Their employers provide first-class seats on flights, rooms in posh hotels, $32 per diem and an average salary of $212,000.
Still, the life of a professional basketball player may not be as easy as it sounds. The constant travel, the physical rigors of the game and the nightly pressure to produce in a profession in which the average career lasts 3.8 years take a toll. It often hits hardest at home.
"It's easy to drift apart when you're married to a basketball player," said Connie Unseld, wife of former Washington Bullet Wes Unseld. "We've seen it happen to so many of our friends. Wes and I made it maybe because we became each other's best friend as well as marriage partner. We both have our lives independently and together."
Donna Ballard, wife of Bullet forward Greg Ballard, said that one of the hardest things for many wives of basketball players to understand is that there are times when their husbands just aren't going to be there, "and you have to be a Rock of Gibraltar . . . There has to be a lot of trust and a lot of understanding, more so than with most so-called 'regular' marriages."
The Unselds and the Ballards have made a major effort to keep their families together. Others haven't been able to deal with the life as effectively.
One prominent NBA all-star has struggled with his marriage for the past few seasons--although he and his wife say they love each other--because of NBA-related stress.
The player's wife recalls a time when two of their children were excited about being in a school play on a rare night when their father would be able to come and watch them. The father arrived late because of a practice, and when he entered the auditorium, all of the attention turned to him and away from the stage. The children's big moment had been stolen by their father.
The couple later separated, but they are now back together.
"Sometimes we just aren't as sensitive to the ones we love as we should be," the player said. "Sometimes what we think is the right thing to do is just the opposite. Kids and wives don't always understand that their father or husband is a celebrity. He's just their father or husband to them, and they want him to act like it."
The strains that the game puts on families is a major concern of Larry Fleisher, head of the NBA Players Association. "There are two critical times in the marital life of a professional basketball player," said Fleisher, "the first year in the league and right after the player retires.
"There are problems at first because the player has more money all of a sudden and he's idolized on the road; women chase him and he sees the freedom others have and thinks that's what he wants, too. Retirement is just as bad because the player and his wife often find out that they aren't used to each other and their life styles are so different they can't get along. The player suffers withdrawal pangs, but the wife's life is going on as usual."
Dr. Stephen DuVall, who counsels players through the Life Extension Institute, says the athletes' problems "are almost exactly the same as other employe groups in other businesses. The only real difference is in the media attention they receive. Their travel situation isn't even all that unique. We have some marketing people in some businesses who travel a lot more than they travel. The uniqueness of the basketball players is that they go from a high stress situation to an incredible boredom in such a short period of time."
Los Angeles Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been through as much as any player in the league in his 14-year career. He's gone through a marriage; a name change; become what he called "culturally stagnant" in Milwaukee, and requested a trade to Los Angeles. Until five years ago, he had trouble controlling his temper on the court. He says he has mellowed now, but when he looks back, he admits the life style of the league does indeed take a toll.
"What I've tried to do is keep my life on an even keel away from basketball," he said. "You have to develop and maintain other interests. The stress of the game gets to you and it is a cause of many of the drug, alcohol and family problems. I know, I'm divorced. I can't blame it all on basketball, but basketball didn't help the situation any."
Pat Williams, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, is not all that sympathetic. He concedes that the life can be difficult at times, "but we're making things as easy as we can on these guys. They travel and they eat first class. If a guy is going to have a problem, he's going to have a problem, and I don't think it can be blamed on the game. The life style may extenuate it, but there are too many guys who get along well within the system to blame the system when some of them go wrong."
It all depends on the individual, says Donna Ballard. "Drug addiction and cheating on your wife aren't exclusive to professional basketball players. If that's your makeup you're going to do it. I think one of the most important things a wife of a player can do is try to make his home life as normal as possible, because the rest of their lives are so abnormal."
Donna Ballard spends much of her time caring for her children, Larry, 7, and Gabrielle, 1, and running the household. Things are a bit different with Spencer Haywood and his wife, Iman, a top fashion model.
Because of her profession, the Haywoods keep apartments in New York and Silver Spring. Haywood shuttles back and forth at every opportunity.
"We have a young daughter in school and ballet lessons and things, and my wife has her career," said Haywood, "so it's unrealistic to expect them to uproot themselves and move here. I have to make the adjustment. Iman's career is just as important as mine. I used to be wild and everything else, but my family life has given me a new and deeper understanding of myself and of life in general.
"Because my home life is like it is, I can be trustworthy and confident and not be tempted by things that tempt others who don't have such a home life."
Still, the NBA recognizes that the life of a basketball player isn't ordinary.
"You're dealing with human beings," said Commissioner Larry O'Brien. "We're part of American society. Society has its problems and so do we. We're unique, though. We have a lot of young fellows in a professional sport getting large salaries and subjected to extensive travel and other unnatural things. Sometimes it can be tough to deal with and maintain yourself. We want to help those who stumble.
"Our average player is 25 years of age, has been under a great deal of pressure to make his team and keep his job, and is frequently separated from his friends and family because of a hectic travel schedule. We realize that under the circumstances, players may require special counseling."
The players association feels the same way. A year ago, the union and the league jointly formed a working agreement with the Life Extension Institute, a professional employe counseling service.
The Life Extension Institute is a division of Control Data Corp. of Minneapolis. It has a toll-free telephone number to Minneapolis, and centers in New York, Baltimore, San Diego, Chicago and Toronto. Others are planned in Dallas and San Francisco.
"The NBA came to us," said DuVall, the person at the institute working most closely with the NBA.
"The NBA told us they have people with special skills, but they are still business people, and in many ways just like any other employe group."
DuVall estimates that 15 percent of the league's 276 players have used the service in the first year for problems ranging from drugs to alcohol to illnesses to financial and family problems.
"We went to every team and told them what we had to offer," DuVall said. "They sat down and listened and asked good questions. They were as attentive as any employe group we've ever dealt with, and they've used the service at a higher percentage rate than most employe groups.
"Our goal is to catch the problems before they reach the crisis stage."
The initial contact with the Life Extension Institute is usually through a telephone call from a player. A meeting is set up if necessary, and the NBA is never informed, unless the player prefers it that way or his problem has become public.
"What we're really trying to do with this thing is police ourselves," said New York Knick Maurice Lucas, vice president of the players association.
"We want to soothe things before they become major problems. There are a lot of things that can upset guys. Some of them don't like to fly, some have trouble sleeping in so many hotels; they're upset by a newspaper article or they haven't been playing well. That's the kind of stuff that builds stress. The issues aren't only alcohol and drugs."
Despite the problems, the life of an NBA player is still a good one. Yet, the average length of an NBA career is 3.8 years, and insecurity is as much a part of the game as loose-ball fouls.
"Part of that problem is also the insecurity of the coaches and general managers," said Fleisher, "so there is pressure for constant change. The coaches and general managers often think the guy coming out of college can jump higher and shoot better than the guy they thought the same thing about the previous season. It also keeps salaries down if you cut a marginal player after only one or two years and replace him with another marginal player."
The players association also recognizes that it has an image problem.
"We've put these players on first-class flights and put them up in first-class hotels," said Fleisher. "Our image is our livelihood. The players are vulnerable anyway because most of them are black and people are looking to criticize them."
Fleisher, who has been the head of the players union for 21 years, says he has seen gradual changes in the players over that time.
"Twenty years ago, the players wanted all the great things for themselves and couldn't get them. Players today start with them, so they take a lot for granted. As a group, I think the players today are brighter. They're going to better schools and getting better educations. The league also used to be 80 percent white and now it's 80 percent black.
"We've come a long way, but there's still a long way to go."