The vegan lifestyle and the lifestyle of professional athletes aren’t often associated with each other. But John Salley, a former NBA star who’s played with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, swears by the strictly animal- and animal-product-free diet he’s taken up since retiring from the game.
Here, he talks about maintaining his energy and ability, the benefits of going vegan and misconceptions.
Why did you decide to become vegan?
Five years ago, I was doing a [public service announcement] for PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] about being vegetarian, and all the food there at the photo shoot was vegan. I suddenly felt like eating anything from an animal wasn’t good for me — I paid attention to what it was doing inside my body. I also wanted my body and libido back from when I was 26, and I got them both.
I went into raw vegan for a while, but I prefer cooked food, the way it smells, the way it feels going through your system.
As an athlete, how do you get enough protein on a vegan diet to be able to stay in such good shape?
I get it from the same place the cows get it from: green, leafy vegetables. No one asks the cow or the chicken where it gets its protein. I eat about 4,000 or 5,000 calories a day, and I cook for myself. I also have a line of cooks that work with me — some raw, some vegan.
In the morning, I eat organic grits ... and I have ginger tea with coconut oil. I eat a lot of kale, and I drink about half a gallon to a gallon of water a day. At night, I’ll make pizza with almond cheese and different vegetables and seasonings; I put turmeric on everything.
If you were still playing basketball full time, would you be able to maintain a vegan lifestyle and still play to your greatest potential?
If I had a vegan lifestyle when I was playing, I would still be playing. I’m just rebuilding my body now from all the wear and tear.
You’ve worked to ask Congress to increase the number of vegetarian options available to kids at school. Why do you think that’s important?
It was important working up on the Hill with the congressmen to convince them that these kids are the people who will be voting soon, and if all of them are sick and dying, there won’t be any votes. There’s no reason that America should be No. 1 in obesity; we have the greatest country in the world. It’s about taking care of your health — kids over the age of 5 do a lot of things from habit, and you can teach them about eating healthy and how important their food is.
It helps keep their weight in the right place; it even helps keep pimples off their face. Just like you teach them how to salute their flag, you should teach them how to shop for food.
What is the biggest misconception about vegans?
That we are all hippies. The biggest misconception is that it’s like a political statement. It’s not; it’s just people who are conscious of what goes in their body and what happens in their environment at the same time. Also, for me, it’s hard to not be an animal advocate.