Onstage in a typically anonymous hotel conference room in the verdant New Jersey suburbs sit Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Horry. The two retired NBA stars own 13 NBA championship rings between them, and in the five rows in front of them sit five dozen young men, most of them rookies drafted in June.
The old-timers distill advice earned over their long years of professional basketball. Abdul-Jabbar, the game’s all-time leading scorer, begins with a history lesson for his audience born in the early-to-mid-1990s: the hard-won advances of blacks in basketball, a pro sport that began in segregation. Several generations worked for what is now a bounty for those who make the grade, and so a principal topic is financial advice for sudden millionaires.
Horry invokes the story of football quarterback Vince Young, who lost millions and sued his uncle-turned-chief-adviser. Take a keen interest in your own finances, insists Horry. “You need that money to take care of your family,” he says. “You’re only going to play so long.” Abdul-Jabbar reinforces it. “Sign all your cheques. Make sure it all adds up.”
Summer school is in session, and the class is rapt. It’s Monday evening, and Adbul-Jabbar and Horry are part of the “legends panel,” the start of the National Basketball Association’s annual rookie transition program. In attendance this year are three Canadians: Andrew Wiggins, Nik Stauskas and Tyler Ennis, all first-round draft picks.
The mandatory 31/2 days begin early and end late and cram in everything from finances and the business of basketball – the NBA’s push to increase revenues – to a pile of off-court advice, from the science of sleep to the dangers of drugs to the company young players keep.
The NBA started the program in 1986, when the reputation of its players was at a low ebb. The National Football League started a similar program a decade later. The National Hockey League began a program modelled on the other sports after the 2013 lockout and, with the NHL Players' Association, will stage its second rookie orientation program later this month near Washington, with 90 players set to attend.
These summer sessions ready players as much for time off the court and field and ice as for the arenas of sport. The pitfalls are well known: squandered or pilfered wealth, arrests for an array of offences, the transition from venerated college star to professional multimillionaire – at 19, 20, 21.
“It’s just a good business investment,” said Greg Taylor, NBA senior vice-president of player development. “Getting a new employee off to a great start.”
Wiggins, 19, has readied for these moments for years. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated a year ago before playing at the University of Kansas, and in June was drafted No. 1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He is now the subject of intense trade rumours. It has been a swirl.
Wiggins maintains his smile, his quiet and personable demeanour, amid the rigours. He has a seat assigned in the first row. He listens closely. “Preparing yourself for what it’s going to be like,” Wiggins said in an interview Tuesday. The pay scale as No. 1 pick, before his endorsements, runs as high as $17.3-million (U.S.) over three years.
“They talked a lot about finance, about just always watching your money, checking up on your money,” he said. “And just different tips how to make it and stay in the NBA. What it takes to get to the level they were all at. Sacrifice.”
Then there is the business of basketball itself. The NBA, as with hockey, went through a fractious lockout recently, and when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in three years, many commentators predict another fight, with players feeling they gave up too much last time.
When the NBA started its rookie transition program, the game on court was beginning to flourish with the showtime of Magic Johnson and the marksmanship of Larry Bird. But a dark spectre hung over the sport: drug use, fighting, crime, and the league struggled to sell a black game to white America. Today, it’s a global enterprise, and the NBA is on a big push for growth.
“For a long time we used to trail the other leagues,” NBA social development executive Kathy Behrens told the rookies of players’ previous reputations among fans. Even three years ago, she said, only two NBA players had high Q scores, measures of broad popularity among the general public. Today, there are 20 – and Kevin Durant is the No. 2 team athlete behind football’s Peyton Manning.
So, Behrens advised, it’s about likeability: Be happy, stay smiling. And the rookies, who only five months ago played college ball, can help sell the game. The NBA wants to draw more college hoops fans to the pro game – an “opportunity audience.”
Abdul-Jabbar, at 67, is here as part of expansive life after basketball, whether it’s writing in Esquire in April about women authors he admires, or in July in Time supporting the unionization of collegiate athletes under the headline: “Stop Keeping College Athletes Poor and Trapped.”
“I love the game,” said Abdul-Jabbar in an interview of why he’s in New Jersey with rookies. “It’s given me a lot. I like seeing where it’s gone. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. I always thought it would only be the region out here, North America. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to contribute to the game continuing to grow.”