When it came to George Gervin’s gameday routine, no one was going to mess with his soap opera viewing. Trashy shows helped the Hall of Famer relax so he could drift off into an essential pre-game nap. Without those two-to-three hours of slumber, the “Ice Man” may not have been able to lead the NBA in scoring in four different seasons. Indeed, naps, says Gervin, have been a part of NBA life for some time. Crucial in a profession that has players and coaches up at odd hours, working themselves weary.
“We’d have shootaround and then we’d come back, you eat lunch, and then I’d take a nap for a couple of hours,” Gervin tells the Guardian. “I did that most of my career. I got caught up in the soap operas back then.”
Gervin, who has a new memoir out soon and was named one of the Top 75 players in NBA history in 2021, would watch The Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives and All My Children. After the regular 10am shootaround, Gervin and his teammates had free time until 6pm, when they returned to the arena for that night’s game. After the contest, which usually lasted until 10pm or later, the players were wide awake, wired from the competition. Many would look for a late night meal to wind down.
“Restaurants had to stay open late for us in many situations,” laughs Gervin, whose NBA career lasted from 1972 until 1986. “It wasn’t like these guys today. With their private planes, eating on the plane. We flew commercial.” On the road, Gervin says, teams would often stay in the opposing team’s city after the game, leading to dawn flights and even earlier wakeup calls. Now, teams charter more comfortable planes whenever they want.
Anyone who has traveled on commercial planes knows that it can be hard to sleep on them – especially if you’re the height of the average pro basketball player. But after an NBA game, sleep on a plane is sometimes the only kind you’re going to get. Former NBA coach Bob Hill, however, could never sleep on a flight. Instead, he treated his seat like an office, working on the next gameplan. In fact, Hill says, he’s never been a good sleeper. A loss or a bad in-game decision could keep awake, fretting. As a result, Hill would often be in his office around 5.30am, planning for the games ahead. The former head coach for the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics says he has never slept-in past 9am. Naps, though, have helped him through.
“If I was in the office by 5.30 [in the morning] and it was a practice day,” says Hill, “I’d try to take a quick nap when I got home, because I would be tired. For me, I just never could sleep on a plane. NBA games come so fast and furious that if you can stay ahead and get started on the next game, it’s a big advantage.”
Hill, who did manage to take 30-minute naps on game days, knows how healthy sleep can be – experts recommend adults get at least seven hours a night – and he wishes he was better at it. He’s not the only one. NBA coach Steve Clifford suffered from severe headaches due to a lack of sleep.
During his coaching days, Hill had rosters that included Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, and Ray Allen. He recalls many of his players being able to sleep on planes, even though reclining in a cramped seat isn’t exactly five-star. He remembers talking with his coaching staff about player rest. But in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, sleep wasn’t a big topic of conversation.
Over the years, though, that has changed. On the road, NBA players cross time zones, live out of suitcases and most likely sometimes wonder where they are on any given morning when they open their eyes in a sterile hotel suite. After games, today’s players often practice, lift weights and stretch. Many don’t get back to their house after a home game until around midnight. And when you’re on the road? Hotel check-ins can come at 4am after air travel.
“I definitely want to prioritize getting sleep at night,” says Los Angeles Clippers point guard Jason Preston, who says he likes waking before dawn when he can, too. “Not going to bed anywhere past 10 or 10.30pm and getting a good night’s rest.” This, of course, is impossible on game days.
Some players, though, were well known for not sleeping much. Allen Iverson stayed up for 72 hours before the 2001 All-Star game, the same year he took home the league’s MVP award. Kobe Bryant said he often got just three or four hours of sleep a night. There have been other eras, too, like the 1970s and early 1980s, when players spent nights in places like Studio 54 in New York City.
To combat a lack of rest, teams like the Portland Trailblazers have recently employed doctors such as Harvard’s Charles Czeisler, who coach players on how to sleep well.
As a result, some teams, including the Boston Celtics, have halted the early morning shootarounds and stars such as Steph Curry have examined their own sleep schedules. Some have even turned to technology for extra help. Hill remembers talking to a psychologist friend who worked with the New York Yankees and said many of the baseball players he dealt with had issues with sleep, too. Perhaps it was pressure from playing for one of the most famous teams on Earth. Perhaps it was a side effect of the adrenaline the sport requires over a 162-game season.
Sleep is no longer something a pro athlete merely looks for at the end of the day. It must be part of a cohesive daily plan. Not to mention that at home, there can be extra responsibilities.
“On the road, you get more [sleep] than you do at home,” says Gervin. “At home, you’ve got babies and [family] stuff. So, you spend more time with them.”
Sleep, Gervin says, becomes part of a player’s recovery “routine.” He even remembers a few comfortable hotel beds in his day that fit his 6ft 7in frame. (Though, he notes, he often slept scrunched up in the fetal position.) And a good coach must respect that routine, which is why Hill also cut out most of his morning shootarounds when he was with Seattle in the 2000s, pushing them to the afternoon. Hill learned his lesson early on with Indiana, when his Pacers were snowed in after a game in New Jersey. The team had to go back to the hotel and fly to their next matchup in Minneapolis early the next morning. When they landed, Hill still made them do a walk-through.
“You should have seen how pissed off they were,” Hill says, with a chuckle. “They were so pissed at me.”
To ease the tension that morning, the team’s veteran shooter, Chuck Person, stepped to a microphone at center court and began to sing the national anthem impromptu. In other years, before franchises had their own practice facilities, and it was an NBA rule that a team could only spend an hour at their arena before a game, Hill recalls teams conducting walkthroughs in hotel ballrooms or locker rooms in order to spare a tired workforce an early morning alarm.
Back then, Hill says, he didn’t talk with his players directly about their sleeping habits. But as Gervin notes, while sleep remains essential for well-being, it’s also different for each player. For some, it’s with the help of a doctor, for others it’s when they can on a plane. For Gervin, sleep always came when watching Erica Kane on All My Children.
“You had to have it,” says Gervin of a good rest. “I bet if you talk to 10 guys, you’ll probably get eight or nine different stories. Everybody had their own way. Some guys may not want to sleep before a game because they’d feel sluggish. But I’d get me a nap. Let me go watch Erica, man.”