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Barber: Santa Rosa doctor Robert Nied now part of Warriors' medical team

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SAN FRANCISCO — Each floor of Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco Mission Bay medical offices on Owens Street is devoted to a different neighborhood in the city. The seventh floor has home-court advantage; it’s the Mission Bay floor, with industrial-spare furnishings and challenging art.

“I always say it looks like a tech startup that ran out of money,” Dr. Robert Nied said on a recent tour of the floor.

But Kaiser’s Sports Medicine Center isn’t lacking in resources. It has all the X-ray machines, CT scanners, MRI technology, free weights and flexibility devices you would hope for as a rehabbing patient, all arrayed along a circular floor plan with stunning views of the city.

The seventh floor also holds a few clues to its specialized function. There’s a stress echocardiogram machine, the kind that delivers the heart tests the NBA requires annually of its players, and a VO2 max device for measuring the aerobic fitness level of elite athletes. Oh, and very tall doors. Here on the seventh floor, they stretch from floor to ceiling. Even a 7-footer like Willie Cauley-Stein can enter an exam room without ducking.

In most respects, Nied is a typical (if accomplished) sports doctor at a typical (if well-appointed) medical building. Since July, he also happens to be one of the Warriors’ two team doctors, along with orthopedist Christopher Lehman, who shares these offices.

For Nied, who had worked at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa since 2003, it has been a traumatic and exhilarating couple of years. He, his wife Kris and their two daughters lost their home in Fountaingrove and most of their earthly possessions in the 2017 Tubbs fire. Nied was not alone in his loss; three of Kaiser Permanente’s four Santa Rosa-based sports physicians were made homeless by those October fires.

The Nieds did not rebuild in Fountaingrove. They are currently renting a home in the Castlerock neighborhood. More recently, Robert Nied pulled up his professional roots, but this time it was based on opportunity rather than necessity. Nied couldn’t pass up the chance to help Kaiser expand the Sports Medicine Center. He calls that “the cake.” Working with the Warriors is the icing that everybody wants to talk about.

Kaiser Permanente and the Warriors have been corporate partners for years. The relationship got exponentially cozier when the team moved into Chase Center this year. The two organizations are teaming up on the Thrive City project, an 11-acre outdoor area around Chase that they promise will host recurring wellness activities for San Francisco residents, and on the conversion of the Warriors’ former Oakland practice facility into a space that serves local kids.

Part of the agreement calls for Kaiser to supply team doctors. It’s not such an unusual arrangement. Years ago, team physicians in all sports tended to be local MDs with moonlight contracts. These days, it tends to be a corporate partnership. The Giants’ doctors, for example, come from Dignity Health, while the 49ers’ head doctor is affiliated with Stanford Medicine. Until July, the Warriors had Stanford doctors, too.

There was heavy competition within Kaiser Permanente for the Warriors positions, as you might imagine. Nied checked a lot of boxes. Now 48, the Irvine native has a deep background in family medicine and sports medicine. He has been a frequent expert source for Press Democrat stories over the years.

One thing that probably made him a good candidate to work with the Warriors was Nied’s experience with athletic teams. He did that at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Michigan State and the University of Michigan. He was the official doctor for all Sonoma State teams for 15 years, and had a less formal role at Santa Rosa Junior College. Nied also has worked with the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team and the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State’s G League affiliate.

The doctor has guided the recovery of superior athletes before. But he acknowledges that everything surrounding the job is ramped up several levels when you’re working with the Warriors, winners of three of the past five NBA championships. The workplace, at least on game nights, is a roaring den of 18,000 people. The patients, even the ones in their mid-20s, have a greater understanding of how their bodies work than most of us gather in a lifetime. And every medical pronouncement is bound to come under withering scrutiny.

The Warriors found that out in June, during the NBA Finals, when Kevin Durant returned to action following a calf strain, only to tear his Achilles tendon. There wasn’t a shred of evidence that the Warriors’ medical team (this was before Nied and Lehman came aboard) showed any negligence in allowing Durant back onto the court, yet the decision was still being discussed when training camps opened at the beginning of October.

Nied understands the pressure of his new position. If I were to sprain my ankle, the doctor might tell me after an examination that it will take three or four weeks to get back to 80% of normal activity. And that would be good enough.

“In the NBA, you want to know, is it 19 days or is it 21 days? Because every day matters,” Nied said. “And today I can’t tell you if it’s 19 days or 21. But I’m gonna see you today, and I’m gonna see you in three days, and I’ll see you in six days, and I’ll see you in nine days, so we can see if it’s gonna be 19. So the intensity of that is different.”

That isn’t always a satisfying explanation for NBA fans, or the reporters who mediate the information.

“It can be really challenging when there are millions of people who are acutely interested in what’s happening,” Nied said. “With the NBA, everyone wants to know immediately exactly what’s going on, exactly how long things are gonna take. Some of it is just managing those expectations.”

Nied and Lehman aren’t in this alone, of course. The Warriors’ robust health staff includes director of sports medicine Rick Celebrini, head trainer Drew Yoder and strength and conditioning coach John Murray, among others.

Yoder is the first line of defense. He oversees the taping of graceful fingers and the stretching of long hamstrings (and the supply of Stephen Curry’s mouthpieces). The players interact with Yoder and his assistants pretty much every day. But if the Splash Brothers become the Crash Brothers, Gash Brothers or Rash Brothers, Nied is there to help.

Some of that happens at the arena. Chase Center has a small exam room with X-ray and ultrasound capabilities, hot and cold tubs, a submersible treadmill and sleep pods. If a player is injured during a game, or tweaks something beforehand, Nied and Lehman are likely to get an initial reading there.

Which raised an interesting issue for the inaugural basketball season at Chase: Where should the doctors sit during games? They had to be close enough to see the action, with direct access to the floor — something that isn’t possible from most sections of the new arena. To be frank, there were financial considerations; the best seats fetch a lot of money.

“There was a point when the arena was being built when we stood on the court with the Warriors’ medical staff and said, OK, where are we gonna be?” Nied recalled. “That included the ownership group.”

They settled on two seats behind one of the baskets, 15 rows up, on the aisle and close to the tunnel from the locker rooms. NBA doctors generally do not travel with their team, unless it’s on an extended trip like the one the Warriors took to China two years ago. They are on the scene for every home game, though, responsible for treating the visitors as well as the home team.

As Nied noted, he also is expected to consult with pretty much everyone in the organization, “from coaches to the equipment manager,” on routine fevers and sniffles. The players, of course, receive a higher level of attention.

“I tell my wife I’m kind of on call 24/7 during the season,” Nied said. “I certainly have gotten texted at 10:30 on a Saturday night.”

If a player needs an MRI or, more often, follow-up care, it tends to be done on Owens Street, which is four blocks from Chase Center. The players have a dedicated parking entrance and elevator so that they may avoid the crush of fans — though Klay Thompson has been known to stroll through the front door of the building and sit in the general waiting room because, you know, Klay Thompson.

Celebrini is the point person on all Warriors medical issues. But it is probably obvious to you by now that professional athletes are taking a more active role in their own health decisions. More than ever before, this is a collaboration.

Three months into the job, Nied said he is still gaining the trust of Warriors players. He misses his practice in Santa Rosa — he spends most weekends there, and has an apartment in San Francisco for work nights — but has been recharged by new challenges, new spaces and the charged atmosphere of NBA basketball.

“You can’t be a fan,” Nied said. “You’re there to do a job, and you need to stay professional. That said, it’s still pretty exciting to be there and be around all that. It’s a life experience that’s hard to describe or replicate. It’s bigger than life while you’re there.”

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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