Life After the NBA Doesn't Have to Be an Identity Crisis for Retired PlayersNovember 21, 2016
The summer of 2015 was a summer of renaissance for Luke Ridnour.
Ordinarily, the veteran point guard’s offseason days would revolve around intense workouts designed to get ready for the next season. Early-morning sessions in the weight room; getting up shots in the afternoon; physical therapy appointments. As he got older, he stopped playing full-court pickup games in the summer, opting to do one-on-one drills with a sparring partner instead.
But after completing his 12th NBA season, where he averaged a career-low 4.0 points and 2.0 assists per game for the Orlando Magic, Ridnour decided to hang it up—a move he had been quietly planning for the past year.
True to his low-key nature, Ridnour didn’t officially announce his retirement that summer. So what should have been an offseason nightmare—he was traded four times in a six-day span—didn’t even cause Ridnour to bat an eye.
“Once that started happening that summer, it was just kind of comical because I knew I was going to retire,” said Ridnour, 35, with a laugh. “I kind of let it just play out.”
That kind of indifference and detachment felt refreshing to him. Like all offseasons, he spent it in his Seattle home (he played his first five seasons with the Sonics). Only this time, he was predominantly hanging out with his wife, Kate, and their four young boys. For fun, he would play tennis, golf and ride his bike.
Athletes are creatures of habit. And that summer, for the first time in 25 years of playing organized basketball year-round, Ridnour broke his routine.
“I didn’t even pick up a ball.”
The NBA life can be somewhat of an illusion. The rock-star element of mansions, yachts and partying (see: J.R. Smith) certainly exists. But somewhere between those eight-figure contracts and the perceived HBO Ballers lifestyle is an asterisk. Like any grueling job in the corporate world, the NBA can also be a redundant cycle dominated by defined schedules, mundane tasks and self-imposed routines.
During the season, players navigate through the day-to-day schedule like clockwork. Whether it is a practice, shootaround, plane ride, pregame bus, strength and conditioning session, public appearance or mandatory media availability, there is always a team representative to tell them where to go and what time to be there.
Athletes also create their own routines based on comfort or superstition. Some take naps before games, some eat the same pregame meals and some get massages. Roughly 90 minutes before tipoff, Stephen Curry does the same sideline dribbling drill as part of his personal pregame warm-up. And Dennis Rodman used to ride a stationary bike in the locker room after every game.
“My body was used to the NBA schedule,” said DeShawn Stevenson, 35, who played 13 seasons in the league. “I was doing it since I was 18, coming out of high school. But I took it further, going to practice early and staying late. I think that’s how I stayed in the NBA so long not being a superstar, was just grinding and sticking to my routine.”
During the offseason, a player determines his best way to stay in shape. Some play in local pro-ams, while others train at their teams' practice facilities. For Chris Duhon, a defensive point guard who played for four teams (Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, L.A. Lakers) through nine seasons, his summer routine for his last few NBA years consisted of private workouts in Santa Barbara, California.
“Your first couple of years in the league, you try to figure out what works for you,” said Duhon, 34. “After a while, you kind of do your own thing. I worked out on my own for six weeks until I reported to the team in September.”
After the 2012-13 season, the Lakers waived him. At the time, he was unsure whether or not to retire. He spent that first summer at his home in Orlando with his wife, Andrea, preparing for the birth of his twins. Although he skipped Santa Barbara, he stayed in shape, sticking to a regular workout routine.
"At the end of the day, we are still creatures of habit; that doesn’t change overnight,” said Duhon. “And obviously with a few new additions, you change accordingly to whatever is needed.”
Although family life kept him busy, Duhon said that retired players can struggle without that familiar structure—especially when the season rolls around.
“It’s a tough transition from having a routine to where you’re like, ‘Oh good, I can sleep ‘til noon, I don’t have anything to do,’” said Duhon. “But that gets old. Your body is used to being active and having something scheduled, and when all of a sudden you don’t have that, it can be difficult to handle.”
When the NBA no longer gave DeShawn Stevenson a schedule to follow, he decided to make one himself.
He wakes up each weekday at 5:30 a.m. After making breakfast and shuttling his kids off to school, he runs eight to 10 miles before heading off to work by 11 a.m. Nowadays, work is at Playoffs Barber Shop, his brand new business venture in Orlando that he opened in October.
His vision of opening a basketball-themed barbershop originated in his NBA final year, as a member of the Hawks during the 2012-13 season. Stevenson didn’t want to be a partner in somebody else’s business. If he was going to invest capital, he wanted to be hands-on. During the day, he vacuums, orders supplies, oversees the books and the part he enjoys the most: marketing and branding.
Playoffs Barber Shop has hardwood floors that mirror an NBA court. The logo is clearly modeled after the NBA playoffs logo. Flat-screen TVs everywhere are locked on ESPN or NBA TV. There are several reminders of Stevenson’s past life in the space, including a photo of him as he guards Michael Jordan when he was a member of the Jazz and a life-size cardboard cutout of him as a Wizard.
