Knicks' Kristaps Porzingis learns the ropes at Rookie Transition Program
So, you finally made it. From a little rim somewhere on this massive planet, you put the work in, leveled up and along the way caught enough shine to convince one of 30 teams to roll the dice on you. And now you’re here, in the NBA, and it’s time to learn the ropes of being a pro.
With all respect to Spike Lee, this isn’t the pitch for a new basketball video game, but the mission of the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program, established in 1986 by the league and NBPA to provide education, support and resources for each incoming class of athletes. Think of it as a mandatory new employee orientation and training, fueled by six-to-seven figure salaries with a dash of team building. This year’s crop gathered in Florham Park, N.J., this week for their three-day welcome to the league, moving through a series of speakers, workshops and breakout sessions led by league and NBPA personnel, current and former players and field experts.
“I was coming in here thinking it was a long week of doing random stuff, but it's actually fun,” says Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis. “There’s a lot you can learn. It's not the typical way you have fun, but for me, getting new information is really important.” As one might imagine from any group of college-aged kids in the middle of summer, Porzingis says expectations among his peers were naturally mixed, thanks largely to the packed 12-hour schedules the program presents.
But the returns have been positive, and on all accounts, the class approached things with a level of seriousness. “A lot gets thrown at them, but these are things that have to be covered,” says Knicks assistant general manager Allan Houston, a 12-year NBA veteran. Houston acknowledges the demand of the daily schedule, but was impressed with the level of player engagement. “They’re learning to be professionals. The magnitudes have increased, the stakes are higher, and you can tell they're soaking it in.”
Houston spoke on a “Legends Panel” of former players including Bob Lanier, Ralph Sampson, Rick Mahorn and Malik Rose that welcomed the rookies and covered a variety of topics including decision-making, money management, relationship building and career development. Social media and brand awareness have become a focus of the program in recent years.
“We recognize these guys are savvy,” says Greg Taylor, the NBA’s senior vice president of player development. “We want to give them good advice on practical ways to utilize the platform and navigate some of the pitfalls that have befallen guys before them.”
“There’s a lot of little details I didn’t think about,” Porzingis admits, referencing a discussion in which smaller groups of veterans talked with the rookies afterward to follow up on specifics.
“It’s almost like they get the answers to the test before they have to go through it,” says Rose, who recently accepted a position as manager of basketball operations with the Atlanta Hawks. “If we can reduce their mistake curve at all, I think it's going to be worth it. These guys are going to be faced with some big things, be it athletically or off the court. The more we can educate them, present ourselves as a resource and show them the resources they have with the league, it's going to help everyone.”
Rose, a second-round pick in 1996 out of Drexel, carved out a 13-year NBA career as an undersized power forward and won two titles as a member of the Spurs. He emphasized learning professionalism quickly, regardless of where you were drafted. “It's one thing for a team to have high hopes for you,” he says, “but you have to establish a certain work ethic to stay there.”
“It’s my second year in the league, I'm on a non-guaranteed contract, we just won a game and I had barely played,” says Rose, telling a story he passed along to the players. “After the game I'm going out to dinner with Tim Duncan. We walk past the weight room and there's David Robinson.” Robinson, the team’s leading scorer, rebounder and star player, was in midst of a postgame workout.
“I thought to myself, ‘what’s wrong with that picture?’” he recalls. “Tim and I looked at each other, went back into the locker room, put our practice gear on and worked out until David was done. And then we got dinner.”
Others sharing their stories included former players Chris Herren, who battled drug addiction throughout his career, and Jason Collins, who became the first openly gay NBA player in 2014. The variety of circumstances and topics resonated with many rookies including Porzingis, who was busy soaking everything in. “The stories were inspirational,” he says, adding that Herren’s recovery especially struck a chord. “They’re presented so well, you can really relive that stuff. It was pretty powerful.”
The league and players’ union take time to emphasize the value of personal health: rest, nutrition, sexual health and stress and anger management. Rookies aged 20 and under, as well as those hailing from different countries, participated in specific workshops tailored to help them adjust. This year, the league brought in former NBA referee Bob Delaney, a former undercover police officer, to talk about mental health, conflict resolution and available resources.
“Finding something that gives you an inner peace is important,” Delaney says. The NBA’s vice president of referee operations and an NBA Cares ambassador, he worked for three years in the 1970s infiltrating organized crime in New Jersey. He speaks regularly to soldiers, police and firefighters about personal development and his experience with post-traumatic stress disorder. “If we’re willing to talk about stress and let it out, by talking to someone else we give them permission to tell their stories and validate their feelings. Having the courage to have the conversation rather than hiding it is our best shot at dealing with stress.”
When you think about what could possibly trouble a 19-year-old multimillionaire, all the tropes associated with instant fame come to mind, the bizarre headlines and off-court distractions that, to be fair, can accompany the territory. But Delaney maintains that rookies face similar pressures and fears that accompany any young person learning the ropes of their job. “When we first go into work, there’s a level of insecurity, an internal question of how to handle things,” he adds. “Understanding what makes each one of us tick is part of the growth. You go through experiences or you grow through them by being reflective.”
The transition program wrapped after another full day Wednesday, leaving rookies equipped with the knowledge and resourcefulness the league hopes will build sustainable careers. The sense of fraternity between players also grows in the process, as they prepare to foray into the spotlight. “I’m meeting all these new people, all the guys, I feel there's a lot of support around me with the union,” Porzingis says. “It’s the best league in the world. I’m excited to be a part of it.”
“This is a really mature group, they're worldly, they've traveled,” says Taylor. “A lot of them have known each other for years, and they’re comfortable being who they are. But they're still kids, and we want to make sure they understand they've got a lot to learn. Being a professional is a real big step.”