As an athlete and/or sports fan, you’re probably hard-wired to zero your attention right in on the kinds of examples that your favorite playing icons set for how top athletes should conduct their lives off the court or field. That’s understandable too, since everybody seems to love focusing on the biggest stars.
But guys like former NBA sub Stephen Howard may just have more to teach you about how to transition from playing professional basketball to a mainstream career than Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, or even Ray Allen can.
Sure, those veteran master basketball superstars have proven their staying power in the NBA. But they’re also used to being among the most important players on their teams, which means that they’ve never had to worry about losing their jobs as much as players do who are lower on the pecking order. And for some of them, that status may translate more easily into front office, broadcasting, or even unrelated entrepreneurial opportunities later on because of the recognizability of their names.
Lesser-known players, however, can never allow themselves the luxury of getting comfortable on a player roster. Because of the extreme lack of job stability for pro athletes everywhere, players who aren’t in a team’s regular rotation have a more urgent need than superstars do to prepare themselves for post-athletic careers.
Of course, every player on a pro roster has dedicated years of physical and emotional sacrifice to don one of the official uniforms of his or her sport. So whether the player is the team MVP or the last one off the bench, the ritual-dependent warrior life of a professional athlete is so physically and emotionally taxing that making the transition to another career after one’s playing days are over can be a hugely traumatic life change.
According to Howard, who is an entrepreneur, as well as a studio analyst for the NBA’s OKC Thunder and a college basketball analyst for ESPN, “I think most players don’t realize the true depth of that transition [from playing pro basketball to another career] and what it will entail once they get done playing. So that’s really what makes it so difficult when they leave the sport. It’s a definite process that you have to go through. It’s almost like a death, and you’re mourning it. You’ve been doing that work for so long.”
Howard spent 15 years playing professional basketball internationally and domestically, including three seasons with the Utah Jazz, one season with the Seattle SuperSonics, and a brief stint with the San Antonio Spurs, between 1992 and 1998. He retired from playing oversees about five years ago.
Even though Howard was never an NBA starter, and played the remainder of his 15-year pro basketball career overseas after 1998, he explained that the rigid ritualistic behavior patterns and constant competitive focus needed by pro athletes are so unique, that any career that follows it is likely to be experienced by the athlete as culture shock.
“I even see it with myself,” said Howard, referring to the feeling of loss that accompanied his retirement. “I’m still transitioning after five years to not playing. For more than 15 years, I was playing basketball, and then for 15 years I was doing it professionally. So literally I could set my clock on what I was doing at any certain time of the year, month, or day. It was a routine. When you lose that routine, then you basically have to develop a whole new routine later on in life. And that’s a very difficult transition, mentally, to go through.”
Recalling the factors that helped to prepare him for accepting the challenge of transitioning into a whole different way of earning a living, Howard explained, “Playing 15 years on a 1-year contract, I didn’t have any years where I could just rest and kind of chill. I was auditioning every day, every month, every shot, and every game for my next team that I would play for in the next year.
“People really don’t realize the difficult nature of being a professional athlete. But I think just as difficult as it is to become a professional athlete, it’s more difficult to leave that profession because, literally you’re living in a world that’s totally different from the real world just because of the money that you’re making, access that you have, and the different things that you do.”
So What’s a Retired Pro Baller to Do?
Given the intense and regimented nature of a pro athlete’s life, leaving your mournful feelings about the end of your playing career unresolved isn’t an option. Howard offers the following four tips to help pro athletes move through the inevitable mourning stages without falling into a debilitating depression.