Today we have a special, bonus post. While watching the draft I was thinking about the futures of all these young men, how their lives are changing, the adventure upon which they're about to embark. Though few will ever read it, it seemed appropriate to offer some thoughts to these guys as they embark on the next stage of their careers...considering them for a moment more human beings who happen to play basketball well than as basketball players who happen to be human beings. Some experiences are near-universal when you're a young person headed out for your first "real" job. Certain things hold true whether you're becoming an NBA player, a deep-sea diver, or a custodian. Reflecting back on my experiences and on those that people have shared with me, I want to share some of the things that I wish I'd paid more attention to in my early days.
Some will say, rightly, that I've never been an NBA Rookie and offering this kind of advice is presumptuous. That's probably correct. But it's easy to see where some of these near-universal things could get lost in the glamorous world of the NBA. So I'm going to be bold and risk saying them anyway. If you don't think they apply to NBA life, just take them more generally as advice for anybody heading into a new venture. Maybe you'll even find some things that apply to you. If you don't like the post even in that light, well...it is a bonus post. It's not like you're missing out on any of our other content. Just stop reading at the point you get annoyed and we'll be back to talking about LaMarcus Aldridge trade scenarios on Monday.
Dave's Wisdom for NBA Rookies (and Maybe Other Folks)
#1: Ask Questions
On or off the basketball court, communication is a key to good relationships. Everybody's different. We come from different backgrounds, possess different knowledge and skills, speak different languages, carry different needs. This makes communication a challenge.
You can show people how to communicate with you and figure out how to communicate with them by asking questions. They don't have to be complicated or even personal. "How do you defend the pick and roll?" establishes common ground, shows your interest and dedication, and opens up a window of conversation with the people around you.
Most new folks on jobs fall into one of two categories: the unnecessarily nervous wallflower or the overcompensating know-it-all. Each is annoying and counterproductive in its own way. Asking a question or two takes you out of both camps, moving you out of the shadows and getting you over your nerves in a way that shows your willingness to learn and respect for the people around you.
#2: Show Initiative
Most big steps in life make you feel like you've "made it". In reality, you haven't made it...you've just begun it. This is true of graduation, getting married, having children...all the important stuff. Common to all these experiences: relying on your past alone to take you into the future will not suffice. No matter how good you were at the last thing you still have to grow into the new one.
Showing initiative means being ready to help out in any way possible and putting in the extra hours and energy to do so without having to be asked. Being willing to do the little things with a cheerful attitude is a rare, and universally appreciated, quality.
Dealing with your weaknesses is another critical way you show initiative. The common approach to criticism about your game is to say, "That guy's a fool. He doesn't know anything about me." But in saying that you're relying on your past, on what you've already built up, instead of thinking about transforming your future. If I read a decent criticism about my game the first thing I'd do is ask my coach, "Hey...how do you want me to do this thing? What do I need to work on?" That's great initiative and a darn impressive approach.
#3: Get Good Advisors
You're going to have more freedom, more down time, fewer instructions, and more resources than you've ever had. Up until now you've been swimming in a pool. Somebody just dumped you in the middle of the ocean, threw you some gear, and said, "Swim!" You now have the ability to go anywhere. The question is, "Where?"
I don't know about you, but the first thing I want in that situation is a sounding board and some company. An agent provides (hopefully) sound professional advice but remember that your entire lifestyle is changing along with your new career. You need more than details. You need a direction.
Nobody finds that kind of direction entirely on their own. Who do you really, really trust to help you figure it out? Friends, parents, siblings? Which people in your life do you respect because of how they live, what they do for the world? Pick their brains. Figure out how they do those good things and live that life you admire. Living a wonderful life doesn't just happen. It requires a skill set and a commitment every bit as big as your professional life does.
All the money and prestige in the world won't substitute for learning how to live a good and productive life. Nor will they make you happier in its absence.
#4: Become an Active Participant in Your Finances
Before you have money any check with more than two zeroes behind it seems like a fortune. Once you start making money you realize those zeroes dwindle quicker than you ever thought possible.
NBA salaries are a fortune by most standards. The funny thing is--and anybody who's ever made money will confirm this--the dwindling doesn't happen any slower. More money in usually means a faster flow of money out. If you're not careful the only zero you'll be enjoying is the one on your checking account balance.
No matter how hard it is, no matter how unnecessary it seems when the Benjamins are pouring in, you have to monitor your finances and become an active participant in your financial health. It's no different than physical exercise. Spend your whole life on the couch and you'll tend towards tubby. Don't pay attention to your financial health and you'll tend towards broke.
Agents and financial advisers get paid to help with these things but you still have to make the philosophical decisions that direct the efforts of your financial team. Leaving those decisions entirely in other people's hands is no different than letting an athletic trainer inject your body with something you don't know about. It could be helpful. It could be harmful. It could lead you to disaster. Don't let somebody do that to your financial body any more than you'd let them do it to your athletic body.
When I'm advising people on financial matters the general rule is, "Save 10% of your income, give away 10%, and live off of the remaining 80%". But this is for people whose careers span 40-45 years of paychecks. A really solid NBA career might last 10 years. That income doesn't get replaced once the job's done either. You have to modify accordingly.
Agents and financial advisers will know more than I do, but if I were making these decisions I'd probably quadruple my level of savings to compensate for my career being a fourth as long as the norm.
