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NBA draftees who overcame adversity: 'making the transition to fame and fortune is no slam dunk'

NBA rookies must navigate their way over a series of pitfalls


Rob Book - Associate Professor of Cultural Sport Psychology, University of Southern Denmark

When a young athlete is drafted into the NBA – as 58 players were on June 22, 2023 – it is often seen as a life-changing event. The money makes it so.


Salaries for first-round draft picks this year are projected to range from about $2.4 million at the low end to $12 million at the very top. That’s a lot of bread for a young person to handle. The three youngest prospects this year will still be 18 at the time of the draft.


Perhaps for some spectators, the big salaries might seem as if they should cushion the young players from whatever economic hardships or social challenges they may have faced growing up. But through research that I conducted with NBA coaches, NBA union representatives and former NBA players, I discovered that it’s not always so easy.


“Poverty is a trauma, and there is a lot of data to support that,” one NBA union representative told me. “Men are essentially incentivized to say nothing, be tough, man up, and this mask is what I call invisible tattoos. We’re talking sexual trauma, incarceration, spousal battery, alcohol, or gang violence.”


As I point out in my study, these issues are not necessarily unique to professional basketball players and affect athletes in other sports as well.


Overnight fortunes

Through the draft, newly minted NBA players may skyrocket into an astronomically higher tax bracket overnight.


But just because they’ve become instant millionaires doesn’t mean they’re going to easily transition into lives of prosperity.


This may be particularly true, I have found, for players who have faced the adversity of poverty in childhood, or who grew up in low-income communities.


Indeed, one former NBA player, who retired in the late 2010s, told me that rookies may find it difficult to break ties with friends who could derail their careers.


“I will always feel a tight bond to the community in which I was raised, and I know that people from the outside might not understand that,” the player told me. “So, even though my new coaches or agent might tell me to stop hanging with my old friends, it isn’t that simple.”


The player told me that when he was a rookie, what he needed back then was “someone from this new world who actually went through this transition to help because I certainly made a lot of mistakes.” Specifically, he said he found it difficult to sever ties with old acquaintances who were still involved in lives of crime.


Lessons for new professionals

It’s not that the NBA is completely oblivious to the need to orient new players on how to comport themselves and handle their newfound fame and fortune. And it’s not like the story of basketball players seeking to overcome adversity is an unfamiliar one, if somewhat of a misleading cultural trope. Researchers have found, for instance, that despite the popular image of NBA players rising from impoverished backgrounds, “Most NBA players come from relatively advantaged social origins.” But that’s often not the story that gets told.


As early as 1979, movies like “Fast Break” and TV shows like “The White Shadow” portrayed the challenges that young players faced off the court. A more recent example is “Last Chance U: Basketball,” a Netflix docuseries that chronicles the lives of community college basketball players who are seeking to go pro despite their difficult pasts, which is one of my focal points of study.


The NBA – clearly cognizant of the challenges that young players face – offers a four-day rookie transition program to get the young athletes acclimated to their new lives as professional basketball players. Among other things, speakers advise the young players to avoid the pitfalls associated with guns, drugs and sexual relationships with groupies.


Some – myself included – question whether the four-day symposium is enough, or whether there needs to be a more sustained effort. Among the skeptics is one former coach of an NBA player who got sent to prison after being convicted of a felony.


“It’s like, we gave you the information and now it’s on you because you are a grown man,” the former coach said. “But even though he was grown, he was still young, and he had lots of chances to make some bad decisions, which he obviously did,” he said of the player who went to prison.


Between worlds

One former NBA player told me of a time when he drew attention after he lashed out at someone for stepping on his shoe.


“I was out one night with some teammates and someone stepped on my shoe and I just lost it and I remember everyone looking at me like I was crazy,” the player told me. “The thing is that where I was from, you simply couldn’t let these things pass or else it would make me look weak and then you became a target. In that moment I realized that the same behaviors I learned which allowed me to survive and thrive in my old environment could cause me to get locked up in my new one.”


Through the rookie transition program, players are advised to seek out veteran players for advice.

Ultimately, one former NBA official told me, that may be the best advice.


“If a rookie gets to the NBA and the only place he feels like he belongs is athletically, he is going to revert back to past behaviors because of the trauma he has endured,” the former executive told me. “In these cases, NBA teams need to understand this transition has a lot of underlying issues that very often aren’t addressed.”



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