In basketball, a competitor must be able to deliver a good show, whether it be using sheer talent, work ethic, or drive to succeed. This is an especially daunting task considering the sheer fragility of a player’s mentality. Often times in the sports world today, a player’s mindset is so fragile that it could easily alter their playing style. Whether it completely deteriorates or slightly shifts their skill, their careers, and lives, are forever altered by their experiences. Here are five former NBA stars and how their experiences changed their lives from that point on.
An All-American during his collegiate career at American University, Kermit Washington certainly would have looked forward to an exciting NBA career. He was selected with the fifth overall pick in the 1973 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, who were coming off their second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. Although he struggled to stand above ordinary his first two seasons, he began to emerge during the following two, setting career highs in points and rebounds during his fourth season. However, during his fifth season, an on-the-court incident would change his career and life forever. The Lakers had been involved in notable on-the-court physical entanglements throughout the early 1977-78 season, and Washington was known for his fierce devotion towards his teammates. It is believed these instances caused Washington’s career-changing game, on December 9, 1977 against the Houston Rockets. When the Lakers missed a shot, Washington, known as a strong rebounder, pursued the ball. Then things grew physical. Washington’s Lakers teammate and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Kareem Abdul-Jabbar began fighting with the Rockets’ Kevin Kunnert (who grabbed the rebound instead of Washington), and Washington stayed away from the fight until Abdul-Jabbar and Kunnert broke up the fight. Then he began fighting with Kunnert until Abdul-Jabbar grabbed Kunnert in an effort to break up the fight, only to have Kunnert punched by Washington. Then Kunnert’s teammate Rudy Tomjanovich came to the fight scene. Believing that Tomjanovich, who had a reputation as a peacekeeper who rarely fought, was trying to attack him, Washington punched Tomjanovich to the nose. As Tomjanovich fell to the hardwood and instantly bled, the arena fell silent. Although Tomjanovich was able to walk off the court, he subsequently was diagnosed with a broken skull, jaw, and nose. He also had bled internally and spinal disc herniation so severe that spinal fluid leaked into his mouth. Although Tomjanovich recovered, his playing style was never the same, and by 1981, he had retired after merely eleven years in the NBA. As for Washington, a label as the man who nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich would haunt him for the rest of his career. He was suspended for the ensuing 26 Lakers games, and the Lakers constantly received mail for fans that berated Washington. On December 27, he was traded to the Boston Celtics, only to be traded to the San Diego Clippers in 1978, and then to the Portland Trail Blazers in 1979. Feeling that he was readily welcomed by teammates and fans, Washington decided to return his focus to the game. In 1980 he was voted to the NBA All-Star Game. He was also voted to the first of two consecutive appearances on the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. He retired in 1982, but returned for a brief comeback in 1987 with the Golden State Warriors. His post-NBA life since his retirement has been embattled by the negative attention stemming from the 1977 fight.
“Magic” is not this legendary NBA player’s legal name. His real name was Earvin Johnson, but his nickname “Magic” is well-deserved. Selected with the first overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1979 NBA Draft, Johnson was entering the prime decades of the historic Lakers franchise. Eventually, “Magic” had it made. Not only was he a member of the five Lakers teams that won NBA Championships during the 1980s, but also left his mark as an individual player. Voted to the NBA All-Star game 10-plus times, while also labeled as NBA Most Valuable Player three times, he led the league is assists 4 seasons and led the league in steals 2 seasons. Additionally, he was named NBA Finals MVP in three of the Lakers’ five victories. At this stage, “Magic” was well-deserving of his title, as he was seemingly a man with superhuman powers who could dominate every time he stepped on to the court. But in 1991, the year after he was named NBA MVP the third time, his life was forever altered. A medical examination proved that Johnson, who was only in his early thirties, had contracted Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), a serious disease which decelerates the immune system and makes the host susceptible to other diseases. Johnson decided to announce his intention to retire from the NBA to focus on his health, as he had contracted a serious disease that could have threatened his life. It remains unknown as to what is the clear source of Johnson’s condition. Johnson’s final game before going into retirement was the 1992 NBA All-Star Game. Even though several players opposed his entry into the game, fearing the spread of his disease, Johnson played and was crowned the game’s MVP, before he was emotionally applauded by players on both sides for his many successful years of service to the league. But very shortly after, he was named a member of the historic 1992 Team USA Olympic Basketball team, which also featured Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird, and others. After their illustrious Olympic journey, Johnson went into retirement, supposedly for good. In 1994, he returned to the Lakers as an assistant coach. At last, in 1996, he returned as a player to the Lakers, averaging a decent 14.3 points per game in 32 appearances before retiring a final time. Since retiring, Johnson started the Magic Johnson Foundation to provide for those battling HIV like him. He has also pursued business ventures such as being an owner of the Lakers, while also working as an NBA expert analyst. As well, he has received the highest honor of any basketball player: Induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. All in all, the life of “Magic” was forever changed after his HIV diagnosis. Just before his diagnosis, it didn’t seem like his career would end like the way it did. But Johnson made the decision to retire (the first time) to focus on his health while still in his prime. Even though he remains today in good health and good hope, both his career and his life decisions were all shaken, even to the least bit, by his HIV diagnosis.
