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He’s Jayson Tatum’s trainer, wedding plus-one, and house guest. Meet Nick Sang. – The Boston Globe

9 minutes, 43 seconds Read

The Celtics have just completed a four-game sweep of the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals and star forward Jayson Tatum is at a press conference to discuss the accomplishment. He is wearing a black collared shirt with silver pinstripes, matching shorts, and a crisp new “NBA Finals” hat that was handed to him during the celebration.

After taking questions for five minutes, Tatum walks toward a long hallway that will lead him to the team bus in the bowels of Indiana’s arena. Because of his lengthy postgame recovery routine, he is usually the last Celtic to leave, but he never goes alone.

“Where’s Nick at?” Tatum says quietly, to no one in particular. “Where’s Nick?”

Tatum passes through a door and spots his friend about 50 feet away. He smiles.

“Yo, Nick!” he booms.

Nick Sang is a Celtics athletic trainer and physical therapist, but his deep connection to the franchise’s current cornerstone player has turned him into an indispensable member of the organization.

Sang has been Tatum’s plus-one at celebrity weddings and parties, his co-star in beer and candy commercials, and his guest on luxury vacations. Tatum posts social media pictures with Sang so frequently that fans now recognize him in public, even if they are not always sure who he is or what he does.

But this partnership is most essential because of the duo’s work behind closed doors. Tatum credits Sang for helping him blossom into one of the NBA’s most consistent and durable superstars, and these two soft-spoken but intense competitors are most comfortable when side by side.

“I trust Nick,” Tatum said. “We have this great working relationship that’s also really grown into him being one of my best friends.”

Prove your worth

Sang was raised in Bayside, Queens, and enrolled at Northeastern in 2008 to study criminal justice before pivoting to sports medicine. In 2012, he took part in a co-op at ProSports Therapy, owned by former Celtics trainer Ed Lacerte. He also began volunteering with the Celtics, but his responsibilities were not glamorous. He folded towels, wiped floors, and filled ice tubs.

“As I kept showing up, the trainers started trusting me,” Sang said. “I remember I’d get excited if I got to help out with a 20-minute treatment session.”

Sang, now 33, completed a three-month clinical rotation with the Pacers before returning to Boston, where Lacerte hired him at ProSports Therapy. He spent three years there before joining the Celtics full-time in 2017. One of the five players he was assigned to work with was Tatum, the precocious rookie who had just been drafted third overall out of Duke. Initially, Tatum was skeptical about how Sang could help him.

Doing maintenance work to prevent injuries is a key part of Nick Sang’s role as Jayson Tatum’s trainer.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

“I was 19,” he said. “I’d just show up, put my shoes on, and play.”

But Sang wanted his new pupil to grasp that he was not in college anymore. After playing 29 games as a freshman, he would play 99 during his first year with the Celtics. The level of wear and physical stress would be unlike anything Tatum had experienced.

Sang believed Tatum would benefit from a one-hour pregame treatment routine but knew the suggestion would likely push Tatum away, so he asked for just 15 minutes. Tatum would come into the trainer’s room at the last possible minute, noshing on a plate of food while Sang did soft-tissue work.

“It wasn’t ideal,” Sang said with a sigh. “But I said, ‘OK, this is my time to show you my value, and how this can help you.’ ”

Sang broke through the following year, when Tatum battled mild knee pain during the playoffs and started to embrace the notion of preventive maintenance.

That July, Sang was with the Celtics summer league team in Las Vegas when he received a text message from Tatum. He was home in St. Louis and asked Sang if he would join him there for some workouts. Sang booked a flight and arrived the next day.

“I needed to show him I would be there for him at all times,” Sang said.

‘I wasn’t going to leave him’

Tatum and Sang grew closer in 2020 — not that they had a choice. Because of the COVID pandemic, the NBA shut down in March and restarted its season in the Orlando bubble in July, with teams completely isolated from friends and family for months.

Tatum and Sang had adjoining rooms in the Grand Destino Tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort. They learned golf together, played video games, lounged by the pool, and had weightlifting competitions.

In August, the Patriots contacted Sang about an opening on their athletic training staff. He had never worked in the NFL and thought it was a good growth opportunity, but he was reluctant to leave Tatum. Before making his decision, he sat down with Tatum and Tatum’s mother, Brandy.

“They were so supportive,” Sang said. “And at the same time, I made it clear I wasn’t going to leave him high and dry.”

Sang accepted the Patriots job, but received permission from both teams to keep working with Tatum as a private client.

He got an apartment in Dedham, halfway between the Patriots’ Foxborough training facility and Tatum’s Newton home. After working with the football team, he would drive to Tatum’s house around 8 p.m. to conduct recovery treatments.

