Curious differences of aging stars

Originally Published: June 26, 2011
By Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott | Special to

Ever since LeBron James lost the NBA Finals (notice we didn't say that the Dallas Mavericks won), the hater-ade has been flowing like the glacial water in Iceland. The people are angry with him for making his "decision" such a spectacle, and perhaps for not making the choice to take a team on his back and try to win on his own without the help of other "super athletes."

We can't help but feel a bit sorry for him because, as we watched, we kept noticing how self-conscious he was after many plays by making sure his headband covered his hairline. While many folks might make fun of him for this, we can't help but feel like maybe all the stress is getting to him.

He already looked old for his age at 18 when he was drafted. People used to say, "his body is NBA ready" and it obviously was. Perhaps, though, all of the heat he is taking (pun intended) is making him age faster.

To focus a whole column on LeBron, however, is not something that we can do as Detroiters. Talking about his apparent "aging," however, made us think of a guy in our own hometown who has aged so slowly you almost forget -- Nicklas Lidstrom.

Lidstrom has just signed a new contract with the Detroit Red Wings for another year. Although you almost don't notice his age (he had 62 points last season to become the first defenseman in his 40s with 60-plus points in a season), the guy is old enough to be our father. He'll be 42 during the coming season and is still among the best players in all of the NHL.

To be a pro athlete at 41 is a pretty rare thing, but it's not unprecedented -- even in Detroit. Gordie Howe -- the original "old guy" -- played a shift for the minor league Detroit Vipers at 69 years old. Before you dismiss that as a publicity stunt put on by the now-defunct IHL, let us remind you that Howe played for the Red Wings until he was 43, getting 52 points that season. He left and continued in the NHL's rival league, the World Hockey Association, playing into his 50s. He ended his career with 41 points in his final season back in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers after the NHL/WHA merger. Howe was 11 years older than Lidstrom is now and assuming, as they say, that each year past 40 takes a huge toll on an athlete's body, then Howe's 41-point total at age 52 is pretty special indeed.

We can't even imagine our grandfathers strapping on sneakers and trying to play pick-up basketball with us … or, heck, even a game of H-O-R-S-E much less playing a sport with professionals. (On a side note, Josh's grandfather was involved in a fistfight on a golf course in his 80s.)

[+] EnlargeNicklas Lidstrom
AP Photo/Paul SancyaAthletes from all sports and any age can learn from the examples of Nicklas Lidstrom.

The "old guy" on the team is such a cliché storyline in movies (think Paul Newman in "Slap Shot" and even Carl Weathers in "Rocky IV") that it had to be rooted in reality. Satchel Paige actually debuted in the major leagues at age 42 and played baseball until he was 59. Baseball is, however, a far less physically taxing sport than hockey. Any sport where Cecil Fielder could look like he did in his prime and still be considered "great" has to be less rigorous than the game Lidstrom plays.

Speaking of the less physically taxed professionals, George Blanda, a former NFL kicker, played until he was 48. Jason Hanson of the Detroit Lions is 41, and he looks like he might try to stick around just as long. He is actually the only Lion who was a part of their last team to make the playoffs, which makes him the owner of key information if they ever make it back. He's kind of like Dumbledore to the younger players' Harry Potter.

Younger players can likely learn a lot from the older veterans. Kenny Rogers was 42 when the Tigers made the playoffs in 2006 and was widely credited as the best thing to have happened to Justin Verlander by the Detroit coaches. JV is having one hell of a season this year and would probably attribute every no-hitter he throws from now on to "The Gambler." Julio Franco probably showed many a rookie the ropes by the time he retired at age 49.

Lidstrom has often been called the smartest player in the game. Former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman used to talk about how he never really worried what Lidstrom was doing because he played the game perfectly. It's obvious to us in Detroit that he is a rare individual and that we are lucky to get the chance to watch one of the greatest players ever to wear skates.

All of this makes us wonder where former University of Michigan Fab Fiver Juwan Howard was for the Heat this season? Perhaps he just isn't as good of a teacher as the ancient and wise Jason Kidd? Or maybe his students just aren't listening? What we do know is that sometimes it just takes time to become a leader.

Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. are contributing a bi-weekly sports blog for ESPN Music. The Detroit indie dance-pop -- or hip-hop folk -- duo just released "It's A Corporate World," and they might soon be making a pit stop in a town near you.