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The Secret to N.B.A. Longevity Includes Advice From Tom Brady

SportThe Secret to N.B.A. Longevity Includes Advice From Tom Brady

BOSTON — With two minutes left until halftime of a second-round closeout game, Al Horford spotted a loose ball deep in the right corner. The Boston Celtics led the Cleveland Cavaliers by five points with a chance to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, but Horford believed his team lacked energy. He wanted to lift everyone.

As the ball headed toward the Boston bench, Horford engaged in a race against two visible threats: Dean Wade and the out-of-bounds line. A third threat, which Horford first committed to fighting off early in his career, went unseen. Horford turned 38 on June 3 and has long engaged in a competition against Father Time.

Horford won the race against Wade for a rebound and saved the possession by throwing the ball off the Cavaliers forward. As the Boston bench rose to let Horford know the value of his hustle, fans inside TD Garden roared.

It was nothing new for Horford to deliver a timely play in a big game, but savoring such moments seems wise these days. No matter how hard he tries to preserve his physical gifts, his body eventually will break down.

Though his longevity receives attention because of his continued status as a key piece on a title contender, it has taken him decades of work to reach this point of his career, still with so much left to give the game.

Horford’s on-court presence is a feat. Now wrapping up his 17th season, he is one of only five players left from the 2007 NBA Draft. Only six players older than Horford logged minutes this season. In that group, only LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry were regulars in team rotations.

In a league with enough skill and 3-point shooting to punish some of the best defensive centers, Horford was the oldest NBA big man to receive nightly playing time. To date, he has dodged the factors that can derail a career — injuries, wear and tear and off-court issues.

Horford will enter the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks ranked 98th all-time in regular-season minutes played and 26th all-time in postseason minutes played. His teammates marvel at not just the way he still performs, but also how he has set himself up to do so.

Jayson Tatum, who says Horford stays in “perfect shape,” has stolen parts of the veteran’s daily routine. Payton Pritchard, whose locker sits next to Horford’s at the Celtics practice facility and TD Garden, says he watches everything Horford does to pick up how to approach the game. Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla, two years younger than Horford, calls it an honor to coach a player like him. On a roster loaded with hard-working veterans, Horford is the role model for other role models.

Horford has gone to great lengths to postpone the inevitable. Long before age started to diminish him physically, Horford began working toward this type of sustained success. Even before he considered playing this many years in the NBA a realistic possibility, he paid close attention to the work habits of elite athletes. He picked the brains of NBA legends. He worked briefly with Alex Guerrero, Tom Brady’s longtime fitness and nutrition advisor and co-founder of TB12, their injury prevention company. He also sought advice from Brady himself.

If the Celtics go on to win the championship this season, it would come in no small part due to Horford’s ability to hold off the effects of age.

“It’s funny,” the five-time NBA All-Star said, “because I feel like everybody has been talking about me being old since I was, like, 23 years old. Because I was already thinking ahead, thinking team, thinking all these other things (about the future), and that’s just who I am.”

Al Horford has been a key part of Boston’s playoff run this season. (Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)

Horford picked up a nickname during his freshman season at the University of Florida: The Godfather. At 18, he was already no-nonsense.

“He just had this ability to lead,” said Duke Werner, the men’s basketball athletic trainer at Florida and now the school’s assistant athletic director for sports health. “The way he went about his business, he was just very professional at a young age.”

In the early 2000s, the Gators already were prioritizing recovery for their athletes. Under Werner and head coach Billy Donovan, it was mandatory for players to receive recovery treatments after each practice. Among the options were massage therapy, cryotherapy and flexibility programs.

Werner emphasized these activities were crucial — and not just on the days the players were feeling less than their best. For teenagers, the importance of proper physical maintenance doesn’t always come easily. But for Horford, who had watched his father, Tito, take great care of himself throughout a long professional basketball career that included 63 games over three NBA seasons, the message sank in quickly.

“What set Al apart a little bit on that was his curiosity about how to stay healthy and how to be the best that he could be,” Werner said. “At that age, a lot of guys aren’t doing that. There are a lot of other things they’re worried about other than trying to stay healthy.”

When Horford arrived on campus as the 47th-ranked recruit, Werner and Donovan discussed the need for him to improve his lateral quickness and explosiveness. They believed his body was too stiff. Horford took the message to heart.

He averaged 22.8 minutes per game as a freshman on a team that starred Anthony Roberson, David Lee and Matt Walsh. While finishing a respectable 24-8 in 2004-05, the Gators were building the foundation of a team that would go on to win back-to-back national championships.

Horford and his recruiting class, which included Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, took over the reins of the team the following season. At practices, Florida did an injury prevention program before stretching.

