St. Louis Blues defenseman Al MacInnis won the hardest shot competition during the NHL’s All-Star weekend in Sunrise, Fla., on Saturday. MacInnis is 39 years old. And the old guy used an old-school wooden stick to propel the puck nearly 99 miles an hour.
Also on Saturday, Michael Jordan scored 45 points as the Wizards beat New Orleans at MCI Center. Jordan turns 40 in two weeks.
It was a good day for professional sports’ senior set but not terribly unusual, not anymore. Athletes are playing longer and playing well, defying age with achievement, replacing slipping skills with intelligence and experience. More than ever, older is better. This world does not yet belong to LeBron James.
As the 18-year-old high school basketball star is learning, painfully, experience might be the most valuable commodity of all knowing how to play the game, knowing how to prepare, knowing what to do and, maybe most important, what not to do.
Some believed last spring that the oldest team in the NHL had tired legs, but the Detroit Red Wings mustered sufficient energy to hold the Stanley Cup aloft after beating Carolina in five games in the finals. The key moment happened in Game3, the series tied, when Igor Larionov scored at 14:47 of the third overtime. It was Larionov’s second goal of the game, and the Wings won 3-2. At 41, Larionov was the oldest player in the league.
“The smartest players are the best players,” Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said. “They can compensate as they move along in their careers, take different roles.”
McPhee said the Caps probably were the oldest team in the league when they made the finals in 1998.
Experienced players “find it easier to process things they’ve seen before,” he said. “But just as important is the players’ attitude. They realize after a certain period of time that hard work wins championships, that opportunities don’t come that often. Their lives are more settled, they’re married, it isn’t just about making money. It’s not what drives them anymore. What really brings you joy and peace of mind is winning a championship.”
The oldest team in the NFL did pretty well, too. Sure, the elderly Oakland Raiders were blown out by Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII, but 30 other teams, all younger, were elsewhere.
“I know the older I get, the more I rely on my experience and not my athletic ability,” said Buffalo Bills fullback Larry Centers, a 13-year veteran. “I find a more efficient way to do things. … I’m really surprised at just how ignorant I was [as a young player]. I thought I knew a lot of stuff. I relied too much on my ability early on.”
Said Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins: “As you get older, the love of the game, experience, just knowing what needs to be done become such vital things.”
Case in point: After a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks last week, the first thing Collins mentioned was the Bucks’ experience, especially at the end of the game.
“I don’t think you can not have talent, but when you have veteran players at the end of games, I mean, they know situations,” Collins said. “They know how to defend situations. When they see certain things starting to happen on the floor, they have a sense of it. They feel it quicker.
“You’ll see it with [the Wizards 39-year-old] Charles Oakley. Oak obviously has slowed down a bit, but he still sniffs things out early. Sometimes younger players don’t react as quickly They’re a step behind. It has nothing to do with how quick or fast they are, it’s the awareness and being able to see things. And that comes with time.”
Some golden oldies
Many believed Pete Sampras’ time was past until last September, when he won the U.S. Open at 31, the oldest Open champion since 1970. His opponent in the finals was Andre Agassi, 32.
Then it was Agassi’s turn. Two weeks ago Agassi became the oldest male tennis player to win a Grand Slam event since 1972 when he dominated Rainer Schuettler, a lad of 26, in the Australian Open final. During the same tournament, Martina Navratilova won the mixed doubles at 46 years, three months the oldest Grand Slam winner in history.
Mario Lemieux, who was the dominant player in the NHL during the late 1980s and early 1990s before retiring in 1997 because of chronic back pain, returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2000 and this season, at 37, leads the league in scoring with 20 goals and 49 assists for 69 points.
Barry Bonds had never won a batting title until last season, when he became the oldest player to do it by hitting .370 at 38. He also hit 46 home runs (a year after he hit 73), drove in 110 runs and walked a record 198 times. Bonds, who led the San Francisco Giants to the World Series, was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player for a record fifth time.
The Giants mirrored the Raiders, except they were more competitive in the championship, taking Anaheim to seven games. The average age was 32. All nine starters (including designated hitter) in the Series were at least 34. And Bonds wasn’t even the oldest; Shawon Dunston was 39.
In the National League Championship Series, the Giants beat St. Louis, whose pitching staff featured Chuck Finley (39), Woody Williams (36), Andy Benes (35) and Dave Veres (35). The Cardinals, in turn, beat the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series. Arizona was led by pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. At 39, Johnson last year took his fourth straight Cy Young Award. He won 24 games, struck out 334 and had a 2.32 ERA, leading the league in all three categories. Schilling, 36, finished second in the Cy Young balloting.
