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Sharpe: Small town boy makes it big

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By Melanie Schumilas

Not many people can say they are working their dream job, but Bedford native Joe Sharpe certainly can.

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“The running joke between me and my mother was that I was going to watch sports my whole life and get paid for it,” said Sharpe, who is currently  the head trainer for the OKC Thunder.

Sharpe opted to “watch sports for a living” instead of playing them due to a myriad of injuries he suffered as a triple-sport athlete at Liberty HS.  Sharpe’s struggles with reoccurring injuries inadvertently sparked his interest in athletic training.

“When it’s just a coach taking care of you, you realize there has to be a better way,” said Sharpe about the lack of athletic training staff in high school.  “There has to be a better way than a coach telling you to put your foot in an ice bucket.”

After doing a research project about sports medicine in his high school English Composition class, Sharpe decided to continue studying the topic at Old Dominion University. He completed his bachelor degree in sports medicine education with a emphasis in athletic training and also received his master’s degree from ODU in 1993.

During his time at ODU, Sharpe got his first hands-on experience with athletic training.

He mainly worked with baseball and men’s and women’s tennis, but he dabbled in assisting basketball, rugby and soccer. To gain experience with football, Sharpe had to travel to Norfolk State University to work with their football team since ODU didn’t have a team. 

Although Sharpe has been working in professional basketball for 15 years, he didn’t think this was the sport he’d end up working in.

“I thought coming out of college and doing my internships in the NFL that football was where I wanted to go,” said Sharpe, referring to the summer internship he did with the Cleveland Browns. “My goal was to work for the NFL and with a NFL team and then retire in the NFL, but now that all changed and basketball is my passion. I really enjoy what I’m doing now.”

After graduating from ODU, Sharpe began his journey into the NBA at the University of Connecticut, where he served as the head basketball athletic trainer for nine years. During his stint with the Huskies, Sharpe got to witness their 1999 NCAA Championship season. He also received a valuable piece of advice from UConn’s football coach, Randy Edsall.

“He told me ‘Make sure they know you care abut them, and then teach them how they can take care of themselves,’” reiterated Sharpe. “That was the best piece of advice I ever received.”

After nearly a decade with the Huskies, Sharpe broke into the NBA by becoming the assistant trainer and strength and conditioning coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2002.

“It was different in many ways,” said Sharpe of his transition from working in college basketball to professional basketball. “It’s a different approach. I was a little intimidated because the media can sometimes paint a bad picture of a player, so I didn’t know what to expect. But once the cameras are gone, they’re just like you and me... They like to have a laugh, they like to have fun and enjoy what they’re doing.”

Sharpe enjoyed two years of work with the Timberwolves, which included their Midwest Division title and run to the Western Conference finals.

Sharpe then moved on the the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004 where he became the head athletic trainer.

“It was interesting to go from a team like Minnesota that’s already been established, to a team that’s a start up,” said Sharpe on his move to Charlotte. “The community had lost a team and then had gotten it back for the first time. I had a chance to kind of establish things early and keep things going. I’ve seen an arena go from the ground to the ceiling and been a part of planning out my space in the building. That was cool.”

Sharpe spent four years with the Bobcats before landing at his latest job. In the summer of 2008, Sharpe had already verbally committed to becoming an assistant trainer for the Washington Wizards, but a surprise phone call from the OKC Thunder changed his plans.

“It was an opportunity to be a head trainer instead of an assistant,” explained Sharpe. “I also had a young family and I didn’t think living in Washington was going to be the best thing for them.”

Sharpe joined the Thunder at the same time Russell Westbrook did, and he said despite the media’s portrayal of Westbrook, he’s one of the nicest guys he’s met. Sharpe considers forging friendships with the players he trains and works with one of the favorite aspects of his jobs.

“We have great people to work with and I’ve developed great friendships over the years,” said Sharpe. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with big names in college such as Ray Allen, and then Kevin Garnett in Minnesota to Russell Westbrook... All men I consider to be better people than basketball players.”

Besides working for NBA teams for 15 years, Sharpe has been an integral part of USA Basketball since 2002. Through USA Basketball, he travelled to Venezuela in 2002 with the USA Basketball Junior National Team and then in 2008 to Thailand for The University World Games.

Sharpe also had the honor of working with the 2012 and 2016 USA Basketball Olympic Teams. Working with Coach K, a man he had admired for many years, and winning his first Olympic gold medal in London, are two memories he cherishes.

Evidently, Sharpe has been quite busy over the past few summers, which can pose a challenge to maintaining a balanced family life.

“The biggest thing I do when I’m home is that I’m home... That means I try to leave my phone away as much as possible,” said Sharpe in regards to finding the balance between a rigorous work schedule and being a family man. “Whatever the kids or my wife Jennifer want to do, I make sure I follow their schedule. When I’m home, I just want to be present.”

Strong family values are something that was instilled in Sharpe as a young boy growing up in Bedford. Sharpe said the lessons he learned from small town life are ones he still carries today in his everyday life.

“One, be respectful to others. Two, there’s nothing wrong with a hard day’s work. The values I learned as a kid were phenomenal and that hasn’t changed in me,” said Sharpe. “I wish the job was closer to Bedford, so I could be more there to share it with the folks. But, then again, I left a small town, but the small town never left me. No matter where I am, I’m still the little kid from Bedford.”