Vince Carter squares up from deep and drains a jumper. He does it again, hitting a three-pointer, then an even longer three. He repeats the gnarly shot twice more, impervious to New York Knicks defender Julius Randle — a power forward who was 2 years old when Carter entered the league.
The average retirement age for an NBA player floats around 36 years old, and most consider 40 to be the ultimate cutoff. At 42, Vince Carter is two years past that, and he shows no signs of slowing down. As the Atlanta Hawks’ small forward enters his record-breaking 22nd season in the league — what could very well be his final year — he’s facing a growing number of players literally half his age, and excelling.
“Sweet Lou” Dunbar, head coach of the Harlem Globetrotters, knows a thing or two about athletes aging. The 66-year-old played 27 years for the Globetrotters before coaching the team. “Vince, he may lose a step here and there, but he’s still at a high level, getting you a good five or 10 minutes here and there,” Dunbar says. “Even if he declines a little bit, he’ll still put one down on ya if you don’t get out the way. The guy is weathering the test of time, baby.” Dunbar compares Carter to one of his players, Kris “Hi-Lite” Bruton, who’s 48 years old and still out-dunking the young guys.
So what could slow Carter down? Why doesn’t he seem to be deteriorating like the rest of us? And are we about to see a lot more 78-year-olds (like Bernie Sanders) hooping it up at the gym?
What Happens to Athletes’ Bodies as They Age
Dr. Valter Longo, professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, believes Carter could play another eight seasons. “Someone could be 45 chronologically and biologically be 30, or 30 chronologically and 45 biologically,” Longo explains. “So by a combination of nutrition and physical training, Carter is probably biologically younger than 42. He could play into his 50s if he keeps his biological age below or around 40, which historically was the limit.”
“Vince is quite the beast,” says Dr. Alti Iftikhar, a physician specializing in sports medicine. “Could he play into his 50s? Sure, that’s possible, but the real question is whether he’d be competitive then, which is almost impossible.”
Iftikhar explains that while there isn’t a “set” age where your tendons, muscles and ligaments start to break down, we’re talking about the NBA here. “Athletes’ bodies are amazing machines and can undertake a lot more physical wear and tear than a normal person’s body can. But they also are undergoing a lot more physical punishment.” That damage adds up, especially as the competition gets younger and the game gets faster and more physical each year, Iftikhar says. “It’s getting hard for players to have long and fruitful careers.”
Vince is clearly not as athletic as he used to be, and there’s a reason for that. Diet and exercise can keep a body healthy, but it doesn’t prevent the degradation of what Iftikhar calls “fast-twitch muscle fibers,” which allow for quick actions like sprints and agility movements, vital to pro basketball.
What’s more, after age 30 or so, we start to lose something called “conduction velocity.” That’s the “speed at which nerve cells communicate their messages from the brain to your muscles,” explains Dr. John P. Walsh, associate professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California. “These are hallmarks of aging. Our ligaments and tendons have a slower turnover of key proteins that endow structure and elasticity, meaning you are much more likely to suffer debilitating tears.” The rate of cell repair is much slower, and you’ve got fewer stem cells to produce new muscle. When injured, aging bodies have a greater likelihood of “throwing down scar tissue made of fibrous, inflexible replacement cells,” Longo explains.
In short, Carter’s at a much greater risk of career-ending injury, and his tendons and muscles are growing stiffer. This is why NBA players almost never reach Carter’s age, but older athletes can thrive in sports like running and cycling, where “they don’t need explosive power,” Iftikhar explains.
It’s Tough to Change Up Your Game
Let’s assume Carter maintains decent overall health and can work around the slow degradation of his muscle fibers and inflexible tendons. He’ll likely suffer smaller but more frequent injuries, which could still drain him mentally. It’s for this reason that Carter’s longevity is actually dependent on everything “from the neck up,” Longo says.
More successful players with long careers learn to adjust their game. You must “become more of a passer, utilizing your wisdom and court vision,” Longo says. “Your repertoire of shots will change,” and you’ll make “far fewer explosions to the rim.” Of course, you’ll have to put in more training, too, “so that when possible, the flashes of brilliance of old explosive moves can still be done.”
Shooting coach Matt Beeuwsaert, a former European pro now known as the Jump Shot Doc, credits Carter’s basketball IQ and his ability to (literally and figuratively) pivot. “He hasn’t just been this high-flying dunker,” Beeuwsaert says of Vince. “Being such a great shooter allows him to play at a more conservative pace, and plays a huge role in his longevity. Just like they say for a quarterback in football, once the game ‘slows down,’ that’s when they reach their stride.”
Boldly, Beeuwsaert adds, “Vince Carter, now 42, is still a better ‘athlete’ than [former Warriors All-Star] Chris Mullin was in his prime. … So how long will Carter play? I think until the aches and pains tell him to stop. He’s having too much fun now!”
But for many athletes, making that mental switch from power player to intelligent playmaker can be easier said than done. “People fade into severe depression when [their ability] is taken from them, because the dopamine that feeds the sense of excitement about life is taken away,” Longo says.
When Longo, 63, says “aging is not for sissies,” he’s talking about his own experience as an athlete, a “world-traveling surfer who really held his game.” He had to get a knee replacement two years ago, but it didn’t end his surfing career. He made a comeback — and then, four months later, “both shoulders gave out and I now need shoulder surgery. Surfing is my heroin; I still go out in spite of the pain. This is how athletes think. You never stop being the person you were when you were at your peak in your 20s.”
‘Is This Really Worth It?’
The cumulative injuries and mental challenges are why Dr. Marc Leavey believes Carter might hang it up earlier than we think. According to Leavey, just because he can keep playing doesn’t mean he should. And often, guys with long careers tend to lose the excitement that drove them as a young man. As Vince plays garbage time at the end of games, or continually loses minutes to small injuries, he might begin to think, Is this really worth it?
“That which seemed extraordinary can become mundane,” Leavey notes. “The excitement of a competition, or a new project or challenge, can be blunted by a ‘been there, done that’ mentality. The need to achieve can be dulled by the realization that you have plenty.” To that end, Leavey hopes Carter “has the wisdom and good counsel to step back” before injury forces him to.
But for athletes at Carter’s level, there’s often no end in sight. “Guys who play for the love will never quit playing for the love of the game,” says Dunbar, the Globetrotters coach. “I mean, Vince don’t need more money.”
Like Carter, Dunbar still has a strong love for the game, but at 66 years old, he’s mostly limited to a few shots here and there. “The knees are a little bad for the hook shot, so I’ve been working on my free throws a lot now,” Dunbar laughs. “But I wish Vince the best. As long as he’s having fun, more power to him. Keep puttin’ ’em up, Vince.”