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April 17, 2008

Fit After Forty: Staying in the Game

(Andre, Armstead B. Line and Kareem, 1969.)

When I was a kid, you rarely saw men or women over 40 doing anything more physically competitive than racing to beat someone to a cab. Or seeing who could finish mowing their lawn first. Or power walking to the corner convenience store for a pack of cigarettes. Now gray is the new black—at least in the hair of athletes around the country.

And many of these middle-age athletes aren’t content to just work out alone listening to Bruce Springsteen sing about glory days on their iPods. They want to compete against other—often much younger—athletes. Softball leagues, pick-up basketball games, and soccer games are packed with enthusiastic parents and grandparents who have put in their time watching their children play sports. Now they’re back, baby, and ready to play like it’s 1999.

The problem is it’s 2008. And our over-40 athletes are a little slower, a little less flexible, a little more vulnerable to injuries. That great spin move to the basket that was your signature move in college is now blocked every time—by a kid younger than your own children. And when you’re standing open for a shot because your defender has sagged off to help guard a stronger player, your teammates still don’t pass you the ball.

Get used to that initial lack of respect, because when it comes to competing after 40, your past accomplishments, trophies and victories don’t matter. You have to earn respect all over again. In fact, you have to try harder because most younger players will take one look at your wrinkles and gray hair and immediately dismiss you as a liability. Fortunately, there are practical steps you can take to stay competitive in your sport, even against younger players. Check those steps below.

Step One: Hit the Weights.
    Once you’re over 40, you’re more prone to injuries, and those injuries take longer to heal. So, not only are you in pain, and maybe feeling a little humiliated sitting on the sidelines clutching your throbbing shoulder while the others continue playing, but you are in danger of allowing yourself to get out of shape while recuperating. Over-40 celebrities Adam Sandler (broke his ankle) and George Clooney (ruptured his Achilles' tendon) both suffered injuries playing basketball. Many injuries can be avoided through a regimen of exercises designed to strengthen core muscles (see my earlier blog on core exercises). Supplement the core exercises with weights that will build muscles to protect your body more. Be sure to focus on areas that may be weak from previous injuries, such as knees and shoulders.

Step Two: Out-Cardio Them.
    Over the years I have often witnessed players underestimate other players because of their appearance. And I’ve watched the cocky observer pay the price. If you want to be the one to make them pay, you need to have an ace in the hole that they don’t expect. The one thing younger players never expect is for the older player to have greater stamina. To be able to run around the court, and keep running, while others start to slow down and drop their defenses. Although the over-40 player may have lost some quickness and power that he will never get back, he still has the ability to increase stamina. Through an exercise program that stresses cardiovascular workouts (see my blog on cardio exercises), the over-40 athlete will soon be able to outlast those younger athletes who rely on their youth rather than workouts to maintain fitness. Yes, they may be able to outrun and outshoot you for the first couple games, but after that, you will see a definite slowing down. When that happens, you’ll start outrunning and outshooting them. Believe me, there are few greater rewards for the over-40 athlete than to be standing on the basketball court saying, “Come on, let’s play,” while younger players sit on the sidelines catching their breath.

Step Three: Specialize.
    When you were in your 20s or even t30s you might have been proud of your all-around game. You could dribble well, drive in and do a layup with either hand, maybe even surprise everyone with a hook shot. Or you could hit the long ball, throw the 40-yard pass, do a bicycle kick into the soccer goal. After 40, those days are either gone or soon will be. That doesn’t mean you can’t still be a competitive threat in your sport. But instead of working on all aspects of your game, you would do well to specialize in one or two aspects. For example, for the older player, that drive to the hoop can be dangerous: noses get broken, teeth get loosened, heads get elbowed. And since you’re not getting paid, is it really worth that kind of risk? Instead, start thinking about practicing your three-point shot, out where there are fewer bodies to harm you. Or work on the fake pass, followed by a quick eight-foot fadeaway. In racquetball, forget the power kill shot that rips your shoulder and work on the elegant pinch shot that has your younger opponent diving in the wrong direction. In volleyball, the big power spike looks good, but the short cut shot to the left or right gets you points and leaves the tall, young blocker looking foolish. If you can do one thing better than anyone else, you will more valuable to the team than the all-around player who does everything mediocre.

Getting older may take its toll on us physically, but the advantage of our age is that we are supposed to get smarter. By following these three steps, you will have outsmarted nature—for a while. At least long enough to keep yourself competitive so that when you show up to play, the regulars start clamoring to get you on their team.

(Photo credit: KAJ's Archive)


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Great blog Kareem. As an over forty former athlete who is trying to get back into my game (tennis) It's as if I just realized I'm over forty and it was painfully obvious when I was playing with my 14 year old son that I have let myself get out of shape. Great tips...

Charles Ng

First of all, thanks for your tips. Although I am only a 34 going 35 in about 4 months, I am already noticing the 'symptoms' you described for a guy over 40. My goodness!
Recently my knees become very sore (for the first time) whenever I practice jump shots. When I walk, they appear okay only until I bend them. Is it normal for a basketball player at my age? I used to play b/ball everyday for at least 4 hours in my 20s but after 30 I only play/practice like 3 times a week for 3 hours each day. I basically gained 10lbs after my marriage 2 years ago that I assume normal but not ideal for my sports. Any thoughts or tips perhaps? Thanks!

