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Evan Winiker

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Bull in a Tofu Shop

Posted: 11/19/2012 10:35 am

If you're looking for the most interesting man in the world, avert your eyes from the gruff Dos Equis man, and center them on four time NBA champ-turned TV personality, John Salley.
 
I promise, the Spider will not disappoint
 
On an uncharacteristically cloudy Los Angeles afternoon, I sat down with Salley at one of his favorite restaurants, Flore, an organic vegan spot in LA's hipster mecca Silverlake. Over the course of the two hour lunch, I would come to learn that A) Rush Limbaugh is not a bad dude, B) If you mess with Michael Jordan, Charles Oakley will sucker punch you in the stomach, C) Francis Ford Coppolla has the best cigars, and D) Banana agave smoothies are incredible (The latter of which the Spider sipped throughout the course of our conversation).
 
Salley, an NBA lifer who was on more important teams than the league's logo, spent the beginning of his post basketball career gathering emmy nominations with his critically acclaimed show "The Best Damn Sports Show Period". For his next act, Salley's chosen a very different venue.
 
Unlike most 7 footers with a knuckle set full of gold, John Sally opted not to open a car wash with his NBA loot, but rather to invest in a way of life, one he believes in so strongly, he kicked his daughter out of the house for not following.
 
John Salley is a vegan. And a strict one at that, so strict that when his daughter brought a pizza home, he told her to move out, "I got nothing against my daughter, she was at the house last night. But she knew the rules, now she's gotta live with the consequences." Harsh. Even for a guy from Brooklyn.

Though Salley's parenting techniques could easily be criticized, his staunch stance on veganism and a healthy diet can not. His endorsement of all things green, including a particular herb, has helped millions of people in America and has earned him world wide praise both in and out of the vegan community. He speaks at Vegfest's across the country, stumps for healthier meals in front of congress, and even has his own vegetarian wine, The Vegan Vine, a surprisingly good vegan alternative to cabernet sauvignon (Prior to this I had no idea most wines contained meat... I'm still unclear on this).

But while it might seem as if the active PETA spokesman was born with a bottle of soy milk in hand, this couldn't be further from the truth. When asked what he ate growing up in Brooklyn's famed Canarsie neighborhood (Birthplace of Al Roker and the guitar player from Kiss), he replied with one word, "everything." Salley's mom was a local caterer and hot dog stand owner. Pepper steaks, egg rolls and cakes were not uncommon dishes at the Salley's dinner table.

It wasn't until his first season with the Pistons that the big guy learned how to curb his taste for all things fried. Salley was in Milwaukee for a preseason game against the sluggish Bucks, and six time all star Adrian Dantley invited him out to lunch. "That night we were going up against Jack Sicma and Ed Brewer, two of the slowest white guys in the world. The waitress came over to the table and asks what we want, I said cheeseburger, fries, and a shake. Adrian just laughed," the affable guard who now works for the Nuggets, had been in the league for nearly a decade, and knew that a burger for lunch wouldn't result in a stand out game. Salley looks back, "Cut to the game. I could not keep up with Jack Sicma, and he's slow. Right now, Jack Sicma is probably getting out of bed, he's the slowest person ever. I was missing layups, missing dunks, my head wasn't there. Chuck (DALY) was looking at me like 'what did you do this afternoon?' Adrian just smiled, that's when I learned how to eat."

Whether it was the rookie's new diet or the talent that took him from Brooklyn to Detroit, Salley was about to embark on a journey that few athletes have traveled. He'd start in Detroit, winning two championships with Isaiah Thomas and the bad boy Pistons, then cross the lake to Chicago, winning another championship, this time with Michael Jordan and the historic '96 bulls squad (The record breaking 72 win team), and finally he'd cap it off alongside Kobe and Shaq with the 2000 Lakers (His second championship with legendary coach Phil Jackson).

Quite a resume for a kid from Canarsie.

Salley's 'been there, done that' status has made him the Kevin Bacon of the National Basketball association, if there's an all star who won a ring, chances are they played with the Spider. But while Salley's affability and long resume has granted him ambassador points, it hasn't exactly kept him from curbing his tongue.

Earlier this summer, Salley took some heat when he made a polarizing statement on Colin Cowherd's ESPN radio show, leaving Michael Jordan out of his top five greatest players of all time. Every major news outlet jumped on the story, labeling Salley a headline grabber or Steven A. Smith wannabe. But while Salley's statements were stringent in tone, he claims they were taken out of context, "They asked me who the greatest of all time was, I said time is still going. MJ was the best of the '90s, but you can't say he's the greatest of all time." As Salley munched on his tempeh sandwich, I had to agree with him. Lebron might be the best now, but we'll never be able to know how he would have fared against Magic or Bird or even Dr. J. Salley went on, "I was there in '98 when Alan Iverson destroyed that motherfucker (Jordan). Iverson would go one way, Jordan would go the other. Alan Iverson took over the last part of the '90s, the way Jordan had the seven years before that. Then came Kobe and Lebron."

Though Salley's statement was misinterpreted, he still paid the ultimate price. After the episode aired, Oakley put Salley in the hot seat, pressuring the Spider to repeat himself in front of Jordan, Dave Chappelle and Chris Tucker at the Kentucky Derby. "Oakley says to me, 'ok, your boy's right here. Say it, who's better? Kobe or Michael at 24." Salley turned to His Airness and said, "Kobe would have eaten your lunch." Bam. Salley got hit again, but this time it wasn't the media doing the fighting. "Oakley punched me in the stomach. I didn't even see him coming."

Though the punch might have winded him, Salley was quick to laugh it off, a quality that's made him one of the most likeable basketball stars of the 20th century.

It's this good natured congeniality that's allowed him to host radio shows with Ted Nugent, fly private planes to Francis Ford Coppolla's estate, and smoke cigars with Rush Limbaugh. "Rush didn't think I liked him, but that's not the case. I said to him, 'Rush, you're one of my favorite people. You're one of the only Americans that I know.' What I mean by that is he don't give a fuck what people say about him. I like that."

While most people wouldn't rush to defend the right-wing radio host, Salley doesn't necessarily have to agree with someone to respect them. "I don't disagree, I just see things differently. I'm not against war, I'm for peace. I'm not against meat eaters, I'm for vegetables. I'm just...", Salley thinks about what he wants to say, "I'm just on my side."

Whether it was playing with some of the greatest athletes of all time or co-hosting a sports show with a huge television star, Salley often found himself on someone else's side. But with his new endeavor into the vegan food business, a world Salley knows all too well, he's finally found himself on his side.

 

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