During his heyday, Michael Jordan reportedly slept only a few hours a night. It’s a fact that’s often used as evidence to prove Jordan was something other than human. While what he did on such little sleep was of course incredible, but the fact Jordan wasn’t sleeping? Well, that’s just life in the NBA.
Take it from Kiki Vandeweghe. An NBA player for 13 seasons, Vandeweghe, now the league’s senior vice president of basketball operations, recalls that sleep was a precious commodity, always in short supply. “You made up for it by sleeping basically whenever you stopped moving. On the bus, waiting to drive to the airport, waiting for the plane, you slept.”
The NBA schedule has throttled back some since then. Back-to-back-to-backs are no longer common, but it’s still rough. At the Sloan Conference, it became clear that people around the NBA are getting wise to the crippling effect that sleep deprivation has on player performance.
You made up for it by sleeping basically whenever you stopped moving. On the bus, waiting to drive to the airport, waiting for the plane, you slept.
”-- Kiki Vandeweghe
The benefits of a good night’s sleep are so fundamental to team success that many franchises now employ sleep consultants to encourage healthier nocturnal habits. Harvard Medical School Professor Dr. Charles Czeisler, who spoke at Sloan, is one such consultant. He began working with the Trail Blazers and Celtics in 2008 and made a believer out of Doc Rivers by predicting a bad loss, months in advance, just by looking at the schedule.
When Rivers originally briefed Czeisler on his team’s schedule, Czeisler couldn’t believe it. A rigorous travel schedule and late nights couldn’t help but deplete the best athletes in the world -- a blow to the teams who pay them and fans who pay to see the best at their best.
Losing even one night of sleep significantly impairs reaction time and the ability to quickly spot visual signals. In a sport where tenths of a second are the difference between a timely defensive rotation and a dunk that ends up on SportsCenter, this stuff really matters. Lack of sleep also diminishes testosterone levels -- a week of sleeping four hours a night can reduce a 25-year-old’s testosterone level to that of a 36-year-old -- and increases the body’s inflammatory response.
Speaking before a room dotted with league and team executives, Czeisler did not mince words: “It’s a disservice to the fans to have one of the teams so degraded, because there’s no way structurally to ensure the players get enough sleep when they’re on a back-to-back road trip like that from Portland to Phoenix.”
In the NBA, sometimes the schedule is a team’s toughest competition. It’s not how much or how hard they play that wears players down, it’s how rarely they can get a great night’s sleep to replenish their mental, physical and emotional reserves.
Road-weary players don’t need a doctor to tell them something’s wrong. “We just heard so many complaints from the players about how tired they were when we went to the east coast,” says former Blazers general manager Tom Penn. So, after some research, the Portland Trail Blazers hired Czeisler to consult.
The conventional wisdom for handling road trips was to get on local time as quickly as possible. On Czeisler’s advice, Nate McMillan’s coaching staff moved everything back three hours to mimic the players’ schedule back in the Pacific time zone. Remembers Penn: “The doctor convinced everyone that the circadian athlete rhythm peaks right in that 4 to 5 p.m. time and that’s when our players would be playing. Four to five o’clock on their bodies, 7 or 8 o’clock local time. It was great.”
Many teams are doing the best they can to at least mitigate the demands of the NBA schedule. For the Washington Wizards, getting sleep starts in training camp, when their sleep doctor baselines everyone on the team so they can accurately assess the players midseason.
“If they tell me the more sleep you get, the more chance you have to reduce your risk of injury -- c’mon, that’s the most important thing you can be looking at,” says Wizards senior VP of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard. “For us, if you have a choice to have a two-hour meeting or let guys go get sleep right away, cancel the meeting. We can have the meeting some other time. The sleep is by far more important, and we’re all learning that.”
The Memphis Grizzlies are the most eastern team in the Western Conference, which presents some unique challenges, especially during the playoffs. They’ve tried making their commute a few different ways, but, says John Hollinger, “I just don’t think there’s a perfect answer.”
As it currently stands, the NBA schedule itself robs fans and teams of the best possible basketball. It’s impossible to enforce sleeping habits, especially in a business chock full of owners, scouts, coaches and players who are high-achieving types, many of whom are famous for performing on four hours or less a night. But when the best players in the world are begging new commissioner Adam Silver for another break in addition to All-Star Weekend, it’s hard to argue that the Jordan model is one to follow.
The league says it is studying a wide range of health issues, including player sleep, that impact player performance, which ultimately determines the quality of the league’s product.
On Saturday, Silver said he was open to reconsidering the schedule. “I think to the extent that there’s data that says we can improve performance by changing the schedule, I’m all ears.”
The data exists. Does the will to react to what it tells us?
Maybe Silver will be up for it, if he can just get some rest himself.
Admitted the new commissioner, “I’m genuinely sleep-deprived.”