School for Scandal Believe it or not, NBA rookies get a first-rate crash course in the art of not screwing up

October 05, 2003

NBA training camps opened this week without, as always, the
fanfare that attends baseball's spring training or the sweaty
start of summer football practice. Sports fans generally care
little for the particulars of pro hoops, preferring to focus on
the broader narratives of good and evil. Particularly evil. The
Oct. 9 preliminary hearing of Kobe Bryant is, needless to say, a
much hotter topic than how the Jazz will run the pick-and-roll
without Karl Malone and John Stockton.

In the wake of the Bryant public relations disaster the NBA was
peppered with questions about why it doesn't better prepare its
players for the pitfalls and temptations that accompany zeroes in
the paycheck and life in the spotlight. In fact virtually every
young player who comes into the league gets far better training
than athletes receive in the other pro sports, a six-day
mandatory crash course in Reality 101 called the Rookie
Transition Program (RTP). The NFL has a similar but less
comprehensive program that started 10 years after the RTP began
in 1986. Even the One Hundred Million Dollar Kid, LeBron James,
had to delay a Nike photo shoot so he could attend this year's
session at which 59 rookies--15 of them under 21--gathered in
Tarrytown, N.Y.

The time commitment was substantial for what commissioner David
Stern describes as "a cocoon for the players," but the newcomers
endured it and seemed to accept it. The rooks got schooled from
players current (the Nets' Kenyon Martin and the Spurs' Bruce
Bowen among them) and past (including legend Bill Russell, who
told the group that they "are the new caretakers" of the game),
as well as by security experts, referees, financial specialists,
media trainers (who urged players to "find out specifically what
the interview is about and try to keep it to that subject") and
image polishers.

The RTP is constantly being modified, but it's clear the league
takes extraordinary measures to educate its callow millionaires
about the perils of overspending, overindulging and
overcopulating. The sexier parts of the program were not open to
the press, but women were brought in to participate in skits.
Whether or not there was a Kobe-in-Colorado scenario no one will
say, but Bryant's situation was an undercurrent throughout the
week.

One of the most enlightening sit-downs was with Cavaliers coach
Paul Silas who, after 20 minutes of mostly lighthearted
commentary about adjusting to the NBA's style and level of play,
looked out on the young faces, most of them black, and told them
how much their casual use of "the n word" disturbs him. "You have
no idea what it was like to hear it years ago, the way I heard
it," said Silas, an African-American who came into the league in
1964. "It just does not sound good."

Indeed, race is a pervasive subtext in the NBA, whose makeup is
about 80% African-American. Things have changed a great deal
since Silas had the n word hurled at him, but it's naive to deny
that the league's image still suffers from racial bias and that
its players sometimes pay more dearly for their collective sins
than those in other sports. To be sure, NBA players have
contributed to this state of affairs. Nobody forced the Trail
Blazers to become the Jail Blazers. And whether he's guilty of
rape or not, Bryant was not whisked into that Colorado hotel room
against his will.

As Bryant's case unfolds, the current crop of NBA rookies will be
made acutely aware of how fragile their status as NBA stars can
be--and of the price to be paid for a mistake. These are lessons
that, after attending RTP, they have only begun to learn.
"They're not just having us here to get us away from our
families," said the 18-year-old James after the session. "We're
here because people who have been in this league have made bad
decisions, and this is going to help us."

--Jack McCallum

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

"I hope I have been a credit to tennis and my country."
--ALTHEA GIBSON, PAGE 24

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