Who Needs Sleep? – NBA players

Bowing to Body Clocks, N.B.A. Teams Sleep In
Published: December 19, 2009

Bill Sharman is no basketball radical. He was not trying to revolutionize the N.B.A. when he became the Los Angeles Lakers’ coach in 1971. He simply wanted his players to be confident, relaxed and mentally sharp on game nights. So Sharman instituted a brief morning practice and gave it a lively name: the shoot-around.

Doc Rivers is no basketball revolutionary. He simply wants his Boston Celtics to be confident, relaxed and mentally sharp on game nights. So a couple of months ago, Rivers eliminated morning shoot-arounds.

The Celtics, who lead the Eastern Conference with a 20-5 record, hardly seem to miss them. “All of them, to a man, said: ‘Wow, it took some getting used to, but I’m fresher. I love it,’ ” said Rivers, the Celtics’ coach. “So there it is.”

For 38 years, the morning shoot-around has been an unquestioned staple of the N.B.A. game-day routine. It may soon be extinct, another dusty exhibit in basketball history, next to the peach basket, the two-handed set shot and John Stockton’s short shorts.

Three teams — the Celtics, the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers — have dropped the morning shoot-around. The Knicks now hold them only for road games. The Denver Nuggets dropped them last week. The Washington Wizards are experimenting without them, though only in spots.

A growing interest in sleep science — and a recognition that players need more time to recharge — is fueling the trend.

Simply speaking, N.B.A. players often fail to get enough sleep.
The typical night game ends at about 10 p.m. By the time players shower, dress and speak with the news media, it is close to 11 p.m. They are usually famished, so everyone eats a late dinner. Even the most conservative players — those who do not frequent nightclubs — will not get to sleep until at least 2 a.m. If the team is traveling, players may not reach their hotel until 3 a.m.
For a shoot-around or practice that starts at 10 a.m., players have to arrive as early as 9 a.m. to lift weights, receive treatment or be taped.
“You’re talking about our players functioning on five or six hours of sleep a day,” Rivers said, “and that’s just not good enough.”
Rivers was once a skeptic on the topic. He now speaks like a sleep evangelist. “If you go three, four, five days in a row with less than six hours of sleep, your reaction time is comparable to that of someone legally drunk,” Rivers said. “You’re trying to play a basketball game where just a 10th of second, a degree off, throws your whole game off.”

Rivers got a full education last summer from Dr. Charles Czeisler, the director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the chief of the sleep medicine division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In the N.B.A., Czeisler is better known as the Sleep Doctor. Nate McMillan, the Trail Blazers’ head coach, consulted with Czeisler last year, before wiping out all shoot-arounds and morning practices. At Czeisler’s recommendation, McMillan took the effort further. He gave his players permission to stay out until 2 a.m. on the road, to keep their body clocks on Portland time.

Czeisler advises players to sleep 8.2 to 8.4 hours a night, which requires about nine hours in bed. Coaches also need to account for the time it takes players to wind down after a game.

“The general principle is that if you are going to prioritize anything, you should prioritize sleep,” Czeisler said. “Right now it’s being taken for granted that you’re never going to have a problem, that you are somehow going to be able to function without sleep.”

Over the past 20 years, professional sports teams have become increasingly attentive to fitness and nutrition. Czeisler, who has also advised NASA, called sleep “the third pillar of good health.” A key function of sleep is to restore neurons in the brain, a process that is critical to learning and mastering new information, he said. If players practice a new play, then get a sound night of sleep, they will be 20 percent better at performing it, Czeisler said. But with insufficient sleep, he said, “you simply never get that improvement.”

Doctors at the Stanford University Sleep Disorders Clinic have come to similar conclusions. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich cited their work when he moved the Spurs’ off-day practices to 3 p.m. He dropped morning shoot-arounds two years ago. Rivers dropped shoot-arounds in the second half of each of the last two seasons, including in 2008, when the Celtics won the championship. This is the first season he has eliminated them altogether, with happy results.
“You can visibly see it in practices,” Rivers said. “We’ve had better practices this year.” The typical morning shoot-around is nothing special. Most last about an hour and involve a walk-through, some light shooting, a review of that night’s opponent and perhaps a film session. Players may be half-awake.
“Shoot-arounds seem to be very tedious and nonenthusiastic situations,” Nuggets Coach George Karl told The Denver Post last week, when he announced the elimination of shoot-arounds. Yet 24 teams still religiously gather between 10 and 11 a.m. on game days. Even Phil Jackson, the Lakers’ famously nonconformist coach, has stuck with the tradition, which he considers necessary to get his players focused.

Jackson sometimes pushes back the start time to let them rest, but he does not consider the shoot-around an imposition. “I think that people get used to a wake-up time,” he said. Everything a team does at 10 a.m. could just as easily be done at 4 p.m., a few hours before a game — which is what the Knicks, the Blazers and the Celtics now do. (The Spurs review their shoot-around material at the previous day’s practice.) Knicks Coach Mike D’Antoni cited a variety of concerns, including rest and commuting time. The team’s trainers also wanted players to have a healthy pregame meal, which is now part of the Knicks’ home schedule. They are required to be at Madison Square Garden by 3:30 p.m. for a 7:30 game. “I just don’t like being in the gym for that long,” said Knicks guard Larry Hughes, a 12-year veteran. “I’d rather go in the morning and do the hour in the morning and come back ready to work.”
Some coaches cling to the morning shoot-around as a means to force players to rise early, presumably to discourage late-night partying. A lot of players, who are night owls by necessity, dread the morning session. As the Celtics star Kevin McHale once remarked, “It was a dark day in the N.B.A. when Bill Sharman came up with that idea.”

According to N.B.A. lore, Sharman invented the shoot-around to get Wilt Chamberlain out of bed. Sharman said that was not the case.
He actually began holding shoot-arounds in 1962, when George Steinbrenner hired him to coach the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League.
“Some of the players looked at me kind of funny,” Sharman said, but the results were good. The Pipers won the championship that year. In 1970, Sharman coached the Utah Stars to the American Basketball Association title.
The shoot-around actually began as a personal quest to calm his own nerves. As a young player for the Celtics in the 1950s, Sharman was too wound up on game days to sit home. With nothing else to do, he began practicing jump shots at a nearby junior high school gym.
“I didn’t want to overdo it, but it kind of made me relax a little bit more,” Sharman said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he remains a Lakers consultant. “Just the idea to loosen up and get more confidence in a game.”
It worked. Sharman, who was elected to the Hall of Fame as a player and a coach, said his shooting percentages began to climb after he adopted the morning routine. As a coach, he thought his players would also benefit. In Los Angeles, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich welcomed the new practice. Chamberlain was wary but told Sharman he would go along with it, if it helped the team. But, Sharman recalled Chamberlain saying, “If it doesn’t help the team, I’d like to stay in bed.” Fate took over from there. The Lakers won 69 games, including an N.B.A.-record 33 straight, and claimed their first championship in Los Angeles. Soon every team was adopting the morning shoot-around. “The players realize that the money they’re making, the opportunity they have, they’d be an idiot not to do everything they could to help themselves and help the team,” Sharman said.

In 1971, that meant dragging a weary body out of bed to get to the gym. In 2009, it may mean a few more hours of dream time.