As the Toronto Raptors head athletic therapist, Scott McCullough (Sports Injury Management ’95) has been courtside for some high-stress games over the past 13 years.
Still, nothing comes close to the pressure McCullough felt on June 13, 2019 – the night the Raptors made history and won the franchise’s first-ever NBA championship. In the final few minutes of the game, the Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors, ending the neck-and-neck matchup at 114-110.
“Prior to the playoff games, we tried to keep everything normal to a regular season game,” says McCullough. “Our coaches, players and staff were fantastic at staying in the moment. We were never too high or too low. Once we won Game 6, that all changed.”
McCullough remembers the elation of being on stage in Oakland’s Oracle Arena for the trophy presentation. Then, as fireworks exploded and thousands of fans mobbed the streets back in Toronto, McCullough and the team met at a local San Francisco restaurant and celebrated until early morning, before hopping a plane for Las Vegas to spend another night commemorating the championship. Then came the championship parade, which drew over one-million fans into the streets.
“It was a wonderful feeling to win with this group of people,” he says. “And being able to have my family at the finals games in Toronto made it much more special to me.”
Before joining the Raptors in 2006, McCullough served as an athletic trainer with the Vancouver Grizzlies, moving with the team when they were relocated to Memphis, Tenn. in 2001. McCullough says being part of a team to win the Larry O’Brien trophy is a true highlight of his 24-year career, which also includes serving as the Eastern Conference Head Athletic Trainer for the All-Star Game in 2011 in Los Angeles, and again in 2016 in Toronto.
Now, as the Raptors get set for the upcoming season, McCullough shares a bit more about his road to the NBA Championship, and to his career in athletic therapy.
What do you view as some of the biggest challenges and successes leading up to the championship?
Our biggest challenge, as with every season, is trying to maintain the health and welfare of the athletes. As with all sports or competitions, the NBA schedule can be grueling. We work with our coaches and management to develop a program that places our athletes in the best position to succeed and will allow them to peak at the right time of year. We played an extra 24 games this season and were continually working as an organization to ensure the proper health care for the athletes.
What was it like being part of the parade?
The parade was something that cannot be put into words. The number of fans that came out to support our organization was the most astonishing thing I have ever witnessed. The pictures and videos do not do it justice. We definitely have the greatest fans in the NBA.
You and the rest of the Raptors training staff have individual programs set up with each player. What do those kinds of programs entail?
We perform a multitude of tests with each player, trying to evaluate any deficiencies or poor movement patterns, and then create a program that focuses on their individual issues. This, of course, comes from input from the entire medical team. We will talk with the player about the program and make sure that everyone is on board with the schedule. We will then re-evaluate at various intervals to adjust the program as needed.
"The biggest thing for me is to stay in the moment. I try to focus on the task at hand and when an injury occurs, I focus my attention on that player. "
You’ve worked as an athletic therapist for over 24 years – how has your approach changed? Any lessons learned?
Sports medicine has changed so much since I entered the league. Medical staffs have expanded to include multi-disciplined members such as nutritionists and mental health professionals. We continue to expand our approach to not only treating injuries, but most importantly, preventing injuries.
As the head athletic therapist, I must be able to perform a multitude of tasks and work alongside a wide variety of practitioners, coaches, management, league officials and most importantly, the athletes The biggest lesson I’ve learned, and one piece of advice I try and give young students or therapists, is to always be open minded and listen. I enjoy working with such a wide variety of medical practitioners and continue to learn from them. We have a wonderful medical staff and they push me to be better each day.
Your career often has you in high-pressure situations where you need to make quick decisions – how do you manage the pressure?
The biggest thing for me is to stay in the moment. I try to focus on the task at hand and when an injury occurs, I focus my attention on that player. We perform situational training with our medical staff and EMS unit prior to each season. Our entire medical team works as a unit and that makes me feel comfortable that I have solid and experienced people at the ready. Twenty-four years of experience has helped me a great deal. When an issue occurs, we as a staff will review what we did and what we can do to be better.
How has your education helped you with your career?
My experience at Sheridan College helped me tremendously in preparing for my career. The teaching and clinical staff were not only wonderful at educating us in the field of Athletic Therapy, but they were confidants and supporters. I was extremely lucky to have the friends, teachers and clinical staff I had during my years at Sheridan. They pushed me to reach for the stars and be the best that I could be. Sheridan College remains a place where an individual can learn, grow and reach for heights never imagined.
What is your strategy going forward in the upcoming season?
Going into this season, my focus is the same as it has always been. I am continually trying to improve myself and working with our entire staff to give our organization the best opportunity to be successful.
I feel that it is the approach of the entire organization. We accomplished something amazing last season and our focus remains on winning this season.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photography courtesy of Raptors.com