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Four-Time NBA Champion John Salley on Playing With Michael Jordan, Improving the NBA, and Living a Full Life
In this interview, Salley shares his experience playing with the basketball greats and learning important lessons about a life of endless learning.
A note from Polina: I’m excited to share this interview with 4x NBA champion John Salley. He was interviewed by Simran Bhatia, a staff writer for The Profile. I hope you enjoy it.
If it wasn’t for a fall down the stairs at the age of 14, John Salley might not have become the four-time NBA champion, entrepreneur, actor, and health coach he is today.
Salley, born in the projects of Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood, was introduced to the game of basketball at the age of six by a friend’s father. After he heard that “NBA players get the best clothes and all the girls,” he was determined to pursue a career in professional basketball.
Despite his short stature up until high school, Salley would confidently tell people that he was going to make it to the NBA.
Which brings us to the fall.
At 14 years old, Salley fell down the stairs and hit his head in such a way that doctors believed the impact affected his pituitary gland, which is responsible for releasing hormones for important bodily functions. One of those functions? Growth.
As a result, Salley underwent a growth spurt that helped him tower over the competition. He was scouted to play basketball for Georgia Tech.
After a successful college career, Salley was drafted in the first round of the 1986 NBA draft to the Detroit Pistons, where he won two championships alongside players like Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas.
He went on to win a third championship with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Chicago Bulls in 1996. After a short stint playing in Europe, Salley came back to the NBA and won another championship with Shaquille O’Neil and Kobe Bryant in 1999.
But if you ask Salley if winning four championships was the goal, he will give you a laundry list of careers he has yet to explore. A rapper, producer, photographer, writer, TV show anchor, actor, entrepreneur, health coach, vegan activist, and author are just some of the many identities of Salley.
His dedication to continuous learning is an homage to the lesson he learned as a young man in the projects, where 10 of his friends died before their mid-twenties. Life is short, and we shouldn’t wait to get started.
Coping with the grief of having his best friends die was not easy. Salley initially channeled his grief into violence, a behavior that his college coach addressed with meditation and breathwork.
Once Salley realized he, too, was going to die one day, he dedicated himself to cherishing his one life and “doing everything [he] possibly can for as long as [he’s] on the planet.”
To fix his own health issues, Salley became an avid vegan and then trained as a holistic wellness coach to share his learnings with others. And if there’s one thing he wants athletes to start caring about more is their fuel. “The most important thing is the fuel you put into your car,” he tells The Profile.
Salley even invested in a streaming service so that he could promote content about healthy living. One thing is for sure — whether it is basketball, acting, or plant-based living, he pursues the highest level of excellence in all that he does.
In an interview with The Profile, Salley discusses his ideas on improving the NBA, shares stories about playing with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and provides tips for achieving success in career and health.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
(Below is an excerpt of the interview, but I encourage you to listen to the full interview.)
What is the biggest mistake you see young players making in the NBA today?
SALLEY: I didn’t understand why the NBA didn’t provide athletes with an apartment, a car you can drive, a liaison, a chaperone, and security. When you go play in Europe, you have it like that. [They provide you with] your car and an apartment, a driver if you’re really good. Until you get used to where you are. In the NBA, it’s every man for himself.
It’s a disservice to the player, because you’re forcing him to learn so many things that he didn’t learn in college. They didn’t have that kind of money in their pocket, they didn’t have to cook for themselves. When you join the army, they don’t just throw you into a war — you have to go through basic training, which should be in the NBA. You should have someone walking you through it.
[For instance], “This is how you wash your clothes. You don’t need a thousand chains. You don’t need seven watches on one wrist or seven cars when you have one butt. Just because you met her in the club doesn’t mean she’s the one you bring back to your house.”
There are so many things [rookies] should be guided in.
If you could go back and change anything about your NBA experience, what would you change, and why?
I would do more pull-ups, more pushups, I would stay in the gym a little longer, and I would make sure the head coach watched me work out. I enjoyed my NBA career. But when you win a game, you’re yelling, you’re happy. You get 15 minutes, and then you go to the locker room, and then the coach goes, “Simmer down, you got the win but you have to prepare for the game tomorrow.”
When you lose a game, you hear about it for 15 minutes, you have reporters come in, you hear about it on the news, you read about it in the paper. They would rather deal with the losing emotion and beating you up in professional sports rather than realizing you’re also human. That’s one thing I didn’t like about being in the NBA.
You once mentioned that Kobe Bryant’s shots would always go in, and Michael Jordan would keep shooting until his shots went in. What’s more important — precision or repetition?
Precision. Michael didn’t trust a lot of his teammates, but the ones he did trust were able to hit the big shots — Steve Kerr, Johnny Paxton, Scottie Pippen. Once [Michael] gave it to them, they did it.
Who is the greatest of all time?
The best in our lifetime is Michael Jordan. The best in the ‘90s, the best in his position, what he’s done for the NBA, sneakers, commercials. Michael Jordan made it so that athletes are looked at as celebrities. It used to be that a movie star was a movie star. An athlete was an athlete. Now, athletes are superstars.
Kobe would say that he would never be better than Michael, because without Michael there would be no Kobe.
What inspired you to become a vegan and holistic wellness practitioner?
I had a bad breakup, and it seemed like everything was spiraling out. And I went to a doctor in Atlanta and she told me “John, you’re full of sh*t, sugar, and horrible intestinal toxins.”
And she was right. I was full of sugar. I was full of horrible intestinal toxins. I got my first colonic and everything changed. And as a health coach, one of the things I say to people is, ‘Change nothing, nothing changes. Change everything and everything changes.’ So I changed everything.
In the NBA, we all took pills. I took ibuprofen, which I was taking them like they were Skittles. That means you can have a bad liver, kidney problems. It didn’t stop the inflammation in the knee where I thought it was — it was all a placebo thought with terrible side effects. So that's it. When I found out about all the different things that I could change, I [made those changes] in the past 32 years now.
What does success mean to you?
Starting. Just to start is a success. Somebody once said to me, “John you’ve always been successful in your life.” That’s because I’ve always done what I said I was going to do.