In the summer of 2009, I was under contract for one more year with the Orlando Magic at age 33. We had just finished a remarkable season that saw us go all the way to the NBA Finals, and I was excited about what the future held.
During a workout with teammate Dwight Howard that seemed routine, I made a move that changed the course of my NBA career—and my life.
As I made a fadeaway, I felt a sudden pop in my right knee. Having gone through multiple knee surgeries already, I realized right away this particular pop signaled the end of my NBA career.
I spent the 2009-10 season in rehab and didn’t play a single game, yet I told everyone that I was hopeful that I would be able to play again “soon.” But in my mind, there was no chance.
When my contract expired, the decision to retire was an easy one. The first thing I did was control the situation and go out the best way I knew how—announcing my retirement by writing a poem.
At the end of each NBA season, every veteran faces the question of whether he has what it takes to play another year. The most intriguing example right now is Ray Allen, who told Don Amore of The Courant in early August that he is weighing the pros and cons of suiting up for one more 82-game grind.
There are many questions as to why a player like Allen might walk away: Are injuries keeping him from playing at a high level? Are his skills diminished? Is he simply ready?
When the inevitable occurs, the transition from the game isn’t an easy one. It almost feels like a death—a death of a passion and a death of a trade that you just so happen to be very good at.
The player must reinvent himself, likely in a field that he is unfamiliar with. I was fortunate enough to land a front-office job with the Magic immediately after announcing my retirement.
As the director of player development, I still had the opportunity to work closely with the players. But it wasn’t the same. I was no longer “hanging out with the boys” after practice. They saw me more as a “suit.”
When we enter the league, we are told not to think about retirement. Most players don’t have a plan in place when their playing careers are over. If we even think about retirement while playing, we’re thought of as distracted or not dedicated to the game.
Regardless of what anyone says, it’s never too early to think about retirement.
Even when the decision to retire is an easy one, the anxiety that can come with finding a post-basketball career can be overwhelming.
I like to say that I was better prepared to retire than a lot of players. I’d saved my money and started working right away in the front office. Even though I had left college early to play in the NBA, I had made sure to finish my bachelor’s degree and went on to get my master’s degree, too.
Some players stay in the league as long as they can either because they don’t know what else to do or because they simply need the money.
You budget everything now that you’re no longer getting those large paychecks, and you just have to be more conservative all around.
But no matter how prepared you are, nothing can help you get ready for the emotional journey that you are about to embark on. It is extremely difficult to wake up in the morning and realize that your entire life is no longer dedicated to the sport.
“What’s next? What is my identity now that I am no longer a player?”
You’re not going to miss hours of practice, but it was all part of your daily routine.
I completely understand the notion that nothing will fill the void that is left in being an active NBA player. That’s just the reality, and it’s not a reality that is easily accepted. But once you are able to come to terms with where you are in your life, the better off you are when making the transition.
Some players are able to prosper after retirement. Some stay involved in basketball as a coach, front-office executive or broadcast analyst. Other athletes have been successful in business ventures outside of sports.
And there have been those who have not been as successful in the transition. Those are the ones you read about going broke in a short period of time.
From my rookie season of 1997-98 with the Golden State Warriors—when our team made national headlines after the Latrell Sprewell/P.J. Carlesimo confrontation—to the revolving door of head coaches to the “We Believe” No. 8 seed team in 2006-07 that knocked off the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks to playing alongside one of the most dominant centers in the league in Howard in Orlando, my NBA career was an extraordinary journey.
I made great friends along the way, and I continue to look forward to what the future has in store for me. The best solace that I can offer to any athlete is that if they stay true to themselves and focus on finding a new passion, they just might find the transition a bit easier to deal with.
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