Wednesday, February 11, 2009

USA Today article on fitness, weight loss & stretching

Check out a fitness-related article by Erich Schlegel in Wednesday's USA Today sports section. Texas Longhorns junior center Dexter Pittman has incorporated a fitness regimen, stretching and healthier eating habits into his day-to-day.

The result? Upwards of a 100-pound drop in weight for the NCAA men's basketball sensation. 

"HEAVYWEIGHT FIGHT HAS PITTMAN IN SHAPE, READY TO ROLL AT TEXAS"

AUSTIN - Dexter Pittman grabs his laptop computer and scrolls through a lengthy list of e-mails.

"I want to show you the e-mails from all the people I help with weight," says the 6-10, 295-pound junior center for the Texas men's basketball team.

Pittman, who has lost 93 pounds since he played his last game three years ago for Rosenberg (Texas) Terry High School, never imagined he would go from being the butt of jokes in the school yard to a role model for dedicating himself to a weight-loss program the way some adolescents fixate on video games.

"People are asking me for help," he says in a soft-spoken manner. "It's a joy."

Pittman, 20, is trying to become a consistent force for Texas on the court, while continuing what will be a lifelong battle with weight. A starter in 15 of 23 games, Pittman averages 8.9 points and 4.4 rebounds while playing 13.3 minutes a game.

At times he fights fatigue on the court, but in spurts can give opponents fits. He has a lot of work ahead to achieve his goals, but his college journey thus far has been a mountain of progress.

When he arrived on campus in June 2006, he couldn't squat to simulate a defensive stance because he was too heavy. Pittman's poor posture spoke volumes of the self-assurance he lacked. It also caused aches and pains.

"It was so bad that it really beat up his body," Texas strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright recalls. "His knees were beat up, his lower back really hurt and his feet hurt."

Back then a lonely Pittman used to find a hiding place in the locker room to change. He was too embarrassed to let his teammates see him without a shirt.

His self-esteem had been decimated in childhood by cruel teasing. Classmates found flaws in him from head to toe. "They always used to say I had big feet," says Pittman, who wears size 18 shoes. "I tried to impress them and wear smaller shoes."

His feet now have deformities. He has large bunions and hammer toes that cause claw-like curling of some toes. "Imagine if my toes were straight," he says. "I'd probably be the best center in college. It would be crazy how I'd be able to move."

The reality is that Pittman isn't alone with weight problems and the myriad complications they cause. According to MayoClinic.com, two-thirds of adults are overweight, a condition that can lead to hypertension, diabetes and other illnesses.

There are studies showing obesity has increased sharply among all children and adolescent age groups in the last three decades.

"I call them the McDonald's kids," says Bennett Hatten, Pittman's godfather and now retired high school coach.

Hatten and Pittman's father, Johnny, told Pittman that his size, once manageable, would one day be a blessing. After all, Pittman had inherited some of his father's basketball skills. Johnny Pittman was a 7-foot center for Oklahoma State from 1989 to 1991.

"The same kids who poked fun at you, one day they'll be asking you for tickets," Hatten says he told Pittman.

Pittman became a dominant high school player, scoring 1,154 career points in three years on varsity. He towered over others and scored at will. He impressed college recruiters with his shooting touch and massive hands that could grip a basketball "like it was a grapefruit," Hatten says. Yet his weight figured to be a major impediment in college, where he had to keep up with the nation's fastest and most gifted players.

When he visited Texas, coach Rick Barnes, who says he viewed Pittman as a project, introduced him to Wright, a fitness guru who has worked with Barnes' teams for 15 years. Wright offered to design a weight-loss program to keep Pittman healthy and injury free but the strength coach never had been confronted with such a challenge.

"To tell you the truth … I didn't know if he was capable," Wright says. "Losing 80 or 90 pounds, that's a lot of weight."

Pittman gave his commitment to play for Texas and follow the training regimen. "We told him it would change his life if he would buy in," Barnes says.

