John Salley has a story to tell. The four-time NBA champion has played alongside Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and starred in movies with Will Smith and Whoopi Goldberg. So imagine him cutting a cigar, pouring you each a whisky, and taking you back in time with any number of tales, like the one he’s sharing now.
He’s describing a game he played against the Boston Celtics in 1986, his first year with the Detroit Pistons, in which he was tasked with guarding Robert Parish. After the veteran Parish beat Salley down the court, Pistons head coach Chuck Daly had a word with the young rookie. “It was the one time I had a lapse. They’re the Celtics,” Salley explains, “you don’t have time to lapse.”
After the game, which the Pistons lost, Salley was unsure what to do with his evening. He roamed the hotel and eventually landed at the bar—where he sees none other than Robert Parish. “He’s smoking a cigarette and drinking scotch,” Salley continues. “As I walk around the other side, I go, ‘You smoke cigarettes and drink scotch and you beat me downcourt?’ He goes, ‘You got to learn to pace yourself, young fella. Now get the f— away from me, rookie.’”
Salley immediately went upstairs to call his brother and relay the story, but there is a deeper lesson after all these years—Parish played for 21 seasons, after all. “Whatever he was doing, he was right. I guess,” Salley says.
Though he didn’t discover whisky until after his playing days, Salley has a Parish-like approach to enjoying life’s finer things. He invested in wedge ice molds, which help him and his whisky chill out. “It’s not like I’m grabbing it and chugging it,” he says. “I already know, I’m only putting this much in. I’m sipping it.”
A wine aficionado, he demonstrates the approach of a seasoned taster, saying that he holds the whisky in his mouth, breathing in slightly to release and evaluate the flavors. He even has cigar pairings down—Padron Anniversary, Diplomatico, and Maduro are his favorites to enjoy alongside scotch or Japanese whisky.
And enjoyment is key. Salley estimates he has about 16 bottles on his bar, and he is adamant about opening them. “I don’t like collecting things. I like to enjoy it while my life is like this,” he says. His current rotation includes Hibiki Harmony, Macallan 12 year old Double Cask, and Balvenie DoubleWood 17 year old.
Another Salley rule: Keep things reasonably priced. “All my bottles are under $125. I’m like the regular Joe, a regular John.” he says, pointing out that the pricier Balvenie was a gift. “I’m not breaking the bank when I go in [the liquor store] and get anything.”
While he prefers non-peated scotch, Salley says that he would like to take a trip to Kentucky to further his whiskey education and enjoyment, particularly now that the state’s first African American-owned distillery, Brough Brothers, has opened in Louisville. “It’s a wonderful state,” he says.
Salley visited once, in 2004 for the Kentucky Derby. Though he has since become vegan and hasn’t been back for the race, he says that he loved his time there. “We were in a booth with Michael Jordan, Dr. J, Dave Chappelle, Chris Tucker, Gabrielle Union,” he says. “I got to see Muhammad Ali before he passed, at the opening at the museum. I got to experience all that. That was one of my favorite places.”
Most whiskies come with a story, but few are as entertaining as the ones Salley tells—and the ones he continues to collect.
Who: John Salley, former NBA player and current media personality
Played with: Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers
Go-To whiskies: Balvenie, Hibiki, Macallan
How he drinks: Over a large wedge of ice
Favorite cocktails: Manhattan, Old Fashioned