Charles (a fan of yours from Hong Kong)

PS: I was so disappointed that when you came to Hong Kong visiting Sheung Wan where I worked and I couldn't get out to say hi or take a picture with you 'cuz of a lunch meeting! But yeah, just want to let you know that you have been my basketball idol since I first played b/ball at 11. Ya the man!

PS2: And of course, happy birthday!!

steve vonsik

Cap, Great blog. At 46 I can truly apppreciate the advice.
I'm no longer the young man I once was! Speaking of younger days, when I was a boy growing up in Buffalo, NY, I would shovel the driveway in the dead of winter, not so pop could get the car out but to launch sky hooks toward the rusted and netless bucket.
A tradition was started...cake on KAJ'S B-DAY. Some old girlfriends felt it was odd, but my wife thinks it's cute. She thinks you are too! Hey, what can I say dude, you're loved. Thanks for all the joy you have brought to my life.
Steve Vonsik Chandler, AZ

Abogada Adelante

We have been members of the YMCA since 1985 when my sons were in grade school. They played in all the youth basketball leagues and graduated to the adult league. Their complaint had always been that those "old men, some of whom wear girdles" can't keep up so they resort to tripping, elbowing, slapping, and pushing in order to win.


Hi Kareem,
im new in your Blog ,but i've been a Laker blogger since last year. i've been your long time fan since i was in high school 1984(Philippines)and a Bruce Lee fan as well. i followed your carrer and the Lakers since then and i'm now here in Tucson Arizona. Last december 19, 2006, my wife and i saw you at the LAX airport(hope you remember that date) and we plan to approach to have a picture of you with me at your side but i backed out because some feedback that i got is that you are little bit of snubbish person. But maybe we were shy then, so next time Kareem if i'm gonna see you again at the airport(not only in the airport), i'm not gonna hesitate to approach you. You are my idol until now. Happy Birthday


I'm in my late 50s and still play pickup with younger guys, but we have some players in their 60s. Most of us older guys have lived off the 3-pointer and setting screens for years. We're also often the ones who want to play one more. When I was in my 30s, I feared giving up basketball, and I've been thankful every day I've played since (usually 2-3 times a week since my teens!). Are you working on a book for the over-40 athlete?


I would like to tell you how impressed I have been with how you have always exhibited class and thought in every stage of your public life. You were one of the people I looked up to when I was growing up. I remeber your time with the showtime Lakers of the 80s and I always remember how impressed I was with your on the court conduct and work ethics that you put in. I am glad that we have athletes and role models such as yourself. I enjoy reading your blogs and am glad to see celebritys such as yourself take an active stand on the issues facing our country and society today. I was excited when you returned to the lakers and began training young Bynum. He has shown some wonderful on the court behaivor and has taken great strides in his game. I hope that the younger generation of kids as well as new faces coming into the NBA, look at the dedication and excellence you have always brought to the league and our community. Thanks Kareem for all that you do.


I'll have you know that I'm 33 years old, and spin move is already ineffective against 23 year olds..


Thanks for the tips. I'm learning a lot from your blog about how to stay in decent shape. I feel as good as I have in a long time. Thanks again.


Great advice! We write a blog for aging ballers and often touch on similar issues. Your thoughts on perception, lack of respect, and the hidden advantages of older players are right in line with our thinking.




Excellent advice. I'm 54 and stiIl play full court basketball three times a week with much younger players. I was a banger who developed a three point shot and refined my 8-12 foot fadeway precisely for the reasons you stated -- to create more space to score without getting too banged up. When I was younger, I hoped to play basketball until I was 40, then take up tennis. Now, I don't see an end in sight. I lift wieghts (hated to lift when I was younger) and stretch like crazy. (I alos want ot explore Yoga like your earlier suggestion.) Like Leigh said, this information on being an over-40 athlete would make a great book. Thanks.

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Captain Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many fans and sportswriters to be the greatest basketball player of all time. The 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center, famous for his indefensible skyhook, dominated the NBA for 20 years, first with the Milwaukee Bucks then with the Los Angeles Lakers. Before that he was the star of the UCLA Bruins teams that won three consecutive NCAA championships. Kareem was the NBA's MVP six times, a 19-time all-star and set the NBA all-time records in nine categories. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, a record that may never be broken.

Since retiring as a player in 1989, Kareem has balanced his love of basketball with his love of history. In 2002 he led a USBL team, the Oklahoma Storm, to a championship. Since 2005, he has been the special assistant coach for the Lakers, working with Andrew Bynum.

In 2008 he was chosen The Greatest Player in College Basketball History.

Kareem also remains intellectually active, authoring six bestselling history books intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. His books include "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement"; "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes"; "A Season on the Reservation," which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance."

His audio adaptation, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Audio & Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance," is a four-volume compilation read by Bob Costas, Avery Brooks, Jesse L. Martin, and Stanley Crouch, and features private and fascinating conversations with dozens of icons, including Coach John Wooden, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal. He has also been written to L.A. Times, under the Sports section.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been appearing on various radio stations and TV shows, as well as the most relevant websites talking about his life and his new audio book, On the Shoulders of Giants.

All images are property of www.iconomy.com unless otherwise stated. All info copyrighted and owned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not replicated without permission.

Come meet Kareem at the NBA Store on 5th Avenue: Friday, May 16th, from 3:15pm - 4:15pm.

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Mr. Abdul-Jabbar is the 2008 Honorary Chair Library Card Sign-up Month, which takes place in September. He will also appear at the American Library’s National Convention on June 28th and 29th at the Long Beach Convention Center to sign his poster.

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