Life after NBA comes sooner than many players think
Junior Bridgeman serves as a model for post-career success
If the surrounding company was any indication, Maurice “Mo” Martin was on the verge of a long NBA career.
Joining him on the bus from Bloomington to Indianapolis were Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Terry Porter and John Stockton. Along with Martin, they were the final players cut from the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team.
Like most talented young athletes, Martin harbored big dreams and innocently believed he was going to play forever.
Forever is never as long as it seems.
Within six years of his memorable bus ride, Martin was out of basketball, the victim of a recurring knee injury that ended his career with the Denver Nuggets after just three seasons.
“I was in a fog, totally. It hit me pretty hard,” Martin said. “It wasn’t the fact that I wasn’t good enough. It was the fact that I was hurt. How do you overcome that?”
The average NBA career is about 4.5 years, leaving many players with the same question. Though salaries have increased exponentially over the past 25 years and the buzz of the 2010 free-agent bonanza dominates the summer headlines, the importance of planning for life after basketball has not changed.
Martin felt a sense of déjà vu when he listened to former NBA guard Junior Bridgeman speak to the Nuggets during the 2009-10 season. He reminded them that it’s never too early to start thinking about what they will do to fill the void when their careers are over.
“Most (players) don’t come from a background where they sat around the kitchen table talking about investments and the stock market and all that,” Bridgeman said. “You have no way of knowing. When I came into the league (in 1975), I had no idea how much $10,000 was or wasn’t. The numbers have more zeroes now, but it’s probably still the same (mentality).”
There is no one more qualified to give pro athletes post-career advice than Bridgeman.
From floorburns to Forbes
A former first-round draft pick out of Louisville, he was a hard-working swingman who averaged 13.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in 12 NBA seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers.
Though many people remember him best for being part of the six-player trade that sent Lew Alcindor to the Lakers in 1975, Bridgeman has made a bigger name for himself in the corporate world.
With an estimated net worth of $200 million, Bridgeman was among the wealthiest African-Americans in the United States in 2009, according to Forbes Magazine. He ranked ahead of household names such as Jay-Z, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
“Junior, he came in and he really gave a great speech talking about the success that he’s had off the floor,” said Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups. “It’s unbelievable. It’s incredible to have that kind of success. I think he really inspired a lot of guys. He certainly inspired me.”
Bridgeman, who grew up in a low-income family in East Chicago, Ind., built his fortune in the restaurant business. He bought a handful of Wendy’s franchises after his retirement in 1987, and his holding company, Manna Inc., now operates more than 160 Wendy’s stores and 100 Chili’s restaurants.
“It was that thing that I was going to casually do while I figured out what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” Bridgeman said. “It wasn’t what I was planning on doing forever, and here it is ‘forever.’ ”
Displaying the same tireless work ethic that made him a successful sixth-man in the NBA, Bridgeman often cooked burgers, mopped floors and filled orders alongside his Wendy’s employees early in his restaurant career. As he told the Nuggets: “If you’re going to do a job, you need to do every aspect of that job.”
That’s essentially the attitude that Martin adopted after his troublesome right knee dictated the end of his basketball career.
Life after hoops
Knowing that the three-year, $600,000 contract he signed out of college wouldn’t sustain him for long, he enrolled at Rocky Mountain Community College and earned a degree in construction to go with the degree in criminal justice that he earned at St. Joseph’s University. He earned money by remodeling basements before landing a job with the conversion department at McNichols Sports Arena in the early 1990s.
Martin moved to the Pepsi Center when the Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche left McNichols in 1999, and he now works in building’s engineering department.
“When I knew (my basketball career) was over, I said, ‘OK, I’ve got to pick myself up from the bootstraps. I’m a very intelligent person. I’m very hard-working. I’ll take those and apply it to my situation in life,’ ” Martin said. “It was all on me. I can wallow in sorrow and feel sorry for myself or I can get up and move forward and live life.
