In 1965 a 58 year old Satchel Paige took the mound for the Kansas City Athletics and simultaneously altered what we had come to understand as the correlation between age and professional sports. Though Paige faced just 10 batters during the ’65 season, his appearance gave grounds for the modern athlete to push the boundaries of time. Nearly half a century later baseball saw the likes of Julio Franco, 48, don a starting first base job for the 2007 Mets and Jamie Moyer, 49, claim a spot in the Colorado Rockies’ 2012 rotation. While the relationship between age and success is starkly different between baseball and basketball, today, the NBA currently boasts three active players over the age 40.
Basketball fails to employ aging veterans quite the same way that the MLB, NHL, or even the NFL can. In fact, the NBA’s oldest players, Nat Hickey of the 1948 Providence Steamrollers stakes claim as the league’s oldest only maintaining a slim lead of Robert Parrish, who at age 43 was able to take home a slice of the Bull’s 1997 NBA title and almost ten years later the Dallas Mavericks employed 44 year old Kevin Willis. Hickey, Parrish, and Willis are the exception, not the norm in a game that is continually getting younger, faster and more athletic.
The NFL boasts several positions that organically provide positions that allow veteran players to play well into their 40’s. Players like George Blanda of the 1975 Oakland Raiders kicked his way to his 48th birthday while wearing the black and silver but even quarterbacks, Warren Moon and Steve DeBerg, both roamed the sidelines into their 44th birthday.
Today we examine the NBA’s most veteran group, a panoply of names that continue to push to proverbial envelope of what we can expect from the aging athlete. In this we will not only examine the year that was for these inveterate players but also what 2013-2014 will bring.
Grant Hill, Los Angeles Clippers
After a 2012 summer of deliberation Grant Hill decided to return for his 19th NBA season. At age 40, the former third overall pick from the 1994 draft has done plenty to merit his nomination into eventual Springfield enshrinement but his current state does little to vouch for what has been an incredible career. Hill’s minutes have evaporated for the Clippers who were only able to find a meager 15.1 MPG over 29 season appearances for the veteran while stashing him on the pine during the club’s 2013 playoff run.
This appears to be the end for Hill who will be remembered as the NBA version of baseball’s 5-tool player. Hill could do it all, and he did. The NBA hadn’t seen a player flash such an array of skills since Oscar Robertson and the league wouldn’t see another star display such a collection of skills until LeBron James. Compare Hill’s 1999 -2000 season to LeBron’s latest:
Hill (’99-’00): 25.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.2 APG, 1.4 SPG, 80% FT, .489% FG
James (’12-’13): 26.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 7.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 75% FT, .565% FG
Ankle injuries rerouted Hill’s career in his prime but he continued to play for another decade after finally taking a back seat to his more able bodied teammates. Hill will likely finish in the top 100 all time in scoring, currently 81st with 17137 career points and 79th in career assists with 4252. If this is in fact the end for Hill, he will be remembered for stuffing the nightly stat sheet, making FILA shoes cool again, and showing that a star can overcome injury.
Juwan Howard, Miami Heat
Twenty years after Michigan’s Fab Five run to the NCAA final four, the only remaining player from Steve Fisher’s talent laden team still playing in the NBA is Juwan Howard. Drafted 5th overall in 1994, two picks after the afore mentioned Grant Hill, Howard has made a living as of late by serving as a veteran presence for Miami Heat, Portland Trailblazers, and the Charlotte Bobcats. The 40 year old played in just seven games this season for Miami (starting two of those) but is more often seen taking a coaching and development role in his warm up jacket.
At 6’9’’ there may be another one year contract in store for a player his coaches and teammates attest is an ultimate “high-character guy” and role model for younger players.
“[Juwan] absolutely fits into the fabric of our culture,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told the press earlier this season. “To be honest, it felt a little bit strange not having him with us [while Howard was playing in the developmental league]. It makes sense, it feels right.”
Jason Kidd, New York Knicks
Jason Kidd may not dominate games quite like he did a decade ago when he delivered back-to-back Finals appearances for the then New Jersey Nets, but Kidd is still a valuable asset for one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams. With 105 career triple doubles (third all time behind Oscar Robertson’s 181 and Magic Johnson’s 138), Kidd’s game no longer fills the stat sheet but instead the crafty guard has learned to influence the game in other ways.
Kidd played in 76 of New York’s 82 games while staying relatively healthy throughout the year and giving the Knicks much needed leadership when incumbent point guard Raymond Felton missed time with injuries. Like a flame throwing pitcher who must evolve his game as his MPH begins to drop, Kidd has continued to improve his shooting as he’s aged which has helped to make up for his declining first step. To fully grasp the improvement in his shooting, here are his 3-point shooting statistics from his first two years compared to two of his last season’s as a full-time starter:
‘94-‘96 3-point shooting: 203/653 = 310%
‘08-’10 3- point shooting: 307/737 = 417%
The Knicks will happily extend the option for the veteran guard to return in 2014. His minutes should remain steady should he accept the role of backup point guard though he the opportunity to catch John Stockton atop the league’s all-time assist list won’t be happening regardless of where he lands (Kidd currently 2nd with 12091 trails Stockton’s 15,806).
Jerry Stackhouse, Brooklyn Nets
“Stack” currently ranks as the league’s 8th oldest player at 38 years old and 170 days though it seems like years since the former North Carolina Tar Heel actually played a significant role. The veteran guard hasn’t averaged double digit scoring totals since 2007-2008 with the Dallas Mavericks (10.7 PPG) and has started just two games since then.
Stackhouse’s role has transformed into the role of spot-up shooter and reliable free throw shooter in crunch time (87% in ’12-’13). 88th all-time in scoring with 16,409 career points, he likely won’t have the opportunity to add to this total next year unless a team is willing to take on an aging guard who provides little practical on-court use.
We’ll remember Stackhouse for his role on playing alongside a young Allen Iverson which provided one of the most exciting young backcourts in the NBA. Later “Stack” went on to Detroit where he would challenge for the 2000-2001 scoring title with an impressive 29.8 PPG. When he does decide to hang ‘em up Stackhouse’s career may compare favorably with the likes of players like Mitch Richmond:
Richmond: 21.0 PPG (20,497 career), 3.5 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 85% FT, .388 3 PT %, .455 FG%,
Stackhouse: 16.9 PPG (16,409 career), 3.3 APG, 3.2 RPG, 1 SPG, 82% FT, .309 3PT %, .409 FG%
If these players had their druthers they’d cajole David Stern into increasing the league’s age limit from 19 to 21 so to buy time for the game’s aging stars. In the meantime, some of these seasoned players will find teams in 2014, and if they do, we’ll continue to borrow from Satchel Paige in our view of the aging athlete:
“Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” ‘
Try convincing the league’s 29 General Managers of that.