John Salley on His Advocacy, Attitude, and What He Wishes the Bad Boys Had Known

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Tonight, PETA will mark its 40th anniversary with a virtual gala to celebrate four decades of victories for animals and honor the celebrities who have helped make them happen with Humanitarian Awards. Appearances include: Sir Paul McCartney, Mariah Carey, Jermaine Dupri, Alec Baldwin, Casey Affleck, Pamela Anderson, James Cromwell, and Bill Maher.

Four-time NBA champion and proud vegan John Salley will be among the honorees for his efforts. He spoke to The Big Lead about his passions, which are numerous and driven by an optimistic, can-do attitude that's never far from the surface.

Kyle Koster: A few months ago, I wrote that it'd be great to see you do more acting. I understand that you're currently filming something.

John Salley: Yeah, I'm shooting a movie called Sneakerella for Disney+. The crazy thing is I just got in the sneaker business. I originally had my own shoe in 1990. I got away from it, even knowing that I love sneakers. I knew I wanted to act and all that, so I literally said, this is what I want to do. I want to act. I want to do television, I didn't want to push on the sneaker thing but I should have. So 30 years later I'm in a movie where I'm an ex-NBA player who has a family business that owns sneakers.

Literally, I'm weeks away from releasing my sneaker. And I got the movie. I thought 'oh, this is going to be a great lead-in.' I have a classic vegan shoe that's also really, really pretty.

KK: Was adopting the vegan lifestyle an evolving process? What did your journey look like?

JS: I lied to myself and to everyone else, like I think most people do. I decided to go macrobiotic first, in 1991. From there, I was a lying vegetarian back and forth. I would eat shrimp, I would go fishing, I'd eat turkey. I'd say I wasn't eating beef but I was eating chicken, you know, the dumb lies. Then I did a PSA for PETA in 2007 and all the food was vegan. I asked what that was and I haven't turned back. That day, I went vegan and that was all she wrote.

So I went from being a teacher who tells you everything and tests you on what I said to being a preacher who tries to involve and make you feel a certain way about your soul. Then I became a sage: these are the facts that can't be refuted, nice to have met you. I just lay it out, if you take it, you take it. If you don't, you don't.

KK: Do you regret that it took awhile to fully commit or do you think everyone operates on their own timetable?

JS: As I became a health coach, I learned exactly what the techniques are. What we say in health coaching is that small hinges open big doors. I was in my fifth year in the NBA and I figured out that it's not normal not to be this angry or not feel good. That's a compacted colon full of sugar-honey ice tea.

Once I learned how to take care of this avatar—you ever see a classic car, like a mint condition 1957 Corvette? Someone knew how to take care of that avatar. I wish I would have learned that earlier. But now I take way better care of it than when I was younger.

KK: What do you think would have happened if you'd gone all-in on the lifestyle when you were in your mid-20s? Would that have been met with resistance from your teammates?

JS: Everybody thinks your teammates in the pros have so much to do with you. They don't. [Basketball] is the most individual team sport. I'd be Kyrie Irving. He is the most awake athlete I've ever seen.

KK: You're also in the CBD business and I was curious about the importance of doing something you really believe in. Can you talk about the some of the positive impacts both veganism and CBD have had in your life?

JS: When it comes to being a vegan: my body is a Ferrari. Maybe a Bugatti. A Formula 1 car and I drive it like Lewis Hamilton. In my car is high-octane gas, the best I could possibly put in.

As for CBD, I was lied to my entire life about the cannabis plant and the hemp plant. We were talking opioids just to play. People don't really know that. If we had to get the inflammation down we'd say 'oh, give me one of those pills. Give me two because both of my legs hurt. Give me three because my neck hurts as well.'

What we didn't know was that we were damaging our livers. When you retire, you won't be able to enjoy your money. I knew this wonderful plant, as well as the other plants that help my body, were the first two things I needed. I had to make sure I had the best gas and make sure I had the best Band-Aid because you're going to get bumps and bruises.

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KK: What do you mean when you say you were lied to?

JS: A few guys I played with ended up having kidney problems and didn't know what to equate it to. I do. It had to be overloading my body with something synthetic that my kidneys couldn't break down. So to be told that it was a safe thing to do—we had jars of them like M&Ms. You stuck your hand in and grabbed them like candy.

I was lied to in college when I was told that I needed the protein. I was told to eat a New York Strip steak at 4:30 and I'd be ready for a game at 7:30 p.m.. No! Seven-thirty I was still sleepy. These were all total lies, based on lies told to the experts.

