The roads into the NBA make for scenery, goals and lifestyles that are not always what people expect.
The favored biography of a pro basketball star is one of extreme ascendance: a young, disadvantaged man walks a fine line between trouble and discipline, denying any number of demons, trumping any array of doubters on his way. He is poor and his world is broken, but there is hope in the game of basketball, there is possibility in passion for this game.
Such a profile gives extra thrill to the highly dramatic acrobatics of superstars like LeBron James and Derrick Rose, who reinforce our rags-to-riches narrative with an exclamation point every time they take flight. When such startling transformation is evident, it excites us about the world. It tells us, in the timeless words of a great philosopher, that anything is possible.
But a recent New York Times study by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz puts a lens to the matriculation of the NBA’s bevy of talent, and its results conclude that the gusto of these tales is most definitely the stuff of outliers. The real roads to the NBA are largely as traditional, rote and predictable as those into any other profession.
Stephens-Davidowitz’s research suggests that “black N.B.A. players are about 30 percent less likely than the average black male to be born to an unmarried mother and a teenage mother.” This is but one measure he uses to convincingly demonstrate his thesis, which lies in his title: “In the NBA, Zip Code Matters.”
Prominence in professional basketball is largely as traceable along socio-economic lines as it is in most other jobs. Glory in this league is not necessarily the result of passion and fortitude so much as it is a collection of market forces.
This is not to say that the leap from dreaming of the NBA to actually making it (and the task of staying there) does not make for a rich, complex economy. Alterations in the league’s demographic trends over time tell us that there is a market of intellectual know-how on the ramp into the league, and that it’s subject to redistribution.
A survey of who makes it into the NBA can be broken into three extreme “types,” with plenty of grey area between them.
There’s the shooting stars like Rose and James, the increasingly present international players (Stephens-Davidowitz says that European population in the NBA has gone from 2% to over 20% since 1980), and then there’s the most common members of the league.
The Born-and-Bred Basketball Men
The majority of the NBA is made up of American players with strong family, cultural and educational structures. Their lives are built for professional athletic success. These are men who’ve scarcely ever had a hard time coming by the nutrients, training and developmental resources that are essential for most to develop into a pro.
Another way of saying this is that the more it’s examined and scrutinized, the professional structure of the NBA reveals itself to be more and more like that of my job and yours. Upbringing and networking are essential—as is learning from the elders of your vocation.
Currently, there are 21 NBA players whose fathers also played in the league, a figure that makes up nearly six percent of who's on teams. This is no coincidence, as getting close to someone with professional experience is an important bridge into a career for many.
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Corey Brewer stresses the importance of finding an NBA veteran from which to learn the professional language of the league.
He names Greg Buckner, a former journeyman who averaged 5.0 points per game for as many teams over ten NBA seasons as someone who showed him the ropes to the profession. “He’s from Hopskinville, Kentucky,” Brewer tells me. “Not too far where I’m from, maybe 40 minutes. A guy like that, he’s not a big name guy, but he stayed on the roster, did the right things, and he helped me with to do the right things.”
Buckner now works as a player development coach with the Houston Rockets.
Brewer has no rose-colored glasses for what he does, talking of his role at his job with the bluntness of an economist sizing up a mom-and-pop operation. “I’m not as talented as some other guys, but I work my butt off,” he says. “Some guys are so talented they just have to work a little bit. Guys like me, we’re not the most talented, but we play hard every night and we do the right things.”
Brewer may not have been born into an NBA trajectory the way some of his peers did—in fact, he grew up in a trailer park in Portland, Tennessee—but his is a tale of a critical mass of hard work and hard networking paying off over time.
After working with Buckner and becoming a high school stud, Brewer was recruited to the University of Florida, where he won two national titles with future NBA All-Stars Joakim Noah and Al Horford. As someone who started from a place of poverty but found his way to the league not on sheer overwhelming talent but through a collection of intense work, strong decisions and fateful connections, Brewer stands as something of a hybrid of our two domestic types.
But just what are these right things that Brewer mentions more than once?
Atlanta Hawks big man Elton Brand—an early-bred baller if there ever was one—knows a thing or two about them.
Brand also explains the significance of being part of a renowned high school basketball program. A graduate of Peekskill High in New York City, he not only played alongside future NBA players Lamar Odom and Ron Artest, but also had the chance to ball with men who were then playing professionally. “In the summertime, I was playing with Anthony Mason and these other pros who were helping me out. They kind of kicked my ass, but I kind of held my own, and I thought: ‘maybe someday.’”
Now a 34-year-old reserve, Brand was once the apple of basketball’s eye as a standout at Duke University, and then went on to be the number one overall pick in the draft with the Chicago Bulls.
“I was fortunate enough to play with USA Basketball,” he tells me. “I got to see Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, and learn what their work ethic was like. And I saw the veterans, guys like Tom Gugliotta and TIm Hardaway, they would be doing elliptical and treadmill after practice. And a lot of stretching. I didn’t understand at first, but they were staying in shape for what was next.”
Brand, like many of the born-and-bred men of the game before him, has already signaled what lies ahead for him after basketball. Like Ray Allen—who Brand tells me he saw shooting Spike Lee’s 1998 classic He Got Game in New York—he harbors a penchant for cinema. He’s a founding member of Gibraltar Films, a budding studio that’s released work by acclaimed German director Werner Herzog.
Brand’s look of the renaissance man shows us how he’s been able to maintain an NBA career for a decade and a half. He’s a man of adaptability and savvy, who sees opportunity and capital in places where others might not. Such a mindset—not just the luck of being born big and coordinated—is what it takes to maintain in one of the most competitive professions on the planet.
