Kareem Abdul-Jabbar loves yoga. Always has.
As one of the NBA's all-time greats, Abdul-Jabbar towers 7-foot-2 and claims several of the league's career records--points, field goals attempted, field goals made and All-Star selections, to name a few.
What's even more impressive is that nobody in NBA history has ever played more minutes than Abdul-Jabbar's 57,446. In a league that has seen 7-footers routinely break down, Abdul-Jabbar's 20-year career was incredible simply because big men rarely last that long.
Was yoga one of the reasons Abdul-Jabbar was so durable? Some seem to think so.
"When it wasn't cool to do, he said 'I do yoga,'" said Kent Katich, an instructor who has taught yoga to hundreds of NBA players. "Not only did he play for 20 years, but he is one of the few 7-foot guys that still has his health. He's mobile. He can get around. He's still active. A lot of guys can barely walk at that age (62) and that height, just from the wear and tear.
"I think that says a lot."
Katich is leading the charge to popularize yoga among basketball players. He is on the payroll of the Los Angeles Clippers as a yoga coach, and also works with the UCLA men's basketball team and hundreds of other professional athletes. For his work in basketball, he's been dubbed "The Yoga Guru of the NBA."
With the exception of Abdul-Jabbar, yoga largely has been ignored in basketball due to its stereotype of being for women or the spiritual. Katich is changing that, and when asked how yoga can help basketball players, he doesn't hesitate.
"Because of the running and the jumping, (basketball players) have a tendency to have tight glutes, and their IT bands--the muscle that runs on the sides from your knee up to your hip--that quad area can be tight," Katich said. "Basketball players also have a tendency to roll their ankles a lot. Repetitive spraining of the ankle starts to harden the muscle that's around the ankle.
"Getting these guys barefoot is an accomplishment, because they start having to work with these smaller muscles they never deal with because their ankles are always taped and they're wearing shoes. You're able to start to identify some of the deficiencies and imbalances that come with overload of certain workouts.
"Yoga has grown into another tool by which they can train."
Katich works with the Clippers throughout the season, tailoring yoga workouts to each individual player's needs. In addition, he spends his offseason working with NBA players around the country or in his Los Angeles-based studio.
Some, like All-Star Baron Davis, have dedicated a large part of their schedule to yoga. Davis and Katich work together almost every day.
Others, like Clippers rookie Blake Griffin, are using yoga as a way to get flexible and minimize injury risk.
"For me, flexibility is huge," Griffin said. "Staying loose and healthy and staying limber--you can tell a difference when your muscles are tight or when you're stretched out and completely relaxed."
Katich has made his yoga classes basketball-friendly, eliminating all the stereotypes that might drive players away. Instead of world music in the background, for example, Katich's studio often has hip-hop artists like 2Pac or Kanye West playing. In addition, traditional yoga blocks used with certain poses are replaced by basketballs. Really, whatever it takes to make the modern athlete more comfortable in unfamiliar territory.
Now, Katich wants to spread his teachings to amateurs. To do that, he created the Yogaletics series, an instructional DVD that teaches yoga in a more modern way.
The DVD reflects the same idea he uses with NBA players: introduce yoga to a demographic of athletes that otherwise would never realize how beneficial it can be.
"I'm simplifying it, but I took the basic idea of yoga, the physical moves and the poses and the breathing and the concentration, and I dressed it in a way that would be appealing to your everyday guy that just wants to get a workout," Katich said. "Where they go from there is up to them."
While yoga hasn't spread far down to grassroots basketball, it has started to gain traction among the world's elite players. Griffin, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, tried yoga once or twice during his All-American career at Oklahoma. But it wasn't until the Clippers introduced him to Katich that he really started to realize its value.
While it's not quite there yet, Griffin sees yoga growing into a league-wide training tool.
"Slowly," Griffin said. "I wouldn't say completely, but a lot more guys are realizing the importance of flexibility."
Katich, a former college basketball player, has worked with about 25 percent of the NBA's current players, as well as past stars like Reggie Miller. And with the competition intense for NBA roster spots--and the nice paycheck that comes with it--players looking for an edge are starting to see yoga as an untapped resource for tuning up the body, preventing injuries and staying in the sport for a long time.
They can look to an NBA legend as evidence of yoga's worth--the one and only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"I've heard from a lot of guys that flexibility is the key to longevity in this league," Griffin said. "For those guys who want to play a long time, I think it's important."