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Steve Aschburner

Karl Malone fought father time and at age 40 became the oldest player ever to put up a triple-double.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Few NBA players escape the tight defense of Father Time

Posted Aug 28 2010 9:52AM

Now that Grandpa Quarterback, Brett Favre, is officially back for his 20th season in the NFL (little Parker Brett, son of Favre's daughter Brittany, will be six months old in September), it seems appropriate to consider the graying of the NBA as well.

The NBA never has been known as the league for golden oldies, nor basketball the sport, not in the sense that some others have. When you think of the others, the names of some astounding performers come immediately to mind -- and they were astounding even before they got old.

Besides (and before) Favre in football, there was Warren Moon, who played in 36 games and threw 44 touchdown passes beginning with the season in which he turned 40, spending his final five years with Minnesota, Seattle and Kansas City. And Jerry Rice, who caught 183 passes and 12 TDs from the same chronological point.

Nolan Ryan won 71 of his 324 games and struck out 1,437 batters after his 40th birthday. That's 22 percent of his all-time victories and 25 percent of his K's, more strikeouts than Carlos Zambrano or Cliff Lee have in their careers. Hockey's Gordie Howe scored 287 goals from age 40 to 51 -- while skipping years 43 and 44 entirely. Fellow puckster Chris Chelios, drafted back in 1981, played 470 games from 2001-02 to 2009-2010. Pugilist/pitchman George Foreman went 12-3 in the ring after age 40 and, at 45, knocked out Michael Moorer to reclaim boxing's world heavyweight championship.

The NBA doesn't have as many sterling senior moments in its history, at least not measured in individual achievements like those above. The most obvious reason, of course, is that it hasn't had as many sterling seniors. Pro basketball after age 40 is a dicey proposition because of its physical demands and reliance on speed, quickness and, for most, at least a modicum of leaping ability.

Oh, it's nice to know that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the NBA's greatest ever, played two seasons after he turned 40, even if the driving force behind his protracted career (money woes) wasn't so nice. Abdul-Jabbar, a physical marvel and relative pioneer in his use of yoga and martial arts, won two of his six championship rings and was honored with two All-Star appearances after he turned 40. But he was essentially a role player on the "Showtime" Lakers by then. His production at 40 and 41 -- 12.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg -- was less than half what he provided (25.9 ppg, 11.8 rpg) in his first 18 seasons.

Few NBA players have lasted that long -- a testament to the sport's rigors compared to certain others' -- and several who did were big men of limited mobility. They at least remained tall and, same as in their prime, could get by running straight up and down the court from painted area to painted area. Think Herb Williams or Charles Jones.

It's not known if the NBA has employed any active grandfathers but here are some factoids on the league's oldies, some golden, some moldy, through the years:

• The oldest player in NBA history -- or its precursor, the BAA -- was Nat Hickey, who was coaching the Providence Steamrollers through a 4-25 season in 1947-48 when he decided to take matters into his own hands. Hickey, a guard-forward just shy of his 46th birthday, appeared in one game, missed all six of his shots, sank two of three free throws and committed five fouls.

• Big man Kevin Willis got lots of attention as the oldest player in NBA "modern" history when, after sitting out one season, he signed with Dallas and at age 44 played five games with Dallas in 2006-07. Willis, a sturdy and sinewy 7-footer, had been drafted out of Michigan State in 1984 and did his best work in Atlanta, about 15 years before his swan song with the Mavericks.

There are, of course, those will dispute Willis' claim of being the oldest NBA center ever or even Hickey's status as elder statesman, period. They are the folks who suspect Dikembe Mutombo of fudging at the front end -- he really was born in June 1966? -- and playing a few years older than the official record throughout his 18-year career. The Big Finger-Wagger was (ahem) 42 when he wrapped it up in 2008-09.

• Celtics legend Bob Cousy had been retired for six full seasons and already was coaching the Cincinnati Royals in 1969-70 when, partly in desperation and partly as a gate attraction, he turned into a player-coach. But in seven appearances, Cousy managed only five points and 10 assists in 34 minutes before benching himself for good. At least he didn't reset his waiting period for the Hall of Fame, going in in 1971.

• Utah Jazz guard John Stockton turned 41 on March 26, 2003. When that 2002-03 season ended, Stockton ranked fifth in the NBA in assists and ninth in steals. The all-time leader in both categories played in all 82 games, common for him, and his stats at the end (10.8 ppg, 7.7 apg, 1.7 spg, 27.7 mpg) weren't far off those he posted over his full 19 seasons (13.1, 10.5, 2.2, 31.8).

• Karl Malone, Stockton's old running mate in Salt Lake City, didn't droop much near the end either. His role and minutes changed when he joined the Lakers for his 19th and final season in 2003-04, but he still was a potent scorer. On Nov. 30, 2003, four months past his 40th birthday, Malone became the oldest NBA player to get a triple-double, totaling 10 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in 26 minutes against San Antonio. In April, Malone had 30 points and 13 rebounds against Houston, becoming the oldest player to score 30 in a playoff game.

• Another Celtics great, Robert Parish, defined longevity in a different way. When he spent the 1996-97 season (his 21st) mostly on the Chicago Bulls' bench, he picked up a fourth ring and pushed his career games total to 1,611, tops in NBA history.

• With Lindsey Hunter and Brent Barry presumably done as active players, newly signed Boston center Shaquille O'Neal is expected to be the NBA's oldest active player in 2010-11. The Big AARP was born on March 6, 1972, which makes him about seven months older than Chicago addition Kurt Thomas (Oct. 4, 1972) and Phoenix's Grant Hill (Oct. 5, 1972).

• Other musty ones who will try to make must-have contributions to contenders this season include Miami's Juwan Howard (37), Boston's Michael Finley (37), Dallas' Jason Kidd (37) and the Lakers' Theo Ratliff (37).

• LeBron James and Greg Oden are 25 and 22, respectively. They just look like they're over 40 -- or at least are the butt of jokes from people who contend that they look like much older.

• Lakers great Jerry West became the oldest player in league history to average more than 30 points a game, producing 31.2 ppg in 1969-70 at age 31. But when Michael Jordan averaged 30.4 ppg in 1995-96, he topped that -- Jordan played the second half of that season at age 33.

• Jordan also averaged 20.0 points for Washington in 2002-03, the season in which he turned 40. By that time, he had become the oldest player in NBA history to score 50 points or more in a game (he did it when he was 38 years, 315 days old). And then four days after his 40th birthday, Jordan dropped 43 points on New Jersey, including the game-winning layup. That made him the only 40-year-old to score 40. "I'm going down with no bullets," he said afterward.

Seems like that's what Favre has in mind, too. That or no ankles, I'm not quite sure.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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