The Shooting Stars
Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler is only 24, but he already exhibits a machinist’s intensity for the upkeep of his body and game. “There are a lot of things people don’t see,” he tells me after another of his extended personal shoot-arounds. He is sweating and distracted; he seems to still be picturing the rim. “Offseason jumpers, watching film. Eventually, you work your way out of every situation.”
Butler, who averaged 40.8 minutes per game in last year’s playoffs and went the full 48 five times after veteran Luol Deng went out for the season, understands the value of hard work as well as anyone in the NBA. One of those rare, soaring sociological stars, Butler split from his birth family by the age of 13 and spent much of his teenage years homeless.
The wingman's journey has been made the spectacle of sports romance elsewhere, but he pays it almost no mind when he speaks to me. In order to come as far as he has, one must possess a work ethic that pushes through pesky, distracting details like biographical background. Butler has ridden his monomania for the game of basketball all the way to a starting spot for the Bulls.
After parting ways with his past kin he went on to find something of a surrogate family and became a touted high school player at Tomball High in Texas, gaining the attention of Marquette University coach Buzz Williams.
Once in Milwaukee, Butler's extra hours gained the esteem of fellow future pro, Portland Trailblazers guard Wesley Matthews—three years Butler’s senior. “No matter what age you are, no matter what you’re doing,” Butler says, “there’s always somebody who’s been doing it longer than you.”
Beyond Williams and Matthews, Butler cites fellow Bulls Joakim Noah, Nazr Mohammed and Luol Deng, among others, as his teachers of the game and its culture. But make no mistake: Butler preaches hard work above all.
Wolves center Nikola Pekovic agrees.”Hard work is something everyone can recognize,” he tells me.
A native of Montenegro and one of the largest players in the league—Stephens-Davidowitz claims many European nations have gradually grown taller since 1960—the beginning of Pekovic’s career also acts as a telling instance of how significant relationships are to a career in the NBA.
“My first year was really frustrating. I wondered if I should stay or go, I was getting no playing time. But after the first year coach Rick [Adelman] came and then I started getting confidence. He gave me a great chance.”
Pekovic tells me that Adelman was, coincidentally enough, an icon of his childhood as coach of the Sacramento Kings. Then-center Vlade Divac, a native of Serbia and a star on those Sacramento teams, was a hero to Pekovic. Like the seven-footer Divac, Pekovic does owe a lot to his fortune of being born into an NBA body. He tells me didn’t start playing until he was 15—which, suffice to say, is among the later starting ages in all of the league.
But Pekovic’s T-Wolves team (which with seven international players has more than any in the league) offers proof that there’s more to it than that. Russia native Alexey Shved, a bench guard for Minnesota, is on the edge of employment in his sophomore season.
The 25-year-old Shved is in his second NBA campaign, but it may be his last. A son to two basketball coaches, he thrived as a rotation player in his rookie season under the tutelage of fellow Russian Andrei Kirilenko. But Kirilenko left for the Brooklyn Nets last summer, and without him Shved seems at bay—his minutes have been chopped in half, and his field goal percentage has fallen from 37 to 32.
Asked about Kirilenko’s influence on his arrival into the league, Shved called him “Really important. He helped me, he really showed me a lot. He’s a veteran who has been in this league for a long time.” Without Kirilenko, Shved’s culture shock in America seems to have found new wind. Now he’s shy and struggling with his team.
As fans we hear of the off- and in-season regiments of our favorite players, of the intensity, frequency and dedication that goes into honing their world-class skills, and we imagine their work ethic the product of an insatiable desire for championships and glory. But in the cases of Butler, Brewer and most of the rest of the league, those extra hours may be spent more in fear of slipping onto the slope Shved is now sliding on. He could be out of a job soon.
The Road Out of the League
This is a fear that can be just as real for high-line franchise men as it is for immigrants and climbers out of poverty. Gilbert Arenas, once one of the premier scorers in basketball and a thorn in LeBron James' side for the Washington Wizards, saw his career quickly erode once he crossed a behavioral line and brought a gun into his team’s locker room. "I made a mistake," Arenas told Bleacher Report's Dan Favale in 2013, making the case for a return to the league.
"I basically gave up," he said. "I just didn't want to be a part of it anymore. I never really tried anymore. I just basically gave up."
Still only 32, Arenas looks from many perspectives like a strong candidate for another NBA job. But no one has bit on signing him; he seems to have crossed a line of etiquette too harshly. Roads back into the league are slim; Arenas bounced around with the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies for a bit after his incident, but the bad press essentially buried his career.
That instance is only a more exaggerated lesson in the truth that NBA careers are, ultimately, more of a high-wire act than they’re often made out to be. Freak genetic windfalls, seeming gifts from God, do matter—but ancestral luck alone is no recipe for success at this level.
Not only hard work, but hard and smart work is required. Evolving with the game and its industry are essential—so is making the right relationships, and so is putting in an increasing amount of fitness hours as gravity wears down on your body after the peak of your youth.
Making and staying in the NBA makes for a market illustrative of types that are one thing above all: professional. Asked about the diverse makeup of his team, Corey Brewer referenced the perpetually international roster of the San Antonio Spurs. "Just like down there," he said, "we just want to win games. It doesn't matter where you're from or what you did, we can make it work if we're trying to win."
Brewer's line suggests that the NBA is what we want it to be: a meritocracy, unconcerned with prejudices and built to judge players purely on their ability. But even a cursory scan of the league's job market tells us that talent is not judged in such a vacuum. Rather, it's subject to the many of the checks and balances the rest of us are—consistent, but ultimately dependent upon its own trends. The roads into the NBA work well, but they aren't perfect.