Pittman was motivated, in part, by skeptics at his high school. "People always said I wasn't going to be able to play at this level," he says.

The day after his last high school game, weighing 388 pounds, he called Wright for weight-loss tips he followed religiously. Pittman rode a stationary bike, walked on his high school's track and ran a little when he wasn't too winded.

When he entered summer school at Texas, he was down to 366. Nevertheless, his body fat was 41.6% and his waist was 54 inches.

He and Wright went to work. Pittman promised due diligence.

"Well, understand, the words are the easy part," Wright says he told Pittman. "This is the hardest thing you're going to ever do in your entire life. He said, 'I'm prepared to do whatever you tell me to help get where I want to go.'"

Pittman followed a strict training schedule. He reported for 5:30 a.m. individual workouts with Wright, went to classes and returned to the weight room for more conditioning. That was followed by study hall and a practice with his teammates.

His conditioning workouts started with slow movements, such as squatting and lunging. He gradually moved to the treadmill, equipped with a heart monitor, and did other aerobic exercises. He also has had routine physicals.

Pittman also started eating healthy foods such as fruit, salad and grilled chicken. He made a pact with Wright, calling the coach before every meal to evaluate menu choices. Soda was out, along with Pittman's favorite foods: pizza and the Ultimate Cheeseburger from Jack In The Box. "He never complained," Barnes says.

The conditioning workouts were a grind. Pittman's exhaustion showed in practices, when he lagged behind teammates.

"Some days I wanted to cry and say, 'Man, I want to give up,' " he says.

Pittman says he was driven by the example set by his mother, Selma Harris. Harris sometimes worked two jobs to support her four children. Pittman's goal is to provide for his mom and send his two younger brothers and sister to college. Of course he hopes to do it with an NBA contract but says he could always find a job with a degree in kinesiology that he is on track to receive next year.

With every pound he has shed — he lost about 40 in his first five weeks at Texas — he has gained a dose of confidence that goes beyond sport. In multiple semesters, he has made the Big 12 Commissioner's Honor Roll. This comes after he struggled academically in high school.

Every chance he gets, Pittman studies himself in the mirror, sometimes in awe that his body fat is down to 13.8% and his waist now is 46 inches.

"He's always flexing in the mirror," teammate A.J. Abrams says, grinning at the thought. His teammates now call Pittman "Sexy Dexy."

In November, Abrams helped convince Pittman to take off his shirt on the beach, something Pittman had never done, when Texas played in the Maui Invitational. "I felt really good," Pittman says. "I was like, 'Am I dreaming?' "

His first two years at Texas, Pittman couldn't run sprints with his teammates because pounding the gym floor was too hard on his joints. Instead, he ran on a treadmill. This season he has joined them for every workout.

When his team is at a restaurant, and the menu has nothing healthy to his liking, Pittman will settle on fruit and wait on the bus while the team eats. "I train myself to do it," he says.

Sometimes he reaches out to his mom or friends for moral support.

"The main thing I tell him is to keep the faith and ask God for strength," his mother says.

His will power strikes a chord with his teammates.

"He did probably the hardest thing anyone ever did at UT, and that's lose (nearly) 100 pounds," junior Damion James says.

Pittman slumped in January while struggling with stiffness because as he played more, he conditioned and stretched less. Wright has since reintroduced more stretching and conditioning. Barnes believes if Pittman loses another 20 pounds next summer in yet another test of his fortitude, he could show off NBA-caliber skills.

Meantime, e-mails are pouring in from all over Texas from admirers who have read or heard about his weight loss. He developed a special bond with a 13-year-old Austin resident, Silas Connolly, who has struggled with weight. Connolly's father, Larry, e-mailed Wright and Pittman in despair over how to help his son.

Pittman met with Silas privately. Not long after, Silas began playing basketball. Pittman's No. 34 is monogrammed on the teen's gym shoes. "He can relate to Dexter," the teen's father says. "Dexter's a hero to us."

Pittman isn't shy about giving advice. "It's not hard to speak," he says. "I've got confidence now."

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