In the winter of 1989-90, Gil Reyes was head strength and conditioning coach for the UNLV basketball team. Led by Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon, the Runnin' Rebels capped off a national title with a 30-point win over Duke. Las Vegas had Rebel fever.
But after the season, Reyes walked. He passed on being part of a repeat opportunity at UNLV for another challenge: Training a local tennis phenom named Andre Agassi
"He was so ready to train hard," Reyes recalled in a phone interview. "The kid was so willing to work."
Agassi was 19 when Reyes became as his trainer. Agassi showed promise as a top tier tennis player fundamentally, but physically had restrictions. At 5-11, Agassi's height was inferior to many of his opponents. He also was born with the back condition spondylolisthesis, the displacement of a vertebra, which further limited his abilities.
For Reyes, that meant a few things. First, if Agassi was going to reach the top of the tennis world, he needed to work harder than any of his competitors. Second, he needed equipment designed specifically for his body. Third, Agassi needed all of the equipment to be safe.
The two spent the next two decades constructing safe fitness equipment styled for Agassi's desired workouts. Agassi also put in all the energy his body could give to reap the benefits. The result: Eight grand slam titles, an Olympic gold medal, 101 weeks as the ATP No. 1 ranked player and a Hall of Fame plaque.
And now a fitness equipment line featuring machines modeled after the ones Agassi used in his playing days.
On Sept. 10 in New York, one day after the U.S. Open, BILT by Agassi & Reyes will be put on public display for the first time with 12 pieces of equipment.
"BILT has, no pun intended, literally been built over decades," Agassi said in a phone interview.
In the early 90s, Reyes was a skilled and creative trainer. He was full of strength and conditioning knowledge, but he was also willing to try new things. Agassi was an energetic kid with a focus. He wanted to train in the best way possible to become the best tennis player possible. And he would stop at nothing until he had that.
"I needed Andre to teach me what he needed as an athlete, as a tennis player," Reyes said. "The design certainly had to apply to his needs out there, so you might say it was a perfect collaboration of me wanting to learn what he needed and him being such a good teacher at telling me what he needed."
Agassi remembers the origins a bit differently. When he heard of Gil giving him much of the credit, he chuckled.
"Gil is a very humble man, so he is probably erring on the side that I had more to do with it than he does, which I don't believe to be the case," Agassi said. "I watched him over 20 years care for me so personally that he literally hand built every piece of equipment I trained on. Little did he know at the time, many of these pieces of equipment didn't exist. He knew how important they were. We had to get stronger without risking injury."
When Agassi began training with Reyes, the kind of equipment he wanted was not found in gyms. Machines did not go the right way and were not as kind to his muscles as he would have liked. Weight was not always distributed correctly and muscles were put in vulnerable positions.
Agassi and Reyes concluded on an answer to their problem: Build their own machines.
"He was up for the task and we thought if we went about it right, not only would his career be enhanced, but it would be prolonged," Reyes said. "I told Andre I would build the machines for him and he said, 'Do you know how to weld?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Well, how are you going to do it?' I said, 'I have no idea.' I told him I would figure it out and get them built for him."
Their experiment worked, even though Agassi had little experience designing fitness equipment and Reyes had limited experience with power tools. But they followed their dream and became fitness pioneers.
"I'm not a trained welder or designer," Reyes said. "I just did it because I wanted to make sure the kid was training on the right stuff. Not only what he needed, but most importantly, what was safe for him not to injure himself while training."
Year after year, Agassi and Reyes' prototypes evolved. Machines were tweaked and transformed, and new ones were born. Although Reyes says BILT is unique because the equipment was designed "specifically for one athlete," they believe everyone can benefit from safe, effective machines.
What makes these 12 machines different from any other pieces of fitness equipment? Plenty, but Agassi starts with the most important.
"The equipment is safe," he said. "It doesn't allow you to get yourself into a compromising position. It allows you to increase weight without exposing those little bits and pieces that don't have the capacity a muscle has: The tendons, the ligaments, the joints and so forth."
