Money matters matter, especially for members of the world’s most cash-rich basketball organization. When you’re a talented basketball player just barely out of college and suddenly having millions of dollars thrown at you after signing your first draft deal, it’s easy to think money grows on trees at first. But just look at the scores of NBA ballers that lived life to the fullest during the beginnings of their careers, only to go bust a few years later after leaving the Association. These days, however, NBA players are exercising new levels of control over their money, ensuring that the trope of the broke former baller is a thing of the past.
As for a reason why, the statistics are sobering. It’s easy to think that an NBA career is one of the most lucrative careers there is, but one should consider first that the average stint in the NBA lasts only 4.8 years, after which no matter the number of late night TV spots and public appearances they do, a player will never again see the kind of money that comes with an Association paycheque. Only around a half of basketball players graduate with a college degree, meaning few have a plan B for life off the court—something that went virtually unaddressed until recently. This may contribute to the fact that, according to a study by Sports Illustrated, approximately 60 per cent of NBA players go broke within five years of retiring.
This lack of opportunities for NBA players past their prime also makes their retirement planning situation one of the hardest on the planet, because they don’t have the luxury of only having to save or invest money to cover 10 or 20 years of the good life, but 50 or more.
Toronto Raptors’ forward and Association veteran Steve Novak also provides us with a bit of a reality check.
“People would never believe it, but truth is, NBA players keep only about 35 per cent of their money after taxes, escrow and paying our agents,” he says. “I think it’s mostly all about understanding how much you really have.”
Always looking forward
Conventional wisdom dictates that younger players might have a harder time seeing the big picture money-wise, but that’s not the case with the new crop of players hitting the court following the NBA’s push in recent years to educate members about financial planning and investment. Toronto Raptors shooting guard Terrence Ross, who’s currently on his second season in the NBA at 22 years old, is among them.
“I opened a savings account and put myself on an allowance so I don’t go over,” says Ross, having seen the downfall of less cautious players. “I’ve saved almost twice as much as I’ve spent already, so I’m in good shape.”
He’s taken responsibility for his finances, preferring to live a life that, according to him, more closely resembles his pre-NBA days than that of a guy who rakes in upwards of $2.6 million a season. “I’ll just save everything, I don’t really spend anything unless I have to,” he says.
This practical mindset Ross and others have adopted can be attributed to the new financial tools available to them.
“The NBA has really stepped up over the last few years and created things that really try to bridge the time between when a player retires from the game, and when they can get into their retirement benefits at 60,” says Novak. “They’re trying to hire good annuity and 401K companies, [as well as] educating us on how important it is to take advantage of that kind of thing.”
Annuity plans can offer retired players a monthly payout years after they’ve left the game, says Novak, which can be a lifeline for those who need it. Likewise, a variety of investments helps keep the cash flowing. Novak’s already sunk some money into “real estate and other alternative investments, but very much stocks, bonds and annuities.”
“My 401K is maxed out,” Novak continues, “and the trick is having things you can put away for the future, because you make your money up front [in an NBA career]. Don’t try to live the life.”
Spending big, however, is certainly part of it for NBA players, but many do so within limits nowadays. 26-year-old Raptors power forward Amir Johnson is known as a fairly flashy spender who, like many young, exuberant players, posts snaps of recent purchases that include luxury cars, blinged-out watches and custom motorbikes to his various social media accounts. Although he’s tweeted evidence of having bought an original A-Team-style GMC Vandura van with cash up front (seriously), he claims that he keeps his head in the game at all times.
“Just keep your eyes on the prize,” he says. “You just have to be prepared for 50 years living after retirement, you have to stay focused.” He says watching Broke—an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the harsh economic realities former pro athletes suddenly face after leaving their respective sports—had a major impact on his outlook.
With his first paycheque, Johnson purchased a new house for his mother. Likewise, Terrence Ross paid off his mother’s mortgage and bought her a new ride. However, he also indulged in a beautiful, brand new Maserati Quattroporte for himself. Most practical, however, was Steve Novak, who purchased his dream car—a Mercedes S550—but not without first considering the long term.
“My financial advisor said it was something feasible, so we did it and I was very fortunate to be able to,” he says. Novak’s purchase paid off. He still drives it seven years later, having clocked approximately 60,000 miles onto his odometer.
It’s arguably easier to control purchases on yourself than spending money on those around you, some players tell us. Once a player hits the big time, they’re often faced with the difficult task of saying ‘no’ to people they know, love and care about, not to mention the gold diggers or mooches.
“Everybody does when you get here, everybody has people that ask you for things,” says Terrence Ross. “That’s why it’s always important to find somebody who can say ‘no’ for you.”
Novak agrees, adding that it’s one of the toughest lessons he’s learned. “The truth is there’s [a] pecking order of people who’ve helped you grow up that you’d like to take care of, but if you’re not able to take care of yourselves for 50 years, then you don’t have that money to give to other people.”
Ultimately, managing one’s finances boils down to one thing. As Amir Johnson puts it, ““Save. Just save, save, save, save.”
Cover photo: (L-R) Images 1-3 Amir Johnson/Twitter