John Kilbourne was an NBA conditioning coach, he has trained Olympic ice skaters, and he is even featured on a Trivial Pursuit card. But Kilbourne, an associate professor of movement science at Grand Valley, said he may not have achieved any of these things if it weren't for a defining moment in high school.

Kilbourne grew up in California with a love of sports. He especially loved playing on the high school basketball team. But, a decision by his coach would bring a new twist to his life.

"I got cut from the basketball team," remembered Kilbourne. "I needed to find another outlet for my energy. I'm a mover, so I decided to study dance."

John Kilbourne

That decision would eventually allow him to merge two of his passions -- sport and dance. Kilbourne attended California State University in Long Beach, where he earned a bachelor's degree in Creative Movement and Drama. He went on to earn his master's degree from the University of California at Los Angeles in Dance Education with an emphasis in Dance and Sport. His doctorate is from Ohio State University where he continued to study the relationship between sport and performance. While at UCLA, Kilbourne served as a graduate assistant to then head basketball coach Larry Brown during the 1979-82 seasons. He approached the coach with an idea.

"I asked the coach if I could help with the team by teaching balance, rhythm and flexibility," he said. "I told the coach dance techniques could improve the team's playing and reduce injuries." Brown said he would give Kilbourne 15 minutes before practice started, which eventually led to time after practice as well. The team was practically injury free for the next two years.

Kilbourne's techniques and reputation helped him become a full-time conditioning coach in the NBA in 1982 when he worked with the Philadelphia 76ers. He helped them in the pursuit of their 1983 World Championship. "If I think I might have a hard time with any male students in dance class, I just show them my championship ring," said Kilbourne. "That gets their full attention." He has worked with more than 10 NBA teams. 

In addition to his work in basketball, Kilbourne has also worked with Olympic figure skaters. He and his wife, Elizabeth, were living in the Detroit area performing with a modern dance company. It was there that Kilbourne had the opportunity to teach dance to skating champions Peter and Kitty Caruthers and Todd Elderidge who were training for the Olympics at the Detroit Skating Club. He also worked with Olympic skaters in Delaware and Canada. The Kilbournes were able to attend both the 1994 and 1998 Winter Olympics.

John Kilbourne and the UCLA basketball team in 1979
John Kilbourne working with the UCLA basketball team in 1979.

Before coming to Grand Valley in the fall of 2004, Kilbourne taught the history and philosophy of sport and dance for 10 years at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. His research interests are in college sport reform, sport as art, and the games of the Arctic people. In the fall of 2001, he moved his wife and two children to the Arctic for four months where they experienced the world of Canada's Inuit.

"There's no such thing as bad weather in the Arctic, just bad clothing," Kilbourne joked. He and his family lived in the town of Iqaluit on Frobisher Bay on the southern tip of Baffin Island. His daughter, Zoe, was entering the sixth grade and his son, Parker, was starting kindergarten. "My children helped enhance my research because we had firsthand information about peer relationships and schools," he said. Kilbourne said living among the Inuit allows a person to see what the priorities of the world should be -- simple things mean a lot more. He kept extensive journals of his experiences, writing about the traditional games he learned. Kilbourne said the games of the Arctic people are linked to survival. He hopes to create a new course at Grand Valley centering on the games and sport of the Arctic people.

Kilbourne uses what spare time he has to write. In 1995, he wrote a children's book titled The Magic Christmas Elf. The illustrations for the book were drawn by his daughter, Zoe, who was 5 years old at the time.

Grand Valley students learn dance moves in Kilbourne's class for K-12 educators.


So, who or what is next on his dance card? Well, besides teaching the history and philosophy of sport, physical education, and dance techniques, Kilbourne has a "powerful" idea. He is currently putting together a proposal that would seek to harness the energy used from stationary bikes for electricity -- specifically the bikes used in Grand Valley's field house. "The exercise bikes we have can be turned into energy generators," Kilbourne said. "The whole room can be powered by the motion created on those bikes."

Page last modified July 20, 2011