It was Steven Adams’ birthday and Santi Aldama wanted to give him ham. A cake, obviously, would have been the more traditional thing, but it’s not every day a group of 23 pro basketball players gather together in a gym that looks like a futuristic UFO hangar, managed by Jose Calderon, overlooking the Alboran Sea. This had to be special.
The occasion — beyond Adams’ birthday — is a performance retreat called The Sanctuary. Now in its second year, the part training session, part cultural encounter is a three-day event put on by the NBPA, who fondly refer to it as a kind of hybridized “performance box”.
“This is not a camp,” Matteo Zuretti, the NBPA’s Chief of International Relations and Marketing, stresses to Dime, on a call from The Sanctuary, “We don’t program it. We give them a box, and they put whatever they want inside.”
Zuretti, one of the minds behind The Sanctuary and its programming, is originally from Rome but now based in New York City for his job with the Player’s Association. In the NBA offseason, Zuretti would hear from international players who wanted to spend the summers at home, but felt like they were missing out on something when their American teammates shared videos and photos of themselves participating in summer camps and training runs. Zuretti, with a foot in Europe and the States, had a personal understanding of that gap.
“It’s hard to find similar conditions that the guys have in the U.S. elsewhere in the world,” Zuretti says, “I said, let’s take the conditions the guys have in L.A., Miami, Atlanta, and bring it in a beautiful place abroad.”
Enter Calderon, who was in the process of transitioning out of his role in the league to manage a state-of-the-art basketball facility in Marbella, a small seaside city a stone’s throw from the bustling hub of Malaga. Zuretti reached out to Calderon with the idea, and, with the help of the Ministry of Tourism and Sports Andalucia, the inaugural Sanctuary was launched in the summer of 2022. Last year, 14 players attended. This year that nearly doubled, including some Sanctuary alumni like Mason Plumlee, Immanuel Quickley, and Jaylen Brown (who had some Boston media complaining that his involvement in the program was holding up sealing the deal on his now historic contract extension).
“I think there’s something to be said for a place to go and be away and focus,” Plumlee told Dime, when asked what made him want to take time out of his summer to return to the program. “To me, what they’ve set up here is really unique. I’m not familiar with anything else like it. It just allows you to enjoy the game, be in the gym, and they make everything around it easy.”
That sense of ease was a crucial aspect Zuretti and the NBPA hoped to cultivate through The Sanctuary and its offerings. NBA athletes account for a very small group of people that are nevertheless accustomed to being “bombarded by the best of the best at every level of their life,” Zuretti said. Part of how The Sanctuary hopes to entice players to return or try it out are a curated selection of “high touch” experiences highlighting the rugged, bucolic and historic sights of Andalucia, peppered with perks like access to private yachts, rounds of golf at some of the beautiful nearby courses, or planned excursions to explore the culture of the region. Another way is through the most reliable resource the NBPA has: reviews to members from other members.
“Doesn’t matter that they’re members and they trust our union, you need to build a compelling thing. And sometimes the compelling angle is guaranteed by advocates who came before, kind of the trail blazers who say ‘Oh, let me try it.’ I’m more curious than anybody else, I want to travel the world,” Zuretti says of how crucial word of mouth has been in growing the program. “There are players that are just more inclined, and are more educated global citizens, and we really leverage them to be the advocates in the locker room that can talk about this experience and kind of be the stamp of approval.”
“Personally, I just love to travel. So any reason to go and see the world, I’m always about it,” Plumlee chuckles when asked about his own impetus to return. But he’s practical, too. “Some of my teammates from Charlotte came this year, and I’m always encouraging guys to come out because it makes for better pick up games.”
Beyond the floor, one of the big additions to this summer’s Sanctuary programming was the addition of The Summit, a speaker series featuring a mix of executives, investors, leaders in sports science, plus athletes from other leagues, like Ndamukong Suh, and former NBA players Andre Igoudala and Evan Turner, who did a live session of their Point Forward podcast with Sanctuary attendees, Jaylen Brown and Donovan Mitchell.
Plumlee, who’s had a fulsome NBA career and just signed a new one-year deal to stay on with the Clippers, finds something like The Sanctuary valuable on multiple fronts. Beyond the travel aspect, he’s liked learning about “what’s the latest and greatest” technology in health, wellness, and injury prevention. Especially things that don’t “always translate to the locker room or your season routine” like cryochambers and meditation floating beds that use “water without getting wet”. It’s also a place where, outside of the hectic 82-game season and postseason beyond, he can catch up with friends around the league.
“You know how it is, the NBA is small, but to get a chance to connect with some of those guys is really fun,” Plumlee says. “As you’re older in the league — like I got to play with Donovan Mitchell in the World Cup, it’s great to see him here. Nick Richards, I even saw Evan Turner here who’s doing his podcast, he was a teammate in Portland.”
For Zuretti, keeping that sense of brotherhood central in who was invited to take part in The Sanctuary’s second year was all-important. The NBPA is, after all, a working union. The Sanctuary’s programming, robust and thoughtful as it is, could never really compare to the vacations or offseason activities players could have on their own time, with their own earnings. What it’s meant to do is instil a sense of togetherness, or a connection to the larger whole of the Player’s Association. It’s why the attendee mix, while balanced, skews young, because those are the people the NBPA wants invested to keep itself a strong, viable and well-informed organization.
“Historically, the general image of the union is one that’s going to help and support the guys transitioning, the guys who are in trouble,” Zuretti says. “Here, we want to get the young guys closer to us. Forty percent of the players who are participating in our programs are under 25 years old.”
“In the end, we’re in the business of creating leaders,” he continues. “Leaders who can be at the CBA table, that can help us figure out what data ownership means, or what their needs are in the offseason. We represent the collective. And we also recognize this is not a monolith. There are different facets of life. And when we build community and have these crossovers, it’s fantastic.”
Moreover, as the NBA continues to stress growth on a global scale as one of the league’s main economic drivers, it becomes all the more important for an organization like the NBPA to expose its members — some who’ve never travelled outside the U.S. before — to the wider world. For professional preparation through exposure as much as for personal growth.
Which is why the ham that Aldama presented Adams, an entire leg of cured jamón ibérico, a specialty of the region that looked giant even as Adams hoisted it up in the air, was so important. Aldama grew up in Las Palmas, a city not within the Iberian Peninsula but on the Canary Islands, a chain closer to south-western Morocco than Spain but whose residents count themselves as fiercely Spanish. Adams is a proud New Zealander. The two journeyed halfway around the world to eventually become teammates in Memphis and now, Aldama wanted to welcome Adams to where it was he came from.
“We could’ve given him a cake but we said, No! Let’s give him a jamon,” Zuretti laughs. “These cultural nuances are what drives us, drives the guys. We really want to help them become global citizens, and that’s a great example of friendship, brotherhood and the joy to share their own culture with each other.”
At the end of the day, no matter the sleek facilities or the bespoke experiences on offer, the “performance box” The Sanctuary offers provides a rarer thing. It allows a quiet enclave outside of the churning world of the game, or even the cascade of catching up on social obligations and celebrations in an athlete’s offseason. A place to slow down, palm a basketball, or eat jamon right off the leg with a bunch of the biggest guys you know.