Julius Randle wanted to get to work. This didn’t surprise Tyler Relph a bit. Relph has helped train Randle for more than a decade, going back to Randle’s days at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Dallas. Even then, at 15 years old, Randle understood the value of sweat equity.
But this was something else. This was different.
When the NBA halted its season in March, Randle flew to his hometown and kept working out, figuring it would be a temporary pause. He and Relph fell into an old routine: drills, conditioning, staying sharp for when the call came that the Knicks could play again.
It never did. There would be a bubble in Orlando, and most of the league would go there, but the Knicks were left out. Their season was over. And something clicked inside the man who’d averaged 19.5 points and 9.7 rebounds across a mostly forgettable season.
“Him not being able to play while all those other guys in the league played?” Relph says with a laugh. “That made him mad.”
Not long after, Relph got a call on his cell phone. Randle.
“Let’s get to work,” he said.
“Of course,” Relph said. “Just tell me where and when.”
“Stay where you are,” Randle told him. “We’re moving back to Dallas. We’re buying a house. I’m coming to you. Let’s go.”
Relph chuckles at the memory.
“I know Ju a lot of years,” he said. “He wasn’t kidding.”
He wasn’t. In the past, offseason work would usually happen in Los Angeles or in New York, wherever Randle was quartered, a few weeks here, a few weeks there. Sometimes they would vacation together and he’d invariably be up by 6 a.m. to go to the gym, then FaceTime his weight trainer, then go off on a 20-mile bike ride through Miami.
“At some point I figured he’d want to chill,” Relph says. “But he never did. Not once. This was different. This was every day.”
Some days that meant the two would meet at a gym at 6 a.m., drilling footwork, working on Randle’s shot, 90 minutes of nonstop grind. Three or four times a week that was only the second stop on the itinerary as Randle would open his old high school gym at 5 a.m. to fire up jumpers on his own, the first bundle of 1,200 he would shoot every day, every week, every month, for nine months.
Soon, Relph introduced him to a weight trainer named Melvin Sanders, and the two men hit it off instantly.
“Ju likes it when you don’t just set up his workout but work out with him,” Relph says. “That’s Melvin. And that’s me. Thanks to Ju, I’m in better shape now than I was when I played in college. I have no choice; otherwise I’d never keep up.”
Relph, a native of Rochester, N.Y., played two years at West Virginia and two years at St. Bonaventure and caught the coaching bug after hurting his knee after graduation, serving an apprenticeship under Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt. In 2010 he decided to become a personal basketball trainer and moved to Dallas.
That’s where he met Randle, who was already a precocious talent, who would have a terrific freshman year at Kentucky before going to the Lakers with the seventh pick of the 2014 draft. He played in LA for four years, moved to New Orleans for a highly productive 2018-19 season, then signed a three-year, $63 million deal with the Knicks.
“He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen,” Relph says. “By far. You know, it isn’t easy to average 20 and 10 and 3 in the NBA. You don’t do that just by showing up. But even by that standard, he took it to an unbelievable level this summer.”
Every day, Randle showed up in the gym. Sometimes they’d have three separate workouts, and those didn’t include the weight sessions with Sanders.
“We had nothing but time,” Relph says, “and he didn’t want to waste any of it. We had nine months. So I told him: ‘Let’s be an all-star. Let’s try to get you to be one of the best players in the league.’ We went back to what we used to do. Footwork, stuff to make sure he got to spots fast. Over and over. Every day.”
Relph emphasized the importance of using a dribble, or two, to be able to get a shot whenever he needed to; when he twice saw Randle use that move to shake free from Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Knicks’ third game of the season, he screamed in delight at the television set.
For all the hard work, the most important moment of the summer came July 30, when word arrived the Knicks had hired Tom Thibodeau. Immediately Relph thought this would be a perfect marriage.
“I knew what this was going to be,” Relph says. “I told him, ‘You’re gonna play 40 [minutes] every night. If you play hard, Thibs is gonna let you go.’ We didn’t know he’d want him to be a point forward but once they talked and he said so it was just perfect. Plays to all of Ju’s strengths.
“It’s been phenomenal because Julius and Thibs are of the same mindset. They’re workers. Neither of them has ever really been given anything, they had to earn everything. They’re both the first guys to work every day. They see things exactly the same way.”
The payoff, of course, is this season, the Knicks off to a surprising 5-3 start, Randle averaging 23.1 points, 12.0 rebounds and 7.4 assists. The All-Star Game has already been canceled, but Randle’s goal of pushing his game to an all-star level has, so far, played out perfectly.
That has thrilled Knicks fans. And brought joy 1,300 miles west, where his friend and trainer will, this weekend, officially open the Tyler Relph Basketball Lab in downtown Dallas, where his present clients — R.J. Hamton, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skylar Diggins-Smith, among them — will have a home. And where Julius Randle can always go to get a good workout in. Though he probably won’t stop at just one.