“My goal is to franchise; that’s why I did it,” said Stevenson, who the Jazz drafted out of Washington Union High School (Fresno, California) in 2000. “You can see from the logo, it has franchise all over it. Mine has my memorabilia. If another NBA player franchises it in their own cities, they can put in their memorabilia. I can even see this in NBA arenas.”
During work hours, Stevenson chops it up with customers. Topics range from debating the Warriors or Cavs to asking Stevenson about his secret to locking up LeBron. Soon, customers may get to interact with current NBA ballers, thanks to the owner’s pull.
“I’m not an average barbershop owner. I have relationships,” said Stevenson, who was a key member of the Dallas Mavericks’ championship team in 2011. “I can call Nick Young when he comes up to play the Magic. Or call Anthony Morrow and he can get Russell Westbrook up here.”
By 5 p.m., Stevenson leaves the barbershop to pick up his kids and take them to their after-school activities. For his son, Londyn, that is football; for his daughter, Skye, it is soccer. Dedicated and consistent time around family is perhaps the greatest perk for retired players.
For the first two years of retirement, Stevenson didn’t work. Instead, he relaxed, decompressed and spent time with his family in Orlando. With NBA players on the road so much during the season, being around the house can be an adjustment.
“It can feel strange at first because your wife and kids are not used to you being home all the time,” said Ridnour. “But for me, it’s so good to be home and raise my boys and be with my wife and help her out.”
Family was the primary reason Ridnour retired. In June, after taking the 2015-16 season off, he formally announced his retirement. This past summer, he also moved his family two hours north from Seattle to Lynden, Washington, 25 minutes from where he grew up. Now free from trades, Ridnour believes this move will be the last.
“I knew once my kids started getting in school, I didn’t want to move them around and go from city to city,” Ridnour said. “I just started thinking about them living in a small town and having the same friends, kind of have what I had growing up.”
From superstars like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett to role players, everyone goes through some sort of identity crisis after they hang it up.
For most, basketball has defined them ever since they were adolescents. Their talent earned them college scholarships, championships, fame and wealth. All of a sudden, they are out of the spotlight and their body cannot do the same things it could five years ago.
Even for future Hall of Famers such as Kobe, the league will move on. The Lakers’ marketing campaigns now feature Brandon Ingram and D’Angelo Russell.
“Yeah, it’s tough, because for 20 years, all you’ve done was play basketball,” said Duhon. “And with basketball comes a lot of perks. You get notoriety, and people treat you a little bit differently, because they understand how difficult it is to achieve the goals you achieved. And when you aren’t playing, you kind of miss those pats on the back.”
Ridnour has never cared much for attention. He is practically invisible on social media, and it is a small miracle that he agreed to be interviewed for this piece. But, he admits, he’s noticed a difference.
“More than an identity thing, it’s an adjustment,” Ridnour said. “To go from something where everyone is always watching you, patting you on the back, to all of a sudden it’s done. And you can’t go out and score 30 and get all the text messages. You kind of have to come back to reality a little bit.”
He adds, “But at the same time, being treated normal is a good thing, too.”
The challenge for retired players—typically in their mid-to-late 30s—is determining their next move.
During his third season in the league, when he was with the Bulls, Duhon started thinking about life after basketball. Kevin Bradbury, his agent with BDA Sports, said starting post-career planning early can ease the transition into retirement.
“From an agent’s perspective, if you are doing your job for your clients, even when they’re playing, you’re helping put them in situations where they can identify things they enjoy and have passions for outside of basketball,” Bradbury said, citing Steve Nash (another BDA client) as an example of a former player who found a passion in film and is now running a successful production company.
Like many former players, Duhon knew he wanted to stay around the game, either in broadcasting or coaching. After a year off, he accepted an assistant coaching job at Marshall University, a D-I school in West Virginia. Marshall head coach Dan D’Antoni coached Duhon while he was an assistant with the Knicks and Lakers.
Now in his third season with the Thundering Herd, Duhon is finding parallels with his new career.
“It’s funny, you wouldn’t think that being on the other side, but coaching is time-consuming as well,” said Duhon, who lives in Huntington, West Virginia, with his wife and four children. “With a lot of the film-watching, the preparation from practice, recruiting, I’m away from the house a lot, especially when the season starts.”
The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) also steps in to provide resources and assistance, both during and after a career.
“It’s important that we take care of our entire extended NBA family, and I’m proud of my fellow players for taking this unprecedented step to ensure the health and well-being of our predecessors,” said Clippers guard and NBPA president, Chris Paul.
