Playing the long game: Older Bulldogs learn new training tricks to extend their pro careers

They’ve traveled the world playing professional basketball, and over the years the reactions to young teammates are universally the same.

“Last year we had a guy who was 41 because we needed another player, but other than that I’ve been the oldest player in the squad,” said Ira Brown, a top-flight wing in Gonzaga in 2008-09 who is still playing above the board in Japan after turning 40 in August. “My teammates are always extremely surprised because I don’t look or play like my age.

“They’re just baffled that I’m 39 or 40. It’s the same when I go back to the States (in the offseason), when I go back to the recreational league or LA Fitness. No one knows my age. I dunk them, I block shots and they ask me, “Where do you play?” I tell them and I tell them my age.

Micah Downs, who recently turned 36, weighs between 200 and 205, just a few pounds above his listed weight of 194 as a senior in Gonzaga’s 2009 media guide.

His body fat percentage is below 5.0 and there is not the slightest trace of excess weight on his lean and muscular 6ft 8in body in the social media posts of his workouts. To put Downs’ body fat into context, the American Council on Exercise’s recommended range for male athletes is 6-13%. For a 35-year-old man, Jackson & Pollock’s ideal percentage is 13.7.

Downs estimates that some of his weightlifting numbers are three times higher than during his GU days.

“Sometimes you get guys, ‘Damn bro, you’re almost 40,’ said Downs, who has spent most of the last four seasons in Lisbon, Portugal. “They’re surprised where I get my energy from. Honestly, the more active you are, the more energy you gain. This (younger) generation is a little different with social media and entertainment at their fingertips. Guys might have gotten a little complacent.

“I wish I was like that in high school. I try to give (younger teammates) encouragement and techniques.

Brown and Downs are among a good number of Zags who play — or played in the case of JP Batista, who retired at 40 to become a graduate assistant at his alma mater — into his thirties and even quarantine at a high level.

Jeremy Pargo, 36, spent last season in Napoli, Italy and played for the American team AmeriCup in September. He still plays hoop, but he’s also been busy with a burgeoning acting career. Abdullahi Kuso played well until his thirties before retiring a few years ago. Elias Harris, 33, plays in Germany after averaging 17.5 points in Japan a year ago.

Former Zags followed their own training paths, some peppered with drills they learned from Gonzaga, to prolong their careers. They share several similarities – rarely injured, never allowing themselves to get out of shape, generally eating well, and training with purpose.

Brown, Downs, Batista and 33-year-old Steven Gray, who retired this summer after 11 professional seasons, detailed the principles of fitness routines that have helped prolong their careers and compete against top international players.

“In the beginning, during the offseason, I really took time off and rested,” Batista said. “The last 10-12 years there has been no offseason for me. I saw the importance of arriving at training camp in good physical shape and that really helped me to make the transition to the form of the game.

Batista collected numerous individual and team awards during a career that included stops in France (eight years), his native Brazil (six) and Lithuania (two). He played for Brazil in the 2010 FIBA ​​World Cup and was close to making the Brazil national team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“I tried to lift every day, the minimum was to lift and run,” said Batista, who averaged 19.3 points and 9.4 rebounds as a senior GU in 2006. “In Brazil, I didn’t have much access to basketball courts so it was mostly lifting and running We had a house across from the beach so I could run on the beach or on treadmills I would try to change to stay motivated A few summers I did crossfit.

“I’ve always loved the weight room. Nutrition was key and not overdoing the calories in the summer. In season, you can literally eat anything and it wouldn’t affect you too much because you’re so active.

Batista was in excellent shape for what turned out to be his last season, thanks to a summer racing program organized by a friend/coach. He was considering playing two or three more seasons before deciding to join Gonzaga’s staff.

The last time he wasn’t the oldest player on his team was when he was 35. Younger teammates occasionally needled him, but that was rare, in part because Batista is 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds and “they knew I was never a lazy person.” the person. They couldn’t sleep because the old man was the first in the gym and the last to leave.

