John Wall is learning that life in the NBA is challenging on the court — in his first Summer League game against Golden State Wall pushed the ball on the fast break, got into the lane, made a lightning quick spin move and tried to lay the ball in, only to have Reggie Williams come flying over him and block the shot.
The challenges off the court can be worse.
The average guy drafted plays five years in the league — they are done by age 27. That’s a lot of life left, especially players who never imagined a life off the court. While the players will make good money in the league, there’s more ways to blow it all than there are NBA groupies. And there are hotels full of groupies.
These rookies will find friends trying to mooch and steal off them, seemingly well-connected people with business plans that could shred their public perception, family members looking to leech off them (or worse yet want to take over their finances or marketing), and countless other ways for them to get into trouble. NBA players have to learn to navigate this minefield.
While we were looking at photos from the NBA’s rookie day photo shoot, the NBA was trying it’s own scared straight program. A day-long class designed to be a dose of reality for players about what really lies ahead for them off the court. The Washington Post talked with John Wall about his experience there.
Wall said the importance of image and public perception was hammered home during a presentation by NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver. Silver showed a poll from fans that revealed that NBA players have the greatest image problem of athletes in the three major sports.
“That ain’t good,” said Wall, who has been conscious of his image since he was 14 and joined the D-One Sports AAU program. His coaches and now advisers Brian and Dwon Clifton had a strict policy of no cornrows or tattoos. Wall, who had braids at the time, was initially reluctant, but came around at the urging of some of his friends.
“When I first cut my hair and all that and didn’t get any tattoos, that was the main thing, having a clean image coming into this,” said Wall, who admits that he has been tempted to get a tattoo to honor his late father on his chest. “That’s what they want, to help you to be more marketable. And if you don’t stay in the league a long time, it helps you get jobs after this.”
Wall is a lucky one — a guy who came to his stardom relatively late in high school, not a guy picked as a future top pick from age 10 on. He comes off far more grounded than most.
To make sure the message doesn’t go completely in one ear and out the other, the NBA brings in guys these players know, such as Alonzo Mourning.
Mourning, the former Georgetown star and NBA champion with the Miami Heat, congratulated the rookies on making it to the league but wanted them to understand that being a basketball player is “temporary” and told them that success wasn’t guaranteed, using the example of former No. 2 overall pick Jay Williams, whose career was derailed when he was injured in a motorcycle accident after his rookie season with Chicago.
“As fast as you come in this league, this league will spit you out of here,” Mourning said. “I knew there was a clock that started as soon as I came into the league.”
The messages in the meeting cover a lot of mines — how to handle pressure from friends and NBA peers, taking care of their money, sexual health, avoiding drugs, gambling regulations and more. Maybe the most important — and maybe most overlooked — is how to say no to family members looking to be given money and more. Many of these players are close with family members and trust them unconditionally, and it costs many of them.
The message doesn’t always sink in; there will be hard lessons to be learned. Just like on the court. But the rookies come away with a little more knowledge of what lies ahead, and that’s at least a few mines avoided.