Nicknamed “Air Jordan” for his ability to jump and nearly fly, Michael Jordan is perhaps the most decorated NBA figure of all-time. From the beginning of his career when he was the third overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, he showed promise and talent while spending his career with the Chicago Bulls, which was one of the most anonymous teams in the NBA prior to his arrival. During his first nine NBA seasons (1984-93) Jordan was an NBA All-Star eight times, including one crown as All-Star Game MVP. He was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1985. He was also NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1988. From 1987 to 1993, he was the NBA scoring leader, and NBA steals leader in 1988, 1990, and 1993. As well, he was NBA Most Valuable Player in 1988, 1991, and 1992. Additionally, he won the Bulls three division titles in 1991, 1992, and 1993, which were the same years that the Bulls ascended to become NBA Champions. The Bulls, who had won just one division title in their 25 pre-Jordan seasons, were blessed to have him on their roster and dreamed of him being a longtime Bull. Unfortunately, everything changed for the perennial scoring champion Jordan in 1993. His father, James Jordan, had been driving on a highway in North Carolina when he was attacked by two teenagers, who killed James Jordan before evading the scene. Police managed to track down the suspects, who were identified as Daniel Green and Larry Demery and later convicted of murder and imprisoned. For Michael Jordan, the news was shocking as his father had been very close to him. Shortly after hearing about the incident, Jordan announced his retirement from the NBA, to focus on other aspects more important than the game to him. He revealed that the death of his father opened greater priorities to him than his role with the Bulls and the NBA. But quickly after retiring, he decided to become a professional baseball player, as his father had seen him as a promising baseball player as a child. But after a brief and unspectacular career in baseball, Jordan decided to go back where he belonged: Basketball. Almost immediately after returning to the NBA, Jordan picked up where he left off with NBA superstardom. The Bulls ended up winning three more division titles as well as NBA Championships in the years 1996, 1997, and 1998. He was named NBA MVP two more times, in 1996 and 1998. Additionally, he led the NBA in scoring from 1996 to 1998. Jordan once again retired in 1998. He briefly returned to the NBA as a member of the Washington Wizards, from 2001 to 2003, before retiring for the last time. Now Jordan has pursued several business ventures, including being an owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. He has been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and remains today as one of the most prolific basketball figures of all-time. However, his career and life were shaken, even to the slightest bit, by the death of his father. After his father died, “Air Jordan” forever needed to carry the thought in his mind that he will need to live the rest of his life without his father. But he was able to keep his love of the game as a top priority, and ascended to become perhaps the most iconic basketball figure in our minds.
Nicknamed “The Worm” for his agility on the court as well as his utterly ferocious defensive play, Dennis Rodman found his niche in containing opposing players from scoring opportunities, thus highlighting himself as one among the greatest defensive players in NBA history. He was drafted in the second round of the 1986 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons, with the 27th overall pick. The Pistons at the time were nicknamed the “Bad Boys” at the time for their rough defensive play. Within a matter of years, “The Worm” was an icon for the Pistons. He had been named NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 and 1991. He was also an NBA All-Star in 1990 and 1992. He was additionally named to five NBA All-Defensive First Teams from 1989 to 1993. In 1992 and 1993, he led the league in rebounds. He also aided the Pistons to three divisions titles, including two seasons, in 1989 and 1990, where they ascended to become NBA Champions. With great physical skill and strong motive to keep opposing players with as few scoring opportunities as possible, it seemed like “The Worm” would be a lifelong Bad Boy in Detroit. But, between 1992 and 1993, Rodman would experience a series of traumatic events that would change his personality and outlook on the NBA permanently. In 1992, Pistons head coach Chuck Daly resigned his position. This was difficult for Rodman as he had viewed Daly as more than a coach to him. The following year, Rodman’s wife Annie Bakes divorced from him, which added further tension to Rodman. During this time Rodman pondered committing suicide. But then ultimately decided that he had been unhappy mainly because he had been exhibiting a shy personality that did not show his true colors, and wanted to be happy exhibiting his true personality. Before the 1993-94 season, Rodman was traded to the San Antonio Spurs, where he began exhibiting his new character. He frequently dyed his hair and shaved his head. He also became notorious for frequently getting into scuffles with others on the court. Rodman’s stint in San Antonio lasted only two years. Even though he was NBA rebounding leader both of those years, he failed to make it to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, as his time in San Antonio was characterized primarily by eccentric behavior. But his career returned to the high point in 1995 when he was traded to the team that he had perhaps despised the most during his time as a Detroit Piston: The Chicago Bulls. The Bulls had, in the wake of 1990s, had pushed aside the power of Rodman and the rest of the Detroit Pistons and won