The Miracle of Playing in the NBA at Age 44
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because as the oldest guy in NBA history to play in more than one game, Willis can potentially help players stay healthy.
At age 44, when most people are recovering from their midlife crisis, Kevin Willis was suiting up for the Dallas Mavericks. And at age 52, when many athletes are paying the price for years of a brutal physical regimen, Willis is running his own fashion line for big and tall men, the Atlanta-based Willis and Walker. So, if you want to talk athletic longevity, the L.A.-born and Detroit-raised NBA All-Star is your man. His 21 seasons in the league is an extraordinary feat on its own, aside from the fact that 7-footers, like Willis, typically have the career span of female gymnasts — short. What can you really say when the one-time world champ questions the grit of today’s multi-millionaire superstar? Hell, with cutting edge treatments like plasma therapy, modern ballplayers should sit on the bench for less, not more, time.
Unless of course, science says they should. The accumulation of new physiological findings, greater transparency between trainers and players and the apparent disintegration of retired players’ health has led to a total change in perspective regarding injury, says James Muntz, the team doctor for the Houston Rockets. The mindset is less gladiator, more long-term investor. The reason players like Derrick Rose are spending a bit more time on the sidelines after getting hurt? “It’s not that they don’t want to play through pain but they are more realistic about what life holds for them,” says Muntz.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You managed to play a lengthy career without spending much time on the injured list. These days it seems as if there are so many hurt players sitting out for extended periods of time.
I just don’t understand how guys get hurt with all this stuff they have today. I got two injuries my whole career. I had the same one that Kevin Durant has right now, the Jones fracture. That one sat me out too, but after that, I didn’t have any injuries that would keep me out for the season. I used to tell guys on my team, if you get a sprained ankle, wrist or hand, put some ice on it and let’s go.
You mentioned they shouldn’t be getting hurt with all the stuff they have today. What are some examples of the upgrades that obviously haven’t been working very well?
When we trained, we did have some of the stuff, but it wasn’t like it is now. Now they have all these trainers that guys go to in the summer. They work out and they do this religious ritual of workouts, plyometrics with bands, Pilates, bathing in wine and all kind of stuff. We used to go outside and we’d run. We’d go run hills, we’d run the stadium stairs, we’d run with a weight vest on, we’d go on the beach and run. Just old school stuff. We’d go and lift weights like crazy, then go in the gym and work on all parts of our game based on your position.
Do you feel like the current players are quicker and faster? If so, wouldn’t that increase the probability of them getting hurt?
People can say that it has something to do with guys being quicker or faster, but that’s not the case. I will never believe that’s the case. Guys aren’t quicker, and also guys are smaller than they were back in the day. The game has changed all the way around from a power game to finesse. The caliber of players that they are now, they don’t want physical contact.
Early in your career, there was no such thing as a flagrant foul, yet you guys played through the pain. If there’s less contact now, why does it feel like there are more injuries?
I think a lot of it is psychological. When you feel that you’ve got the best of whatever is supposed to make you bigger, badder, faster, stronger, and you train the way they want you to train to prevent injuries, and they believe it. All of a sudden something crazy happens. But these injuries they’re suffering are no different than what the guys were suffering back in the ’80s or ’70s. It’s just the mindset.
It’s a lot of players out there that love the game of basketball, but we’re in a different era, a different generation, and that’s just how it goes. If you look at a generation before us, they appeared to be slower, and not as athletic. In our generation, we were jumping out the gym, trying to tear the rim off, guys were explosive, the scoring was crazy, guys were going to get rebounds in traffic like they’ve been shot out of a cannon.
Having the ability to get your mind right is one thing, but money has to also be a factor with these guaranteed multi-million dollar salaries, right?
Money plays a big role, because when you’re making all that money, it’s like, ‘Hey, I got mine.’ Back when Bernard King broke two fingers [in the 1984 NBA Playoffs] against Detroit, broke fingers or not, we gotta go. It’s the heart, the will and the pure love of basketball. If you love the game of basketball, it’s like Michael Jordan has said, ‘I’ll play for free.’
[Today] it’s totally different, and it’s not to say it’s in a bad way. Everything from the TV rights, to the money they make these days, all these things have a part in it. And it makes you not as hungry. It makes it to where there’s no urgency because you have access to so many different things. ‘If I don’t play basketball, I can go do this, I got the money to do that. If I can’t play more years, so be it.’ Whether it’s good or bad, they’re distractions.
Did things ever get to a point where the younger guys would ask you for physical fitness advice?
Later on in my career, I talked to a lot of guys about how to maintain the work ethic and what to do to give yourself a chance to have longevity by taking care of your body. You can’t control what happens, but I could always do some preventative things that will lessen those chances of injury. You work out, train and put your body through these intense workouts, not only from a physical standpoint, but it’s also what you put in your body as well.
In a recent interview, Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown shared a similar philosophy of how he managed to avoid serious injury although he played through pain with a relentless will to win.
Guys were meaner and tougher in the NFL back then, too. They just were. The equipment wasn’t nearly as advanced as it is now, guys were getting crushed, but they just had this toughness about them. That ‘you’re gonna have to kill me to get me off this field.’ And in basketball, my mindset was, I’m not going to be intimidated by nobody, I’m definitely not backing down from no one, and my body is my temple, so it’s not going to let me down, because I know what I’ve gone through. So the faith I had in my conditioning, and the faith that I had in God making sure that these things go the right way was unmatched. It was like I had armor on. I was like, ‘I’m going for it.’
The NBA’s injury-afflicted superstars:
Derrick Rose: After winning the MVP award in 2011, the Bulls point guard tore his ACL, which was followed by a second injury a year later. The injuries have kept the superstar on the sidelines, much to the chagrin of commentators, until late November of this year. Fingers crossed.
Penny Hardaway: Despite 14 years in the league, the star point guard was only able to play two full seasons. Most thought he had the potential to be one of the top point guards of all time, but an ACL tear in 1997 started a series of career-killing knee injuries.
Tracy McGrady: In his prime, T-Mac was an unguardable offensive force and seven-time All-Star. But a series of back and shoulder injuries hampered his game, with microfracture surgery finally sealing his fate and leaving fans wondering, “What if … ?”
Chris Webber: One of the best passing big men in the league, Webber was a unique force until he suffered a decisive knee injury in 2003 as the Sacramento Kings were eyeing a shot at the Finals.
Greg Oden: Called a “once-in-a-decade player,” Oden’s short career of astronomical expectations has yet to take off. Many wonder whether the lauded 7-footer will ever return to compete after microfracture surgery for his knee.
Bill Walton: The Hall of Fame center certainly had an extraordinary career. But what would it have been like had he not been injured, which put him on the sideline for years at a time? The possibilities are mind-boggling.