Person of Interest: Charles Czeisler

FOR YEARS, CHARLES CZEISLER has complained about the NBA’s morning practices, grumbled over late-night travel, and bristled at back-to-back road games. No, he’s not some prima donna player. He’s the Sleep Doctor, the NBA’s foremost expert on shuteye, and he wants the league to do away with all those redeye flights and zzz-inhibiting practices.

“Why would the NBA want to do that to elite athletes?” Czeisler asks. “The goal is to see how well they play basketball, not to put them through the wringer and see if they can survive.”  

Czeisler, chief of the division of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s and director of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, began working with the NBA two seasons ago when he was asked to consult with the Portland Trail Blazers. These days he’s the go-to guy across the sports spectrum, even though some teams end up ignoring his treatment plans — the Patriots disregarded his advice two years ago to avoid an overnight flight for a game in London. The Celtics, by contrast, are willing patients. In the summer of 2009, Czeisler met with coach Doc Rivers and showed him charts and brain-imaging studies illustrating how sleep deprivation affects reaction time, memory retention, and the immune system.

The Celtics soon eliminated morning practices and instituted the “2 a.m. rule,” which holds that if the players can’t get to their hotel rooms in the next city by that time, then they stay where they are for an extra night and get their eight hours. Sound rest is all the more important for a veteran team like the Celtics, who have struggled playing games on consecutive nights. “Trying to create a window of 8 to 10 hours of sleep — it’s almost impossible during an NBA season,” Rivers says. “The way we were doing it made it completely impossible.”

Czeisler, who’s helped everyone from astronauts to factory workers, considers proper rest nothing short of a “secret weapon.” But it’s his work with NBA players that has earned him the praise he really appreciates. “Dad,” his teenage son recently told him, “I didn’t realize you worked on something important.”