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Supporting cast serves Sun well

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published October 04. 2012 4:00AM

Mohegan

You are a Connecticut Sun fan. You are asked why your team is 27-9, champion of the regular season and about to begin the conference finals Friday night.

They survived 14 games without Asjha Jones, you say.

Tina Charles, the Most Valuable Player, has been a horse, you say.

Kara Lawson hasn't missed a shot since around Easter, you say.

You would be right on all counts.

But you would have overlooked the best supporting actor and actress who have been more important than a lung toward keeping the aforementioned players upright. Their names are Jeremy Norman and Jodi Hopkins.

You may know Jeremy (Ledyard guy and all). You may not know Jodi. You will not hear from them during this discourse. For one thing, they're not big talking about themselves. For another, the people they serve say it all.

Norman is the Sun's trainer. Hopkins is the strength and conditioning coach. Their stories are about everlasting repetition, the unspoken conscientiousness of constant effort.

Sexy? Hardly. But it's the backbone of the franchise.

"What they do," Sun coach Mike Thibault said earlier this week, preparing his team for Friday's biggie with the Indiana Fever, "is as important as anything in our organization. Your players are your assets. Keeping them healthy is more important than most things."

Jones missed 14 games because of a strained Achilles' tendon. It hovered over the second half of the season like cigarette smoke, a threat to imperil the rest of the season. Charles missed a game late in the year with a number of aching limbs. And Lawson is there an hour before everyone else for daily treatment that has helped keep her body humming like a Porsche.

"Jeremy nursed me back to health," Jones said. "He didn't come into this like he had all the answers. He did his research to figure out the best way to get me back on the court. He listens to you. He has to take care of the entire team plus the staff. The time he devotes to me is kind of incredible.

"And Jodi?" Jones said. "Because of the injury, I couldn't do all the strength training I wanted to do. And yet I'm stronger now than I was before the injury because of her."

Norman applied for the job when the Sun relocated from Orlando in 2003. He wasn't hired. Thibault, who got the job only a few months before the season began, said he wanted to hire as many experienced people as he could. But he never took his eye off the local guy.

"As I got to know Jeremy over a period of time, it became the perfect fit," Thibault said. "When I came here I was very spoiled by NBA organizations. In our league, frankly, a lot teams were cutting corners. Now the league has changed. Owners understand players are assets. The Mohegan people understood that from the start."

Norman is the quintessential illustration that trainers aren't just people taping ankles and handing out Gatorade. There is medical treatment, massages, ultrasounds, diagnoses. The Sun have a team orthopedist, physician, eye doctor, dentist, chiropractor, massage therapist and yoga instructor. It's all a Jeremy Norman Production.

"The thing I appreciate the most is how hard he works and makes time for everybody," Lawson said. "I've been in this league a long time and I've played a long time. He's up there with the best I've worked with. He doesn't give you a cookie cutter approach. He spends time with you.

"A lot of times, people in that position don't want other people working with their athletes," Lawson said. "He's always trying integrate other people working with us. Different techniques may work better for different people."

Hopkins, meanwhile, worked at the University of North Carolina for six years before her experience here. She oversaw training programs for football, women's basketball, field hockey, golf, gymnastics, women's lacrosse, softball, tennis and track. She maintains a perpetual sense of humor, all while steadfastly not tolerating fools.

"Jodi knows what it's like to be an athlete," Thibault said. "She's in charge of their daily workouts, strength, agility, speed work and nutrition. That's huge.

"Players coming out of college don't always understand they need to change their bodies to be a good pro. Jodi does a really good job helping them," he said. "Plus, because we don't have the money NBA teams have, Jodi is our travel coordinator too. She's in charge of getting us where we're supposed to go. It's a pretty all encompassing job."

Hopkins arrives at the airport an hour before the team and coaches. Not easy, when you have the 6 a.m. flight out of town. Norman starts treatment of players not long after they get off the plane. Their effort is unwavering. So if you see them Friday somewhere around the team bench, thank them for what they've done. And hope they stay here many more years.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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