Tony Snell’s mission to return to NBA is bigger than just basketball

There’s a quiet algebra underneath the NBA’s trade deadline. Front offices scout on-court talent and evaluate skill sets and conduct background intelligence, yet many players sent to a new team, halfway through each season, get included simply because their contracts’ values can be substituted for X. Their salaries balance the equation so their life becomes uprooted and a career can get left behind.

That’s how and why Tony Snell was traded to New Orleans in February 2022, a necessary variable to help the Pelicans acquire C.J. McCollum from the Trail Blazers. Snell held a role in Portland, playing 14.4 minutes and flanking opposing wings with his 7-foot wingspan. He appeared in just 15 games for the Pelicans, shooting along his career average of 39.6% from distance, only to fade entirely from the playoff rotation. Head coach Willie Green never called his number, and no teams came calling that summer after Snell became an unrestricted free agent.

And so one year after his world flipped, when Snell returned to a professional court with a G League jersey now on his back, a strange sensation came with each step of his sneakers. The buzzer blaring and the pregame clock reaching zero always brought a euphoria he could only capture on hardwood, whether Snell was leading the New Mexico Lobos or after the Chicago Bulls made him a first-round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. A decade later, joining the Maine Celtics at the end of January 2023, Snell found a string of nerves knotting his insides.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

“Of course, I want to come back and play, but I have a bigger purpose now,” Snell told Yahoo Sports. “It’s not about me anymore. It’s about my boys.”

Snell is now in his second straight season with Maine, Boston’s affiliate club, still flashing the two-way strengths of his prime. He practices each day and plays each game hoping all his hard work can generate an NBA call-up — not just the 10-day contract so many of his peers would absolutely crave. The 32-year-old 3-and-D specialist seeks to find his way onto an NBA team’s active roster by Friday, signed for the rest of the season, in order to compile a 10th year of service for the players association’s retiree benefits program. That additional season would make Snell eligible for the union’s premium medical plan — beyond his current single qualification — which would also cover his whole family, including his two sons, Karter, 3, and Kenzo, 2, who were both diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

“It’s something I truly need,” Snell said. “Not only for myself, but for my wife and my kids.”

During his 2020-21 campaign with Atlanta, the Snells’ nanny first mentioned Karter was showing textbook signs of stalled development. By 18 months, the family’s first born could only say one word, pointing at the household’s NBA player and calling him “Dad” or “Dada.” Karter would need five toys in his hands at all times, typically featuring a miniature basketball. “And you take one, he’ll have a temper tantrum,” Snell said.

Snell thought nothing of his child’s behavior. He recalls not talking himself until he was 4 or 5 years old. He never felt he could relate to his sister or his cousins or his uncles, and they all left him to shoot baskets and play video games in solitude, repeating the same rhythms for hours on end. He kept to himself even after all those repetitions honed a shooting stroke worthy of the NBA. Snell even met his wife, Ashley, at a barbecue hosted by his Chicago Bulls teammate, Jimmy Butler, because he was sitting by himself. She has an explorer’s heart and mind — Snell lovingly calls her “Dora” — and Ashley wandered across the backyard wondering why this professional athlete wasn’t the life of the party. “She caught an interest,” Snell said. “And that’s all she wrote.”

PORTLAND, ME - NOVEMBER 15: Tony Snell lays the ball in during Maine Celtics practice. (Staff photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Tony Snell lays the ball in during Maine Celtics practice. (Staff photo by Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

When a second nanny suggested they get Karter examined, the couple took him to a doctor who helped the family get him an autism evaluation. After months of waiting, a common hurdle for pediatric patients, they were finally able to get Karter evaluated by a specialist. Snell watched as his child was put in a playroom, grabbing certain blocks of certain colors. When the testing revealed Karter’s diagnosis, all the levers in Snell’s mind shifted into place. He would go on to get evaluated himself, but the results only confirmed what he’d since come to suspect: After three decades and a full-fledged NBA career, Snell learned he was on the spectrum as well.

Naming his experience brought a newfound clarity. “I honestly felt relief,” Snell said. “I always knew I was different from everybody else. Just observing other kids, just observing everyone around me. How they were interested in each other and they just clicked. I couldn’t find a way to click or relate. Basketball was honestly the only reason I had friends.”

Now Snell hopes he can use the game to foster countless connections. He wants his annual basketball camp, through the Tony Snell Foundation, to “have kids on the spectrum and kids not on the spectrum play together, interact, and see we can compete at a high level, together, and figure things out.” The Snells are aiming to further research and understand the tribulations behind pediatric testing, as families can wait up to three years to learn of their child’s diagnosis, delaying opportunities for critical therapies during early neurodevelopmental periods. Karter, for example, after his first eight months of speech therapy, expanded his range to include 20 words. He can count as high as 20, now knows shapes and colors, and is able to communicate his needs and wants.

With Maine, Snell has found himself more vocal than ever before, a veteran mentor 10 years older than the average age of his teammates. His playing time has waned with the Celtics’ recent two-way signing, Drew Peterson, playing the same position. And Jordan Walsh, Boston’s second-round pick last June, has been on assignment this season. Snell has stayed the course, offering lessons from his previous playoff battles, many coming against their very Celtics. He’s taken a particular liking to two-way guard J.D. Davidson, a soft-spoken ball-handler Snell has seen quietly come out of his shell.

“I want to share my knowledge with the young guys. I have enjoyment from helping them out and showing them what I see,” Snell said. “I’m at the stage where I want to inspire people and help as many people as I possibly can.”

Not just players. “People in general,” Snell said. “If they’re willing to learn, I’m willing to share.”