Rookies in Transition

The NBA's Rookie Transitions Program is about to set sail. Mike Barrett writes:

Without boring you too much, let me just say it basically was developed to help young players make better decisions, and fully understand the challenges that are going to come with being a professional basketball player. It gives these rookies the tools and knowledge they need to deal with the pressures they're going to face. Afterall, no background prepares players for life in the NBA.

It's a very detailed six-day seminar, and sessions normally run from 9am to 9pm. The league addresses character, image, ethics, and relationships. Players union officials explain the support system that is currently in place for the players. Referees speak, and try and prepare the players for NBA basketball.

There are presentations, role-playing exercises, skits, interactive workshops, group breakout sessions, and interactive activities. The players are taught life skills, including advice on their finances. Other topics include driving safety, drugs and alcohol, anger and stress management, nurtition, professionalism, and how to deal with the media. All in all, it's about education and awareness.

The orientation doesn't get a lot of attention, because, obviously, it's not that sexy or interesting to people, but the NBA should get a lot of credit for its efforts to prepare its young people for this new world.

I have been to the Rookie Transitions Program. It's great. For one thing, of all NBA programs, this is the one that's closest to my house. It's also a bastion of optimism.

Let me back up.

See, in 1998 when I first started interviewing NBA players, I went through a bit of shock. I imagine almost everyone does. The shock is this: people who are in the public eye like that? You might love the way they do their jobs, but a lot of them are, well, not to use a technical term, but... assholes. You know, selfish, jaded, thoughtless, selfish, impolite, selfish, and sometimes just a little tad selfish.

Through the years I have come to understand this phenomenon a lot better, and I no longer feel like it's such a big deal, frankly. For one thing, I keep meeting and hearing about more and more decent guys. For another, I have realized that a lot of that is simply because when I talk to NBA players, I'm "the media." That hardly brings out the best in anybody. I think it's fair to say I like just about every NBA player that I have met in a relaxed and calm setting without a lot of time pressure. Sometimes it's just the crush of microphones and cameras that tease out the jerkiest parts of players.

There is the conception among NBA reporters that the personalities of players get ruined at some point early in their career. As the theory goes, they generally enter as nice, bright, optimisitic, and hard-working, with the best of intentions. But then the forces that be--the money, the hangers on, the agents, or whatever--do their magic. As the players get more money and power, they care less and less about the little people. They also get tuned into the fact that a lot of strangers they come into contact with want their money. Could make anyone a little jaded. (I'm sure many people reading this know athletes and celebrities. I'd be interested in your thoughts.)

I don't know if that's true. I suspect the reality is just that players in their primes have the least amount of free time to make nice, and the greatest pressure from all those who might make them bitter. In almost all cases, the asshole factor seems to be low at the beginning, and again at the end. It fades as does celebrity. It's like they get nice again. (I love doing stories about retired players, for instance. WNBA players, too. They lead fairly normal lives. They are usually all kinds of friendly to the media--often because they are promoting some auto parts business or something that the media can be helpful with.)

In any case, I can say with certainty that when I went to the Rookie Transitions Program, where I was for a spell the only reporter on hand, lining up at the buffet with dozens of rookies and a handful of presenters well, everyone seemed likeable. Caron Butler, Drew Gooden, Bostjan Nachbar, Vincent Yarbrough (remember him?)--I remember having nice conversations with so many players.

There were no friends or family, no pagers, no cell phones. Everyone was paying attention to the same stuff. Everyone was in the same boat--tired as hell of sitting in funny little chairs listening to lectures. In that setting, anyone would like the NBA player in the next seat.

There's an irony to the Rookie Transitions Program. The players are by and large relaxed, hopeful, well-spoken, safe, and, well... marketable. Then the NBA, the very entity that will play the major role in making them cranky, jaded, and bitter, lectures them on how to be relaxed, hopeful, well-spoken, safe, and, well... marketable.

But I get it. I understand that the program teaches them skills to cope with their new environment. How to handle money? Who can you trust? How can I become a durable NBA player? When do I get free time? Should I buy or rent? Do I have to pay back all the money I was paid under the table in college? (I made that last one up.)

The presenters that I saw--Bill Russell, Kenny Smith, Rory Sparrow, and Eddie Jordan were on the list--were by and large spectacular and very real. I think it's an incredibly valuable program.

There are also, I have heard (shocker: the NBA didn't let me in to these sessions) some pretty juicy topics like how to make sure an NBA groupie doesn't save your used condom in the hopes of impregnating herself later. Mike Barrett is crazy if he thinks no one writes about the Rookie Transitions Program because it's too boring. It's interesting. It's just that usually the media isn't allowed in.