For some NBA draftees who overcame adversity, the transition to fame and fortune is no slam dunk

When a young athlete gets drafted to the NBA – like 58 players was on 22 June 2023 – it is often seen as one life changing event. The money makes it so.

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

Perhaps to some onlookers, the large salaries may appear to cushion the young players from the financial hardships or social challenges they may have faced growing up. However, through research that I conducted with NBA coaches, NBA union representatives, and former NBA players, I discovered that it’s not always that easy.

“Poverty is a trauma, and there is one a lot of data to support it,” an NBA union representative told me. “Men are essentially encouraged to say nothing, be tough, man up, and this mask is what I call invisible tattoos. We’re talking about sexual trauma, incarceration, spousal punishment, 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 can skyrocket into an astronomically higher tax bracket overnight. But just because they’ve become instant millionaires doesn’t mean they’ll easily transition to a life of prosperity.

This can be especially true, I’ve found, for players who have faced the hardships of poverty in childhoodor who grew up in low-income communities.

In fact, a former NBA player who retired in the late 2010s told me that rookies can find it difficult to cut ties with friends who could derail their careers.

“I will always feel a close bond with the community I grew up in, and I know people from the outside might not understand that,” the player shared. “So while my new coaches or agents might tell me to stop hanging out with my old friends, it’s not that simple.”

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

Lessons for new professionals

It’s not like the NBA is completely unaware of the need to brief new players on how to relate and handle their newfound fame and fortune. And it’s not like the story of basketball players trying to overcome adversity is unknown, if a bit of a misleading cultural trope. For example, researchers have found that despite the popular image of NBA players rising from poor backgrounds, “Most NBA players come from relatively advantaged social origins.” But that’s often not the story being told.

As early as 1979, films such as “Quick break” and TV shows like “The white shadow” depicted the challenges young players faced off the field. A more recent example is “Last Chance U: Basketball“, a Netflix docu-series that chronicles the lives of community college basketball players who seek to turn pro despite their troubled pasts, which is one of my focuses.

The official Netflix trailer for ‘Last Chance U: Basketball.’

The NBA – clearly aware of the challenges young players face – offers a four-day Rookie Transition Program to get the young athletes used to their new life as professional basketball players. Among other things, presenters advise the young players to avoid the pitfalls associated with weapons, drugs and sexual relations with groupies.

Some – myself included – question whether the four-day symposium is enough, or whether a more sustained effort is needed. Among the skeptics is a former coach of an NBA player who was 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’re a grown man,” the former coach said. “But even though he was an adult, he was still young and he had plenty of chances to make some bad decisions, which of course he did,” he said of the player who went to prison.

Between worlds

A former NBA player told me about a time when he attracted 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 lost it and I remember everyone looking at me like I was crazy,” the player told me. “The thing is, where I came from, you just couldn’t let these things pass, or it would make me look weak, and then you became a target. At that moment, I realized that the same behavior I learned , which enabled me to survive and thrive in my old environment, could cause me to be locked away in my new one.”

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

In the end, a former NBA official told me that might be the best advice.

“If a rookie comes to the NBA and the only place he feels like he belongs is athletically, he’s going to revert to past behaviors because of the trauma he’s endured,” the former executive told me. “In these cases, NBA teams need to understand that this transition has a lot of underlying issues that very often go unaddressed.”

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