The New York Knicks are reportedly still looking to fill out their already stacked coaching staff with more player development coaches. The Knicks’ head hunters don’t have to look far.
New York has been dubbed as the concrete jungle. Not everyone has the right temperament to survive, let alone shine amidst the bright lights in the city that never sleeps.
Its allure has captivated a lot of dreamers but has also sunk a thousand ships of failure.
New York-bred NCAA and NBA skills trainer David Zenon could have been one of them. But he has the heart of a real New Yorker. A fighter and a grinder.
This is a story that he must have been told a hundred times but it always hits home every time. It’s a story of how far you’re willing to go to chase after your dream.
“I was on the border of quitting. The story was very, very real. I only had 4 dollars and 75 cents to my name. I was just like, damn, I don’t’ think I’m gonna be able to do this. I can’t make any headway. I’m not catching breaks and it felt like a dead-end,” Zenon told Empire Sports Media in a phone interview.
Zenon had been chasing his dreams since he learned to play the game. At first, he wanted to become a basketball player. Then a basketball TV analyst. He eventually settled with a dream he became so passionate about during his junior year in college.
Growing up in the Bronx, he watched his dad playing competitive games around New York.
“I’ve played my entire life. My dad played ball. I was introduced to basketball very early. Once I got to college, I was a practice player. I wasn’t even a player on scholarship,” said Zenon who started as Communications Major before switching to Sports Management with a minor in Kinesiology.
With his basketball dreams seemingly slipping out of his reach, he turned his attention to the other facets of the game he loves most. His internship program with their women’s basketball team at Liberty University in Virginia paved the way for him to develop a passion for coaching and teaching.
“I had to learn the offenses and defenses of various teams just because that’s what the scouting guys would normally do and you know, it turned into a passion. It’s part of developing guys and that’s part of what you have to do as a coach, but also as a player just to get better,” Zenon said.
“I figured I could get into coaching or training right out of college.”
But it wasn’t easy breaking into the industry that has evolved from training with no one watching to having large clout on social media.
Zenon had to start from the ground up.
He trained random kids in nondescript courts and empty gyms just to make ends meet.
It was far from lucrative. Everyday was a fight for survival.
He wasn’t even living paycheck to paycheck. It was training kid to waiting-who-knows-when-there’s-another kid willing to pay to be coached.
The emotions at the other end of the line can be felt in his voice.
Here’s an NBA trainer who has been to the highest of highs training an NBA champion in Serge Ibaka and a slew of NBA players showing raw emotions recalling his humble beginnings.
It’s the story of the underdog who was almost on the verge of defeat but remained defiant. If this was a boxing match against fate, Zenon was already on the ropes, trapped in the corner and agonizingly waiting to be saved by the bell.
During his darkest hour, that’s when the opportunity came along with serendipity.
Down to his last money, Zenon received a message that would soon change his life forever.
“I was lucky enough to get contacted by a young man who’s trying to make it to his varsity basketball team and he just said ‘I heard you’re a good trainer, you work well with kids. Do you mind training me so I can make it to our varsity team?’,” Zenon recalled.
At the back of his head, Zenon was like: “Yeah I need the money!”
“But I’ve always wanted to teach the game. It doesn’t matter who he is,” he said.
He went to a nearby gas station and emptied the last $4.75 on his debit card to fill up his tank. Luckily, he found an additional quarter in his compartment.
“I asked him (gas attendant) if he could please put in a quarter worth of gas. I needed everything I could get,” Zenon recalled.
He ended up impressing the kid and his parents who watched on.
“And they asked me if is this is what I do full-time, ‘Is this how you make your money?’
And I’m like, yes sir, it is,” Zenon recalling that life-changing moment.
“My main source is this but I would like to work for an NBA franchise.”
Unknown to Zenon, the kid’s family is well-connected in the Madison Square Garden.
Zenon hit two birds in one stone as he became the kid’s full-time personal coach and his family’s connections helped him knock on the NBA door.
“His parents told me: ‘Well, we’ll introduce you to somebody who, hopefully, will open some doors for you’,” Zenon said.
He landed a gig with New York’s G League team. It wasn’t in the coaching staff, but he took it nonetheless.
“I was hired as a shot clock operator for the Westchester Knicks. I was doing just shot clock and statistics and I don’t even care if it was G League, I’d do it,” Zenon said.
Once his foot was halfway the NBA door, he didn’t let go of the opportunity. He networked like a young Mark Zuckerberg, handing out his card, resume, his number every time there was an opportunity.
Soon he was starting to vibe with the players such as former Knicks’ guard Langston Galloway.
“That was big for me,” Zenon said.
One opportunity led to another.
“Things really blew up for me when the Knicks drafted Kristaps Porzingis. I became cool with the brothers just because of a Tweet, ironically, and I had a gym where they can get shots at night at a local Westchester area,” Zenon said. “So we developed that rapport just I always do.”
Porzingis’ agent at that time was also managing Ibaka’s career. They were looking for a trainer for the summer. His connection with the Porzingis led to a tryout with Ibaka.
“‘We heard that your workout is good. We’ll gonna give you a tryout with Serge. I have one legit tryout for you to see if he likes it’,” Ibaka’s agent told Zenon.
In the two days leading to the make-or-break tryout, Zenon maniacally prepared for what was the biggest moment of his career. He watched and broke down films like he’s never done before.
“It was nerve-wracking because if Serge didn’t like it then it’s on to the next guy. He was a perfectionist,” Zenon said.
His hard work and attention to detail paid off. He officially became an NBA personal trainer and hasn’t looked back since that summer of 2017.
