weekly goal of 50 one-hour NBA workouts per week. “That’s one of them good problems,” he said with a smile, quoting Marlo Stanfield from The Wire. Three summer ’17 moments stand out for Brickley.
1:15 p.m. | After Melo’s workout ends, Brickley races back to his apartment to shower. He knocks out a quick Q&A with The New York Times, and we stop at a nearby 7-Eleven to grab Gatorades. He recalls the time LeBron James came to town. This is the first of the three summer ’17 moments that stand out.
On Aug. 9, James took to Twitter looking to scratch a basketball itch. He wanted to get a run in. It didn’t matter when. It didn’t matter where. He just wanted in. Brickley immediately began working the phones. “I hit up J.R. [Smith] and Dahntay Jones, two guys who I’m close with,” he said. “I said, ‘Yo, tell LeBron to come!’ The same time I did that, I hit up [Durant], who I’m also close with.” Durant confirmed that James was down, as was he. A day later, Brickley’s video featuring James, Durant, Anthony, Smith and more went viral instantly. As football was nearing its return, Brickley’s video was one of the most talked-about on the internet.
The second moment was during New York Fashion Week. Brickley and his squad were on the scene promoting his Color Blind clothing line, an idea birthed by the haunting inequalities he sees every day in society. One of Brickley’s close friends is the rhythm and blues singer Chris Brown, whom he met while working with Smith in Los Angeles. Brown was with Harden at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, when Brickley asked, knowing the singer’s love of basketball, whether he wanted to get a workout in. A week later both CBs (Brown and Brickley) were in Terminal 23 running drills. During New York Fashion Week, Irv Roland, Harden’s assistant coach with the Houston Rockets’ called Brickley inquiring about an open run for Harden. “It was crazy!” Brickley’s now back in front of Sky waiting for an Uber. “We had Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, James Harden, Victor Oladipo, Melo. That was a crazy experience. A ‘holy s—’ moment. It was fun.”
Moment 3: Earlier this summer, he went to a game at Dyckman Park. Not long after he arrived, the announcer called him out, prompting droves of kids to run over and ask for his autograph. “I’m like, ‘Yo this is crazy.’ Little kids in the culture are looking up to me. That s— was like whoa! That’s motivation to keep going. It’s dope to be able to inspire someone through the game of basketball.”
3-5:30 p.m. | Every successful person, Brickley says, has getaways. Shopping, tattoos and music are his. But he’s always working. During New York’s rush hour, he’s constantly reminded by his bodyguard, Big J, to keep his phones on the Mofi charger so he can edit and upload the videos that become Instagram sensations in real time. In command of the aux cord at all times, Brickley’s routine is simple. He plays a song for 30 seconds, then hits pause to say why it resonates. He’s a devout Dave East fan, playing both old and new records from one of New York’s most promising upstarts. A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, too, whom he’d later briefly chop it up with in Manhattan’s Jungle Studios later that night. Brickley’s favorite Jay-Z album is a shocker: 2000’s The Dynasty.
Soon he’s in and out of BAPE Store on SoHo’s Greene Street. The same goes for a store in midtown’s Diamond District. Brickley isn’t much into jewelry, but some pieces, like the Rolex Presidential he’s rocking, are perks, he says, from appreciative players.
6:15 p.m. | It’s at a Bronx tattoo parlor where Brickley’s story comes full circle. Misty rain pelts the seven-passenger SUV as day marinates into evening. We arrive at Ink Studios, a home away from home for Brickley, whose body is covered in tats — he’s a walking mural of the story of his life. The tattoos, the fashion and magnetic culture, he explains, of Allen Iverson and Jason Williams — “The white one,” he smirks — made them role models for a young kid growing up in New Hampshire. But now Brickley explains to King Rico, his tattoo artist, that he wants something “cold-blooded.”