According to Werner, the players went through four stations, which included ankle and lower back work. For a while, Werner and Donovan believed Horford and Brewer were too lax in their attitude during that portion of practice. Eventually, Werner and Donovan called the two players into the office.

“From then on, boy, Horf was serious,” Werner said.

Horford said Werner’s advice convinced him to take better care of his body. During a three-year career at Florida, he only missed two games. Werner remembered Horford only had one injury during his time at the school.

“I had a high ankle sprain,” Horford said, “and I kind of played through it.”

The Godfather approached everything from the film room to the weight room with great diligence. After winning the national title as sophomores, Horford, Noah, Brewer and Taurean Green returned to Florida and did it again as juniors. In the summer of 2007, those four plus teammate Chris Richard were selected in the NBA Draft.

“They all played in the NBA,” Werner said. “We always kind of had a guess that he would probably stick around (the NBA) the longest. We always thought with his maturity level that he would be the guy still playing.”

Werner’s lessons stuck with Horford, who named the trainer as one of the reasons for his NBA longevity. The curiosity to learn more about what worked best for his body never left.

Horford with the Florida Gators in the 2006 NCAA Tournament. (Elsa / Getty Images)

In 2015, near the end of a day with Guerrero at the TB12 training facility, Horford saw Brady walk into the gym. It was during the summer, the depths of the NFL offseason. Still, Brady looked game-ready.

“He was already so locked in,” Horford said.

In Atlanta, where Horford played at the time, the Hawks medical staff was changing. The transition helped convince Horford to look for training support elsewhere. Horford wanted to explore the TB12 program after seeing Brady’s commitment to his nutrition and lifestyle. Before the 2015-16 season, he visited the facility in Foxborough, Mass., to undergo testing and learn, from Guerrero, some of Brady’s tricks.

Horford also investigated the approaches of other elite athletes, including Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James. If he found something that would benefit him, he pursued it. In his 20s, he reached out to Manu Ginóbili and Vince Carter — two NBA All-Stars who played into their 40s — for advice.

“They all preach very similar things — treatment and staying after and being committed,” Horford said. “For me, honestly, I feel like a lot of guys my age try to do all those things as we understand the importance of it.”

Horford first hired a personal chef during his second season in the NBA. His current chef has been with him for 10 years. She’s moved from city to city — including two stops in Boston — all to work with him. At this point, Horford said, she’s family.

“She’s connected with the team, as well,” Horford said. “She’s very conscious of everything that I need to be eating, how I should eat before the game, how I should eat postgame, how I should eat the next day for recovery, and just making sure that we’re maximizing and eating as clean as we can. It’s all things that are going to help me perform better, foods are going to put me in the best position.”

Outside of his diet, Horford continued to hunt additional ways to maximize his physical gifts. After learning about Brady’s unique style of preparation, Horford wanted to discover more.


“For me,” Horford said, “it’s just Tom.”

At TB12, according to Guerrero, Horford wanted to focus on two areas: injury prevention and a position-specific workout regimen that would allow him to flourish for years to come. Still in his 20s, he was already thinking about the shifting NBA game. During the 2015-16 season, Horford started shooting 3-pointers regularly for the first time. He also wanted to change his body to keep up with the new demands of his position.

“We talked about, what is your ultimate playing weight based off your position?” Guerrero said. “At your position, what does that entail? Do you need to move? Is it more based on speed or quickness, quickness or power and strength? Once he began to define that for himself and his position, you can make a customizable program for him that’s based on what he’s looking to achieve.”

Some of the lessons were scientific. Guerrero emphasized that Horford’s body would undergo a physiological shift every five years and he would need to adapt his program according to his body’s new reality. The quicker he adjusted to the changes, essentially by retraining his brain and body, the easier it would be to achieve longevity.

“The idea was being able to play and continue to do what you love doing for as long as you want,” Guerrero said. “We talked at the very beginning that the game should never take it away from you. You should be able to leave on your terms.”

While Horford was at the facility, he and Brady discussed a wide range of topics, including nutrition, hydration and workout regimens. During the conversation, Brady, whose extraordinarily strict diet has been well publicized, emphasized that what worked for him wouldn’t necessarily work for everyone else.

“For me, it was, like, how can I fit that into my lifestyle?” Horford said, adding that his diet was never as strict as Brady’s. “How can I take some of this stuff and use it to my benefit?”

As much as anyone, Brady valued his time. Guerrero considered that crucial for any professional athlete whose time is limited because they are pulled in so many directions. Everything Brady did had a purpose.

“Your workouts are purpose-specific,” Guerrero said. “Your diet is purpose-specific. Your recovery is purpose-specific. All with the goal of making sure you maximize the time that you have in a given day.”