Using the machines, a person can work out any inch of muscle from the arms to the shoulders to the legs to the hips. Some equipment extends popular exercises, while others introduce relatively unknown movements.
It makes sense one of Agassi's favorite machines is the change of direction (C.O.D.) machine, which can be used to strengthen the back.
"It will get rid of and sort of make obsolete the best and worst lower body exercise known to man, which is the squat," Agassi said of the C.O.D. machine. "It's one of the great exercises for building strength and power, but it's also one of the worst because the bar sits on your spine and there's vulnerabilities you have to your knees.
"For the C.O.D., these pads go over your shoulder, there's no pressure on your spine, the arm swings and moves with you, so you can do dynamic lifting and movements with it, side shuffles and jumping if you want to get more vertical. It has a lever that allows you to get to the bottom of your movement and then lock it out, so that when you start all your movements, you know that you won't find yourself in a compromising position down low as it relates to your knees or your back. One might look at that and say it sounds like it should be at every college and university in the world and every high-tech training facility in the world and the answer's yes."
Another good example of BILT's safety features is the bench press. Although it may be among the oldest fitness pieces known to man, the bench press has also been one of the least modernized. The concept seems simple: Lift the bar up and down over one's chest.
Oh, and also use a spotter to lift the bar off the stand and to catch the bar in case you drop it on yourself.
"Having a spotter wasn't good enough for Gil," Agassi said. "The most dangerous part is the liftoff and what if the spotter lets go of that weight? It's destabilizing to gather yourself before you make your first move and your spotter better know your habits because timing is so important to a lifter getting their best lift in on that particular lift."
For this reason, Reyes changed the bench press for Agassi. He developed a set of arms that help bring the bench press bar to a person's sweet spot above their chest. When the individual takes the bar off the arms, the arms snap back out of the way to allow the workout to continue. This avoids the most dangerous part of the bench press routine, reaching back to grab the bar for the liftoff, which puts the shoulders in harm's way.
"If a BILT by Agassi & Reyes bench press is sitting next to a standard bench press, it will literally look like the difference between a Smart Board in a classroom versus a hundred years ago having a chalkboard," Agassi said.
After hand-making the prototypes for each of the machines, Reyes has trouble choosing his favorite. "Those machines are like my children, so I love them all equally," he cracked.
But one machine that resonates most with Reyes' past is the hip flexors machine. This piece of equipment allows the user to build muscles in the legs and hips while working out in a running motion.
"I would say that's the most important machine for Andre," Reyes said. "Jumps out on me most significantly and emotionally. I remember personal memories of Andre just grinding and grinding and grinding away on that machine."
It is easy to be intimidated by the BILT franchise. After all, Andre Agassi, one of the greatest athletes of the past century had them originally developed for his specific use. In recent years, a long list of professional tennis players from around the world including Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Fernando Verdasco, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, Jurgen Melzer and Sania Mirza have trained on BILT equipment with Reyes in Las Vegas as part of the Adidas Player Development program. Decathalon gold medalist Dan O'Brien is also among those who train with BILT.
But Agassi and Reyes believe anyone from an amateur athlete to an average gymgoer to a novice lifter should be able to use BILT equipment and feel the muscular reward that comes with working on it.
"We truly believe the intention was that they could be compatible with athletes or non-athletes alike and their bodies," Reyes said. "The design is unique and safety first."
There's that word again: Safety. It is the key focus of BILT and the main reason why anyone and everyone should use the equipment, according to Agassi and Reyes. Constructed with a spring-enhanced weight stack system, each machine alters its formula based on the weight level. As an individual changes the amount of weight on the stack, the springs stretch and open to the greatest point of resistance, different at each weight.
Now, average people may be taking a sigh of relief. They have the ability to work out on these effective, safe machines just like Agassi did. The machines are proven by Agassi's success on the tennis courts, so they should be able to make others stronger and healthier.
