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Friday, September 18, 2009

Young at Heart: Pro Basketball’s All-Time Ageless Wonders

A slightly different* version of this article was originally published in the November 2002 issue of Basketball Digest.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones laments, "It's not the years, it’s the mileage." For most pro basketball players it is a combination of both: years banging in the paint and miles sprinting up and down the court. Eventually, the body breaks down, skills erode and the next stop is the golf course or the broadcast booth.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 46 year old Nat Hickey of the 1947-48 Providence Steamrollers is the oldest player in NBA history. He only appeared in one game that season; the Official NBA Encyclopedia credits Hickey with two free throws made, while the 2002 Sporting News NBA Guide indicates that Hickey did not score any points.

Nine other NBA players have participated in at least one game after turning 40. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish and John Stockton--who joined the club last season--played significant, effective minutes. In fact, while it is becoming increasingly common for players to extend their careers into their late 30s, few of them have maintained a high level of play past the age of 35.

The unquestioned king of the 35 and over club is Abdul-Jabbar; he posted Hall of Fame caliber career numbers just in his final eight seasons. During that time he played an important role on four Lakers' championship teams, was an All-Star each year, earned four All-NBA First or Second Team selections, made the All-Defensive Second Team once and won one Finals MVP. He ranked among the league's scoring, field goal percentage and shot blocking leaders in several of those seasons.

One could argue that his last two All-Star selections were more of a career achievement award than anything else (he averaged only 14.6 ppg and 10.1 ppg at the ages of 41 and 42 respectively). On the other hand, comparing Abdul-Jabbar's last eight seasons to the careers of some Hall of Famers, it could easily be said that he earned such dispensation. His eight All-Star appearances would tie him on the all-time list with luminaries such as Alex English and Bob Lanier, while the four All-NBA selections are more than Dave Cowens, Bob McAdoo or Wes Unseld earned during their distinguished careers. Abdul-Jabbar's 12,117 points (19.4 ppg) in his final eight seasons would rank just behind Willis Reed on the career regular season scoring list.

During his first comeback Michael Jordan had the most decorated season of any 35 year old in pro basketball history. He won the 1997-98 regular season, All-Star and Finals MVPs (only Willis Reed in 1969-70 and Shaquille O'Neal in 1999-2000 have matched this achievement). Jordan also won the scoring title and made the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team. Jordan capped off 1997-98 by hitting the game winning shot in the Finals and (seemingly) riding off into the sunset.

Of course, last year Jordan made his second comeback. He made the All-Star team and became the oldest player to score at least 50 points in a regular season game (51 points in a 107-90 win versus the Hornets on December 29, 2001). Before being hobbled by knee injuries he, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady were the only players in the NBA averaging 25-plus points, 5-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists per game. By the All-Star break Jordan had almost single-handedly propelled the previously woeful Washington Wizards (19-63 in 2000-2001) into the chase for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, Jordan only scored 12.4 ppg after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on February 27, finishing the season with averages of 22.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 5.2 apg. The Wizards were 30-30 when Jordan played (including several losses in which he was severely hampered by his bad knee) and 7-15 without him. Jordan's injuries kept him out of MVP and All-NBA contention and enabled Abdul-Jabbar to retain the unofficial title of best 39 year old basketball player. In 1985-86 Abdul-Jabbar ranked tenth in scoring (23.4 ppg, with a high game of 46), seventh in field goal percentage (.564) and displayed remarkable durability by averaging 33.3 minutes per game in 79 games. He earned All-NBA First Team honors and in the postseason he increased his scoring to 25.9 ppg while shooting a stellar .557 from the field.

In the lockout-shortened 1999 season Karl Malone joined Jordan as the only 35-plus year old regular season MVP. He also made the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team. Malone was selected to the All-NBA Second Team the following season and the All-NBA Third Team in 2000-01. Malone earned All-Star selections in each of those seasons except 1999, when no All-Star Game was held; he was also chosen for the 2002 game, but did not play. He will turn 40 a few months before the start of the 2003-2004 season and seems intent on playing long enough to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's regular season career scoring record.

Although Wilt Chamberlain voluntarily reduced his scoring during his last several seasons he remained a dominant defender and rebounder until the end of his career. He won the Finals MVP as a 35 year old for the 69-13 L.A. Lakers in 1971-72. He also made the All-NBA Second Team. Chamberlain won the rebounding and field goal percentage crowns in 1971-72 and 1972-73; he was selected for the All-Defensive First Team and the All-Star team in both of those seasons.

Player-coach Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to their eleventh championship in thirteen seasons in 1968-69. Chamberlain's longtime rival finished third in the league in rebounds (1484; 19.3 rpg) and made the All-Defensive First Team.

Jerry West became the first 35 year old guard to perform at a superstar level, making the All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive First Team and the All-Star team in 1972-73. He averaged 22.8 ppg and 8.8 apg but was not listed among league leaders because he played in only 69 games (at that time players had to appear in at least 70 games to be ranked among the statistical leaders). West made the All-Star team again in 1973-74 but only participated in 31 regular season games due to injuries.

