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Who Was the Oldest Basketball Player?

Publish Date: 26.06.2024
Fact checked by: Emily Carter

Sports take a toll on the body at every level, but that toll is even more extreme for professional athletes due to the constant stress, workouts, and practice they must go through each and every day. That’s why so few people stick around for more than a couple of years.

However, even in a tough league like the NBA there have been some special players who stuck it out against all odds and had extremely long careers. They pushed their body to its limits and redefined what fans thought was possible.

Staying in the league is hard at any age, but being able to do it past thirty is something only a select few have achieved. That goes double for those who managed to keep their body in playing shape all the way past 40. It takes a very unique player to make that happen.

Adbulmohsen Khalaf Al-Muwallad 

1. Adbulmohsen Khalaf Al-Muwallad

Certain NBA players with particularly gifted athletic abilities are able to extend their career into their 40’s with a lot of hard work and dedication. Adbulmohsen Khalaf AI-Muwallad, however, pushed past that by being the only professional basketball player in history over 50.

Officially recognized by the Guiness Book of World Records, Al-Muwallad spent his entire career in Saudi Arabia. His first game came for the Ohod Club back in 1979, and his last occurred 36 years later on May 22, 2015.

He took the court for the last time at the age of 51, which put him into a club all by himself. As that mark is almost impossible to hit for anyone in any situation, it is unlikely that another athlete will be able to replicate that feat no matter what league they are in.

2. Nat Hickey

Al-Muawallad is the oldest professional basketball player of all time, but he never set foot on an NBA court. When looking at who was the oldest basketball player in America, the answer is ex-player/coach Nat Hickey.

The Croatian-American was a strong athlete who came up in the league during the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s. While he moved away from the court and took up coaching in 1942, Hickey did activate himself every now and then.

He did not take the court too often, especially as he began to age out of playing shape. Despite that, Hickey did activate himself twice during the 1948 season while coaching the Providence Steamrollers of the Basketball Association of America.

That mark is significant because it made him the oldest NBA player of all time. While some have come close since then, it’s still a mark that he holds to this day and one that is unlikely to be broken anytime soon.

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The above two players took the court at an old age, but they only did so a few times. NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke from that mold by being an older player who still put up strong stats into his twilight years.

The towering center started his career on the Bucks and ended it with the Lakers at the ripe old age of 42. While most players greatly slowed down going into their late 40’s, Jabaar continued to be a strong piece of the deadly Lakers lineup.

He averaged 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 1 assist during that final season. Though that was a noticeable step down from his previous work, it still earned him a roster spot and showed that he could do at any age what many players can’t in their twenties.

4. Vince Carter

While his ending stats were not quite as impressive as Jabaar’s, Vince Carter is another NBA great who stuck around for a long period of time. Not only did he play until the age of 43, but he is the only athlete to play in four different decades.

Carter always relied on his athleticism while in the NBA, and it was that same athleticism that enabled him to continue at such a high level for so long. He did lose a step, especially in regards to his high flying dunks, but could still score and play defense at a high level.

The strong guard made a name for himself by winning dunk contests and being able to put on a show whenever he stepped on the court. That changed over time, but his ability to take care of himself did not. He’s still a good example of why long-term health care is so important.

5. Recent Veteran Players

For the most part, NBA careers are still short on average. Even so, there have been a few players in the last decade who stuck around much longer than fans thought they would. That includes the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce, who retired at 38 and 40.

Udonis Haslem is also worth a special mention, as the long time power forward managed to play until the age of 43. That has happened in the past, but staying on a roster at such an old age in the modern era is incredibly rare.

On top of that, Tim Duncan retired at the age of 39 while putting up an impressive 8/8/3 statline and acting as the centerpiece of a strong Spurs team. He lost a few steps, but continued to produce right up against the age of 40.

In addition, no athlete has been as productive at the end of their career as LeBron James, who still continues to press onward at the age of 39. Unlike so many others, he still proves to be a team leader with 25.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 8.3 assists a night.

He’s largely an outlier, but still shows what is possible for certain players if they manage to stick around. There is even a chance that other long time veterans may follow in his footsteps and try to stick it out in the backend of their career without losing much in the way of productivity.

The Impact of Longevity in Basketball

In the past, professional athletes did not last too long. A few managed to stick it out every now and then, but for the most part players could only handle a few years at the top before needing to bow out. That’s still generally the case, but the trend is slowly starting to change.

That’s because, as sports science and an understanding of medicine continues to advance, so does the ability for athletes to play longer. Recovery is a huge part of the game, and it’s something that tended to be overlooked in past eras.

In today’s NBA, players are able to take care of themselves better than ever before. They have access to the best rehab facilities, attentive staff, and even sideline recovery equipment if they need to use it during a timeout.

That, backed up by new information on proper diet and strong stretching routines, allow athletes to push themselves and bounce back like never before. That’s then further expanded by rest days, which have been on the rise over the past few years.

Franchises used to push their players every night. Now, there is more of an emphasis on rest, which allows athletes to sit out games and make sure anything that doesn’t feel right gets a few extra days to heal.

Still, no matter how many days an athlete takes off, or how much they recover, staying in shape is not easy. It’s always a battle, and one that age will eventually win. The recent advancements slow down the retirement process, but it’s up to the athletes to do the rest.

Conclusion

Playing at the top level for a long period of time is hard in any sport, but it’s especially difficult in basketball due to the constant running, jumping, cutting, and collisions that players go through each and every day. That’s what makes the above athletes so impressive.

Recent shifts in science and recovery definitely helped them, but their own athleticism and determination played a key role as well. It’s not one aspect that helps an athlete play until age 40, it’s a range of different factors that all come together at the same time.

There’s no telling what might happen in the future, or how much further sports science might advance. However, based on past trends, it’s going to get better and better in the next few decades. At that time, there’s no telling how long the average age of a career might span, or how long the best might play.

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