By Esther Chou Tanaka
Through sweat and determination, two Cal Poly Pomona kinesiology alumni hold two of the most sought-after positions in Los Angeles sports.
Jasen Powell (’95, kinesiology) is the head athletic trainer for the Clippers, and Marco Nuñez (’01, kinesiology) is the head athletic trainer for the Lakers.
Powell, who is in his 18th season, became one of the youngest team athletic trainers in the NBA when he was 27. Although he played basketball throughout his youth and at Cal Poly Pomona, he didn’t intend to work in professional sports.
“An ankle is an ankle and a knee is a knee, no matter who it is,” he says. “I just wanted to be in the health-care profession and in sports, since I’ve been involved in sports all my life.”
After graduation, Powell took an unpaid internship with the Clippers and later worked for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers as an assistant athletic trainer. When the Clippers needed a head athletic trainer in 1999, team management remembered Powell and recruited him for the job.
Nuñez, a three-sport athlete who grew up in East L.A., also set his sights on a career in the sports industry.
During his junior year at Cal Poly Pomona, Nuñez wrote letters, sent emails and called every L.A.-area athletic trainer for an internship. Somehow, he got the home phone number for Lonnie Scott, the head athletic trainer for the incoming arena football team, the Los Angeles Avengers, and practically begged to do any job, no matter how menial. As an intern, Nuñez proved himself through his strong work ethic
and being the first one in and last one out.
A year later, the team offered Nuñez a full-time assistant trainer position on two conditions: He had to graduate from college and earn his certificate before the season began in April.
Nuñez considered his options. He was two quarters away from graduating in June 2001 but wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity.
“During my winter quarter, I took 24 units and knocked it out,” he says.
“Surprisingly, I got the highest GPA of all my years at Cal Poly Pomona. It was just crazy. I was able to graduate in winter quarter, take my test and become the assistant trainer for the Avengers.”
Since then, he’s worked as the head trainer for the WNBA’s L.A. Sparks and the L.A. D-Fenders (the Lakers’ developmental league team), and also as the assistant trainer for the Lakers before netting the top job in summer 2016.
Nuñez and Powell have crossed paths many times and have been friends for years. Both alumni met their wives – their better halves, they say – at Cal Poly Pomona. Krista Nuñez (’00, behavioral sciences) is a school psychologist for Santa Ana Unified. Mia Powell (‘97, business), who was also a college basketball player, is a nurse at Pomona Valley Medical Center. Their teams share the Staples Center, and they’ve also gotten
to know one another through their professional organization, the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association.
At one point, Nuñez was a signature away from joining Powell and the Clippers.
In 2011 during the 5½-month NBA lockout, the Lakers didn’t extend Nuñez’s contract as assistant athletic trainer so he started looking for work.
“I was kind of like a free agent. Jasen called me and offered me a job to work with the Clippers. It was pretty much a done deal to the point where I just had to sign my contract,” Nuñez says. “All of a sudden, I get a call from [Lakers head trainer] Gary Vitti who said, ‘The lockout’s over and we’re going to start work tomorrow.’ ”
What unfolded next sounded like contract negotiations with a star player. After Nuñez told Vitti of the Clippers’ offer, Nuñez received a call from Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who invited him to come in the office. Kupchak asked him to reconsider.
“There was the opportunity to be with the Lakers and the opportunity to become the head trainer,” Nuñez says. “I knew that there was a chance that Gary would retire in two or three years and if I did what I did and all the stars aligned correctly, there was a very good chance I would move into this spot.”
From Powell’s perspective, he lost out on the opportunity to hire a fellow Bronco.
“Marco talked about taking care of your own, having a brotherhood. I thought it would be a unique story with both of us working for the same team,” says Powell, who often jokes with Nuñez about his bitter disappointment in the negotiations.
“This is even more powerful — two Cal Poly Pomona alumni are holding down thetwo NBA jobs in L.A.”
From a fan’s perspective, it might seem like the trainers are lucky to hob-nob with star athletes every day, but it’s quite the opposite. When Nuñez has student trainers or interns, he tells them that the job isn’t about selfies or chatting with players. The daily grind is much less glamorous – taping up players, doing laundry, making sure the bus arrives on time, taking inventory or cleaning up the training room.
Well into their careers, they’ve gotten over the celebrity aspect of the job. Nuñez, though, remembers one moment when he saw renowned British chef Gordon Ramsey sitting near the Lakers bench.
“I’m a huge foodie,” he says. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my God. Gordon Ramsey is here.’ That was my starstruck moment.”
When they think about their college years, Powell and Nuñez talk about the foundation and opportunity that Cal Poly Pomona provided.
“I was a student-athlete, got a free education and played sports,” says Powell, who has added director of medical services to his title. “Without that foundation, without that discipline that Cal Poly Pomona was able to give me, I wouldn’t be where I’m at. Other variables played a big part as well – family, friends, loved ones.”
At Cal Poly Pomona, Nuñez sought to combine his classroom learning with his work experience as a peer health educator.
“The combination of the classes and working at the health center all came together,” he says. “I learned foundational skills at Cal Poly Pomona. Once you learn the foundation, you can move forward and adapt and change.”
Of course, career success pales in comparison with the most important outcome of their college experience.
“Meeting my wife at Cal Poly Pomona was probably the best thing ever,” Powell says. “I met my best friend. You’ve got to put that in there.”
Esther Chou Tanaka is the director of the Office of Public Affairs at Cal Poly Pomona.