This column appears in the March 22, 2010 issue of ESPN the Magazine.
We think of him as invincible. A warrior able to play through anything: broken and dislocated fingers, excruciating back spasms, sprained ankles. We look at his age (31) and tireless work ethic and assume he'll give us four, five, maybe six more years of greatness. We remember how Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Reggie Miller and Julius Erving thrived in their mid-30s and figure Kobe Bryant still has plenty of NBA basketball ahead of him.
Maybe. But maybe not.
Back when the flood of high school players going into the NBA draft began, in the mid-1990s, a question circulated through the NBA's front offices: Would the teens have extra-long careers, or are all players limited to a certain number of NBA miles, regardless of when the odometer starts running? Now, as yesterday's prep phenoms become today's cagey vets, we're starting to see evidence of an answer. In hip-hop parlance, 30 may be the new 20, but in the NBA, Jay-Z's math doesn't compute. The bodies of many of the prep-to-pros seem much older than their birth certificates would indicate. Even with the NBA's age limit, one-and-dones may find themselves in the same state of premature graying one day.