“They’re so good at just helping us transition in and out of it,” adds Ridnour. “Even stuff like getting your insurance switched over, little stuff. We never have to worry about anything when you’re a player, the teams take care of everything. So when you’re done, you have to start taking care of stuff you are not used to doing.”
Switching insurance, running errands, coaching youth soccer and driving his kids back and forth from school is part of Ridnour’s new role as a stay-at-home dad. Although he avoided basketball at first, Ridnour has a plan now that his family is settled in Lynden. He is in the process of building a gym that will house his AAU basketball program and Special Olympics events.
“I’ve always had a heart for kids, especially that middle school-aged group,” said Ridnour. “I have boys with special needs, so this is our way of giving back to my community.”
Don’t go broke.
That is one of the main messages that the NBA and NBPA try to hammer home every year to the incoming rookie class during the mandatory Rookie Transition Program. But no matter how much education the league provides, more than 60 percent of players still file for bankruptcy within the first five years of retirement.
Antoine Walker, Vin Baker, Darius Miles and Eddy Curry are just a few high-profile examples who succumbed to bankruptcy. Bad investments, reckless spending habits, tax evasion, failure to save and high child-support payments can all be contributing factors to a player’s financial demise.
“Just keeping up with the Joneses,” said Stevenson, who earned nearly $28 million in his career. “Obviously, when you’re in the NBA, guys want all the new fashion, shoes and bags. Traveling, doing things in the summer. When your birthday comes, you spend $20,000-$30,000 on your big party.”
According to Bradbury, none of his agency’s clients have ever gone broke. They teach their players how to save and build their investment portfolio, rather than spending it in the club or on depreciating assets like cars and jewelry.
“If you can help a guy understand the meaning of putting that money aside and what getting to certain marks in life means to them, it goes a long way,” said Bradbury, who helps set up clients with internships and financial planners.
“We use real-life examples to show them how they can put away enough money to live the rest of their life very comfortably.”
Ridnour and Duhon are on course to avoid the trend. While neither was a star, both were proven players able to carve out decade-plus careers. Playing for five teams (Seattle Sonics, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Wolves, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Bobcats), Ridnour made around $45 million in career earnings, while Duhon earned $33 million.
Both planned early and are able to maintain their same lifestyle.
The learning curve was tougher for Stevenson. Becoming an instant millionaire out of high school, he constantly fielded requests from friends or family back home in Fresno. Some were business pitches; others were sob stories. It wasn’t out of the question for somebody to ask for more than $10,000.
“I feel like I got in a lot of trouble early on, me being so young,” said Stevenson. “The NBA, it’s so publicly known what you actually make. I still get it now, and I’m not even playing!”
Earlier this year, Stevenson’s name made the rounds across gossip sites. Reports alleged he owed American Express $384,000 in unpaid bills, resulting in a public lawsuit. Stevenson said the incident was “overblown” and chalked up it up to a stolen credit card and a misunderstanding.
These days, Stevenson says he likes to live a low-key life. Once a member of the Magic, he lives in Orlando year-round for the weather, tax benefits and, most importantly, the separation from his past in Fresno.
“It’s easier to say no out here because you didn’t grow up with them since you were five years old,” he said.
The money left over from his playing days all goes into his kids’ activities and his business. He has also downsized, he rarely buys new clothes and his only splurges come in the form of a new phone. Stevenson also leverages the perks of owning a barbershop.
“I do have kids, so our haircuts are free.”
Chris Duhon no longer makes it out to Santa Barbara to train. He is also three years removed from having a dedicated training staff and nutritionist, courtesy of an NBA team.
He has seen former players pack on the pounds immediately after hanging it up. He knows it can happen quickly, especially being immersed in an intense coaching schedule.
“Especially as a coach, you have late hours, you’re in the office watching film, so it’s very easy to run to a fast food spot and grab something to eat,” he said.
To combat that, Duhon reverts to a familiar routine. He works out twice a day and is close to his playing weight of 190 pounds. He is routinely asked to fill in during Marshall practices when there are injuries. Thanks to regular sets of squats, he can dunk like he did back in his Duke days.
If you didn’t know any better, it would appear as though Duhon is plotting a return to the NBA. It’s not far-fetched; he is still only 34 years old.
“As a competitor, it can dawn on your head from time to time,” admits Duhon. “But at the same time, you have to respect the NBA for what it is. It’s not an easy league. The guys that are there put in a lot of hard work training to get there, and you have to give them the respect. You can’t just get off the couch and feel as though you can be right back out there.”
So he turns to playing in local men’s leagues to help scratch that itch. He plays in two of them, neither of which he knows the team name of; he only gets a reminder text for what time to show up. In the NBA and college, he was a pass-first point guard. In his men’s league, he is a volume shooter, averaging 35 points per game in one league.
But gone are the fans, the checks, the prime-time games on TNT. And that’s fine. He has accepted that the Tuesday night runs will do for now. It’s all just part of the process.