Ironman John Havlicek, who retired as the all-time leader in games played (1270), did not slow down much when he passed his 35th birthday. He made the All-NBA Second Team and All-Defensive First Team in 1974-75 and 1975-76. He also was selected to four All-Star teams at 35-plus years of age, tied for second all-time with Karl Malone. He was an important contributor to the Celtics' 1975-76 championship team.

John Stockton made the All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive First Team as a 35 year old in 1996-97. He added another All-NBA Third Team selection in 1999 and made the All-Star Team in 1996-97 and 1999-00. Although Stockton at 35 was not as productive as West at the same age, he has managed to stay healthy and continue to play at a high level for several more seasons than West did.

Stockton celebrated his 40th birthday during the 2001-02 season, although one would never know it by looking at his statistics: 13.4 ppg, 8.2 apg (fifth in the league), 1.85 spg (tied for 10th in the league) and .517 shooting from the field (fifth in the league) in 31.3 mpg. He played in all 82 games for the 15th time. Only Abdul-Jabbar has posted better numbers at 40 (17.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, .564 field goal percentage in 1986-87); Robert Parish is the next closest, with 11.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg and a .491 field goal percentage in 1993-94.

Dennis Rodman was a key contributor during the Chicago Bulls' second three-peat, winning three straight rebounding titles (1996-98) and making the All-Defensive First Team in 1995-96. His flamboyance likely cost him selections to All-Star and All-NBA teams .

Robert Parish played until he was 43 and holds the records for most seasons (21) and most games played (1611). He made the All-NBA Third Team as a 35 year old in 1988-89 and was an All-Star the next two seasons. Parish averaged less than 5 ppg in each of his last three seasons.

Several other players who enjoyed productive seasons after the age of 35 were not selected for the postseason All-NBA or All-Defensive Teams:

***Alex English made the All-Star team in 1988-89 and finished sixth in scoring (26.5 ppg), including a 51 point outburst; at 35 he was the oldest to score 50-plus points in a game until Jordan topped him last season.

***Julius Erving made three All-Star teams past the age of 35, trailing only Abdul-Jabbar, Malone and Havlicek. In 1984-85 the 35 year old Erving averaged 20.0 ppg and became the oldest 100/100 Club player (135 steals, 109 blocked shots). Two years later Erving averaged 16.8 ppg and blocked 94 shots in only 60 games.

***Lenny Wilkens posted excellent numbers as a 35 year old All-Star in 1972-73 (20.5 ppg, 8.4 apg and 4.6 rpg). He averaged 16.4 ppg, 7.1 apg and 3.7 rpg the next season before his numbers dropped dramatically in his final year.

***Moses Malone played until he was 40, although he did not log significant minutes his last three seasons. He averaged 18.9 ppg and 10.0 rpg as a 35 year old in 1989-90, leading the league in offensive rebounds (364).

***Artis Gilmore averaged 19.1 ppg and 10.4 rpg as a 35 year old in 1984-85. He didn't make the All-Star team that year, but he did make the cut in 1985-86 despite a decline in production (16.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg).

* You may wonder why some of the 20 Second Timeout versions of my Basketball Digest articles are "slightly different" from the versions that were originally published in Basketball Digest. In the writing business it is commonplace for editors to revise submitted copy due to space considerations, grammar and/or factual inaccuracies but I have always prided myself on submitting perfect copy--a final draft that precisely fits word count specifications and does not contain any errors; my consistent ability to do this is why the vast majority of my articles have been published with few or no changes. However, for some strange reason, Basketball Digest editor Brett Ballantini occasionally made odd changes to my submitted copy; for instance, he edited the above article by adding a sentence that contained an inaccurate statistic about John Stockton. At first, Ballantini made such "improvements" without consulting me and I would not know about the alterations until I received a copy of the magazine; I was less than thrilled to see my perfect copy marred by someone else's sloppiness, particularly since most readers simply assume that any mistakes in an article are the fault of the writer.

Eventually, Ballantini figured out that it would be better to either leave my submitted copy alone or to at least run proposed changes by me first.
Naturally, I see no reason to include Ballantini's "improvements" in the versions of these articles that I am posting here.


I submitted the following chart along with this article but Basketball Digest did not publish it. In this chart--and in most of my Basketball Digest articles and charts that I have posted at 20 Second Timeout--I have chosen not to update the statistics because I think that leaving the articles/charts intact provides a "time capsule" feel; after all, articles in Sports Illustrated's "Vault" are presented as they were originally written, so it seems natural to take the same approach for the articles that I am placing in my "Vault" (the righthand sidebar of 20 Second Timeout's main page).

