By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010; D3
PALISADES, N.Y. - In the four months since he took his last final exam at Kentucky, John Wall has quickly discovered there is a lot to learn that he can't get in a classroom.
He has received an education in finance (he has become a multimillionaire after signing a contract with the Washington Wizards and endorsement deals with Reebok and Panini); in how people roll in Washington (he had a police escort for his red carpet introduction); in basketball (he earned most outstanding player honors in the Las Vegas summer league); and in real estate (he recently bought his mother a house and found an apartment a short drive from Verizon Center).
But this week, Wall was back in a classroom setting, scribbling notes and listening to lectures during the NBA's rookie transition program. Wall, the No. 1 overall draft pick, joined nearly 50 other rookies in an intense, secluded, three-day schedule of seminars and workshops designed to help them understand that being a part of the NBA requires more than an ability to dribble, pass and shoot.
"It's a lot of stuff you have to learn," Wall said. "Everybody say they think they know everything, but we really don't know nothing."
For a corporation such as the NBA, which generated almost $4.2 billion in revenue last season, it is imperative that the face of the business - the players - have a full grasp of the challenges ahead. The program, which was created in 1986, focuses on subjects such as the stresses that come from playing an 82-game season, dealing with peer pressure, how to say no to family members and friends seeking handouts, being fiscally responsible, legal education, sexual health, the anti-drug program, anger management and gambling. Since the average NBA career ends at age 27 and after nearly five seasons, a portion of the program also was focused on preparing for life after basketball.
Panelists included current and former players such as Bill Russell, Earl Monroe, Alonzo Mourning, Amare Stoudemire, Spencer Haywood and Jarrett Jack, and various experts in their respective fields. The knowledge passed along doesn't come across like a TV after-school special, as presenters often use frank and direct language. The curriculum is the result of input from players, and it is reinforced throughout the regular season as the NBA meets with teams twice a year for player development programs.
"Now, we don't expect them to retain all the information, but I think it helps for them to see that there are so many layers to this, so many different things that you can get hung up on and that you have to be aware of, the financial aspect, the social aspect, image," said Michael Bantom, NBA senior vice president of player development. "A lot of people see this as a one shot deal, but we use this as an introduction to the relationship-building process to show them what we do and that you don't have to figure it out on your own."
Wizards rookie Trevor Booker also participated, but fellow first-round pick Kevin Seraphin was unable to attend while he awaits a work visa clearance from France. The 12-hour sessions were draining on the players, with Wall using a lunch break on Wednesday to sneak in a short nap. He was especially attentive on Thursday as Monroe, the Hall of Famer and former Baltimore Bullet, shared stories during an early morning legends panel with Mourning, Haywood and Sam Perkins.
Monroe spoke of his playing days when he earned $20,000 as a rookie and jokingly said teams traveled to games "on an ark." Monroe also told the players about the importance of being well-rounded and well-connected, saying, "When people see you out there, they see you as a player, but do they see you as a person?"
Players were warned to be careful with what they do and say on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and how fans perceived them.
Wall said the importance of image and public perception was hammered home during a presentation by NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver. Silver showed a poll from fans that revealed that NBA players have the greatest image problem of athletes in the three major sports.
"That ain't good," said Wall, who has been conscious of his image since he was 14 and joined the D-One Sports AAU program. His coaches and now advisers Brian and Dwon Clifton had a strict policy of no cornrows or tattoos. Wall, who had braids at the time, was initially reluctant, but came around at the urging of some of his friends.
"When I first cut my hair and all that and didn't get any tattoos, that was the main thing, having a clean image coming into this," said Wall, who admits that he has been tempted to get a tattoo to honor his late father on his chest. "That's what they want, to help you to be more marketable. And if you don't stay in the league a long time, it helps you get jobs after this."
Mourning, the former Georgetown star and NBA champion with the Miami Heat, congratulated the rookies on making it to the league but wanted them to understand that being a basketball player is "temporary" and told them that success wasn't guaranteed, using the example of former No. 2 overall pick Jay Williams, whose career was derailed when he was injured in a motorcycle accident after his rookie season with Chicago.
"As fast as you come in this league, this league will spit you out of here," Mourning said. "I knew there was a clock that started as soon as I came into the league."
The clock has started for Wall, who is taking it all in. "You can learn so much from them, from guys that was in this way before we probably was even born," Wall said. "Then, you have people that's going through it right now that can really help you. It means a lot."