You’ve heard all the crazy (and true) statistics about the chances someone makes it any professional team sport. Statistically, basketball is the hardest, because of simple math: the NHL allows 20 players. The NFL, 53. MLB, 25. The NBA? 14.
Knowing these stats, there are still millions of young men who feel they can be one of those precious few who actually does make it. And shit, somebody has to be out there playing! Everybody can’t be all “realistic” all the time. Someone has to have the balls to go for it.
Maybe that’s you. And, as a former professional player who played overseas and never in the NBA, I’ll tell you something: the sooner you realize how much a challenge this is, the better.
Athletes have short shelf lives. Sports is one of the few industries where you’re all used up by age 40, with half of your life left to live. An athlete can not afford mistakes that costs him time, like not understanding how much effort and focus is required for success. You can’t learn that at 35 and then hope you’ll get a shot at proving it; the game has moved on to the next 20-year-old with unlimited upside potential.
So, how hard is it, really, to make it in basketball? And why? Let’s get into that.
1) The competition always gets bigger, better and more committed.
I told this story on the Work On Your Game Podcast. I played D3 college ball. One day a couple teammates and I went to a nearby D1 school to play pickup with their team.
My money skill at the time was athleticism: I could out-run and out-jump anyone on my campus. That day playing at the D1 school, though, their “athletic” guy easily blocked my dunk attempt, shattering my ego at the same time. It was then that I realized that what I considered hard work, who I saw as a “good” player, and how close I was to being a pro all needed to be recalibrated.
In basketball, the competition never decreases. As more money gets involved and fewer chances to get that money exist, the intensity ratchets up that much more. In the pros, you are playing against men who are not just playing because they’re good or because they’re living a lifelong dream. You’re playing against husbands and fathers who pay the bills and feed their kids with their basketball jobs. And they have no plans on handling their roster spot or playing time over to you without a fight.
It’s not about skill vs skill. This is about pride, ego, hunger, family, survival, and LIFE. The higher the level, the more these come to matter even more than your dribble or your jumper.
2) It’s a Buyer’s Market: You need them — they don’t need you*.
Go on Amazon and search for “Bluetooth headphones.” How many choices are there? When I wrote this, there were 196,553 results. Which means you and I, the buyers, have our pick of which one to buy. The sellers, all 196,553 of them, have to twist and shout and discount and copywrite and competed just to get our attention, let alone our money.
Bluetooth headphones are a buyer’s market: with so many options to choose from, we can afford to be selective.
Now think of the iPhone X, or any new iPhone that comes out, on Release Day. I’ve never participated, but I’ve seen the lines of people who camp out and hold their spots for hours and even days in front of Apple stores worldwide, just to be the first to get their hands on the newest, most popular smartphone. There is nowhere, at least on Release Day, to buy the newest iPhone besides the Apple store or Apple website.
Thus, Apple has created a Seller’s Market: the buyers have limited choices in terms of time, date, location, and product. Thus, Apple dictates the terms: here’s how many were making available. Here’s how long you’ll have to wait if you don’t get one today. Here’s what it costs, and the price is non-negotiable.
And people line up, push and shove, beg, borrow and deal, to buy.
Funny thing with Apple and other companies like them. The buyers have actually chosen these limits for themselves because of how much they love the Apple product. The buyers know this fact, and they love it.
Pro basketball is a Buyer’s market. With (maybe) 3,000 Available jobs for American-passport-holding players and (probably) 300,000 or more who think they can hold down one of those jobs, teams can be very selective in choosing whom they give a shot. They can dictate terms: salaries, what time you need to be where, your meal choices, and anything in between.
You have to make yourself stand out and be that 1% (3,000 out of 300,000 or more) who gets the shot others will never get. Make this page a frequent visit for you as your roadmap.
[* A disclaimer: It is possible for a player, like you, to create a Seller’s Market in professional basketball, where the teams need you more than you need them. Look no further than Mr. LeBron James.
Any NBA team who wants a superstar player like LeBron would ideally sign that player to the longest deal that makes sense to them, to keep that guy around. But LeBron, the employee, has flipped the script to be the boss. He decides how long of a contract he will sign, which team he’s going to play for (since they would all gladly welcome him), and, to a certain extent, who else will Be on the team with him.
LeBron James is clearly the exception, but he is living proof that it is possible.]
3) Time is working against you.
Like I said, and like you know — athletic careers are short. No matter how great an athlete you are, your window is closing with every passing day.
In basketball, our physical abilities peak somewhere between ages 25-30. The challenge is to have our Mental Games catch up and coincide, for as long as possible, with that physical peak. Understanding the challenge you’re up against in the game of basketball is a huge part of that Mental Game growth.
Time is against you in other ways. Every season you spend not playing somewhere reputable — whether it be team, league, or location — is a mark against. You are judged by your associations. In the eyes of overseas team, from what I’ve experienced, a D1 benchwarmer gets more opportunity to play pro ball than a D3 all-star.
That’s not quite fair, but there’s nothing in this post about fairness.
4) If you only think of these reasons, you’re in trouble.
All this being said, and all of it being true, I still recommend that you play a game on yourself mentally. Here’s how: Forget everything I’ve said here and focus only on what you need to do.
In the marathon that is life, we tend to get exactly what we expect: from ourselves, from others, and from life in general. If you live your basketball life thinking about all the reasons why making it is hard — all the competition, how tough it is to get the right exposure, who else might be coming for your spot — those challenges will be all you see and your performance (or lack thereof) will reflect that mindset.
You need to know what the challenges are, then apply that knowledge to putting all your focus not on that, but on you. In other words, you know what the facts are, but you’re not allowing those facts to limit your possibilities. It’s not easy to do, which is why so many players don’t make it.
So there you have it. Is it hard to “make it” in basketball? YES. And now you know why. And you know what you’ll do about it. Don’t say you were never told.
This article is written for the up-and-coming player not so much as a reality check, but as a reminder of the true scope of what you’re (trying to) get yourself into. Parents, coaches and mentors: share this with your players.
Work On Your Game.