HOUSTON — There is indeed NBA life after 30. Some of the game’s most productive players are on the back end of their careers.
When the NBA All-Stars spoke with the media Saturday at the George Brown Convention Center before practice, 23-year-old James Harden sat next to 36-year-old Kevin Garnett and asked if it was his 20th All-Star Game.
“It seems like it,” Garnett said with a laugh.
Actually it’s his 15th, but All-Star Weekend is littered with older players still making an impact on the game. Garnett, Tim Duncan, and Kobe Bryant are participating this year; players such as Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, and Ray Allen have been staples in the recent past.
While NBA basketball is considered a young man’s game — with players entering the league born as recently as 1993 — guys who are 30 and over remain relevant. Garnett turns 37 in May but is still considered one of the game’s top big men. Duncan, 36, is undergoing a career renaissance after dealing with injuries the past few years and was elected to the All-Star Game by coaches. Bryant, 34, is still in the debate as the game’s top player despite having played 17 seasons.
Improved conditioning and better nutrition have extended players’ careers, which used to conclude once they lost a step or two. Someone such as Robert Parish playing until he was 43 was a rarity.
But many players who entered the NBA in the mid and late 1990s are still around. The 35-year-old Pierce, drafted by the Celtics in 1998, is still playing All-Star-caliber basketball. The 37-year-old Allen, the former Celtic, is a key player off Miami’s bench.
Duncan, like Garnett, talked about retirement last season after an injury-plagued campaign, but he was encouraged to return to the Spurs on a three-year contract. He is bettering last season’s averages in points, rebounds, and blocked shots, and is also shooting a better percentage from the field and the line.
He was not named to the All-Star team last season and there was concern that a swift decline was underway.
“It’s a testament to the competitive nature of all of us,” Duncan said. “We’ve done it for so long and we’ve continued to play at a high level. You can go through every era and pick out a couple of those different guys and I’m honored to be one of those guys.”
Pierce was not named an All-Star, but has experienced a resurgence in the past month, collecting his first two triple-doubles of the season in the past two weeks. And despite a penchant for slow starts, he still leads the Celtics in scoring.
“I just decided to take better care of my body,” said Pierce. “Every time I come to training camp, people say I lost weight, which I think is funny. But when you are in this league for a long time, you’ve got to make some changes to how you take care of yourself.”
State-of-the-art workout techniques also have extended careers. Celtics coach Doc Rivers tells the story of when he was traded to the Clippers and then-coach Mike Schuler told him weight-room work was mandatory; Rivers said he had no idea teams had special weight room facilities.
Allen is known for his level of exercise and conditioning. He often would warn his Celtics teammates about eating chicken fingers and french fries from the arena’s concession stands before games, instead opting for fruit.
He has taken that same philosophy to Miami.
“I think what you’re seeing is the advancement in sports nutrition, taking care of your body, the understanding of biomechanics,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “Education from that standpoint is much different than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
“So guys are able to extend their careers, three, four, or five years longer than they possibly would have before.
“Ray is the epitome of discipline. He’s changed many of his habits from when he was in his 20s. He eats only clean food. Makes those sacrifices. He never takes a day off, even during the summer. That’s made a difference.
“And I think a lot of people wouldn’t be willing to make the sacrifices that he’s made.”
Some young players may be thrown by Garnett peppering them with expletives during games, but they respect his longevity.
“I’m nothing new on the block that someone hasn’t seen,” Garnett said. “When I leave, there will be someone who will come through and have a similar style.
“I’ve always said that I played hard and worked on my craft. I tried to perfect my craft as best I could. That’s what I am, I am a worker and a person who loves what he does. After I’m gone, I’m sure there will be someone else with some type of makeup.
“I really put a lot of time into my craft. I just don’t say that. It’s actually a reality. When you prepare right and take care of your body and do the small things you have to do when you get older, having the appetite of getting better every year, you put that all in the bowl and mix it up and then you want results.”
Those who recently have turned 30, such as Dwyane Wade and Tony Parker, admire their older brethren, fully realizing they are approaching the same career obstacles.
“First of all, you’ve got to have a little luck,” Wade said. “It’s also being smart and guys taking care of their bodies, doing what it takes to continue to play this game and walk away from it when they’re ready to walk away from it.
“They’re doing an unbelievable job of being the caretakers of the game. When they decide to walk away, they are going to leave it in great hands.
“It’s amazing, I remember being in college and Ray Allen was playing with the Bucks when I was at Marquette. And now he’s my teammate, like, 13 years later.
“It’s just amazing to see what those guys have been able to accomplish. It’s a man’s league — young, old, it doesn’t matter. If you can play the game, you got a job.”