His portfolio grew from Ibaka to the Plumlee brothers, Detroit Pistons’ Thon Maker, Minnesota Timberwolves’ Jacob Evans, and several NBA players whom he did not name due to the confidential nature of his arrangement with their agents.
His consummate body of work has landed him a gig in an ESPN commercial featuring last year’s top pick Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, the Knicks’ third overall pick.
Zenon also had a hand in Common’s 2020 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game MVP performance.
The Chicago-based rapper, actor and writer was introduced to him by a common friend.
“He hit me up one day and said ‘I have Common in town, he wants to workout’,”Zenon recalled.
”I said The rapper?!”
He replied: “Yes, the rapper.”
Common was so impressed that he wanted another one which led to several more workouts. Common even flew him to Chicago for the All-Star Weekend to personally witness the fruit of their hard work at the gym.
A part of his ultimate bucket list has also been ticked off, sort of. He can proudly say that he has played a part in the development of the Knicks’ second-round steal Mitchell Robinson.
He’s been helping Robinson with his personal workouts in New York since he was drafted thanks to the rapport he’s built with the third-year center’s New Orleans-based trainer Marcel Scott. Zenon, though, still dreams of someday making it to his hometown team’s staff as a player development coach.
So how exactly did he pull it off and charm his way to Ibaka and the rest of his clients’ hearts?
“I want my players to know that I care about them first. When you develop a certain delivery, you need to have power in your voice, you have to have that belief in your voice. Players would like to see that confidence in what knowledge you’re giving them and vice-versa. As much as I would love to teach everything that I know, I’m learning from them too. You have to have that back-and-forth, collaborative process,” Zenon said.
Built like a rock, the 6-foot-3 and 230-lb trainer has exhibited a combination of grace and power on the court.
As student of the game, Zenon’s thirst hasn’t been quenched. He always loves to seek out opportunities to collaborate and pick the brains of the best trainers in the industry.
With Ibaka, he’s been grateful for the opportunity to team up with veteran Spanish coach Hugo Lopez. The 45-year old Spaniard had coaching stints in the Spanish league, Euroleague, Angola, and most notably NBL Canada where he was named Coach of the Year in 2016.
“I always mention that I also learn from other guys. And Serge has been working with Hugo Lopez too, from Spain. A great guy, great teacher. It’s really great to work with somebody who knows so much about the game as well and when you worked with a guy like that and brainstorm with the player and do the right way, you’ll be able to see the fruits of his labor,” Zenon said.
With Zenon and Lopez at the helm of things, Ibaka flourished and was able to expand his game and adapt to the constantly evolving NBA. In just his second year co-training Ibaka, the Spanish international became a vital cog of the Toronto Raptors’ championship run in the 2018-19 season.
It wasn’t just a combination of grace and power. His cerebral work has also been integral in his success as a trainer.
“I would always want to study the offense that they’re part of. I do a lot of diligent work to look at a lot of things like the ability to look at their schedule and see the tendencies of the opposing teams on how they play defense on him,” Zenon explained.
“That’s how I based my training with my guys.”
Aside from Lopez and Scott, Zenon has two more player development coaches who have greatly influenced him.
“I’ve been able to learn from Phil Handy. He’s a great man. He knows so much obviously. He does a great job developing his guys,” Zenon said.
Handy, of course, is the renowned player development coach who’s tight with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The current Los Angeles Lakers’ assistant coach has now won three rings with three different teams out of six consecutive Finals appearances including four with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and one each with the Raptors and the Lakers. Handy is on the radar of the Brooklyn Nets to join Steve Nash’s coaching staff.
How he met Handy is another proof of Zenon’s hunger and willingness to go the extra mile.
“I just reached out in DM (Direct Message on Twitter) and I was honest to him that I want really to learn,” Zenon said. “This is what I’m doing to get better in my craft but what can I do to get a lot better consistently,” he asked Handy.
When Handy was still with the Cavaliers and was visiting the Philadelphia 76ers, Zenon had to drive from New York to meet him in person for the first time.
“If I had the opportunity to talk to him even for 10 minutes, the two-and-a-half-hour drive was worth it. I was able to pick his brain, the thought process on how they prepare for the game,” Zenon said.
He would always seek Handy’s wisdom on zoom calls thereafter as well as other coaches.
The other guy in his corner is James Clark, the Philadelphia-based trainer of 76ers’ Ben Simmons and San Antonio Spurs’ Dejounte Murray and several more NBA players.
“We’ve worked together, we’ve done clinics and workout together. There’s a mutual respect there. It’s always been something so beneficial for me to be able to have those two guys in my corner. Phil and James are good friends too,” Zenon said.
“It’s been a total blast to have those two guys in my corner.”
While the pandemic had slowed down everything, Zenon refused to get stagnant. He read books and coaching resources. He watched and broke down films and at the height of the quarantine, he had to be creative and imaginative in the digital space to connect with his players.
“It’s tough because you’re not hands-on. So we just gotta do it by distance. It’s crazy because I’m always the kind of guy who moves a lot and shows them what to do,” he said.
On top of his NBA and NCAA gigs, Zenon is still routinely coaching kids. He is also a current assistant coach at The Patrick School in New Jersey, the venerable high school program that produced Samuel Dalembert, Al Harrington, and Irving.
The young man who opened up the doors for Zenon made it to his varsity team.
“He actually became a starter, not that year but the following year. They won a section championship and I’m still very close to him to this day. He’s like a little brother to me,” Zenon said.
Zenon’s $4.75 has gone a long way.
And the best is yet to come as his journey hasn’t even reached halfway.