CHRIS PAUL isn’t sure he wants you to know his secrets. The way he sees it, the less anyone knows about his eating plan, the better. He’s not sure he wants to talk about the deadlift tweak that helped him end years of hamstring woes, or his personal telltale sign that his body needs more water. “Sometimes I almost wish I didn’t tell anybody,” Paul says. “I don’t need everybody to feel this way.”
But Paul understands why you’d want to know. After all, the once-brittle point guard has suddenly emerged as one of the NBA’s most reliable players, and he’s coming off a dominant season, a year that saw him lead the Phoenix Suns to within two games of the championship.
Somehow, at age 36 and after 16 grueling years as a pro, Paul has actually become faster, stronger, and more durable. Three years ago, after he had a rough season with the Houston Rockets, some wondered whether Paul might be done. Today? “I probably feel better now than I did some years ago,” he says. “I’m at a point now where I can’t imagine not playing.”
Not that he’s the lone old-timer saying that. Yes, stars like Zion Williamson (21 years old), Luka Dončić (22), and Rockets rook Jalen Green (all of 19!) might lead you to believe that basketball is a young man’s game. But this season, a host of geezers are about to change that, representing for all men 35 and over.
In Miami, the Heat will hand their offense to point man Kyle Lowry, who’s 35, with sharpshooting from P. J. Tucker, 36, and in Milwaukee, the Bucks are counting on steely defense from George Hill, 35. The Brooklyn Nets expect big things from big men LaMarcus Aldridge, 36, and Paul Millsap, also 36. Out west, LeBron James, 36, is hoping a quartet of over-35 role players (Carmelo Anthony, 37; Trevor Ariza, 36; Dwight Howard, 35; and Rajon Rondo, 35) can help him return the Lakers to glory. A decade ago, all these guys would have been labeled over-the-hill. After all, just twice in the league’s 75-year history has the NBA MVP been 35 or older—Michael Jordan in 1998 and Karl Malone in 1999. But a recent wellness revolution has transformed all sports and kept marquee stars winning titles long after their “primes” were over (see: Brady, Tom, and Williams, Serena). That revolution will reach a crescendo in this NBA season, which just may be defined by its oldsters.
It helps that front offices have embraced the concept of load management, cutting player minutes to enhance on-court productivity. And NBA players, like many athletes, increasingly build their lives around wellness, taking their diets and recovery regimens into their own hands, hiring private trainers and purchasing high-tech recovery gear (think NormaTec compression boots, which are revered around the league) to use at home. “They invest in all the different recovery modalities,” says Jim Scholler, head athletic trainer for the Pistons, who’s been in the league since 2008. “They have dedicated healthcare professionals that work with them in the off-season. And they have strong routines.”
Paul’s transformation is proof. In seven of his first 14 seasons, a Sprite-guzzling, gym-rat version of Paul failed to play 70 regular-season games. But over the past two years, he’s turned his body into a 24/7 lifestyle, hiring a chef, a deep-tissue specialist, and a biomechanics trainer. Since then, he’s played 70-plus games in back-to-back seasons. (He’s aiming for three straight 70-game campaigns for the first time in his career this season.) And in July, he appeared in his first career NBA finals. Just three days after that, following a season that saw him play in 90 games, he was FaceTiming with trainer Donnie Raimon to beg for a workout.
Paul no longer views his training and diet as a chore. “I dove deeper into it,” he says. “And it became about more than just athletics. It’s a way of life.”