Life After Basketball isn’t Easy for NBA Players

February 1, 2012

By EDDIE SEFKO / The Dallas Morning News

NBA players live the good life. Loads of money. The best food and the best hotels. Party like rock stars, if they are so inclined.

And then they retire.

Or, more accurately, the game retires them.

"If you ask any player, did they retire from the game, they'll tell you no," says Charles Smith, executive director of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. "They were either fired or they were forced out. Usually, the job description changed for someone of a younger age, quicker or better ability."

That's when the hard part starts. As tough as it is running those full-court sprints or driving the paint or getting bruised and cut by hacking defenders, basketball players are comfortable with those hardships. That's the price they pay to be great, to make it to the highest level of their profession.

What happens next, they usually have no preparation for.

"For athletes, it's almost like a grieving period that doesn't get addressed," Smith says. "What happens in the next six to nine months after it happens, if it's not addressed properly, you got gambling, drugs, various negative addictions, alcohol. All this stuff happens in the first year because it wasn't addressed. We have guys who have been out of the game 20 or 30 years that still are making decisions based on the effects of what happened on that first year when they retired. My job is to make sure that doesn't happen anymore."

Smith, the former standout forward for the Los Angeles Clippers who stayed nine seasons in the league before his body told him it was time to go, is in the business of making sure retiring NBA players know how to handle life after the dribbling stops.

Not every former player becomes a coach. There aren't enough jobs to go around. Same for broadcasting. And not every former player is cut out for those endeavors.

Many are struggling to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives, which in most cases is 30, 40 or 50 years. What's needed is career-development opportunities. Some players earn enough in their career to spend the rest of their life on the golf course if they want. But not the majority.

Why aren't players set for life when they retire after making million-dollar salaries? Part of it is the lifestyle, but it's also the fact that not all of their money stays in their pockets. Agents must be paid. Taxes are high.

But nothing is as high as the tax for being unprepared for their future. That's why Smith has begun the Transition Assistance Program for any former players who need help. It tries to place them into positions where they have a fighting chance to succeed.

Usually, it's sales, politics or marketing, because all of those career paths are competitive and allow an NBA player to use whatever market brand he might have to his advantage.

Smith used examples such as Oliver Miller, the former Maverick who tried to hang onto his playing career into his late 30s with stops in Greece, Poland, Italy, Puerto Rico and various minor leagues, not to mention the Globetrotters.

Even after he's been out of basketball for nearly five years, he's still struggling.

He's just one of many.

Smith said counselors and psychologists have told him that when athletes retire, it's like a drop-kick. Years ago, when Clyde Drexler retired from the Houston Rockets , Charles Barkley was a teammate. After their season ended, the players were leaving the locker room, and as Drexler exited out the locker room door, Barkley yelled: "Hey Clyde, that's the door to the real world."

And, indeed it is.

There are some success stories. Former No. 1 overall draft pick LaRue Martin – often mentioned as the biggest No. 1 bust of all time – took an entry-level position with UPS after he was done playing. He rose through the ranks to become a community relations manager.

On Sunday, the NBRPA will have its annual Legends Brunch as part of All-Star Weekend. Plenty of retirees will be honored, particularly past Mavericks , such as Mark Aguirre, James Donaldson, Rolando Blackman and others.

For the first time, the brunch will be televised on TNT, and studio host Ernie Johnson will emcee.