Basketball’s Old Guard, headed by Paul, LeBron James, and LaMarcus Aldridge, is set to dominate plenty of (much) younger studs this season— and teach us about building strength, stamina, and speed over the long haul, too.
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.”
THE FITNESS AWAKENING began three Decembers ago, in 2018. Paul was already midway through a disastrous season with Houston, a campaign in which he would log a career low in points per game (15.6) while playing just 58 games. And he’d just suffered the fifth hamstring strain of his career.
That led him to fly to Miami and visit DBC Fitness and Raimon. Paul wasn’t new to training, having consistently lifted under the guidance of team strength coaches. But Raimon offered something different. He’d worked with James and Dwyane Wade during the Miami Heat’s championship heyday, and DBC, which he co-owns, had developed a rep for a detail-oriented approach to training. “When we start working with someone,” Raimon says, “our goal is to make them the best-functioning human being they can be.”
And Paul’s hamstrings weren’t functioning correctly. When he attempted a deadlift, a key move for building hamstring and glute power, he started the movement by squatting down instead of pushing his butt backward.
Once Raimon corrected that, Paul was hooked. They continued working together that off-season. By last season, Raimon was programming all of Paul’s workouts, even sending instructions to the Suns staff. He attended every Phoenix playoff game, taking Paul through a 15-minute warmup. “It’s just attention to detail as far as weight training, the way my body moves,” Paul says of Raimon’s approach. “I think my body moves a lot more efficiently than it used to.” He adds that there’s no such thing as off-season now. Sure, he might not actually play basketball for two months, but he’s always training and “making sure my body is right.”
Paul blended his newly detailed fitness approach with a nuanced food strategy. He’d spent the early part of his career downing soda after every game. Then he served as a co-executive producer on The Game Changers, the Netflix doc on plant-based eating. “When I learned that food should be fuel for your body,” he says, “that is when it changed for me.”
By year’s end, he’d hired a personal chef, Aaron Clayton, and was viewing his body as a finely tuned machine. “Everything that you do is an investment,” Paul says. “One of the first things I tell young guys is that they should invest in a chef. I say that because the one thing you do every day is you eat.” Paul can’t remember the last time he had a soda; he stopped drinking them in part because he’s now obsessed with quality hydration. He drinks plant-based protein shakes and smoothies from Koia (he’s an investor in the company) and regularly chugs coconut water. And when he wakes up in the morning and heads to the bathroom, he always checks the color of his urine; deep yellow sends him straight to his fridge. “If I wake up [and] my urine ain’t the right color, I go guzzle a bottle of water,”he says. “You gotta know your body.”
Clayton, meanwhile, does his best to keep Paul’s diet full of flavor. He’s gotten creative, too, delivering plant-based, gluten-free fried Oreos (“fun,” the chef says) and a vegan, gluten-free brownie and cookie bar that several Suns are now hooked on. “At first my teammates were like, ‘You’re eating grass, eating that bird food,’ and I laugh and it’s cool,” Paul says. “But they see what I’m doing.”
Paul believes going plant-based helped reduce whole-body inflammation, eliminating the aches he used to battle. Years ago, he’d sit in the cold tub or ice his knees after every single game. He hasn’t done that in years. He’s rarely sore the day after he lifts weights. So he can train with Raimon more often—and dominate NBA up-and-comers on the court on back-to-back nights, when needed. “A ton of guys can be really good on Monday night and drop 35, but how good can you be on Tuesday?” Paul says. “And now you gotta play on Thursday? Can you be good on Friday?”
Paul’s body has proved over the past two years that it can handle that challenge. And that leaves him unprepared for just one thing: retirement. He says he’ll know when it’s time to go. But for now, why not relish morphing into the NBA’s fittest player? “That’s where I’m so grateful,” he says. “A lot of guys who were my teammates are coaches now. I feel so blessed to still get the opportunity to play.”