That's not all. The equipment has also been proven to be a source of longevity, not just a quick muscle boost. The early prototypes of BILT did not just give Agassi a short, elevated prime, but rather a long prime and a long career of Hall of Fame tennis. Agassi retired from professional tennis in 2006 at the age of 36. He also won five of his eight grand slam singles titles after his 29th birthday in 1999. As Agassi and Reyes improved their equipment, Agassi's play improved for a longer period of time, despite his age.
"I truly believe they were very, very instrumental in prolonging his career," Reyes says. "As history itself reveals, Andre literally got better as he got older. Andre strengthened himself and was a little more resilient to injury. Not only were they helpful to him, but they were also safe for him to train on. His back condition was always going to be a problem, but Andre said from the start, 'Gil, make me strong and I can win'."
Steve Miller, CEO of BILT by Agassi and Reyes, believes the company is unique not just in the equipment, but its business history.
"This was 20 years in the making, so I didn't happen overnight, and I don't think you'd call us an upstart," Miller said. "You'd call us kind of the long haul. It's like watching a singer that pops on the scene and you say, 'Well, where'd you come from?' and they tell you they've been singing for 20 years. You realize they've gone through the mills."
In an interesting twist of timing, Agassi and Reyes will unleash BILT at the end of a summer of doping scandals. In Major League Baseball, NL MVP candidate Melky Cabrera and former Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colón were suspended 50 games each for testosterone use. Belarusian shot putter Nadzeya Ostapchuk was stripped of her gold medal at the London Olympics for the presence of the anabolic agent metenolone. Lance Armstrong recently ended his fight against doping allegations made by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
Agassi and Reyes are embarrassed that performance-enhancing drugs are a part of the sports world they live in. Although it may be hard to ignore the use of PEDs in sports, they are doing their part in advocating hard work over doping to gain strength and muscle.
"You always find people who attempt to take shortcuts. You can't contain that. You can't stop that," Agassi said. "Sports is obviously under the spotlight and the one thing you can hold accountable and fans of sports should hold accountable are organizing bodies that are hopefully out of third party governances that protect the sport and its integrity. And that's what I judge when I look at a sport. Individuals you always find flaws and you always find people taking the low road, taking the easy road, taking the cheating road, whatever it may be, that happens and I'm afraid it happens not only in sports. It also happens in life."
Reyes, being the fitness guru, points not only to the immoral action of using performance-enhancing drugs, but also the health aspect. Steroids and other PEDs have proven to cause negative long-term effects. Reyes cannot stress enough how risky it is to one's health to use PEDs.
"Obviously the integrity of the sport is a problem, but not only that they're illegal, but that they're dangerous. You're really rolling the dice on your body," he says. "In my day, basketball players did not lift weights. It was taboo. Now you look at LeBron James who weighs 260 something pounds and the Dwight Howards and all these other people who are just incredible, incredible physical specimens. That's just where we are now. Weight training is going to become more and more because it is a part of not just athletes, but in general, just the culture. People like that look and the feel of muscle."
When Agassi and Reyes look at the size of athletes today, they are conflicted. The culture of athletics has changed and size has become arguably just as important as grace.
Viewing at Armstrong's situation as a fan, Agassi is unsure what to think.
"The accusations have been around Lance for a long period of time," Agassi said. "He has fought and it has never been proven and he has chosen this time around to not fight, separate from the judgment if that's an admission of guilt or not, which is easy for one to judge because judging is easy to do for people, I look and think Lance has been a fighter his whole life and I as a fan, was inspired by him and seeing him continue that fight, would have meant a great deal to me."
Agassi and Reyes are sure of one thing: Their machines are a safe way to go about building up one's body. No dangerous positions. No PEDs. Applicable to anyone.
Agassi is not the only person in his family who trains with BILT. His wife, 22-time grand slam singles champion Stefanie Graf, now uses BILT.
"She speaks very warmheartedly about how she wishes that was part of her career, and I obviously followed up with, 'I mean with this, you think you would have won like 42 slams?'," Agassi joked.
Even the best athletes of all-time have room for improvement with BILT. Agassi believes the equipment has altered Graf's physical health in her post-playing days.
