Playing in the NBA for over a decade takes a lot of skill and a whole lot of luck in the health department. Elton Brand has had little of the latter, having battled through injuries like a torn meniscus, torn labrum, and biggest of all, a torn Achilles. Yet here he is, donning an NBA uniform for the 15th straight season.
A former number one overall draft pick by the Chicago Bulls in 1999, Brand was a two-time All-Star averaging a double-double before suffering the Achilles injury in 2007, which robbed him of much of his explosiveness. Seven years later, Brand is a role player for the Atlanta Hawks, averaging 18 minutes a game off the bench and serving as the team's veteran leader, a role he embraces. We caught up with the former Duke Blue Devil to chat about the state of his Hawks, what he wishes he knew as a rookie and how yoga is helping him prolong his career.
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STACK: You were drafted all the way back in 1999 by the Chicago Bulls. What do you wish you could have told young Elton Brand?
Elton Brand: I would definitely tell myself, basketball wise, to become more flexible. Flexibility is important. I had a torn meniscus and lateral meniscus tear, but the big injury I had was the Achilles. I worked out a lot, but if I had been more flexible, that wouldn’t have happened. So flexibility is key. I didn’t really even used to stretch. We had strength coaches, and they were on me and wanted to stretch me, but personally, I didn’t take it too seriously at the time.
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STACK: You suffered that Achilles injury in 2007, just two seasons after being named an All-Star for the first time as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. What was going through your mind when it happened?
EB: I knew it wasn’t just a twisted ankle type of thing. I knew it was something serious. Once we did the test and it was a torn Achilles, it was mind-blowing. I didn’t know that there wasn’t really much of a precedent for Achilles tears. Isaiah Thomas, I think it ended his career. Dominique [Wilkins] came back and had a great season after his tear, but there weren't a lot of guys tearing their Achilles at the NBA level and playing well. So it’s like 'wow.' Career-wise, you wonder 'what’s going on?' and 'will I be able to bounce back?' and all those thoughts run through your mind for sure.
STACK: But you rehabbed yourself back to continue to be a productive player in the NBA. What do you remember about that process?
EB: It was tedious, every day. Long hours, 10 hours a day. It wasn’t heavy weights, it was light weights and a lot of flexibility again and just long hours of doing minimal work. You’re lifting a half a pound or something, or rolling a towel with your toes. It was tough.
But as a person going through that, I didn’t really want to take anything for granted anymore. I was playing at a really high level before [the injury]. After it, just playing at any level in the NBA became my mindset. I was very thankful to be able to continue to play.
STACK: Before the Achilles injury, you were averaging 20-plus points per game and pulling down almost 10 boards. Since then, you've seen your numbers drop a bit. How has your game changed because of the injury?
EB: [The injury] happened to my power leg, my left leg. That’s what I jump off of. So I had to start jumping off two feet. I wasn’t always shooting the mid-range jumper, so I had to add that to the game. I just had to adapt.
Being out there now, trying to use my quickness or my agility to get by guys, it’s like, 'No.' Guys that could never defend me are now the guys that are playing pretty good defense (laughing).
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STACK: It's got to feel good when you have a game where you drop 20 points and grab 11 rebounds, like you did against Washington in February.
EB: Oh yeah. Go out there and get a nice dunk or 20 points and a double-double or an assist or help the team win with a big block or something. I just love to play. I love the competition.
STACK: You've stayed relatively healthy since your Achilles injury. What are some things you're doing as you've gotten older that have helped you prolong your career?
EB: I started doing yoga. That's helped a lot with my flexibility. I’ve been doing it for 2 years now. The Los Angeles Clippers had a guy, he had a yoga background and was giving individual yoga workouts to NBA players. That’s where I got my first introduction to it, but I didn’t really do it. When you’re a pro athlete and you’re no good at something, you don’t really want to do it. I wasn’t good at yoga. But then my wife starting going again and would tell me, “you need to try it again, you need to go back.” I started going back and I felt really good.
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During the season, we try to get some low impact stuff in. Your core is very important. In the off-season, we use the Vertimax machine. It’s all about maintenance and staying strong.
STACK: Your current team, the Atlanta Hawks, is holding on to the eighth seed in the playoffs by a single game. You guys have had a lot of injuries to deal with this year and have struggled of late. What's the mindset in the locker room?
EB: We’re confident. Health is an issue. We lost Al Horford for the beginning of the season, but we were doing quite well for awhile. Then we lose Paul Millsap for seven games, DeMarre Carroll for a handful of games. Then we righted the ship, went on a five-game win streak, and then we lose Kyle Korver. When healthy, we feel like we can be in the position to win and get the eighth seed. The eighth seed is not the organization’s goal, we of course have loftier goals and want to be a top seed; but for now I think when you get in there, it brings a lot of experience to the younger guys just to play at that level. I remember Jrue Holiday got to the playoffs and then made leaps and bounds the next year because he played at that intensity level.
STACK: How has your role changed as a basketball player at this stage in your career?
EB: Role wise, it’s whatever needs to be done. Stay in shape and stay ready. I had a chance to play because some guys went down. I had to go out there and perform, and other guys [on the team] saw how I stayed ready. From a leadership standpoint, I’m always talking to guys. I know the plays that the teams are running, I know where they should be, so I just try to talk them because I know how to get to that next level. I know the game a lot more now, so it's fun passing all of that down and being a leader.
STACK: All right, Elton. Just how much more basketball fuel do you have in the tank?
EB: I’m going to take it summer-by-summer. The training is the most important thing in the off-season, and as long as I feel good and feel healthy, I’ll keep going. It’s tough now. I have a family and kids, and one of my daughter’s first phrases is "bye-bye da da," so we will figure it out. But I’m loving it. I enjoy the competition as long as I can go out there and compete and help the team.