John Salley, the NBA great and born-again vegan, on the wines that keep his body strong.

NBA Star John Salley
Credit: © James Mueller

How did you first get into wine?
I really didn’t drink any wine until I was 36 years old, but my friend Greg Gorman, the photographer, was crazy on getting me to try it. One time, back in 2000, he said, “Hey, I’m having a wine party at my house with Peter. You should come.” And I was like, OK, he’s having a party with some guy named Peter, whatever. Then he said, “And by the way Pamela Anderson’s going to be there.” So I said, “Hell yeah.” Wine or not, I can’t wait to meet Pamela Anderson. And I show up with these pants that look like leather and find out it wasn’t a guy named Peter—it was a party for PETA.

Awkward. What finally changed your mind about wine, though?
A glass of Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, from Sonoma County. This was back when you could still carry your wine on a plane. My friend Andre opened up a bottle on a flight, and we had plastic cups—you know, how brothers do it? I’ll never forget tasting that wine.

What was it like?
It looked like the thickest grape juice ever, and when I smelled it, I had the same feeling as when you kiss somebody you like. Andre was like, “Just roll it over your tongue, get some air in there.” I was like, “Holy shit!” And Andre goes, “Right. That’s the feeling of wine.”

Your new company, The Vegan Vine, sells wine that is made without the use of any animal products whatsoever. Does it actually taste different?
I tell people, “Look, it’s just a great California wine, and this is my way of promoting veganism.” It’s grown and produced by Clos LaChance on the Central Coast. The only difference is it doesn’t use a product made from fish bladders or egg whites for fining [a traditional way of clarifying wine]. But people say the craziest things to me, like, “Can I drink this in a steakhouse?” And I go, “Yeah, if you’re going to be eating a vegan for dinner, then you can drink it in a steakhouse.”

What was it that made you want to become a vegan to begin with?
When people ask me what I eat as a vegan, I say, “Everything but dead stuff.” Because if you put all this dead stuff in your body, after a while your body just isn’t going to work. And man, I’m a Mustang Sally. I came out in 1964, and I just want to keep everything about this body as close to mint condition as I can. There’s a lot of miles on these wheels. But I’m keeping the rest of the car in tip-top shape—because it’s the only body I have.