The NBA has produced some of the most iconic and inspiring rags to riches stories, with many of its famous players – LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, Allen Iverson, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokuonmpo – having experienced great amounts of adversity before they became the accomplished athletes they are today. Even the most casual of basketball fans can sympathize with the childhood stories of Giannis selling watches in the streets of Greece, LeBron having to move in with a coach when his mother struggled to find steady work, or Jimmy Butler bouncing between the homes of friends after his mother kicked him out.
For many young Black boys with hoop dreams who may come from similarly troubling circumstances, these stories provide hope that with hard work and talent, you can rise out of poverty and provide for yourself and your family.
However, as the industry of basketball continues to evolve, the rags to riches narrative may soon become the exception.
In fact, these narratives may not be as common as many of us might have believed them to be: In an ESPN article titled, “Importance of An Athlete’s Background”, research done for the International Review for the Sociology of Sport revealed that while “45 percent of Black male children in the U.S. live in households earning no more than 150 percent of the poverty line ($22,050 for a family of four in 2010), just 34 percent of Black athletes in the NBA grew up in that financial situation.” Furthermore, among Black families, “a child from a low-income family has 37 percent lower odds of making the NBA than a child from a middle- or upper-income family.”; similar results are reflected among white athletes. These numbers are a stark contrast from the NBA of the 1960s and 70s, where “more than 90 percent of NBA players were from urban areas.”
Why does this happen? Well for one, as financial inequality continues to persist across the country, recreational sports are becoming more and more of a luxury that is exclusive to suburban families, who can afford the prices that come with participation. This is corroborated by research from the Aspen Institute, with CBS News reporting that, “About 7 of 10 children from families that earn more than $100,000 play sports, compared with 3 in 10 from families earning less than $25,000.”
Besides the multitude of psychological, social and emotional benefits that come with playing basketball at a young age, it is also crucial for any child with dreams of playing professionally to start developing their craft early, with star players like Steph Curry, Ja Morant, and Jayson Tatum starting at 6, 8, and 10, respectively. But as public schools grapple with shrinking sports budgets, pay-to-play sports are becoming more common, with the typical family spending around $700 a year for their kids to participate, says cbsnews.com. This is harming athletes whose families lack financial flexibility, robbing them of the chance to showcase and grow their skills.
When fees for organized sports programs become too much of a barrier for poor families, some athletes turn to community recreation centers and neighborhood basketball courts to begin practicing and developing their craft. But as a result of Covid-19, many basketball courts across the country have closed their gates, resulting in a 50% drop in youth sports participation, and cutting off yet another avenue for poor players to pursue basketball.
As players get older and move onto the high school level, it becomes even more important to invest in yourself – this is where most of the star players we know today started showing NBA potential, and began to get recognized by college scouts. It is not uncommon for championship-chasing high school athletes and their families to move states in order to attend schools with better sports programs. In the state of Florida alone, it was predicted that over 280,000 high school students would transfer schools for sports in 2018, with the actual number surpassing that in 2019. For players from small towns whose families don’t have the resources to uproot their lives on a whim, the chances of being recognized become even slimmer.
Another option, and perhaps the best option for players looking to increase their visibility among college scouts, is the AAU – Amateur Athletic Union – an organization in which non-school travel teams compete against one another in tournaments. What’s different and appealing about the AAU is the chance to compete with, and against, some of the best teen basketball talent in the country, rather than with your local high school team – this is what attracts college scouts, who are able to watch multiple national prospects within one weekend of AAU games. Leaving out foreign talent, 71% of NBA players 28 or younger competed on an AAU team. But like other organized sports programs, the AAU comes with a hefty price for participation that becomes even more overwhelming when you consider that many of these teams are traveling across the country to compete; plane tickets, hotel stays, and gas are just a few of the additional fees parents must consider, on top of team fees.
The 2019 Operation Varsity Blues investigation demonstrated how important sports can be to the college admissions process. If a student were to be presented as an elite recruit by coaches, they could be offered admission to a prestigious institution, regardless of their standings in other admissions criteria, like academics or test scores. Getting their children into elite schools is sometimes the sole motivation for parents who shell out hundreds and thousands of dollars a year for their kids to participate in organized sports. In an arena like the NBA, where 84.7% of the players attended a Division I school, it becomes even more important to do whatever you can in high school in order to be recognized by top college coaches. But in this process, poor athletes are being left behind.
Not only are the NBA prospects of today more financially privileged, but more players are second-generation. According to the Wall Street Journal, 48.8% of NBA players are related to current or former elite athletes, more than any other professional sport. This year, Scotty Pippen Jr. and Shareef O’Neal, sons of Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O’Neal, started playing for the Los Angeles Lakers summer league team. There are obvious assumed benefits of growing up in an elite basketball family, like the financial resources, the passed down connections, and knowing what to expect from the game. It gives them an edge over players that grew up in neighborhoods where they might not even know someone who can afford to attend an NBA game, let alone someone who’s been in the game and can give first hand advice.
So what about the players from troubled backgrounds that do make it? The Giannis’, the LeBrons’, the Iversons’? Well for one, it’s important to understand how many of these players could have easily slipped through the cracks had it not been for their overwhelming talent, hunger, and a bit of chance luck. Giannis Antetokounmpo is regarded today as one of the greatest athletes to touch a basketball, but at age 17 when he was first discovered by NBA executives, his longest highlight reel had been viewed only 150 times. Ja Morant, another NBA star with humble, small town beginnings, was unranked coming out of high school. He received only one scholarship offer, only after his coach accidentally discovered him while grabbing chips and a soda.
Once these players do make it, they’re likely to face a substantial amount of social and emotional problems that come with escaping poverty—the pressure of having to take care of your family, the fear of losing your position, the survivor’s guilt of being the only one in your family to reach this level, and for players from foreign countries, the paranoia of being away from family and not knowing who you can trust. A few players, former and current, have spoke to this phenomena; Metta Sandiford-Artest, who is infamously known for his participation in one of the biggest brawls in NBA history, grew up in the Queensbridge Projects in New York. In his childhood, he witnessed a fellow player get murdered, and with these traumatic experiences came deep seated anxiety, anger and depression issues that went unaddressed until he was forced to seek professional help.
“I always had anger issues because that’s all I grew up around, anger…I grew up with friends who were happy and the next moment guns were firing. As a kid it was unbalanced and confusing. There was never a chance to relax.” he said in a 2018 interview. “I was the best two-way player in the league at 24…I was also spiraling downward emotionally. My emotions were eating away at my skills. Like a parasite eating away at your body. It was eating away at my skill and my work habits and my mental focus and my discipline.”
“I started doing it when I was 18,” recalled Giannis in a post-NBA championship interview with GQ. “When you’re that young and you’re doing it, people don’t understand the amount of pressure because at the end of the day, you don’t only have to perform and be the best, you have the big brand that you got to f*cking carry on your shoulder. You have your own country…Greece, in my case. You have all these people that you got to take care of. Sometimes…I don’t want to f*ck up.”
“But you know what I knew? I have no f*cking choice. I have no option. I can’t f*cking stop. If I stop everything, my family, I can’t help them. I cannot be in a position to help them.”
Starting from the youth level, whether it be pay-to-play school sports or the AAU, the cards are stacked against basketball players who come from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. The NBA could be losing out on generational talents because of the many barriers in place that prevent all players from a chance to compete and develop their skill at a high level. The group that is being harmed the most by these barriers though, are low-income, young Black kids with hoop dreams, who simply want a chance to compete in their favorite sport. But as connections and wealth continue to take precedence over talent, the triumphant stories of our favorite players that many of us grew up revering could become distant memories of the past.