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“Everyone has a vet.” That statement from Kevin Garnett has stuck with me. Sam Mitchell was his. He was Rajon Rondo’s. It’s the circle of NBA life. You would be hard-pressed to find a player whose career was not set on its course by a veteran in his first locker room. Those who become vets themselves pass those lessons along. These are their stories.
Purvis Short played 12 NBA seasons as a prototypical position-less wing, mostly for the Golden State Warriors, peaking with a scoring average of 28 points per game in 1984-85 — a season in which he scored 59 points in a game against the New Jersey Nets. He ranks ninth on Golden State’s all-time leading scoring list, surpassed by Klay Thompson this past season and still ahead of Kevin Durant.
Short served as vice president of the National Basketball Players Association from 1987-90 before accepting a job with the NBPA in his post-playing career. He currently serves as director of player programs for the union and talked to Yahoo Sports about his extensive work with the Rookie Transition Program (RTP).
How much does the Rookie Transition Program rely on mentorship?
Short: The fundamental foundation of RTP is to give these first-year players a foundation on which they can build to transition successfully into the NBA, and we do a lot of educating on a wide variety of topics. We feel that RTP is the most comprehensive rookie program in sports. We talk about life-skills issues, and we have group discussions, so we try to approach a lot of these topics from a lot of different points of view, which brings me to your topic on player mentoring.
We feel that’s an important part of what we try to do with RTP, just from the simple standpoint that we have a lot of retired players who are either on staff with the NBPA or with the NBA, and who better to teach players than players who have experienced what these guys are going to go through? We couple that with experts in various fields to try to provide a global coverage, if you will, and obviously we try to establish the beginning of relationships while these kids are here. Then, when they go off to their respective teams, we try to maintain some form of contact.
There are a lot of different people who are involved. There are a lot of different touch-points with the players, just mainly letting them know that resources are available to help them navigate any issue that they may encounter. Players these days are very sophisticated, very smart, a little different from when many of us came through. They have folks already around them, and we want to make sure that they know there are additional resources where there are folks who don’t want anything from them and are only here to help them. Nine times out of 10, we have experience with whatever issue they may be going through, so we try to work collaboratively. RTP is a joint endeavor with the NBA and NBPA, so we try to attack these problems together, separately, whatever’s needed.
What are some of the subjects most highlighted at RTP?
Short: The topics are wide-ranging. We cover domestic violence. We cover our drug policies. We cover career development. We cover financial education. We talk about time management. We talk about professionalism in general — what does that mean as an NBA player. There’s a certain way you have to carry and conduct yourself. There are security talks that are given.
Then, in addition to the professional topics, there’s an opportunity component, as we call it, meaning that being an NBA player is something that not a lot of people get to enjoy. Not only is there a huge responsibility there, but there’s also a tremendous opportunity to make a difference on your team, make a difference within your community, and we want players to take advantage of those things. That’s where career development comes into play.
Then, we have business of basketball talks, where it’s important for them to understand the business they’re entering — why is it important to be professional; why is engagement with the fans, with the season ticket-holders important. We just try to create this awareness and lay this foundation, so everybody that’s involved with this business and this environment understands that we all have an obligation to make it better than what we found it, and that’s not to be taken lightly.
How has RTP changed in the social media age?
Short: We’ve changed tremendously, because the game has changed, the business has changed and certainly our players have changed. You mentioned the technology component. When we were doing this back in the early 2000s, there wasn’t a big emphasis on technology and social media and all of these things. Now, everything we try to do is driven by some type of technology component. A majority of these kids, that’s how they’ve learned — from the iPhone, iPad or whatever.
The other side of that, too, is that we’ve had to change some of our approaches to learning because of folks taking in information a little differently than folks did back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We have to understand that and change with the times.
Then, there are some fundamental aspects of RTP that haven’t changed, like our group discussions. Those are important, because it’s important for these first-year players that we provide opportunities in a safe space with retired players, experts and doctors, where they can talk about some of their struggles and hear about how other people have dealt with some things they may be facing or will face.