themselves their first three NBA titles. But their dynasty seemed to subdue following the 1993 retirement of habitual Bulls scoring icon Michael Jordan. But 1995 was the year it all came back, with Rodman playing the most iconic style he had since his days with the Pistons. Although he continued to display obscene behavior on the court with his hair and fights on the court, his role on their time was highlighted by his fourth, fifth, and sixth consecutive rebounding title and his feeding to the bulls their fourth, fifth, and sixth division title as well their fourth, fifth, and sixth NBA Championship. After his surprising release in 1998, Rodman spent the 1999 and 2000 NBA season, respectively, with the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks. But following his NBA career, he landed in multiple altercations with the public due to his obscene behavior. He has been arrested multiple times for suspected charges such as assault and driving under the influence of alcohol. He has also checked into drug rehabilitation after multiple drunken antics, including an instance where he entered rehab following an erratic scuffle on the popular reality show The Celebrity Apprentice. But he was forever known for his stardom on the basketball court, and in 2011, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. All in all, his life was forever changed following the year 1993. His life on the court as well as off the court was never the same. Although he was able to maintain his name as a potent player, he no longer showed the humility and calmness that had been with him as a Detroit Piston. One can simply look at the year 1993 and say that it is the reason behind Dennis Rodman as we know him.
This is an example of a player whose potential as a player was unfortunately overshadowed permanently by a negative altercation that occurred early in the career. The Milwaukee native had a college career that caught the attention of the Golden State Warriors front office in the early 1990s. The Warriors claimed Sprewell with the 24th overall pick in 1992, kickstarting what seemed like a future Hall of Fame career. Sprewell was voted to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team in 1993. But that was just the start of the party, as Sprewell would make back-to-back All-Star stints in 1994 and 1995, before coming back in 1997. Additionally, in 1994 Sprewell was named a member of the All-NBA First Team and NBA All-Defensive Second Team after starting in all 82 regular-season games and posting career highs in rebounds per game and steals per game. But the love affair between Sprewell and the Warriors ended abruptly, following an incident the Bay Area front office will never forget. In a December 1997 practice, head coach P.J. Carlesimo reportedly criticized Sprewell’s passing, and allegedly received a threat from Sprewall in what seemed like a warning sign. When Carlesimo subsequently approached Sprewell, Sprewell resorted to grabbing Carlesimo into a chokehold and threatening to kill him. Within ten seconds, multiple teammates had begun pulling them apart. Sprewell was subsequently criticized by Carlesimo once again, responding by punching Carlesimo’s face. The incident quickly spread throughout the NBA, becoming an object of uproar among players, officials, and fans. Within a matter of hours, Sprewell’s contract was terminated by the Warriors (along with what could have been 3 years and $23.7 million) and Sprewell was suspended from the NBA for the remainder of the 1997-98 NBA season. While Sprewell’s reputation had received a permanent scar, he was able to piece his playing style back together, returning to the All-Star game in 2001 as a member of the New York Knicks. He also became part of the NBA’s highest scoring trio along with Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell in 2003-04 as a member of a Cinderella Minnesota Timberwolves team that advanced past the first round of the playoffs and breathed the sweet smell of a first Conference Championship appearance in franchise history. While his playing style seemed unscathed, his still aching reputation hit another low point, when he reportedly expressed public outrage toward a 3-year, $21 million contract offer to extend him beyond the final year of his Timberwolves contract. He claimed that even the $21 million would not be enough to feed his family in a statement that the NBA fanbase deemed as blatant. As a result, he would not be resigned after his final year in the Twin Cities turned out to be his final year in the NBA. Since his mercurial NBA career ended, Sprewell has struggled financially and legally. Between 2007 and 2008 he would make headlines after a his $1.3 million property was repossessed and his two houses were foreclosed. Additionally, he was sued by the mother of his children for an estimated $200 million and was barred from custody of his children. He has also struggled with the negative reputation that has stemmed from his NBA woes. In 2010, he was ranked as #8 on Bleacher Report’s article Hi Haters: The 15 Most Hated NBA Players of All Time.
“It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute”. – Will Rogers.
This popular quote has been extensively used in modern civilization, meant to show that destroying something like a reputation is not a hard thing to do, but building it is no easier. Just like that, NBA players carry enormous responsibility. Any sport is a minefield of emotion, and emotion without responsibility can easily ruin a career and reputation. But sometimes, emotion is hard to control, as it is as fast as thought itself. But bottom line, a sport is like juggling balls. Once you take a moment while juggling even to take a sneeze, you will lose track of the balls. While you can regain control, it is much easier to maintain control in the first place and be able to stop the flying juggling balls on your own command.