When Jerry Stackhouse entered the NBA during the first Clinton administration, he had a shaved head, hardly any stubble on his chin and displayed out-of-the-gym leaping ability in his signature Fila sneakers. Eighteen seasons later, with President Obama set to embark on his second term, Stackhouse still has a shaved head but now has gray hairs sprinkled into a fully-grown goatee and chooses layups over dunks in re-released models of those same shoes.
When he first pulled on his No. 42 jersey with the Philadelphia 76ers, Stackhouse didn’t realize he would be around long enough to see the NBA undergo so many transitions — from Michael Jordan dominating the league to LeBron James taking the reins as its best player — or that he would still be competing against players who were born in 1993, the year he graduated from high school.
“If you would’ve asked when I was 20 if I still wanted to play when I was 38, I would’ve been like, ‘Nah,’ ” said Stackhouse, who was drafted third overall out of North Carolina in 1995 but now serves as a valued reserve with the Brooklyn Nets. “I would’ve felt like if I had 12 to 15 years, those are the numbers you were seeing from guys play that had a great career.”
But this season, the NBA has players such as Jason Kidd and Grant Hill in their 19th seasons; Stackhouse, Kevin Garnett and Kurt Thomas in their 18th seasons; and Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Marcus Camby and Jermaine O’Neal in their 17th seasons. Great careers are lasting a little longer.
Of the 47 players in NBA history to play at least 17 seasons, 10 are currently on active rosters — and nine are members of teams that will be showcased during the league’s quintet of Christmas games. Fifteen active players are among the 105 all-time to have appeared in at least 1,000 NBA games and the 39-year-old Hill, who has yet to make his season debut for the Los Angeles Clippers, has played in 997 despite a history of ankle problems.
In a league that is getting increasingly younger with players often getting drafted after one or two years in college, many of those older players, such as Bryant, Nash, Garnett, Allen, Kidd, Paul Pierce and Tim Duncan, are still playing prominent roles on relevant teams in the championship hunt.
“I think it’s great,” said Kidd, who is averaging 29.4 minutes per game for the New York Knicks and will turn 40 in March. “That goes to show that the wisdom and understanding how to play the game sometimes can overshadow talent.”
Kidd hugged Bryant before the Knicks played the Lakers in New York two weeks ago and said, “What up, young fella?” But Bryant is proving that while he may lack the same athleticism as in his Afro-rocking youth, his talent hasn’t eroded much as he gets older.
Bryant, whose Los Angeles Lakers will take on the Knicks at 3 p.m. Eastern time, is leading the league with 29.7 points per game, the highest scoring average of any player age 34 or older. He is also shooting a career-best 47.1 percent from the field, playing heavy minutes despite a litany of ailments, including a bad back.
“I’m sore, but I’m just in really good condition. I’m just not tired,” Bryant said recently. He told reporters earlier this season that he still plays at an elite level because, “I’m just a bad mother.”
Pierce, 35, whose Boston Celtics will host the Nets at noon, recently became the second-oldest player to record consecutive games with at least 35 points, trailing only Jordan, who had games of 51 and 45 at age 38 in the first year of his comeback with the Washington Wizards.
Duncan continues to tap into the Riverwalk of youth in San Antonio; last week in Denver the 36-year-old power forward had his first game with at least 30 points, 18 rebounds and five blocked shots in 11 years. His production per 36 minutes is almost identical to what he contributed 10 years ago, when he won the second of consecutive league MVP awards.
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich keeps Duncan at a minutes limit to keep him rested and fresh, but marvels at how he can stay so effective after appearing in 1,139 regular season games and another 190 postseason games.
“For some magical reason, some strange elixir that he’s found. He and Kevin Garnett have found it, and nobody else has, besides, maybe Jason [Kidd],” Popovich said with a laugh. “The training techniques are really advanced and they go year-round, so it’s not surprising that they can extend their careers the way they have. What they put into their bodies are real important to them. The contracts are big. They know somebody is waiting in line, so they better take care of themselves.”
The Knicks have taken veteran presence to the extreme. With Thomas (40), Kidd, Camby (38), Rasheed Wallace (38) and 35-year-old rookie Pablo Prigioni, they have fielded the oldest team in NBA history, with an average age of nearly 33.
“Those are the guys that are winning titles, when you look at it,” Knicks Coach Mike Woodson said of 30-somethings. “We didn’t ask our old players to come in and play 30 or 40 minutes. We asked them to be a nice piece to the puzzle and that’s what we think we’ve assembled here.”
Ten years ago, the NBA had 54 players that were born in the 1960s. This season, there are 37 players that were born in the 1970s. But the current generation of NBA veterans has played during the most lucrative financial period in league history, as nine of the 11 players with at least 16 years of experience have earned well over nine figures. At the conclusion of his current deal in 2015, Garnett will have earned over $300 million in his career.
“It’s definitely not about money,” said Stackhouse, who has earned more than $84 million from his NBA salary over his career. “I think it’s just about competing. There is plenty of time for all of that other stuff. I have aspirations to coach, do broadcasting and things, but you can never get back that camaraderie of being in the locker room with guys, game-planning and being on the road. That’s been my life. That’s all that I’ve done.
“Before you actually have to step out of it, and into the quote-end quote real world, then why not?” Stackhouse said. “I can live with the old-man jokes on Twitter. That comes with it. Because I know that in the back of everybody’s mind that Tweet things like that, they wish they could do what I do. Being able to still have success doing something that you love to do.”