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From the NCAA to the NBA: Rookie Transition is Different Now

Kentucky's five starters from last year are experiencing the new focus of the NBA to help its rookies with their transition to the league.
Kentucky's five starters from last year are experiencing the new focus of the NBA to help its rookies with their transition to the league.

Henry Abbott of ESPN's True Hoop has an interesting story today on what the NBA calls its Rookie Transition Program, or RTP. The RTP is a khakis-and-polo-shirt four days of seminars and workshops on how life changes from the sheltered life of NCAA basketball to the ultimate freedom -- both personal and financial -- of NBA life.

The program, reports Abbott, is "heavy on avoiding tricks," things like gold-digging women (does this bring An Officer and a Gentleman to anyone else's mind? Puget Sound Debs, anyone?), fraudsters masquerading as financial gurus, and gamblers with point-shaving or worse on their minds. You know, the kind of things almost everyone coming into a lot of money suddenly would have to worry about.

One thing that got my attention was this paragraph:

But after spending a day roaming the conference center halls with the generally delightful, upstanding and promising 60 players of the Class of 2012, it's clear that one of the dirtiest tricks facing young players today is the persistent racially tinged accusation that NBA players are "thugs."

This seems like a generalization to me. Some NBA players, but by no means all or even most, drive this perception with a lot of visual cues that suburbanites came at some point to associate with gang membership -- for example, what looks like an extraordinary amount of tattoos of questionable artistic value, and what looks like an eccentric excess of gold jewelry. It is a stereotype, and race-associated to be sure, but one that some NBA members have all but encouraged, or at least seem indifferent to.

Then this:

When people ask what I do for a living, a substantial portion of them respond that they do not watch the NBA -- not because they are bored by it or need that time to catch up on "Dancing with the Stars," but as punishment of a kind for NBA players of which they do not approve. Perhaps because they're too spoiled, too violent, too scary or too ... something. I hear this again and again.

Dancing with the Stars? Really? Is this the new way of saying "lily-white?" It was a construction that was unnecessarily judgmental, but it does illustrate the racial tension that exists between the NBA and white America, and the finger-pointing associated with it.

The NBA has a bit of an image problem substantially, but by no means exclusively, of its own creation. The NBA has often been unfairly tainted by negative perceptions caused by its association with a culture that is popular with mostly the young, the urban, and the hip. That part of pop culture doesn't always strike a comfortable cord with many suburbanites and the denizens of flyover country that make up a large part of America.

The RTP is proof, and you'll get that later in his piece, that the league is well aware of it and working to change its image, not by discouraging tattoos, but by encouraging a more corporate look that the NFL began to subtly adopt years ago -- players encouraged to dress nicely in public, to avoid the negative images of ostentatious and "vulgar" displays of newfound wealth, a trap all to easy to fall into for some of the youngest employees per dollar earned of any vocation in the world.

Want to know what I mean? Consider this comment made later by Rory Sparrow, long-time NBA player now working for the NBA player programs department:

[Sparrow] also confirmed the notion that by and large this draft class has a far more promising future off the court than you'd expect based on reputation. "The truth of it is, a lot of knuckleheads used to be drafted," he explained. "Now that's a huge process of drafting good guys. You can just tell from the way all of us get along here, everybody is great guys as far as that background assessment. I think that's very important. It's a lot of great guys in the draft class." [my emphasis]

Translation -- the NBA knows it has an image problem, it knows that the league itself is partially to blame, and is actively trying to fix it by valuing the character of the players they draft more highly than before, rather than just their athletic talent. This concept is also likely reflected in the NBA's desire to raise the draft age -- not only do they get more experienced and mature players by delaying draft entry, but they get more experienced and mature people, too.

To me, this is the sign of a sports league finally growing up. The urban scene, while important, can no longer be the sole growth area for the NBA if it wants to survive. The recent struggle with the players over money illustrates the challenges the NBA is facing, and that expanding it's appeal requires changing it's image to a more inclusive one, less foreign to suburban America and more welcoming of the unhip, the uncool, the geeky, and the inurbane, especially in the smaller markets where the suburbs and beyond are the major growth opportunities, and NBA teams have traditionally struggled to make money.

The NBA is a league recognizing its value as a business, and more importantly, helping and encouraging its players to recognize it as well, and at an earlier age. The NBA is trying to show players how their image is of value not just to the league, but to the players themselves. Self-interest is among the most powerful of motivations.

As a final closing thought, Anthony Davis gets a mention:

Having spent four straight days, around the clock, with the rookies, Sparrow said he sees kernels of leadership. "Draymond Green has been outstanding," he said of the Warriors' second-round pick. "Austin Rivers has a pedigree and has been very good in leading guys. Anthony Davis is quiet and unassuming, but when he gets in his little group, in his element, he makes really positive statements. It's refreshing to see the guys we picked as high draft picks have these qualities as well. It bodes well for our future. These players who can do well on the court can also do well off the court, as leaders, among their peers." [my emphasis]

That's awesome to see, and I think this draft class may well be one of the most valuable, in the long term, in NBA history.