Horford said the most lasting lesson that day came from witnessing Brady’s focus, determination and commitment to the everyday process.

“I’ve never seen somebody so present, period,” Horford said. “I feel like a lot of the times, we’re always thinking about different things or thinking ahead or thinking whatever. And he was just very, very, very, very in the moment. That was something that really stuck with me.”

Like Tom Brady, Horford is hoping to bring a championship to Boston. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

At the Celtics practice facility in early February, hours before a game against James’ Lakers, Horford raved about the way the 39-year-old has adjusted his game with age. It seemed telling that Horford, who understands the physical investment James has made over the years, focused more on James’ ability to adapt over time.

These days, Horford said, James is more likely to let one of his teammates take control of the offense while he works off the ball.

“It’s not easy to adjust to the game,” Horford said.

Horford should know. Not many players in this generation have done it better. He didn’t attempt 10 3-pointers in a single season until the seventh season of his career, but he eventually became a knockdown outside shooter because he saw where the game was headed and what he would need to survive in it.

After shooting 44.6 percent on 3-point attempts last season, he followed by hitting 41.9 percent on such attempts this season. With modifications to his game, he has found new ways to make an impact even as some of his athleticism wanes.

Years ago, Danny Ainge predicted Horford would be the rare star able to thrive in a smaller role late in his career. During Horford’s second season with the Celtics, Ainge was told the big man could potentially play until 40. It was the first time Horford had considered playing so long.

“Danny Ainge is the one that put that in my head a little bit,” Horford said.

Ainge believed in the possibility for several reasons: He embraced a clean lifestyle. He possessed an adaptable game, a healthy body and the right mentality.

“He’s a versatile player,” Ainge said. “He may not be the same player at 40 that he is at 32, but he’s gonna be able to still contribute, and that’s part of it. It’s not just the body part, but the mental part. I think Al has the humility to just play a lesser role and be part of a team.”

Horford accepted a sixth-man role this season for the first time in his career. He attempted a career-low 6.4 field goals per game during the regular season. The Celtics utilized him primarily as a floor spacer, not the offensive hub he used to be.

To preserve his body, he sat out one leg of regular season back-to-backs. He still prepared to handle large minutes when necessary. That need arrived early in the playoffs when Kristaps Porziņģis suffered a calf injury during Game 3 of the Celtics’ first-round series against Miami.

With Porziņģis missing every game since, Horford slid into the starting lineup. The first unit with him in has blasted opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions through Boston’s first 14 postseason games. The Celtics have been 12.7 points better per 100 possessions with Horford on the court during the playoffs.

Though he had some trouble stopping Donovan Mitchell in the second round against the Cavaliers, he consistently shut down Darius Garland on switches during the closeout game of that series. To help lead a Game 3 comeback win against the Pacers one round later, Horford drilled seven 3-pointers, blocked three shots and grabbed three offensive rebounds.

To Horford’s teammates, it’s no secret why he’s still a major factor in his 17th season, or why, in a league where many big men get played off the court deep in the playoffs, he never has. Before games, Horford can be seen using resistance bands to stretch each of his big toes for several minutes. There is no body part too small to strengthen or exercise too monotonous to adopt.

Horford doesn’t take days off. When the Celtics don’t have practice or a game, he said he typically does some sort of cardio exercise, 30 to 40 minutes of stretching, soft tissue work if needed, weight training if he’s due for it, and, “as much as I can,” an additional workout on the court.

“Doing that, to me, it’s important,” Horford said. “If I can, I like just getting outside, getting out in the sun preferably. I feel like it does help me, so that’s what I do. I don’t have a super elaborate (off-day schedule), but I do make sure that I’m being productive on the off days.”

Horford has long thought about his future. How much longer does he hope to play?

“My whole thing has always been this: as long as I feel good physically,” Horford said in February. “I don’t want to feel limited. I don’t want to be not myself out there. So, I don’t want to put a limit on it. And that’s the one thing that I saw from Tom (Brady), one of the things I took from him that I thought was great. Just listening to interviews with him and things like that, he never put a limit on when he was going to play, and I don’t want to limit myself with that.”

With the NBA Finals starting Thursday in Boston, Horford is four wins away from what would be the first championship in his illustrious career. The Mavericks, led by Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, will test his defense. His ability to withstand their attacks and occupy Dallas’ rim protectors on the other end of the court could help decide the series, especially if Porziņģis is limited.

Horford will be ready for the challenge.

“I feel like I’ve prepared my body and myself to be in this position,” he said. “And even though it’s hard, it’s something I welcome.”

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Scott Cunningham, Adam Glanzman / Getty Images)


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