In 2001, Roger Clemens won an unprecedented sixth Cy Young Award, going 20-3 for the New York Yankees at 39.
Regina Jacobs, who turned 39 last August, won the U.S. Indoor Mile and USA Outdoor Mile in 2002 while also setting world records in the indoor two- and three-mile events.
The big stories heading into the 2002 Ryder Cup were Tiger Woods, who is always the big story, and Sergio Garcia. When it was over, Bernard Langer and Colin Montgomerie had provided a senior moment, going undefeated as Europe upset the United States. At 45 and 39, respectively, they were the oldest players on their teams.
It’s not all about experience
But age and success don’t always equate, which is why those who put teams together are always striving for balance.
“You still have to have the ability to make the plays,” Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. “Speed and quickness are still crucial to winning.”
The 2000 Washington Redskins added such veterans as Jeff George, Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders and Mark Carrier. All that did was result in an 8-8 season and cost coach Norv Turner his job.
“I don’t think we were ever cohesive,” said Centers, who played on that team. “There were a lot of veterans, but we didn’t play as a family. It was a bunch of individuals, and the individuals were bigger than the team.”
A sound mind needs a strong body, and professional athletes collectively are in better shape than ever. Most work out year-round with personal trainers, nutritionists and other types of fitness gurus. Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski, 37, said he spends nearly $200,000 a year on supplements and vitamins, and a staff that includes acupuncturists, chiropractors and yoga instructors. And medical advances ensure that most of today’s players recover from injuries and resume careers faster than their predecessors.
“The conditioning aspect is huge,” Casserly said. “It’s probably the biggest change in the last 20 or 30 years. There are more players who are in better shape who can play longer.”
Collins pointed out another major change air travel.
“Chartered aircraft has been a big difference,” he said. “Now you don’t have to stay in the city, get up at 5 in the morning, go to the airport, get a commercial flight at 6 a.m. … When we played at Milwaukee, the guys were in their own beds by 2 a.m. They could get eight hours of sleep, come to our practice facility. They can be treated. All the strength and conditioning stuff is here. Then they can go home and rest. The upgrades have been amazing.”
John Stockton and Karl Malone keep getting older, and the Utah Jazz remain a contender. Stockton, who turns 41 in March, is the 10th player in league history to play into his 40s. On Feb.17, at home against Toronto, Jordan should become the 11th. Malone hits 40 in July and has no plans to retire.
Knowing your body
With their bodies fit for the long haul, older players can better apply what they’ve learned. Each game becomes a clinic, especially for the whippersnappers who are quicker and stronger yet still can’t keep up.
“When you’ve been around for a long time, you know the ins and outs of the game,” said Wizards forward Etan Thomas, who is in his second full season. “They have little tricks they’ve picked up from other players.”
Malone, for all his brute strength and sculpted muscles, “pretty much knows all the tricks,” Thomas said. “It’s really just positioning, whether it’s posting up or getting in position to get the foul called or get the rebound. He has excellent court geography. He knows where to go on the court, and they know how to throw him the ball in the right place. Sometimes he’s in position where once he catches the ball, you’re either going to foul him or he’s going to score.”
Then there is Jordan, who reminded us last week, yet again, that perhaps no other athlete has the capacity to astonish at such an advanced age, even after offseason knee surgery. But his freakish talent and passion for conditioning are just part of it.
“A guy like Michael, where he used to beat you not only with his mind but his great physical abilities, now he’s so powerfully strong mentally,” Collins said.
Jordan, confident as ever, said he can still score at will. But his age says otherwise (even greatness has its limits), and his role and responsibilities are different.
“That’s the old Michael Jordan, a younger Michael Jordan,” he said. “Now I use more of my mind, and try to take advantage of those opportunities. [Scoring] 40 or 30 points is a little bit few and far between, but I’m capable of doing it, I think. If I wanted to, if it was something I wanted to chase, I could chase it. But it’s not who I am. I’m all about winning, yeah. Right now I’m all about teaching and making sure these guys understand about winning.”
Sometimes, young players “expend so much energy and they get nothing done,” Collins said. “Then you’re in the league for awhile and a maturity comes over you: ‘I know what I have to do to get ready.’ Michael Jordan, Barry Bonds, they know what to do to get ready. It might be different than what another great player does. But you have to know your body.”