One of the attractions of covering an All-Star game is having access to so many of the sport’s biggest names at one time. They’re concentrated, for a few days in a given city, like fish in a small tank, and as a reporter you can ask them anything at all. Last weekend in Indianapolis at the NBA all-star game, I had such an opportunity.
Now we all know how much money pro basketball players make.
So I asked the players this question: If you had never played pro ball, how would you be earning a living now?
The first player I asked was Alex English, and he said he’d have gotten his doctorate and would be a college professor, teaching English.
I mentioned this curious circumstance--that English would teach same--to Tom Callahan, Time’s wry and clever sports editor, but it didn’t surprise Callahan at all. Callahan holds that your surname can point you in the proper direction, professionally speaking. George Gallup, for example, might have been better off forgetting about polling, and becoming a hot walker at Bowie racetrack; James Baker still has time to give up this Treasury nonsense and start a bagel business. Callahan cites as his prime example this most appropriate surname of all: the Baltimore Orioles’ trainer, Ralph Salvon.
Under this formula a lot of the NBA All-Stars should have pursued different paths. Ralph Sampson might well consider becoming a hairdresser; Robert Parish, the Pope; Jack Sikma, a trainer of attack dogs for teens with severe generation conflicts; Calvin Natt, an entomologist; Isiah Thomas, a muffin; Norm Nixon, an unindicted co-conspirator; Dennis and Magic Johnson, band-aids.
But seriously folks . . .
Adrian Dantley thought he’d be working in a bank. And on the side, he said, he might be an assistant coach somewhere. Then, considering his recent conflict with his own coach, Frank Layden, Dantley smiled and said, “Never a head coach, too much problem being a head coach.”
Rolando Blackman said he’d be in marketing in the Midwest, probably selling computers; Jack Sikma said he’d be in accounting; Calvin Natt said he’d also be in the business field, hopefully learning the restaurant trade, “working my way up the ladder like everyone else"; Bill Laimbeer, whose father is the president of the auto glass conglomerate Owens-Illinois, said he’d probably be living the corporate life, too, perhaps in forest products, “in management, absolutely.”
Julius Erving was another who thought he’d be involved in business. Had he not left college to turn pro after his junior year at Massachusetts, he says he would have graduated, and by now--a week short of his 35th birthday and after 12 years on the job--Erving can see himself “a plant manager, supervising personnel in a labor situation.” He’s not sure which specific product this plant would be manufacturing, but he would “definitely” be living in the New York area, so for all he knows he could be working on the Space Shuttle at Grumman on Long Island. That’s Doctor J’s best guess of what he would have become, but (eat your heart out, Rona) his fantasy was to be a professional tennis player.
George Gervin said he was glad that he never had to “cross that road,” but he “always wanted to be an electrician.” Where? “Somewhere warm,” Iceman said. Can you imagine how effortlessly he would install your chandelier?
Bernard King and Terry Cummings both had the same idea, broadcasting. News, or sports, it made no difference. Cummings assumed he’d be home in Chicago, and King figured he’d be in the Southeast, utilizing the contacts he’d made while a student at Tennessee. While Cummings said he’d have taken “whatever opportunity presented itself, radio or TV,” the polished and articulate King was certain he would be on camera.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t sure what he’d be doing, maybe teaching history; Dennis Johnson had no idea at all. “I started playing basketball so long ago, I never really thought about anything else,” Johnson said; Micheal Ray Richardson was equally vague. “I don’t know what, but I’m sure I’d be doing something,” he said first, then, after some thought, “Working with kids in a recreation center somewhere, maybe Colorado.”
Norm Nixon would be a dentist in Pittsburgh, working at paying off the debt he’d accumulated while purchasing his equipment; Robert Parish would be selling real estate either in New Orleans or Houston; Sidney Moncrief would be coaching basketball in or around Little Rock, Ark. “I wanted to coach, not to teach,” he said. “Hopefully, in a high school. But a lot of times you have to start on the junior high school level.”
Isiah Thomas had no doubt that right now he would be in his second year of law school, on his way to a career as a trial lawyer.
Magic Johnson had no doubt that he’d be “working on the line at GM,” on his way to who knows what.
It was comforting to hear almost all of them admit that there was almost no chance that they’d be as accomplished, as wealthy and as famous as they are now had they not become professional basketball players. When asked to speculate on how much he might be earning on the line at General Motors, Magic shook his head and wondered, "$30,000?” When asked how much he thought he’d be making as that plant manager, Erving figured he’d be “pushing for 30 to 35.” Then, bowing his head, clearly in thanks for his athletic talent, the Doctor said respectfully, “It’s a wonderful gift. So use it, don’t abuse it.”