After the Celtics lost to the Nets in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, Sang mapped out Tatum’s training regimen for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. During the discussions, Tatum and his mother said they had a new vision for this partnership. They asked Sang if he would consider coming back to the Celtics. Once Sang said he was interested, Tatum contacted president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, who had just stepped into this role after coaching the team for eight seasons.

“I expressed to Brad how much Nick meant to my success,” Tatum said. “It wasn’t a hard sell.”

Soon after, Stevens offered Sang a job in which he would essentially be Tatum’s personal trainer. It was a rare arrangement, but Tatum, a three-time first-team All-NBA selection, was a rare talent.

Sang and Tatum have an arrangement that is rare in pro sports but very successful.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

Perks of the job

Tatum does not like his routines to be disturbed, so his solution for maintaining offseason workouts was simple: He just started bringing Sang everywhere.

There have been vacations to Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic and the Cayman Islands. There have been promotional appearances in Paris and photo shoots in Los Angeles. When Tatum shot a Corona beer commercial recently, he persuaded the producers to include Sang.

Last summer, Sang accompanied Tatum to Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin’s prestigious White Party in the Hamptons, where the guest list included Leonardo DiCaprio, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Tom Brady, and Jennifer Lopez.

“Everybody there was a big name, but me,” Sang said. “I’m just the trainer who went to physical therapy school and tags along.”

Sang has rubbed elbows with Drake, had dinner with Michael Jordan, and worked out with Tatum at Kevin Hart’s private gym. Two summers ago, Tatum and Sang were in St. Louis to run a youth camp when Tatum remembered he was scheduled to attend Sacramento Kings star De’Aaron Fox’s wedding in Malibu that weekend. He told Sang to just pack a suit, so he did.

“I mean, I had a Jayson Tatum plus-one invitation,” Tatum said.

Last February, Tatum also invited Sang to his agent’s son’s wedding. A guest asked Sang if he was Tatum’s bodyguard, and Sang did not love that. But by now, anyone who knows Tatum is aware of their dynamic.

“When you see Jayson, you see Nick,” said Celtics assistant coach Amile Jefferson, one of Tatum’s closest friends. “People recognize that that’s JT’s guy.”

Stand by me

In many ways, Sang has essentially become part of Tatum’s family. If Tatum’s mother’s neck is stiff or his 6-year-old son Deuce isn’t feeling well, Sang is always his first call.

Deuce has started playing sports, and when he sees Sang putting Tatum through a workout, he joins in by doing some push-ups. Once Deuce hurt his thumb playing basketball and asked Sang to wrap it with medical tape.

“When he got home, I told him he had to take a shower,” Tatum said. “And he goes, ‘No, Nicky said to keep this on my thumb.’ ”

Sang said Deuce is the only person other than his own mother who is allowed to call him “Nicky.”

Sometimes, Tatum and Sang return to Boston from a trip late at night and know they’ll be working out the next morning, so Sang just sleeps on a couch in Tatum’s basement.

It is no surprise, then, that the two rib, quarrel, and compete like brothers. They take turns making fun of each other for looking tired, even if the truth is impossible to conceal. When Sang introduces an unusual exercise, Tatum is unafraid to tell him that it looks silly.

“I’ll be like, ‘Man, you got this [expletive] off Instagram,’ ” Tatum said.

Tatum (left) and Sang have developed such a close relationship that they behave like brothers.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

Tatum rents a house in Los Angeles for six weeks each summer and brings members of his inner circle such as Sang to live with him. Once Tatum’s flight was delayed and he arrived at the house at about 5 a.m. without a key.

Sang was barely awake when he opened the door, and Tatum said they might as well do their workout then. Sang glared at Tatum and shuffled back to bed. Then his phone rang. It was Tatum.

“Yo, I’m serious,” he said. “Let’s just get it done with.”

Sang put in his contact lenses and begrudgingly got dressed.

“We always drive to the gym together,” Tatum said. “I knew he was mad that day, because he didn’t say a word and just took his own car.”

The night before a game, Sang always sends Tatum a text message with the next day’s plan. It used to be useful information, but now the text is just a formality. Tatum knows how everything will unfold, but he appreciates the routine.

There is usually a weightlifting session at Tatum’s house, followed by soft-tissue treatment and about 20 minutes in a cold tub. At TD Garden later, they go back to the weight room for a lighter activation workout, followed by resistance-band work and stretching on the court.

More than an hour after the game, after Tatum has soaked his legs in ice and showered, Sang stands in the back of the TD Garden interview room holding Tatum’s custom-made recovery drink while Tatum sits on a stage for another press conference. This is the one time all night when Sang has no more responsibilities, but he remains by Tatum’s side anyway.

“I stay because I want to be in solidarity with him,” Sang said. “He spends so much time taking care of his body and doing the right steps and really committing, so I’m not going to leave him at the end.

“Really, we both have the same goal. He wants to maximize his potential, and I want to help him get there.”

Read more about the Celtics in the NBA Finals


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him @adamhimmelsbach.

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