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John Salley is on a crusade to introduce pro athletes to a healthier, possibly vegan diet

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Salley in 2013 with Elgin Baylor (Getty Images)

In an interview with TrueHoop’s Ethan Sherwood Strauss, four-time NBA champion John Salley reveals that he is currently a vegan, and has eschewed meat since around the time Wilt Chamberlain died from an enlarged heart in 1999. Chamberlain’s passing seemed to really hit home with Salley, a former big man with the Pistons, Heat, Raptors, Bulls and Lakers, who lamented what he appears to think of the too-early death of “the strongest man I ever met.”

Some 14 years later, Salley hosts his own podcast and is in the midst of trying to encourage other athletes to line up for a vegetarian, vegan, or raw food diet. From Strauss’ interview:

Especially because the places open that late aren’t serving good food for the most part.

Well, usually anything after 10 o’clock is not that good for you.

I explain to athletes, you’re supposed to be a well-oiled machine. You’re supposed to be in better shape than the people watching you. You’re supposed to be an unbelievable specimen of a human being. You have to treat your body different while you’re performing.

Think about how Serena [Williams] winded up having a heart situation, two years ago? Right? Since then, she hired my friend, her and her sister Venus. Venus had [Sjögren's syndrome].

They hired my friend Lauren Vanderpool to be their chef, because Lauren was one of the greatest chefs I ever met. Knows so much, really good at preparing food, raw-slash-vegan. And Serena’s number one again. And Venus is playing with power again. And it has to be the food, what these two smart sisters decided they were going fuel their body with.

It should be noted that if Salley stopped eating meat soon after Chamberlain’s death, he did not play for very long while working on a vegetarian diet. Wilt passed away in the fall of 1999, just before Salley began his final pro season (after a two-year break from the sport) as a security blanket center for the Los Angeles Lakers. Phil Jackson needed a heady sort that understood the triangle offense to help in the locker room during his first year in Los Angeles, and Salley played the role to perfection. Even if his stats (three combined points/rebounds per game in 6.7 minutes a contest, shooting 36 percent over 45 games) weren’t exemplary.

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Salley, soon before a team doctor told him he had the highest cholesterol on the Pistons (Getty Images)

Cherry-picking a 35-year old defensive-minded center’s offensive marks based around his lone year as an NBA vegetarian isn’t the point. What Salley is trying to accomplish with the diet is a healthier lifestyle for the next two-thirds of his life, something that even the most locked-in of pro athletes rarely take time to consider as their playing career winds down.

This isn’t to say that embracing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is the way to go, because one can participate in a perfectly healthy lifestyle that includes lean protein cuts and smart eating choices. And while you’re still going to find the odd NBA athlete chowing down on chicken strips in the hours before or after the game, the league is quickly becoming a slicker, smarter, and more well-heeled confluence of young men, possibly more self-aware than was the case during the heyday of Salley’s Pistons run.

The move is still something for athletes to consider, though. Regardless of how far into the green territory they take it. At the very least, these guys can look to Salley – nearly 50 – and his fighting trim for inspiration.

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