"For the years that I was playing that we were married, we were there on a daily basis and she would get her workouts in and Gil slowly turned a very incredible athlete who spent a lot of time putting miles on her body. He started to really show her how to maximize time and build strength as she got older," Agassi said.
Agassi and Graf have some other family members who may soon be joining them in the gym with Reyes. Their son, Jaden, 10, and daughter, Jaz, 8, are nearing an age they may start to lift weights. There may be no better person to ask for guidance than Reyes, the man who showed Agassi the fitness ropes and has lived in the strength and conditioning world for 39 years.
"It's puberty," Reyes said. "In a young man, when his body began it's natural production of testosterone, which of course is the male hormone, which of course lends itself to hypertrophy, which is the muscles now, growing bigger stronger muscles with the proper hormonal and chemical process. It also helps prevent injuries."
Estrogen is the female hormone that is produced during puberty.
"I follow Gil's lead with my own children because he's proven to me over decades that he calculates everything that needs to be calculated in order to give you the best opportunity to succeed," Agassi said. "I would probably discourage any child from attempting to get strong before their body naturally kicks in to that state, and really allows them to do so. I think it would be unnatural to do it before puberty."
A journey that started with a young, spirited athlete and a caring, inventive trainer is about to reach its climax. Once upon a time, Gil Reyes toiled away with power tools in a garage to help his friend reach the strength of his competitors. Now, Reyes and Agassi are about to see two decades of design become a reality. Their original work will be shown off to the world.
"We were able to put machines together that kind of had a lot of the wow factor that people we see and think that's really cool," Reyes said. "We'd like to say that there was just one of a kind in the world. We really believe that. What we did was not only innovative, but we literally hit the spot for an athlete to train specifically for movement and speed and strength, and to do so safely. It was a long evolution, a long process, but I think we were on the track the whole time."
"I'm very excited, but the reason I'm excited is because I don't even feel the need to sell it," Agassi says. "It's a symbol of so many years together with Gil. It's a tangible legacy that leaves me already proud. I have full belief in the merits and the product and why it clears the bar. Everyone's going to want it whether it be a club or university or training facilities for professional teams or whether it be in homes or garages."
According to Miller, BILT will be sold internationally with distributors being set up in India, Japan, Russia, Germany, Switzerland and other nations. The price of BILT equipment ranges from $1,000 to $6,000, depending on the piece.
"We're entering a tough market and we've got some great competitors, but we feel we've got some great products that really make a statement and are collectively spectacular and very interesting," Miller said. "A couple of the products are different than anything in the market that people just have not seen before. All of them have been patented and registered and we're really happy about that."
Miller says the company expects modest success in the first year, followed by accelerated success in the next few years.
Since Agassi's professional tennis career ended, he has enjoyed success as a father, husband, philanthropist and author, among other things. Now he can add fitness innovative architect and entrepreneur to that list.
The best part: He gets to enjoy the spotlight with one of his best friends.
"There's a lot of love in it. It addresses things more efficiently. It's safer," Agassi said of BILT. "In half the cases, it's never been seen before, so I'm very confident of its success, so I've already had the biggest payoff, which is watching this come to life. I think the next payoff is going to be watching people in gyms kind of get on it and seeing people intuitively respond to it. I think a successful big business is just going to be the result of what this is. I have no interest in making predictions because it's never been what it's about, as it relates to Gil and myself."
A 21-year career with more Grand Slam titles in the latter half does not come out of nowhere. It needs something groundbreaking as a catalyst. In Agassi's case, a revolutionary new system of fitness equipment did the trick.
Agassi may not be making any predictions, but why should he? He had a remarkable career for a man of his stature, thanks to BILT. The guy should have a little confidence. Beyond the trophies and ribbons on Agassi's shelves, the BILT equipment was the most important piece of hardware in Agassi's playing days. Now those machines are coming to life as a company for the public to use.
Right now, that's enough of an accomplishment for Agassi and Reyes to enjoy.