Pro Basketball's Ageless Wonders

Player Years Accomplishments

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 82-89 Finals MVP 85; All-NBA 1st Team 84 & 86; All-NBA 2nd Team 83& 85;

All-Def. 2nd Team 84; All-Star


Michael Jordan 98; 02 MVP/Finals MVP/All-Star MVP 98; scoring champion 98; All-NBA

1st Team 98; All-Def. 1st

Team 98; All-Star 98 & 02; oldest to score 50+ points in a game 02

Karl Malone 99-02 MVP 99; All-NBA 1st Team 99; All-NBA 2nd Team 00; All-NBA 3rd Team

01; All-Def. 1st Team 99;

All-Star 00-02

Wilt Chamberlain 72-73 Finals MVP 72; rebounding champion 72-73; field goal percentage

champion 72-73; All-NBA 2nd Team 72;

All-Def. 1st Team 72-73; All-Star 72-73

Bill Russell 69 Won championship as player-coach;

All-Def. 1st Team; third in rebounds (1484; 19.3 rpg)

Jerry West 73-74 All-NBA 1st Team 73; All-Def. 1st Team 73; All-Star 73-74

John Havlicek 75-78 All-NBA 2nd Team 75-76; All-Def. 1st Team 75-76; All-Star 75-78

John Stockton 97-02 All-NBA 3rd Team 97 & 99; All-Def. 2nd Team 97; All-Star 97 & 00

Dennis Rodman 96-00 Rebounding champion 96-98; All-Def. 1st Team 96

Robert Parish 89-97 All-NBA 3rd Team 89; All-Star 90-91

Alex English 89-91 All-Star 89; sixth in scoring (26.5 ppg) 89; 51 point game 89

Julius Erving 85-87 All-Star 85-87; 20.0 ppg, 135 steals, 109 blocks 85 (oldest 100/100 player)

Note: The "Seasons" column refers to seasons in which the player was at least 35 years old by the end of the season, while the "Accomplishments" column lists the player's main achievements during those seasons (the seasons are abbreviated to two digit numbers for space/format considerations).

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:27 AM



At Friday, September 18, 2009 3:15:00 PM, Anonymous Jack B. said...

@David F.
I know this is off topic but did you see the travesty of an article written by Henry Abbott at ESPN(truehoop blog)? NBA.com had kobe amazing dunks video, Abbott pointed out the dunks were amazing and then proceeded to bash kobe for being selfish because supposedly there was a man open in each of these dunks(one of the centers open was Kwame Brown!).

Is this a case where there is a lack of basketball topics and abbott(and espnNBA) are using Kobe to get page views? I mean ESPN did put the story front page.

At Friday, September 18, 2009 8:50:00 PM, Anonymous Joel said...

For people who lived through the Jordan era, I'm sure his comeback must have seemed like a taint on his legacy. As someone who didn't really follow the NBA until the turn of the century, my perspective is a bit different. Clearly he was no longer the same dominant player, but to me the fact that a 38-year-old swingman could still perform at the level Jordan did only underlines what an amazing athlete he was. Yes the Wizards never got into the playoffs, but that would have required the early-90s version of Jordan.

I'm intrigued by the question of whether the prep-to-pro guys can maintain that kind of productivity deep into their 30s. To pick up the theme of your Indiana Jones quote, Kobe and KG have a lot more 'mileage' than you'd expect for players in their early 30s, and the same will almost certainly be true for players like LeBron and Howard. It's basically an ongoing experiment since nearly all the players drafted straight from high school are still in the midst of their careers.

At Saturday, September 19, 2009 3:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jack B.:

What does that have to do with my article? I have no idea what Abbott posted or why he posted it because I have long since stopped visiting True Hoop and I think that everyone who realizes that it is a subpar product should do likewise.

I've said my piece about the state of basketball writing in general and I've made posts about specific writers/websites/publications that are shoddy and now I choose to focus on what I am doing and not pay attention to the mounds of garbage that others are producing.

At Saturday, September 19, 2009 4:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are correct to emphasize how remarkable it is that MJ was still a legit All-Star at 40 as opposed to saying that MJ somehow "tainted" his legacy. MJ knew how to compensate for his diminished athleticism but the problem that dogged his second comeback is that his knees simply could not handle the amount of minutes that he insisted on playing. The book When Nothing Else Matters documents just how much knee trouble MJ had as a Wizard, noting that at times he closed practices to the public so that no one would know that he was essentially dragging one leg up and down the court--and yet when game time rolled around MJ found ways to still be effective! He truly is a remarkable athlete who is very, very mentally tough.

As for the prep to pros players, T-Mac already seems to be breaking down physically. It remains to be seen if KG is also starting to break down or if last season was just an aberration. Kobe keeps himself in top condition and he has avoided serious injuries so far, so he is a candidate to play into his mid to late 30s if he chooses to do so. LeBron has a big, strong body but he also plays a style that involves taking a lot of punishment. It will be interesting to see if his style evolves and/or he shows signs of wear and tear after he reaches 30. If LeBron wants to be an elite player past the age of 35 then he will have to develop a consistent midrange jumper a la MJ/Kobe and/or refine his post game so that he does not have to rely on powering his way over and through people.


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