KK: That's really interesting to think about. Fans at home already don't see players as people and even something like that, which seemed non-controversial at the time, was only adding to the full picture of how the bottom line isn't always in the player's best interests given some time to reflect.

JS: Players need to watch Gladiator. That's the base of being a professional athlete.

KK: Did you have player empowerment conversations back then?

JS: [It was] just shut up and get your money. Don't mess up your money. When they keep throwing money at us. Then I got to a point where I realized money wasn't real, it was digital. Everything was always about the money and then the time comes to negotiate and it's not about the money any more. It's about the family, the team, the unit.

KK: What's your relationship been like with PETA? You don't strike me as someone hung up on awards—

JS: I am on this one.

KK: And why's that?

JS: There's a couple awards I got. The NBA championships, yes. Whatever. But that wasn't me. I got an award for mercy to animals and I got this PETA award. I was at the gala a few years ago and I realized I had to do more work. They don't realize all the work I'm doing. I still didn't let them know, they just started finding out. So when they said we want to give you the Humanitarian Award, I was so geeked. Because I did dedicate my life to this.

I'm not going to say that I lost friends because it's just proven I didn't have many of them but as Drake said, my circle got so small it's a period. [Laughs] But I'm dealing with people that are awake. You really can't talk to people who are asleep. People say., 'oh you mean being woke?' No. If someone is asleep, and you're yelling and screaming, that irritates and scares them when they wake up. And then they can't hear anything you're saying anyway. So I like dealing with those who are conscious, who realize this is how life is supposed to be.

KK: I appreciate your passion for these things. It's affirming to see you ascend to the highest level of something in basketball but that you kept being intellectually curious. I'm 36 and I think you're one of the first players I can remember who wasn't afraid of having a personality, going into movies and television, sports television specifically with The Best Damn Sports Show.

JS: One of the best compliments I ever got was from Willie McGinest. He said that I inspired a lot of players by showing we can be more than athletes. Like I said before in Gladiator: come out here and entertain us and go back to your cell. Or "shut up and dribble."

There's more to me, you know? I play basketball two hours a day but the other 22 I have to be human.

KK: Do you think you're addicted to the challenge of new things? What drives the everyday drive?

JS: Waking up is my motivation. When people ask me how my day is going I say, 'today is a grand day.' It sure is. They ask how I'm doing and I say 'alive and successful, how about you?' I literally don't look it any other way. I look at it as this is the only box I'm going to have. This is my sandbox and everything I want in my sandbox is going to be there. I'm not going to sit around and look at someone else's box wishing I have what they have. If I want it, I'm going to get it.

KK: I need to get some what you're having then. I'm motivated for three days then take an off day. One day I'll get there.

JS: But see, you don't die. So that's really not a day off. You may stop doing something but you're thinking about what you're doing next. You're regenerating your body. Like, if I don't have a day on set, I'm going to try to sleep as much as I can because I know I'm on set 16 hours a day.

Detroit Pistons v Chicago Bulls
Detroit Pistons v Chicago Bulls / Focus On Sport/Getty Images

KK: Let me try a late headline grab here. How mad were you about The Last Dance? Do you think your Pistons got a fair shake?

JS: Oh, I loved it.

KK: Right. It was great, but considering you beat [Michael Jordan] in the playoffs three times—

JS: But he's still the Messiah. [Laughs] It doesn't make a difference.

KK: Okay, the headline grab failed. You're the only one happy about the way it was portrayed. Even Jordan, and I'm sure he had a lot of editorial control.

JS: This is the deal. What I didn't like is that we didn't know there was that much turmoil on the Bulls. If we would have known that, that's what would have exploited.

KK: Oh, really? You didn't know there was all this friction? You thought it was a cohesive unit?

JS: If we knew Scottie [Pippen] and Michael didn't get along. If we knew teammates didn't like him ... we didn't know that. We didn't know they were having those thoughts about us. If we knew that they were thinking about us that much, we would have exploited the hell out of that.

They became that unit, but that's because of us.

KK: How so?

JS: Hit Michael more. Been rougher with him. None of his teammates were going to stand up for him. Without [Charles] Oakley, no one was going to stand up for him. When we hit Scottie, no one ran over and wanted to fight Dennis [Rodman].

KK: Or use the Jordan Rules on every player to see who would stand up for whom?

JS: We did. That's how we won. When we shut Scottie down, people don't realize he had the ball in his hands 70 percent of the time. Now you're taking away someone Michael's comfortable with. Then he has to do it all himself. And he can't pass to himself, even if he's done it a couple of times.