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Preparing for life off the court no easy course


LAS VEGAS -- This was the summer of power and control for NBA players. Twelve months before the sport will likely be embroiled in a work stoppage, superstars flexed their collective muscle in an impressive display of leverage during free agency.

Led by Miami's Big Three, the players held all the cards -- and dictated the rules of the game.

So it seemed to be an odd time for about a dozen former players and a handful of current ones to gather behind the scenes at the Las Vegas Summer League in July -- right on the heels of the LeBron-Wade-Bosh spectacle -- to discuss switching sides in the management-player relationship. This was no free-agent summit; it was a gathering of smart players who understood something that precious few athletes do. They need a plan for their post-playing days, and the time to start making that plan is now.

Ben Gordon will have been paid millions when his playing days are done, but he's planning ahead. (Getty Images)  
Ben Gordon will have been paid millions when his playing days are done, but he's planning ahead. (Getty Images)  
Ben Gordon of the Pistons, Maurice Evans of the Hawks and Anthony Johnson of the Magic joined former players Kermit Washington, Lawrence Funderburke, Gary Trent, Mark Blount, Samaki Walker, Greg Kite and others to participate in the National Basketball Players Association's inaugural leadership training institute. It was the brainchild of longtime NBA assistant Brendan Suhr, who felt strongly that players needed a way to educate themselves about what it would take to become an NBA executive when their playing days are over.

"I think frankly there are more opportunities on that side of the business than in NBA coaching," said Suhr, who has started a consulting business while working as director of program development for the University of Central Florida men's basketball team. "The thing we recognized is that with the NBA Summer League here, the people I wanted to use as what I call adjust professors are all the executives that are in the league. They're all here, they're all giving, and they want to help these guys."

With 31 hours of classroom work over 2½ days, Suhr equates the training program to an 11-week college course. There are no passing or failing grades, just an opportunity for players to get a crash course in what it would take to make the transition from playing to being a GM, pro personnel director, college scouting director or other menial task when compared to getting paid millions to dribble a ball.

"Top 10 lottery picks, guys who went undrafted -- we were all there," said Evans, a reserve for the Hawks and a vice president of the NBPA. "You've got to definitely check your egos at the door."

This is the first thing players learn: NBA decision-making jobs are not for those who want their post-playing days filled with golf, exotic vacations or in Dennis Rodman's case, group sex at parties. Prepare yourself for long hours, coach cabins and cell phones that never stop ringing. Get used to the inside of D-League gyms in outposts like Fort Wayne, Tulsa and Albuquerque.

"We start every morning at 7:30, 8 o'clock and we go until 9 o'clock [at night]," Suhr said. "It's a real job; a real freaking job. And what we say is, there is no clock when you have a job like this. There are no hours. None. It's whatever it takes. And that's the biggest mindset change."

The executive who best framed this for the players during this midsummer exercise in role-reversal was Wayne Embry, who broke the color barrier among NBA executives when he became the first black GM and team president of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1972. Embry, now an adviser with the Toronto Raptors and a basketball oracle with 52 years of NBA experience, drove home a critical first step for any player or former player crazy enough to get into this line of work: de-playerize yourself.

"As a player, it's all about me," Suhr said. "How many minutes I get. How many shots I get. I get my contract based on how well I play. ... Everyone's kissing their ass all the time. You've got to beg them for an interview, and everyone is fawning all over them. Now all of a sudden, you've got to figure out how to get your foot in the door in any capacity."

That's why Gordon, by far the most unlikely student I encountered, decided to show up in Vegas with an open mind and a notebook. A star shooting guard with Detroit, Gordon has long modeled what he hopes will be a productive post-playing career after Pistons president Joe Dumars, one of the few who has made the successful transition from star player to winning executive. Dumars has survived some disastrous personnel moves, in part due to relationships and business savvy he began cultivating while he was still winning championships with Isiah Thomas in the early '90s.

"He's a great person to kind of model myself after while I'm playing and after basketball," Gordon said.

When I spotted Gordon in the stands at the COX Pavilion, he didn't look like a guy who still has a cool $48 million of NBA money coming to him over the next four seasons. He had his iPod ear buds firmly in place and his notebook in hand as he jotted down observations on various players competing for roster spots or 10-day contracts or invitations to training camps when they open later this month.

"Most guys wait too late to think about what they're going to do after the game is over," Gordon said. "Some guys know what they want to do but they don't try to position themselves. They don't have a plan. I'm taking the first steps right now by doing things like this."

In addition to Embry, players heard from a cross-section of executives who tried to paint a picture of what it's like to see the game -- and their careers -- from a different perspective. Bobcats GM Rod Higgins and Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld talked about the importance of building and maintaining a network -- and how you need to start while you're still playing. Former Suns executive David Griffin touched on how a basketball executive's job is far more fragile than a player's. And he would know; Griffin went from the Western Conference finals to losing his superstar, Amar'e Stoudemire, and walking away from his job over philosophical differences in a matter of weeks. Ed Tapscott, now with the Wizards, spoke about building the expansion Charlotte Bobcats one job at a time with a pencil, a notepad and a cell phone.

"Everyone encouraged these guys to follow your passion, which is basketball, and do what you're good at," Suhr said. "To be successful in life, you have to do what you do best. It's not opening up a restaurant or a dry cleaner or anything like that. It's about doing what you do best."

It's also about making sure you do something that NBA players rarely are forced to think about: Treat people with respect, from the GMs down to the ball boys. The day you might be calling them to ask for a job is coming sooner than you think.

"If you're hard to deal with when you're a player," Evans said, "nobody's going to want to deal with you when you're not."

Before joining, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on

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