Class in Session: NBA Rookies 101

By Talia Bargil

Palisades, New Jersey — For the league’s greenest talent pool – 56 rookies hailing from all over the world – their lives are about to drastically change. It’s not just about their newfound wealth or the new cars, homes, and bling that come along with it, but the tremendous pressures, safety concerns, long-term planning and numerous additional issues that will undoubtedly arise during, and after, their coveted professional basketball careers.

In a joint effort between the NBPA and the NBA to assist and prepare rookies for making a smooth and educated transition into the league, each of the 56 men attended the three day mandatory Rookie Transition Program (RTP) last month in Palisades, NJ.

The week was not about shooting hoops, watching film or hanging with their new teammates. And while they probably didn’t even pick up a basketball for the few days, that week was – without question – one of the most formidable and vital components of their highly anticipated NBA career.

“This program is extremely valuable. For some players it will be the difference between succeeding and not succeeding. Every single topic we address is very important because it only takes one bad decision to derail a player’s career,” said Antonio Davis, NBPA Regional Representative and 13-year NBA veteran. “The key message of the program was to help them understand that they may not change as people, but their lives will change as they come into money and notoriety…people, including their own family and friends, will look at you differently. We taught them how to deal with all of this change.”

Created in 1986 as a result of former players expressing their concerns about the need for such a program, RTP is a comprehensive seminar and workshop program designed to teach players techniques to cope with the unique stresses inherent in their lives and how to utilize the various 24/7 resources available to them throughout their careers. Recruiting experts, doctors, current and former players, NBPA and NBA staff participate and share their knowledge and experiences, RTP aims to use creative and captivating means to disseminate key messages.

“We tried to make the whole program and experience unique because we feel it’s the first step for players to get indoctrinated, if you will, with what’s going to take place in the future,” said Purvis Short, NBPA Director of Players Programs and 12-year NBA veteran. “Whether it was during our group discussions, speaker components or panels, we provided the best with the best. It’s not unlike any other job situation where there’s an orientation to better prepare the employee to take on the task ahead of him. They are about to face a lot of new challenges, and we don’t want to throw them in the fire unprepared.”

NBA veterans Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Smith, Greg Anthony, Alonzo Mourning, and several other Legends of the game participated in this year’s RTP program, which was coordinated by Davis fort the NBPA and his NBA counterpart and NBA veteran Rory Sparrow, as well as the Player Program Departments from both Associations.

Courtney Lee, coming off his rookie year and an appearance in the 2009 NBA Finals with the Orlando Magic, says RTP affected his first season in a very meaningful way.

“I learned a lot about the NBA from a business aspect, including how to be a professional and carry myself as a professional,” he said. “It was also a valuable tool in networking with other players and developing friendships among the league. It was great to see and hear stories from the NBA vets and be able to connect and ask questions.”

Poised to begin his second NBA season as a New Jersey Net, Lee says he hopes the incoming rookies paid attention to every detail. It’s about their livelihood, and it’s best to have a good understanding about it.

“I think we did a great job making sure we covered many important and diverse topics, including finance, protecting your family, nutrition, mental health, the drug policy and so much more,” said Davis. “I can remember going through the program as a rookie and being a bit overwhelmed, so that perspective has helped in how we planned this. We were not there to talk at them, but with them, so they understand all of the different situations they will experience.”

Davis said this year’s RTP included several smaller breakout sessions to allow players to feel more comfortable opening up, sharing concerns and asking questions, especially in regards to sensitive topics.

“One big topic that was not in the program before, but important to have included this year, was dealing with your family as you transition into the league and during your career,” he said. “It can be very challenging to handle this, and with other current and retired players there to give advice and share how they dealt with it, it was very helpful. Players learn from other players.”

Short, who has been heavily involved with RTP from its inception as a player, NBPA Player Rep, NBPA Vice President and in his current role, says rookies will have to make some of their toughest decisions during their first season. The program provides them with a solid foundation on which they can build and make better decisions and better choices, particularly during that first year.

While Davis made many of the right decisions, he says there is one he wishes he had done differently.

“The biggest mistake I made was not establishing that budget or getting that financial plan from day one. I did it, but it took me five or six years. If I had a planned from the beginning, it would have been so much better,” he said. “When you put a financial plan together and stick to it, you will have a much better chance of being successful at the end. I’m going to try to impress that upon them as much as possible.”

RTP is just one of many programs the NBPA offers its players to help them address issues and face life outside of and after basketball. In fulfilling its mission, the NBPA provides a comprehensive Player Programs Department, which provides education, advice, guidance and support to NBA players on an ongoing basis. Through Player Programs – staffed by retired NBA players – players can more effectively deal with the full spectrum of on and off the court problems, thereby increasing their likelihood of succeeding as professional athletes and enhancing both their own careers and the public image of professional basketball.

With a commitment to player development starting at the very beginning of a player’s career, RTP is the longest running and most extensive support system in professional sports.

“When I took on this role and started to put together RTP with Rory, we planned it from a perspective as if we were talking to our own sons, not wanting them to make the same mistakes as us,” said Davis. “That’s how passionate we’ve been, and I hope this information will help our young players make a smooth transition…because that is what it’s all about.”

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