How much of a focus has brand-building become for rookies?
Short: That falls under our career development component — the importance of a brand. With social media, it’s all about followers, and NBA players are one of the most recognizable groups in the world of sports, so people are interested in what they say, what they’re into, and all of that boils down to your brand. How is that going to be built? What is that going to be built on? How do you manage that?
We have players in our league who have created really interesting models. You look at what LeBron [James] has done. You look at what Steph [Curry] has done. Then, there are players in our league who may not be at the level of a Steph or LeBron, and yet are making huge contributions within their communities. There are different approaches, but the key thing is just kind of understanding who you are as a person, who you are as a player, where your interests lie and what you want to help.
There are tremendous resources through our NBPA Foundation and the league, so there are just so many things that are available to guide them in those directions. I would think it’s just fun to be an NBA player today. In a lot of ways, you can’t help but succeed.
How much has LeBron influenced the next generation in terms of the interest in building a portfolio and becoming the CEO of their own business?
That’s one of the main messages that is given to these guys. They are in fact CEOs of their own company, and that company is them and their brand. How do you develop that? There is a curiosity to that, and it’s our job to try to provide some guidance to them in terms of things they might want to consider to proceed down that path. There’s a lot to it. As a first-year player, there’s so much that you have to learn. LeBron didn’t get to where he is overnight. It’s a process. There’s a big learning curve and a lot you have to learn if you really want to be successful.
That’s one of our most important messages. You didn’t become a great basketball player by just picking up a ball, going out there to play one day, and all of a sudden you’re good. It took many, many days of practice and still takes many, many days of practice to perfect your game, and that’s what you have to do when you’re trying to build your brand and find that niche. There are ways you can go about it. It’s all about doing a little bit every year, and eventually you’ll get to where you want to be.
The thing is not just to do it, but to do it right.
Who was your vet, and how did that relationship develop?
Short: I had some really great mentors. When I came to the Warriors, Clifford Ray and Phil Smith were guys who took me under their wings, particularly Clifford. I’m extremely close to Clifford to this day. He’s still a mentor of mine and a person I admire greatly.
Back then, we didn’t have any of this stuff. There was nothing really other than the players themselves, so there was much more mentoring that took place, because guys like Clifford, Phil, Robert Parish and Jo Jo White all taught me what it was to be a professional, how to approach the game, how to respect the game, understanding the history of the game and more importantly understanding that there are people paying their hard-earned money to come watch you play. So, there’s an obligation there to always try to be at your best.
Then, the other side that’s often overlooked, just from a service standpoint, whatever team you’re with, you always want to give back to that community. When I was with the Warriors, I learned early on from Al Attles, my coach the first three or four years. He was a huge inspiration and mentor, because he was a true professional, and he did it all the right way. He gave back to the Bay Area. That’s who you model yourself: Damn, if I could be half as good as he is, I might be OK.
Are there guys who you formed a bond with once you became a veteran?
Scott: Guys like Lester Conner, Sleepy Floyd. You try to pass on what you were given, so every year we would have rookies come on, and you just try to lead in a lot of ways by example. You try to always be professional, do the right thing and show them those same lessons that you learned. During the time that I played, there was a lot more mentoring. We didn’t have the phones, where we could just stay on that all day, so we had to interact more with each other.
I was having a conversation with Oscar Robertson on one of our players’ trips in my first or second year in the league, and he was talking about the importance of giving back and sharing what you’ve learned with guys who are coming in, but most importantly he talked about the importance of making things better than the way you found it. That’s why the NBA I think is where it is today.
That’s something that’s often not reported much on. In the success of anything, there are lessons that are passed on — the circle of life you talked about — and that still goes on. Mentoring still happens in our league, just in a different form. It’s still happening. Guys are still passing those lessons on to the younger guys who are coming into the league. It’s still occurring. They’re just doing it in a different way.
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