“I’ve known a lot of guys my age or older, for one reason or other, there’s some tragedy that happens and they lose it mentally. It’s sad because there’s a lot of life to live. It’s easier said than done because you have to struggle with your own demons, whatever they are. But as you struggle, you realize that the sun is rising in the east and settling in the west. The world is spinning, man, and you’ve got to get back in the game.”
While an injury drove Martin down a new career path, the fickle nature of pro hoops bounced Julian Hammond from basketball.
Hammond was 28 years old and coming off best season of his career when the 1971-72 ABA season began. At that point, the former University of Tulsa star figured he was just entering his prime.
“You kind of think you’re going to play forever,” Hammond said.
First-year Denver Rockets coach Alex Hannum changed those plans when he cut Hammond less than two months into the season. Hammond received a couple tryout offers, but they were for the following season.
His response: Next year? I need something right now.
“I had a daughter and had bought a house,” Hammond said. “I didn’t want to go around (the league) looking for a job. All of a sudden, you don’t have a job and no investments.” Hammond soon started a new career installing telephones for Mountain Bell and spent 31 years with the communications company that became U S West and eventually Qwest. He stays around basketball by working part-time at the Pepsi Center.
“Some guys didn’t look for a job,” Hammond said of his former ABA teammates. “They lived on what they had saved until it was all gone. Then they were destitute. They were in bad shape.”
Hammond also was in attendance when Bridgeman talked to the Nuggets.
“Back when I played, once in a while a person might say, ‘Be smart with your money because you never know what’s going to happen,’ but that was just advice coming from a person that you probably didn’t even know or a person that hung around the team,” Hammond said. “You really didn’t have advice on what to do and how to do it. Be careful with your money? What does that mean, really?”
NBA support system
The NBA and the NBA Players Association do their best to provide the answers, and Bridgeman’s meeting with the Nuggets was a part of that process.
“The guys really got into it,” said NBA senior manager of player development Chris Rooks, who helped arrange Bridgeman’s visit. “They really enjoyed hearing from him. It opened their eyes a lot to their potential.”
From predraft camps to rookie orientations to team awareness meeting, the league and union stress the importance of taking a long-term financial perspective. It can be a difficult sell, despite the list of pro athletes who have lost millions due to poor money management (John Daly, Lenny Dykstra, Latrell Sprewell, Mike Tyson and Antoine Walker, just to name a few).
With a potential labor dispute looming in 2011, it is imperative that players prepare for the unexpected.
“Even a 10-year career, you’re retired at 30, 31 years old and you’ve got 40, 50, 60-some years of your life left,” said Mike Bantom, the NBA’s senior vice president of player development. “A lot of guys don’t have the foresight to look ahead.
“For the most part, a lot of them have known basketball from a very young age. They go for years thinking of themselves as a basketball player. The challenge we have is to get players to think of themselves in broader terms and what they’re capable of doing. They can learn and excel at other occupations and other fields.”
Such was the case for Bridgeman.
Though his wealth was made in the food industry, he has a diverse business network. He is a member of the PGA Board of Directors and dabbled in the oil industry early in his post-NBA career. While in Denver, Bridgeman talked to Nuggets forward Chris Andersen about a possible second career in the trucking industry.
“We’ll see what occurs. It’s in the stages of early brainstorming,” Andersen said. “I know what I want to do as far as how I make my money, but I can’t tell you. I don’t want anybody to steal my idea.”
Andersen would certainly be wise to divulge a business outline to Bridgeman.
“If I can help them in any way, I’m more than happy to do that,” Bridgeman said. “I, fortunately, have met a lot of people and have made a lot of contacts. It may be Pilot Oil or the Flying J people for Chris – if that’s something he’s interested in.”
Billups, meanwhile, would like to stay in basketball after he is done playing. Though a coach on the floor, he has aspirations of a front-office job. Asked if NBA players think much about life after the hardwood, the 33-year-old point guard hedged.
“They think about it, but I don’t know if some of the young guys take it seriously enough,” he said. “I know I do. But of course, when you’ve only got a few years left, you’re always thinking about what’s next for you.”
After all, Bridgeman puts it best: “This career doesn’t last forever.”
Contact Aaron J. Lopez at email@example.com