The first thing an agent will tell you is after taxes and fees your salary is cut in half. The 50% that goes to Uncle Sam and your handlers we'll just factor out immediately.
Of the remaining take-home pay I'd probably try to save 40%. 20% of that I want in investments, trying to get some kind of yield. The other 20% I'd want in rock-solid, low-interest-earning accounts with a near-0% failure rate. That's my "don't touch it, even if the world ends I can live on this" money. This keeps the 50-year-old you from looking back at the 25-year-old version and saying, "Hey dummy, you blew all my dough!"
Even though it seems extravagant at first, giving away 10% of your income is also a sound practice. At the beginning that money will probably be spent helping your family and friends. Building those gifts into your financial plan prevents you from going overboard either from your own kindness or external pressure.
As your closer relationships equalize over the years you can shift that 10% to charities or even start your own foundation. One of the best parts about achieving your dream and getting rewarded for it is being able to help folks who, for whatever reason, didn't get the same chance.
Giving away this money is going to keep you grounded and put things in perspective. It'll also give you something to look back on with pride no matter what the stat charts end up saying about your career. Your work and your life matter in more ways than just basketball. That affirmation will be powerful, and probably give you a boost, when you have to leave the league behind and find a new way forward. If you've given to the world, the world will be ready to give back to you even if you don't play ball anymore.
The remaining 50% of your take-home pay you get to enjoy. Many of the zeroes will be gone but you still get to live in a style most people only dream of. Having that final "living on" number budgeted helps you make wise spending decisions. If you like a fancy car you can probably get it. A fleet of fancy cars and a 45-room mansion might have to wait until the next contract. It's better to know these things beforehand and modify your desires accordingly than it is to buy everything in sight and then try to figure out a way to pay for it.
If you average $2 million a year on a five-year rookie deal and stick to a plan like this the least you'll walk away with is a million bucks in your safest investments...and that's if the stock market crashes and you lose every cent of your other investments plus you're injured and can't play anymore. Even in that total-disaster scenario you still have enough money to live on semi-comfortably for the rest of your life. More likely you'll have $2 million and more saved, you'll have helped family, friends, and charities with another half a mil, and you'll have spent another $2.5 million doing the things you love. The numbers go even higher with the next contract. Plus no matter how much money you make (or don't) you'll be happy and relaxed about your financial situation, which is priceless.
Your mileage may vary, but come up with some kind of sound financial plan and commit to it. It'll be a huge load off of your mind and your pocketbook.
#5: In the Beginning Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open and Your Mouth Shut
You may have more talent and potential than anybody in the room. But talent and potential have to be focused and directed properly in order to be effective. A hose misting aimlessly isn't powerful. A hosed focused in the right, tight direction can put out a fire or fill a well. Don't be that aimless hose spouting off everywhere. Stop, listen, absorb, and figure out what you can take away from each person you meet.
Experience doesn't give you the answers but experience can help you understand what questions to ask and how to channel your efforts in the most productive ways. This can save you tons of time and grief. When your career lasts 10-12 years tops and your compensation is judged at regular, mostly non-negotiable intervals you can't afford to waste much time. A little humility, respect, and willingness to learn early doesn't just make you friends, it can end up making you millions.
#6: Be Aware When Dealing With Media
Most of us don't have to deal with the pressure of media interviews. It can be a never-ending circus for NBA players. Traditional media, social media...everybody's paying attention to what you say. The impact is significant for good or ill. Which one it will be is largely up to you.
Media folks are not your friends. Some will appear to be. Very rarely some might even develop that kind of relationship with you over time. But remember they're here to do a job. Unfortunately nowadays that job is often to get you to say something controversial (or just plain stupid) enough that it will get people to buy their paper or watch their show.
If you want a confidant talk to a friend. If you have a problem talk to your coach or agent. Think long and hard before you bring any issue in front of a person with a microphone. Once you say it you can never take it back.
It's possible to have interesting and mutually-beneficial relationships with professional media folks but that's not going to happen by accident. You have to think about what you say and who you're saying it to.
People on your Twitter and Facebook pages are not your friends either. Those social media accounts might as well be a big, fat microphone in front of your face too. If you think you can delete a Tweet and cover up, forget it. Once it's out there it's out there forever.
This is not about being honest or dishonest. It's about choosing what you're going to be honest about in public. You don't get paid millions just to play basketball. Dealing with public attention comes with the paycheck. Every time you speak over any form of media you're affecting the perception of your own personal brand and the brand of the franchise that employs you. Decide how much of your life and career you want subjected to that scrutiny and speak accordingly.
Also remember that because the record gets spread wide and stays around forever, you're not just making these choices for yourself but for your parents, siblings, the spouse and/or children you either have or might someday want. All of these people have to answer for what you say, for how you present yourself. You don't have to be perfect, but your relationships will be easier if the public version of you is easy to stand by...or even makes them proud.
Life-defining changes don't come along every day. The purpose of all this is to free you to enjoy the rest of the opportunities before you. If you have these basics down, you know you're pretty safe. You can then relax and squeeze every bit of life and juice out of the adventure to come.
Best wishes to all the incoming 2013 draftees and all the guys who will try to make the league by other means. Here's hoping your dreams come true.
Got your own pieces of advice? Share them below.