Originally published October 6, 2011 at 10:02 PM | Page modified October 7, 2011 at 9:56 AM

Steve Kelley

SPU basketball teams whipped into shape at Sgt. Mike's boot camp

For three weeks, Seattle Pacific's men's and women's teams have been pushed and prodded into shape by Mike Lawson. They're sure the pain and hard work will pay off this season.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Outside it still feels like night. The sky is dark and a persistent rain is falling as the Seattle Pacific basketball players, slowly stroll into Brougham Pavilion.

The lights in the gym seem brighter, as harsh as the reality they're about to face. It's 6:30 and another hour of hell is beginning.

A country and western song twangs from a boom box and Sgt. Mike's voice echoes demandingly off the bare gymnasium walls.

"Do not step on my rope!

"If you have to vomit, do not do it on my court and ruin my varnish!

"There's a sniper in the woods. Keep your butts down!"

Remember R. Lee Ermey, the antagonistic, gravelly voiced drill sergeant from the movie "Full Metal Jacket"? For one hour a day with the men's team, followed by an hour of drills with the SPU women, Mike Lawson, a former army sergeant, is a close facsimile of Ermey.

"At first, when your alarm goes off, you think, 'Oh shoot, I have to go see Mike,' " senior point guard Jordan Harazin said after Wednesday morning's session. "But at the end, when we're doing our stretching, I feel so accomplished. You understand that Mike's just trying to make you get better."

Because SPU doesn't have a strength-and-conditioning coach, Lawson has been hired to run this three-week basketball boot camp before fall practice begins. He also worked with the teams last spring.

The expectation is that the players will be in such great shape that coaches Ryan Looney and Julie Heisey can spend more time on basketball drills and almost no time on conditioning.

The even greater expectation is that these three weeks will build confidence, so in the final two minutes of a close game in Bellingham or Ellensburg, players will trust their talents and their condition and their teammates.

"We've fought through so much in this camp," Harazin said. "When we're tired, when we want to throw up, when we want it to be over and run out the door, we fight through it every day with Mike screaming in our ear. It's really made it so we think there's no way we can't get through the last two minutes at Western with our five players on the court."

They hop back and forth across a rope that stretches the length of the floor. They run from baseline to baseline holding a pole that Lawson calls their "weapon," over their head. The pole weighs 12 pounds. By the time the players have made several trips up and back it feels like 100 pounds.

"Get it right! Get it right!" Lawson bellows. "Don't sweat on my floor! You don't like this, do you?"

The players run up the floor, while their partner tries to restrain them with a long elastic tube that Lawson calls, "The Torture Tube." This resistance drill comes in the middle of an hourlong workout.

"Some of the stuff that Mike does requires them to be mentally tough, which is a large part of success at our level," coach Ryan Looney said. "They're getting in better shape, but they're also getting tougher mentally."

Lawson, 44, who has been running these boot camp-style training courses for almost two decades, says basketball saved his life. He grew up in an alcoholic family in Massachusetts. The basketball courts were his safe haven and his coaches were his mentors and models.

"I had a very violent home life," he said. "Fist fights. It was ugly growing up. My mentors took me out on the court. Instead of being in that house, instead of being in the middle of fist fights and knife fights and trying to pick my parents up off the floor, I was on the courts. If it wasn't for those mentors and for basketball I'd either be dead of in jail now. And now this is my giveback."

Late in the workout, players lie on their backs with their legs spread in the air and make chopping motions between their legs. Lawson calls these "Woodchoppers."

Then he orders them on all fours, asks them to lean on their forearms and lift one leg in the air. The players groan and their pain is scrawled on their faces.

"The first day they looked at me like I was a nut case. Like I was a crazy man," Lawson said. "Those first days, there were people buckling over, throwing up, yakking everything up, having trouble breathing. But now they're at that level where they're rarin' to go. At first they didn't attack these workouts. Not they're attacking everything."

Assistant coach Grant Leep, a former University of Washington forward, goes through the workout with the players. At one point he works on a resistance drill, just Lawson and him, and it looks like the first round of UFC fight.

The players hoot their encouragement.

"I think Mike has pushed me harder than anyone's ever pushed me before," sophomore point guard David Downs said. "Now my expectations for myself have increased so much more. Before I thought I could only get through half the drills we did today.

"The first day we were wondering, 'Who the heck is this guy? And what have we gotten ourselves into?' Now, when he tells us to do another thing, I get upset, but I know I can get through it. I never thought I could get through something like this."

Bellowing about snipers and weapons and promising these players that, "This is going to hurt," Sgt. Mike has made believers out of profound skeptics.

"All of us have noticed that our bodies have completely changed," Harazin says. "You can feel the difference in your legs. You can feel the difference in your arms and in your cardio, your core, your back. It's awesome.

"He's taught us to push through our weaknesses. We're jumping higher. We're running faster. You can just tell, our legs on defense have completely changed. And now we think if we can get through Mike's workout, we can get through anything."

Lawson joined the team for spring drills last season. Because of those drills, Heisey said all of her players' two-mile times improved, some by as much as a minute.

"I think we've built a camaraderie," Heisey said. "It's like every day you're pushing each other. You can't do it without the person next to you. There's this sense of a team and a sense of pride. Players are thinking, 'We're all doing this. And this is hard and everybody's getting better.' "

Downs said none of the players have ruined the varnish on "Lawson's" floor. "But we have used these," he sat, patting a metal trash can.

"A few of us have thrown up," Harazin said. "Some don't make it to the garbage cans. I've been right on the verge a few times, but I've kept it down because I get embarrassed."

Sometime this season, in the swelter of a conference game, or the last minutes of a tournament-elimination game, Harazin or Downs, or one of their teammates will push the ball, under pressure, up the floor.

And, somewhere in their head, they'll hear the voice of Sgt. Mike, "Attack this course."

And they will attack.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or

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Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation. | 206-464-2176


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