Over 82 games, Celtics find that 40 winks can help
For the Celtics, life on the road brings late games, later flights, and even later bedtimes. It is enough to disrupt a circadian rhythm, but the players strike back when they can.
After a morning shootaround, the Celtics return to their hotel before that night’s game, and most embrace a tradition more often practiced by young children: They curl up and take an afternoon nap.
“When we get to a new city, I don’t ever even open my curtains,” said guard Terry Rozier. “I don’t ever look at my view, none of that. I’m not into all of that. I just want that nap.
“It’s good once you wake up; you just feel like you can move a little bit more. It’s just better.”
“I can nap anywhere,” said forward Jonas Jerebko. “Like, I could go lay down on the couch right now, and boom, I can fall asleep.
“It’s like an art for me. I can take a three-hour nap. I can take a two-hour nap. I can take a one-hour nap, because my body’s just built like that.”
The Celtics do not employ a sleep guru, and the team’s training staff generally lets the players approach naps however they wish. While there may be debate over whether a midday siesta improves play, the general belief is that it cannot hurt.
Dr. Chris Winter, a sleep specialist who works with the Oklahoma City Thunder and two other NBA teams that prefer not to be identified, believes there is value in the pregame nap.
“As the season goes on, players lose their sleep time between travel and their schedules and commitments and whatnot,” Winter said. “And elite-level athletes generally require more sleep than the average individual.”
Winter said the optimal nap duration depends on the player and the situation, but he believes a 20- to 25-minute rest is good for a recharge without slipping into such a deep sleep that it can leave a player groggy. Ideally, Winter said, a nap is an enhancer, not a way to mask a sleeping problem.
“There’s some guys that can’t play without that nap,” said point guard Isaiah Thomas. “I’m a guy that if I feel I need to take a nap, I do it. If not, I’m all right.”
As Thomas completed that thought, it was pointed out that he sometimes appears to be sleepwalking in the locker room about two hours before games. He smiled.
“Well, when I’m getting a massage before the game, I might fall asleep for, like, 20 or 30 minutes,” he said. “I guess that’s my little nap. I forgot about that. But I think sometimes that just makes me more tired. I’m not big on naps.”
Two Celtics learned sleeping skills from their pro basketball-playing fathers.
Jae Crowder’s dad, Corey, told him that on game day it is important to spend a few quiet and relaxing hours alone. So while Crowder was at Marquette, he began taking pregame naps, and he has not stopped since.
Forward Al Horford said his father, Tito, napped before almost every game during his lengthy pro career. Horford began mimicking that routine as a teenager, and when he arrived at the University of Florida, his teammates were constantly slumbering.
“It was what everybody did, right?” Horford said. “So I started to do it a lot, and I did it for years here in the NBA. But for some reason, I’m not able to sleep like that anymore. It’s just not happening.”
Now, while many other Celtics are snoring, Horford reads, catches up on his favorite television shows, or finds a good meal. Winter said veterans such as Horford tend to gradually veer from napping as their careers progress, partly because of a general shift to a calmer lifestyle, and familiarity with the rhythm of being a pro.
Three Celtics who are no longer avid pregame nappers — Horford, Thomas, and Avery Bradley — are all veterans with wives and young children.
Winter said that younger players should get about 10 hours of sleep per night, even though that is not a realistic goal during the season. So the nap can be essential.
The Celtics’ youngest player, 20-year-old Jaylen Brown, used to go into his coach’s office before high school games, put on headphones, and doze. But adjusting to the NBA’s relentless travel schedule has been the most challenging part of rookie life.
“It’s been kicking my [butt],” Brown said, “just traveling and going from plane to plane and then getting jet lag. All of that is like playing a game in itself.”
But, Brown said, the pregame naps have helped, especially with the blackout curtains in five-star hotels that can make a player feel as if he is in a city that always sleeps.
Among the Celtics, naps can be as short as 20 or 30 minutes (Brown) or as long as four hours (Jerebko). Crowder listens to soft music but never turns on the television. Rozier keeps his phone’s ringer on but chastises friends if they call and wake him.
Voice of experience
On the road, most Celtics nod off during the break between shootaround and that night’s game, but the routines at home are more mixed. There is no morning shootaround at TD Garden, so players can sleep later, and when they are in their homes, there are simply more ways to occupy their time.
After former Celtics coach Doc Rivers consulted a sleep specialist in 2009, he stopped holding mandatory morning shootarounds at home and moved all practices to the afternoon.
Current Celtics coach Brad Stevens places great value on rest, too. At home, the Celtics have a pregame walk-through around 4 p.m. for a 7:30 game. They general practice in the early afternoon.
Longtime Celtics play-by-play announcer Mike Gorman might be more aware of his sleep patterns than anyone else in the team’s traveling party.
Gorman’s friend and fellow broadcaster, Bill Raftery, once advised him to treat the basketball season as one long day with a series of naps. Raftery’s message was that you cannot worry about going to bed at a certain hour for a certain period of time each night, because the ever-changing schedule will not allow that. So you lie down whenever there is a chance.
“Bill would sleep at the drop of a hat,” said Gorman, smiling. “We’d take the cab from the hotel to the airport, and it’s a 20-minute ride, and he’d sleep for 15. We’d get on the plane, and he’d be asleep before we even took off.”
Gorman tracks his own sleep rather closely; his goal is to get eight hours of rest over each 24-hour period — no more, no less.
“Otherwise, your body starts to get confused a little, which you don’t want it to do,” Gorman said. “I try to get about a 90-minute nap in the afternoon of game days, and it helps. I can hear a difference in my broadcast if I don’t nap; it’s just a lot flatter.”
One danger of day-sleeping is that if you don’t wake up promptly, you might miss something — such as a basketball game. In April 2015, Marcus Smart overslept, missed the Celtics’ shootaround before their playoff game against the Cavaliers, and was benched for the first quarter.
Those instances are rare, but the possibility remains worrisome.
Most Celtics rely on simple cellphone alarms to rouse them. Gorman’s backup plan is more thorough. He sets one on his iPad, one on his watch, and calls the front desk for a wakeup call, just in case.
When Jerebko was asked if he’d ever overslept, he turned and knocked on the wooden wall behind him.
“Never once,” he said. “Not even in school.”