Mini basketballs bearing the phrase “The Epicenter of Detroit Basketball” were handed out when the Wayne State University Board of Governors voted last May to approve construction of a new arena home for both Warrior basketball and, through a unique partnership, the Detroit Pistons’ G League team.
The phrase references the fact that Wayne State’s new arena — on which ground is expected to be broken this month — will be located near the Pistons’ home at Little Caesars Arena and the Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center in New Center, opening the door to a variety of synergistic opportunities between the Pistons and Wayne State University.
Jordan Sabourin, the Pistons’ head strength and conditioning coach, has already taken advantage of this proximity by enrolling as a Ph.D. student in Wayne State’s kinesiology, exercise and sport science program.
“I value education a lot,” said Sabourin, who played college basketball at Oakland University. “The skills I’m going to develop as a Ph.D. student can help me in my job. I want to be able to study our NBA population and answer some important questions that can lead us to better evidence-based practices. I also have a major interest in research and perhaps teaching down the road. As much as I’d like to be in the NBA the rest of my career, that might not be possible, and this will be a great way to at least have that door open.”
Tamara Hew-Butler, an associate professor of exercise physiology whose primary expertise is in water and sodium balance in athletes, is Sabourin’s advisor.
The two met a couple of years ago at Oakland University, when Hew-Butler was a professor and the Pistons played in Auburn Hills. Sabourin brought players to Hew-Butler’s lab for dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scans, which measure bone mineral density and can help predict potential fractures.
As he was contemplating graduate school, Sabourin says a mentor shared his belief that the most critical part of a student’s Ph.D. process is their advisor. That made Sabourin think of Hew-Butler, who had since come to Wayne State.
“The little I knew Tami, I really thought highly of her, and she has been amazing,” said Sabourin, who is in his second semester of the program. “I’ve learned a lot already and I definitely respect and love her passion for this. That really helps.”
With only 30 NBA teams, there are limited head strength and conditioning positions at the professional level. However, Sabourin says everyone has a shot if they’re willing to put in the work.
“You have to be willing to take positions that aren’t as sexy and pay your dues,” he said.
After graduating, Sabourin played professional basketball for five years for the Stuttgart Pistons, Bielefeld Dolphins and the Bremen Roosters. After retiring, he did strength and conditioning internships with Pistons and at his alma mater. He then worked as a trainer at Lifetime Fitness before landing his first professional job as a strength coach and nutritionist for a basketball team in Turkey.
After returning stateside, Sabourin worked as trainer for local athletes for a couple of years before Wayne State alumnus and NBA strength and conditioning legend Arnie Kander hired him as assistant strength and conditioning coach with the Pistons. He did that job for three years before being promoted into his head coach role.
Despite having what many deem a dream job — as well as a 4-year-old boy and 6-month-old baby girl at home — Sabourin views pursuing a Ph.D. as an example of doing what others won’t in order to get what he wants.
“People always say, ‘I don’t have time for that.’ I don’t think it’s a matter of not having time; it’s how do you prioritize your time, that’s the key.”