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Back 7.10.2018

Cycling’s a Slam Dunk for Former Indiana Pacers Star Darnell Hillman

SRAM ambassador and retired ABA/NBA star Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman talks about being a new cyclist. He hopes to inspire more seniors to incorporate cycling into a healthy lifestyle.

Darnell Hillman is 68-years-old, and he’s begun a new athletic adventure—cycling. The former Indiana Pacers star and 1977 NBA Slam Dunk contest winner became a Zipp and SRAM ambassador late last year. He’s part of a new SRAM initiative to engage retired professional athletes with cycling as a means of training, rehabilitation, fitness, and overall wellness. At 6-foot-9, Hillman—nicknamed Dr. Dunk—excelled as a center and power forward with the Indiana Pacers, New Jersey Nets, Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors. These days, he’s the Pacers’ Director of Camps and Clinics and Alumni Relations. We talked with him about his cycling experiences so far in 2018. He's also talking up the Indiana Pacers Bikeshare program as a way for players and everyone to get around downtown Indianapolis. Below is an edited transcript:

You received your new bike just before winter. Now that it’s warmer and you can ride, tell us about your experience as a new cyclist?

When the weather was really bad, I decided before I get on the bike I want to be in some type of condition. So, I started my morning stretches again. I do a little light weight lifting. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to have any injuries that really impact doing my (basketball) camps. So I take it easy, a little at a time and gradually built to it.

My first day out I was on the bike maybe 7 or 8 minutes seeing how far out I could get from the house and then turn around and come back. The reason I turned around and came back was the seat was starting to annoy me a little bit. I knew I was going to have to condition myself a little at a time with that. About three days after that I got the chance to go back out. This time I went out for 1 or 1 ½ miles. I took it really easy, trying to get used to the changes in the gears.

The second time out when I got back from the mile ride, I felt really good. The muscles worked really well. What I really noticed about it was the thigh and the back (of legs), which is what I really wanted to build. My glutes. I noticed when I get down into that hard gear, that really attacks the glutes the way I want it to.

It was probably close to a week before I was able to ride again. This time I decided to go for time. I gave myself 13, 14 minutes to see how far out I could get and then come back home. I did notice some pains. I don’t think were caused by the bike, but I think they were related to some basketball stuff… I’ve got four herniated discs in my back.

Overall riding the bike has given me my past experiences of riding on the motorcycle. I’ve enjoyed that open air and wind blowing in your face. The only difference is I have to generate the power. That’s been fun….

When I get done playing golf at night I get cramps in my shins. I came in from the golf course and (the bike) was sitting there. I jumped on it and rode around the block… that night I didn’t get a single cramp, which was unusual, because early in my golf (season) before I get in shape, I’m always getting cramps. I’m wondering if the stretching I’m doing in the morning, because I want to ride, and then riding the bike are building my legs up where I’m not going to have that problem.

How often do you try to ride?

If the weather would permit, I probably could do three, maybe four times a week. I come in from the evening from work, it’s about 5:30 or quarter to 6, change clothes, jump on the bike.

Do you ride in your neighborhood in Indianapolis?

I usually ride in my neighborhood, but I have gone down to (an area in Indianapolis) where there used to be an amusement park. From 38th street all the way down to 16th Street. It’s pretty flat and it’s a wide road…. My sister has a great location where the Monon Trail is. I’m thinking about getting out over there.

It sounds like it’s been a beneficial thing.

It’s been positive. I’ve enjoyed it. I’m tickled about it because I keep going back to when I was playing and I lived in pretty much the same neighborhood and I’d ride from my neighborhood over to Eagle Creek (coincidentally where the Zipp lunch ride typically heads) and back. It’s like, ‘OK, I need to do that again!’

In keeping a journal of your riding, did you do that during your athletic career?

When I was getting ready for training camp then I would keep a diary of what I’m doing to get into condition, so that when training camp comes I’ll know I can run with the guards, rather than run with the big guys. So when I went out and did the first ride, I came back and said, ‘let me jot this down.’ I had a notebook at my desk and I jotted everything down. I brought the notebook with me for my second ride to make sure I captured everything on it.

At your job with the Indiana Pacers, you’re bending down, sitting down, kneeling down with kids. You’re doing summer basketball camps and doing reading groups with kids. So, is this is a busy season for you?

This is the busiest time for me because I have the basketball camps every day until the middle of August. Then we have reading timeouts that we do that will go to July, and then any personal appearance requests. I used to play in 30 golf outings during the summer. I’ve only played in two so far… (The bike) is going to take up a lot of that, staying outdoors, staying physically active. If I don’t get the golf in, then 15 minutes on the bike can do a whole lot.

You mentioned you do sprints on the bike.

I wanted to see just what kind of impact it would have on me.

How long were they?

The sprints were a little over 100 yards. But it was in the hardest gear I had on the bike. I really wanted to just see how fast I could get it up to speed and how it was going to hurt so I could then figure out, OK, here’s what you need to do to build before you do this again.

Is it a challenge for professional athletes to maintain fitness after they retire? They often have a lot of wear and tear on their bodies.

It is. If they maintain some kind of light conditioning, it’s more mental than it is physical because after we’re done with basketball it’s like, ‘man, my body needs to rest.’ But after you rest, then your body starts to change. You get bigger and heavier. When I retired from basketball, I went up to 300 pounds and I didn’t know who I was. My sister had a picture of me on her refrigerator, I said, ‘who is this?’ She said, ‘That’s a picture of you!’

What was your playing weight?

I played at about 215 pounds.

What are you now?

I’m less than 200. I’m a bachelor, and I hate cooking!

Our program at work through our insurance, we have nurses that come in and check every employee in there, weight, blood pressure, the whole thing. If there’s something wrong, they give you a report back and you’ll come back in see the nurse again the next month. I’m once every six months.

Do you do resistance training?

I may lift 25-pound, 30-pound dumbbell weights, that would be the most. If I’m looking to really tax my body, I’ll start on the floor level of our building (Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis) and walk the stairs all the way to the very top.

Do you mean the balcony?

Yes. You start from the floor where the players are and you do all the stairs.

Do you go to every home game?

I’m at every home game, that’s part of my job.

So you do a lot of walking during the games?

On a typical daily basis, I’ll walk a little over 3 1/2 miles. On a game day, we get into work around 8:30 and I’ll go to 5… Then we have the game, which is another five hours. I’m really walking there. Up and down the stairs nonstop. I don’t stop until the beginning of the fourth quarter, I try to get in a place where I can pick up (Basketball Hall of Famer former coach and longtime radio broadcaster) Bobby “Slick” Leonard on a golf cart.

Do you watch the Tour de France?

I watch it all the time! Anything that has to do with speed or wheels, I’m watching it. I watch motorcycle races. I watch stock cars. I watch IndyCars. The Tour de France. I have a Ninja motorcycle…. Riding my motorcycle and then riding this bike, the sensations are very similar. I really enjoy that.

What Darnel Hillman Rides

A 6-foot-9 rider needs a purpose-built bike. Hillman’s bike is a 64cm frame is outfitted for comfort, simplicity, and adventure:
• SRAM Force 1 with HRD hydraulic disc brakes.
• Zipp 303 Firecrest Carbon Clincher Disc brake wheels.
• Zipp Service Course SL-80 handlebars, 46cm wide.
• Zipp Service Course SL stem, 140mm long.
• Zipp SL Speed seatpost, 400mm long.
• Zipp Tangente Course R30 tires, 30mm wide.
• Zipp Service Course CX bar tape.