Downs played in Croatia, Belgium, Spain, NBA D League (now G League), Italy, Ukraine, Russia, France and Portugal with short stints in Venezuela and Germany. He’s unsure of his next destination, but he makes sure his body will be ready for what’s next.

He took ideas from famous fitness trainers, via social media platforms and team strength and conditioning coaches. Downs is careful with his food intake and has gone entire summers without eating fast food.

“I’ve always been very thin and I still am thin,” Downs said. “My strength went through the roof.

“I didn’t really start lifting weights and working out in the gym until halfway through my professional career. I fell in love with the weight room physically and mentally. It’s a great way to escape a lot of bullshit and take a break from basketball hardship I can honestly eat anything and not really change my body but I’ve noticed the older I get when I eat shitty stuff , like a McDonald’s hamburger, I have a little pain the next day, I feel it in my joints.

His off-season workouts are about 80% strength and conditioning. He doesn’t play much basketball because he knows he will have plenty of time on the court when he arrives at training camp. He called much of his training “prehab” to stay healthy throughout the season.

“It would be great to play until 40,” Downs said. “Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but we’ll see how I hold up and what the teams want to do. The market is tough now worldwide.

Brown found a second home in Japan, where he performed for over a decade and became a naturalized Japanese citizen. He was 25 when he first dressed as Zag, but he had already established a healthy lifestyle from his days as a promising Minor League Baseball pitcher.

“In basketball or any sport, the older guys get, the more they stop training or lose the drive to train,” Brown said. “In turn, they lose a few steps and a lot of strength. When I first came to Gonzaga, I remember always talking to (Gonzaga strength and conditioning coach) Travis Knight about JP being the strongest person there. I broke many of his records.

“A lot of things I did with Travis, core and pyramid type stuff, I still do. I have been professionally trained in weightlifting and cardio since I was 18 years old.

Brown credits vitamins, intermittent fasting, generally following a pescatarian diet, and his workout regimen for maintaining his sturdy 6-4, 235-pound frame.

“It’s knowing how to be professional with my diet and understanding how my body works to keep it strong and balanced,” he said. “Everything I put into my body is what I take out of my body. I do stretching, acupuncture, massage, hot tubs, cold baths.

“A lot of athletes want to go home after practice and play video games. I always stretch, get a massage and from there, take a nap.

Gray wasn’t big on conditioning when he was Zag — “I did the work, there wasn’t a lot of passion behind it” — but he got more diligent about six years ago.

“My teammates say, ‘Steven is super healthy, goes to bed early and trains,’ but that wasn’t who I was for so long,” said Gray, who has run a few half marathons. “The older I got, the more I knew I had to (make changes). I’m great at functional mobility, making sure my joints move the way they should with lots of impact protection and injury prevention.

Gray is not at all surprised by the long and successful careers of Batista, Downs and Brown.

“Just because JP is so special, that’s the problem,” said Gray, who is in his first year as athletic director at Muckleshoot Tribal School in Auburn, Washington. “He was such a pro, even when he was at Gonzaga he behaved like a pro. When I was in France and younger and playing against him, he was always a mentor to talk to. S If anyone could play that long, it would definitely be him.

The same goes for Downs.

“You’re talking about guys who are special, special people,” Gray said of his former teammate Downs. “Talk to everyone who has played with him. Micah is probably one of the most talented people I’ve seen in my life. He can handle it, shoot it. The knock was always that he was too skinny, but after college he just worked out. He could really play until he is 40.

Work continues for Brown, who wants to play for a few more years but he also has business interests – co-owner of Mod Pizza in Moscow, Idaho, and preparing to open a bar/lounge/restaurant in Osaka, Japan – and he bought a 22-acre ranch in his home state of Texas.

“That (ranch) was my off-season training, chopping down trees and building fences,” laughed Brown. “I can play longer (only a few more years), but I miss the family and I missed a lot of years when my nephews and nieces grew up. I have been financially blessed in my career and now I want my own family and children.

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