Cappie Pondexter is a friend of Brickley’s. She’s the fourth all-time leading scorer in WNBA history, and the only woman to play in Melo’s Brickley runs, and is among the folks in the room offering suggestions. The aforementioned Marlo from The Wire is brought up, as is Javier Bardem’s character from 2007’s No Country For Old Men and Jared Leto’s Joker from 2016’s Suicide Squad. Brickley already has Heath Ledger’s Joker from 2008’s The Dark Knight on his arm. He eventually decides on Jigsaw from the horror thrillers Saw, which is placed on his leg above a quartet of faces including Albert Einstein, Che Guevara, Pablo Escobar and President Ronald Reagan — an undoubtedly bizarre Mount Rushmore. “I told him he’s gonna be the first [NBA head] coach with [visible] tats,” says a visibly serious Rico, laughing.
Ink is packed with customers and neighborhood folk chopping it up and the smell of recently delivered Caribbean food spread on a table in the hallway. The energy is festive, and the music is loud. Brickley’s referred players to Rico — Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., Russell, Smith and more. Sean Kilpatrick of the Brooklyn Nets is in the next room getting his leg tatted. Pondexter follows him and opts for a wrist tattoo herself. Lil Uzi Vert, Migos, Meek Mill and Jay-Z songs bounce off the walls as Brickley explains the ink he already has.
There’s the good in his life: a University of Louisville tattoo that commemorates his time there. A black rose represents change. He loves his Bob Marley tat. “I’m big into just there shouldn’t be racism, man. Bob Marley represents One Love. You know, doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, we’re all just people.” But where love resides, pain resides in the same emotional cul-de-sac. He also has an Interstate 93 tattoo. It’s a major highway in New Hampshire, and a reminder of his mother’s final moments.
“She shot herself on this highway,” he said. She committed suicide when he was 8 years old. Twenty minutes after it happened, he said, his dad took him to a basketball court. Brickley points to his tattoo of a gun. “Why do we need gun violence?” he asked. “Why would my mom shoot herself?” There’s the street he lived on with his mother, “Huron,” on his arm, as well as a facsimile of his mother’s eye — she continues to watch over him.
He continues, showing off the codes he lives by. “Faith Over Fear.” “Knowledge Is Power.” “No Excuses, No Regrets.” A ski mask represents the social media cease and desist the Knicks made him live by. He points to a tattoo that makes permanent the best advice he’s says he received, shortly after joining the Knicks: “Be You.”
“One of the coaches — he’d seen me out one night, and then he seen me at the facilities — he said, ‘You have like a gift. The players like it. Just be yourself, man. Don’t worry about how other coaches are. Just be yourself,’ ” he said. “I took that to heart.”
7:45 p.m. | He began the summer with fewer than 20,000 Instagram followers. He’s now eclipsed 300,000. The cover of Urban Ink magazine is in his future. And on top of that, he says the NBA has come calling again, too. One day, he knows, the hype will diminish. That’s how life works.
“Migos is popping one day,” Brickley said . “The next day they’re not. Dipset’s popping one day … So I’m very self-aware … this s—’s not gonna last forever … I’m thankful and I’m just gonna keep working hard … I just try and stay hungry, and motivated.”
With training camps opening and the preseason starting this weekend, Brickley’s schedule will shift. There’ll be slightly more time to focus on Color Blind, which he’s excited for. But he knows where his bread is buttered. Brickley will still be working with players, such as Wilson Chandler in Denver or Oubre in Washington, during long home stands throughout the season. He’s not worried about becoming just another face in the NBA crowd. “The hours you spend with [athletes] outside the court,” he said, “to figure out what they’re motivated by. That’s what gets you the trust when you get on the court.”
Rico, nearly ready to begin inking Brickley, had one thing to get off his mind before he started on Brickley’s newest tattoo: “With this training s—,” he said, “it’s never gonna be another you. Like how do you get LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, K.D., Russell Westbrook, all these dudes to play basketball for free in a gym? With Jelly Fam? Like who does that? I can’t see it happening again.”