They touch down at another NBA city and check their smartphones to help them adjust to a new time zone while their own bodies struggle. They arrive with bags under their eyes and often depart that city a day later sleepless, jet-lagged, stowing sore joints and heavy legs.
During this lockout-shortened NBA season, it’s been a grueling routine: 66 games played in 124 days, a pace of one per 1.88 days, or 8.5% faster than a usual season. Every team has played back-to-back-to-back sets and stretches such as nine games in 12 days; the Clippers played 20 games in 31 days in March, a marathon that has not been on the NBA schedule in 45 years.
At the start of the season, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan thought he had insomnia. “I would wake up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep,” he said.
But Phoenix forward Grant Hill is sleeping better now than in seasons past. “It has been easier for me because I’m just tired more,” he said.
Sleep is a low priority on NBA itineraries and players often compensate with pregame naps. Miami’s LeBron James, Chicago’s Derrick Rose and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook all swear by them, and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant checks into a hotel before home games for a siesta.
Metta World Peace also naps and made a change this season that also helps. “Not much partying,” the Lakers forward said. “I remember going out more, but I don’t go out that much this year.”
In interviews with more than a dozen NBA players, many say they are not doing much to compensate for the loss of sleep but they are feeling the effects of the compressed season.
“I’ve felt the three games in a row,” said Denver guard Andre Miller. “That was tough. I had nothing in the tank on the third game.”
According to statistics compiled by the NBA, the number of one-game injury absences during the season’s first 60 days had increased 63% from the same period a season ago.
When tired, even after a nap, most NBA players do what many non-athletes do: ingest a stimulant. Lakers guard Matt Barnes loves 5-hour Energy Shots. Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins prefers a B-12 vitamin shot or two. His Thunder teammate Serge Ibaka likes green tea, as does Clippers star Blake Griffin.
Coffee doesn’t seem to be popular among NBA players.
“Coffee makes you too jittery,” Perkins said.
But although caffeine and other stimulants mask the need for sleep, they can’t replace it. More than one-third of U.S. adults receive less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it’s easy to see why NBA players are among that third.
Night games often end about 10:15. It’s close to 11 by the time players have showered, dressed and spoken to the media. If there’s no game the next day, most players aren’t usually in bed — either because of a late dinner, a trip to a nightclub, or both — for an hour or two. But when their head hits the pillow, many are too wired to sleep.
“I’m up after games,” World Peace said. “I can’t sleep. I try to get eight [hours] on days off and I try to sleep before the game, but I can’t sleep after.” The time stamps of his late-night tweets confirm this.
Said Griffin: “I normally can’t get to sleep until 1 [a.m.], maybe 2 if it’s a bad game.” He added he doesn’t take anything to help, such as sleeping pills.
Clippers guard Randy Foye watches an unusual calming aid: the Military Channel. “It’s kind of slow, so it puts me to sleep,” he said.
But if an NBA team is traveling, players might not arrive at their hotel until 2 or 3 a.m. Shootarounds typically start at 10 a.m., for which players have to be present by 9. That leaves them a few hours to sleep. It sounds like a hectic schedule. Now imagine it sped up, as it has been this season.
“I’m starting to get my second wind a little bit,” Clippers guard Nick Young said. "[But] one time, I didn’t want to go out there and play. I was just so drained.”
Some coaches, such as the Lakers’ Mike Brown, are working more with players to gauge when to have a practice, if at all, a move that can increase players’ chances to sleep in.
But coaches are tired too. Denver Coach George Karl said it has been hard on them because although players get days off, coaches don’t take many.
After some games, Karl said, “We’ll sleep in until 9 or 10, but we’ll be up; they’ll get the whole day off. I think the coaches, especially the assistant coaches, have been battered. I’ve beaten them up, man. They’re working.”
Brown, who is known for his grinding work ethic, acknowledged this season has affected him and his staff.
“We’ll stay the night, if we have to, in the office,” he said.
There is a segment of NBA players who don’t sleep much — or at least say they don’t. “I go to bed late, I wake up early. I’ve always been like that,” Clippers star Chris Paul said. “My mom’s the same way.”
Phoenix guard Shannon Brown said he often sleeps only four or five hours. “I’m always up, up, up, up,” he said. “I think a lot.”
Michael Jordan was a notorious light sleeper. After Chicago’s 1989 season ended, he reportedly drove through the night to North Carolina to make a 10 a.m. tee time the next day. He then played 36 holes of golf without sleep, drove to South Carolina and played 54 holes a day for four consecutive days.
Some players might not be able to function on as little sleep as they think.
“Short sleepers,” as they are known, make up about 1% to 3% of the population, according to the Wall Street Journal. And out of every 100 people who believe they need only five or six hours of sleep a night, only about five really do, Dr. Daniel J. Buysse, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told the Journal.
Dr. Charles Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, has consulted with several NBA teams, including the Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Boston Celtics, and is known around the league as the “Sleep Doctor.” For players, he recommends eight to nine hours of sleep, about one hour more than he recommends for the average adult.
Czeisler said research shows a healthy amount of sleep can improve athletic performance.
“If you harness the power of sleep, it can help you be at your best,” he said.
Czeisler helps coordinate the Boston Celtics’ travel schedule so it gives players an optimal chance to rest. For instance, if there is no back-to-back that forces the team to fly out that night, Czeisler will suggest staying in and leaving the following morning.
He worries about how sleep is factored into NBA schedules.
“The message that’s being sent out when you force them into these grueling schedules is that if you’re tough, you’re going to be able to do it,” Czeisler said. “But in fact, if isn’t a matter of toughness, and unfortunately the youngest players are at the greatest risk for sleep deprivation.”
Czeisler said one night of lost sleep is 10 times more detrimental to those ages 18 to 25 than to those 60 and over, because in younger people sleep is much deeper, more restorative and the body’s “drive” to sleep is more intense. To them, lost sleep can slow reaction time and shorten attention spans.
There’s also the issue of sleep debt, or the cumulative effect of sleep loss. Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, has worked with NBA, NFL, NHL, Olympic and collegiate athletes.
“One good night of sleep will not pay back what you’ve accumulated,” Mah said. “We try to help athletes bring down their sleep debt to a manageable level or even eliminate it.”
That can take rearranging a schedule, but because the idea of sleep as a performance enhancer in sports is relatively new, it first requires the athlete to value rest.
“It’s this ‘macho'-ness, the perception of sleep as a weakness,” she said.
Phoenix’s Hill, in his 17th NBA season and at 39 the league’s second-oldest player, sure doesn’t view sleep as a weakness.
He’ll go to extremes: blackout curtains, turning off all mobile devices, even not drinking too much water before bed so he doesn’t wake up to use the bathroom.
Hill said the body needs to recover and will tell you as much. You just have to listen.