Playing For Tomorrow: How NBA Players Prepare For Life After The Game


In the NBA, there’s no such thing as planning for retirement too early. Basketball players only get a few years’ worth of lucrative multi-million dollar contracts before their post-NBA golden years begin.

Veterans who successfully transition into civilian life ensure that they already have a safety net built to cushion their sudden lack of a league contract. That means that they’ve put together a portfolio of strong investments, or have committed to going back to school to earn their degrees. Others make a graceful career change into broadcasting or another industry that takes advantage of their basketball expertise. The point is they’ve given thought to what’s next.

As for those who don’t think about their futures early enough? Well, let’s just say things generally end up poorly for them. Former players such as Allen Iverson and Kenny Anderson taught us that through retirements marred by instability.

With that in mind, several players told us how they’re preparing for the next 50 years of their lives.


Photo: Terez Owens/Twitter

‘Applying will be the first thing on my agenda’
According to the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA), getting a degree is key to the success of retiring basketball players. Those that do go back learn the skills they need to keep moving forward. Some—as in the famous case of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Baron Davis—find time for higher education during the off-season. (It helps that P Diddy came along for the ride). Others plan to attend when they step out of the limelight.

Despite having only one complete NBA season under his belt, Golden State’s Harrison Barnes already has a solid post-basketball plan that involves finishing his education. He wants to graduate with expertise in finance and business administration so he can make his league cheques work for him in the future.

“[I’m] trying to definitely make sure I go back and do all my classes at UNC (University of North Carolina) and try to get my degree,” says the 21-year-old Barnes. “In the NBA, we’re fortunate to make some money, so you definitely want to be savvy about how you’re going to spend that.”

Although he’s uncertain of what he wants to do afterward, two-season Warrior Klay Thompson also says that he’s likely to return to the classroom, but for a sociology degree. “I went to school for three years, so applying will be the first thing on my agenda,” he says. “I’m still [a few] credits away.”

The vets in the locker room agree. Amir Johnson of the Toronto Raptors started his career in 2005, but he points out that there are other ways to further your education, if you make time. The digital enthusiast taught himself some coding techniques, and he even works during the off-season to gain off-the-court experience.

“My mom told me you wanna do a job that you really enjoy in life. In my young days, I always enjoyed video games and I always wondered how they made [them],” says the 26-year-old power forward, suggesting that he’d like to end up working for EA Sports, a video game publisher in Seattle. “I’ve been working with a lot of people and taking internships over the summer,” Johnson adds. Currently, he’s balancing earning practical work experience against his other responsibilities to the NBA as well as to his young daughter.


Photo: Martina Coriana Photography/

Investing in a future
Owning real estate has become the gold standard for maintaining one’s financial security among NBA players taking advantage of their early-life cash injections. Many pros sink part of their paycheques into purchasing land and buildings that will turn them a profit—plazas and strip malls in particular are among the frontrunning ventures.

With several seasons behind him, Amir Johnson has more financial interests under his belt than the average player. Putting money into real estate was a no-brainer for him: “It never fails with that,” he says. He adds that he already owns “a couple of restaurants. Buffalo Wild Wings—got that going in LA. Might be opening a gym.”

Like Johnson building the foundations of his very own weight gain/weight loss empire, many other players try their hands at entrepreneurship. Former baller Shaquille O’Neal is possibly the most famous example of a business investor, having turned his real estate profits into part ownership of the Sacramento Kings. NBA legend Jamal Mashburn owns five auto dealerships in Kentucky and has an ownership stake in a plastics company. Udonis Haslem of the Miami Heat opened a Subway franchise in Hollywood, Florida last December. It’s almost shockingly normal.

Although making money is necessary to keep the lights on, not all players are in it just for themselves. Harrison Barnes’ future business ventures will be aimed at fueling his aspirations to give back to those in need. “I’m very involved with the Boys and Girls Clubs [of America], so I think I’ll be starting a foundation at some point in time based around literacy,” he says. “It’s something that I want to do… the business side pays the bills so I can do the charity side.”

Photo: Courtesy of NBA Inside Stuff

A whole new ball game
Most NBA players retire by the young age of 28, if not earlier. For some, continuing with basketball post-Association means they’ll take on teaching the game they love to youngsters. But for others, it means planning a completely new career path.

To help smooth the transition, the league provides services to help players situate themselves in the civilian workforce. Their career transition programs—founded in partnership with the NBRPA—provide educational coaching, entrepreneurship education and job placements. They also help out retired players seeking new opportunities.

Amir Johnson says the resources are useful to players both young and old: “[The programs] show you the right from wrong, so I’m coming every year,” he says. “They tell us what to do and what not to do, and what can you do to help yourself after your career’s over. It’s definitely been helpful.”

But where might players who commit to the switch find themselves down the line?

According to Harrison Barnes, almost anywhere. “They can help you get in anything you want to, whether it’s an internship on Wall Street, whether it’s helping out with nonprofits, or whatever you want to do.”

We hope that’s true, because basketball players sure know how to dream big. Making it in showbiz is another common aspiration, with many players using their expertise to become colour commentators for TNT Sports or other programs—legend Grant Hill recently scored a co-hosting gig on NBA’s Inside Stuff with Kristen Ledlow (you may remember her as the feisty blonde in this year’s All-Star Celebrity Game). 

Johnson’s among the many hopefuls setting his sights on the movie industry. “I’m always on YouTube messing with film,” he says. “So maybe doing some script writing, maybe acting a little.”

For players who want to continue doing something rooted in basketball, nothing short of mentoring the next crop of NBA-calibre rookies would make them happy. Players have transitioned into coaching since the inception of the sport. Former NBA player Bobby “Slick” Leonard switched gears in the early 60s, and was recently enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for his coaching track record.

The young Klay Thompson always “wanted to play sports, whether it was baseball, football or basketball. That was my dream,” he says, expressing his desire to coach high school kids one day, or at least continue in sports.

Thanks to the variety of options presented to today’s retiring players, his and every other baller’s dreams will go on well after they hang up their jerseys.


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