Steve Nash probably doesn't drink much fine wine these days, considering a pillar of his basketball longevity plan is this: no sugar. But if he did, Nash would be a walking, dribbling, toasting embodiment of what vino and point guards have in common as they age.
Nash turns 36 next month, which can only mean he'll be even better after he blows out the candles. He is the ultimate case study in how a player can refine and improve his game with each flip of the calendar. In leading the Suns to a 22-13 start, Nash is making an early case for his third MVP award with a career-high 11.2 assists and .539 field-goal percentage, plus his highest scoring average in three years (18.4).
|Kobe Bryant, 31, is in his 13th season and has one of the most intense offseason workouts. (Getty Images)|
On a different team but in the same division is Kobe Bryant, who at 31 shouldn't be included in this company until you look at his odometer. Bryant, in his 13th season, is seventh among active players with 35,802 career minutes. Motivated by his usual competitive demons and fourth championship last season, Bryant is having what many believe is his best overall season. He hasn't missed a game in three years, and his minutes are back up to a pre-30-year-old rate of 38.5 per game. And there's quality to go with the quantity; Bryant is shooting a career-high .485 from the field and is averaging a league-high 30.2 points as he chases his third scoring title.
"I've been able to stay relatively healthy," Bryant said in a recent interview. "Nothing really major, injury-wise. I feel great."
Nash, Hill, and Bryant aren't the only examples of NBA longevity, but they're the best. Boston's Big Three are starting to break down. Allen Iverson, taken 12 spots ahead of Bryant and 14 ahead of Nash in the 1996 draft, has arthritis. We won't know for sure if Tim Duncan still has it until the playoffs come. I'm not so sure the Cavs wouldn't have the same record -- or better -- without 1992 No. 1 pick Shaquille O'Neal.
"For me, there are three pillars: proper training techniques, diet and sleep," Nash said. "If you're winning those three battles, then I think you've got a chance to stay at a high level."
Nash isn't winning those battles; he's crushing them. A breakdown of his stats from age 26-30 to 31-35 shows a significant increase in every major statistical category except steals. Minutes per game have held steady at about 34, yet points per game (from 16.4 to 17.6), assists (from 8.6 to 10.8), field-goal percentage (from .480 to .516), and 3-point percentage (from .424 to .450) are all up. His game has gotten better, and so have his habits. Nash has learned to make sleep a priority, and he eschews synthetic sugars and artificial or processed foods. There's nothing artificial about the results.
"A lot of the physical stuff stayed the same for me," Nash said. "But I'm open and continually looking for better practices and incorporating recovery into my routine."
In some ways, Hill has found age more difficult to accept. The one-time heir to Michael Jordan's throne is sometimes the fifth option in the Suns' offense after spending the opening act of his career as a leading man. The first thing the years stole was his vertical, but Hill has come to grips with the fact that he can't soar like he once did. Maybe it's because there was a time when he thought he might not make it to 30 in the NBA, much less 40.
"Those years when I didn't play and I was hurt, I believe in the theory that there's less mileage, less wear and tear on the rest of the body," Hill said. "You look at guys who have come in the league after me -- Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen -- those guys have more miles on their bodies than I do. I might be 37, but I feel like I'm 30."
|Steve Nash says 'proper training techniques, diet and sleep' is what does it for him. (Getty Images)|
"I think the thing that I'm most proud of is that I went from being a guy who had the ball in his hands and now I've learned to have a different role and be good at it," Hill said. "That's not an easy thing to do. It can be humbling. But at the same time, I enjoy playing and I think I still have a whole lot to offer. I just offer it in a different way."
In addition to heavy doses of humility, Hill also has become devoted to stretching and what he calls "legal methods of recovery." For one thing, that means Hill spends more time with ice buckets than he does with his children. He's also taken to studying the training methods of athletes who've been successful into their late 30s and 40s, such as Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, surfer Laird Hamilton and, yes, John Stockton.
"I never thought I'd have a desire to play until I'm 40," Hill said. "Fifteen years ago, 10 years ago, I thought I'd be done by now. But I still love the game and have a passion for it, so why not? We just kind of accept the fact that as you get older, you decline and you lose it. And I do think certainly as you get older, things happen. But if you take care of yourself and really put a lot of work into it, why can't you play into your late 30s or early 40s?"
Bryant had plenty of success with his maniacal offseason training regimen. But as he entered his 30s, he wanted to refine it with the help of renowned Chicago-based trainer Tim Grover. Nobody can argue with the results. Besides the league-leading scoring average and flurry of game-winning shots, Bryant clearly isn't slowing down on the defensive end, either. He's averaging more than two steals per game for the first time since the 2002-03 season, when he was 24.
Three years ago, seeking a new challenge in his offseason workouts, Bryant hooked up with Grover, who fueled Jordan's brilliant career. Grover's Attack Athletics gym in Chicago has become a fountain of youth for NBA stars who are serious about improving their conditioning and longevity.
"I've always worked my ass off in the summer time," Bryant said. "But with Tim, it's a different philosophy that I was looking for at this stage of my career. I was looking for something to kind of correct some of the things that I was doing before. And I've had great results from it."
Given recent controversies involving high-profile clients Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas, Grover thought it best to stay out of the media for a while. But his clients say Grover's approach focuses on core strength and balance. If there's a weakness, he attacks it. If there's imbalance, he corrects it. Bryant credits Grover's attention to seemingly minor details for his iron-man tendencies. For example, Bryant believes that without Grover's insistence on strengthening his fingers, he wouldn't have been able to play through a torn ligament in his shooting hand last season or a broken right ring finger this year.
"You've got to make sure everything's in check," Bryant said. "You can't overload one particular area of your body and have that take away from another part. That's how you have injuries. You have hamstring pulls, you have groin pulls, you have all this stuff going on. So you have to make sure everything is balanced out."
As he closes in on a three-year contract extension with the Lakers and eyes his fifth title, Bryant said he can't see the end of the tunnel yet -- "But I can see the light."
Hill, who signed a modest $6.3 million, two-year deal with the Suns last summer, can already see beyond that.
"I want to be able to do things with my kids and hopefully my grandchildren," Hill said. "If I want to go play tennis at 50 or 60 or go on a 50-mile bike ride, those are the types of activities that I want to do."
As the interview wrapped up at the end of a game-day shootaround, a trainer walked by and handed Hill a pillbox -- the kind we'll all use when we take so many medications we can't remember what to take or when. Hill grabbed it nonchalantly, the way a relay runner accepts a baton. Then, he went off to what I presume was a date with a bucket of ice.