Shaquille O’Neal, early in the first quarter of an exhibition game in October, 1997, faked a move, changed direction and drove to the hoop.
A surge of pain shot through his abs. He had strained his lower abdominal muscles, a microscopic tear of the muscle fibres.
It was a recurring problem for the 25-year-old centre, then in his second year with the Los Angeles Lakers, and, at the time, Shaq remembers, it felt like his abs were “ripped in half, hanging together by one little thread.”
Lakers medical staff didn’t know what to do. They prescribed drugs and rest. A year-long recovery and surgery loomed. “One wrong move,” Mr. O’Neal says, “and I’d have been out my whole career.”
The Lakers staff searched for options and came across a Canadian who had successfully treated a similar injury. “This guy in Canada,” Shaq was told, “he can fix you.”
“It was like a solar eclipse,” laughs Alex McKechnie, the “guy in Canada,” as he recalls that January, 1998, day when Mr. O’Neal – all 7 feet, 1 inch, and 325 pounds of him – arrived at his office door in the Vancouver suburbs. The Glasgow native had moved to the West Coast in 1974 and established himself as a go-to physiotherapist for many of Canada’s top athletes.
In the mid-nineties, Mr. McKechnie began to hatch new techniques for his practice. He believed the answer to the abdominal-injury riddle lay in the core muscles, and he started to develop products and workout systems that targeted those muscles.
His first invention was called the Core Board. Similar to a wobble board, the Core Board presented an unsteady perch on which to stand, requiring a person to co-ordinate and use many different muscles to maintain balance.
The second was a system of rubber Thera-Bands, later named Core X. With this apparatus, Mr. McKechnie would use one band to tie patients’ right wrists to their left knees and another band to tie their left wrists to their right legs, with the two bands connected by a central ball. Once the injured athletes were all bound up, he’d get them to perform basic sporting moves, such as strides and pivots.
Working with Mr. McKechnie, Shaq would at one moment be tied up like a marionette, and then he’d perch his huge frame on the makeshift wobble board. It felt, Mr. O’Neal remembers, a bit “silly.” But he was determined to skirt surgery and kept at it. It worked – he was back on the court several weeks later.
Over the next two years, Shaq spent his summers in Vancouver, training with Mr. McKechnie. By the autumn of 1999, he arrived for work with the Lakers more formidable than ever. He played almost every game and scored a career-best, league-leading 30 points a game, topped by a scorching night when he slammed in 61 points on his 28th birthday.
He won his only regular-season MVP trophy and seized the biggest prize of all, leading the Lakers to the title – the first of three consecutive championships.
“He’s the resurrector,” Mr. O’Neal said of Mr. McKechnie in 2003. “He brought me back. I was dead, and he brought me back.”
With the Shaq seal of approval, other celebrity clients followed. The Lakers hired Mr. McKechnie full-time, and people around the physiotherapist began to envision the mass-market potential for his products and methods.
He had a fistful of aces: famous clients, a percolating fitness zeitgeist and his own credentials as a respected physiotherapist. Yet he has struggled in the guise of sporting goods entrepreneur. The Core Board, launched commercially in late 2000, disappeared after just five years on the market. The Core X System, which debuted in 2009, hasn’t fared much better. To Mr. O’Neal, Mr. McKechnie is the resurrector, but whether the wily white-haired Scot – dubbed the silver fox by the Lakers – can work similar miracles on his own business is to be seen.