NBA training camps opened this week without, as always, the fanfare that attends baseball's spring training or the sweaty start of summer football practice. Sports fans generally care little for the particulars of pro hoops, preferring to focus on the broader narratives of good and evil. Particularly evil. The Oct. 9 preliminary hearing of Kobe Bryant is, needless to say, a much hotter topic than how the Jazz will run the pick-and-roll without Karl Malone and John Stockton.
In the wake of the Bryant public relations disaster the NBA was peppered with questions about why it doesn't better prepare its players for the pitfalls and temptations that accompany zeroes in the paycheck and life in the spotlight. In fact virtually every young player who comes into the league gets far better training than athletes receive in the other pro sports, a six-day mandatory crash course in Reality 101 called the Rookie Transition Program (RTP). The NFL has a similar but less comprehensive program that started 10 years after the RTP began in 1986. Even the One Hundred Million Dollar Kid, LeBron James, had to delay a Nike photo shoot so he could attend this year's session at which 59 rookies—15 of them under 21—gathered in Tarrytown, N.Y.
The time commitment was substantial for what commissioner David Stem describes as "a cocoon for the players," but the newcomers endured it and seemed to accept it. The rooks got schooled from players current (the Nets' Kenyon Martin and the Spurs' Bruce Bowen among them) and past (including legend Bill Russell, who told the group that they "are the new caretakers" of the game), as well as by security experts, referees, financial specialists, media trainers (who urged players to "find out specifically what the interview is about and try to keep it to that subject") and image polishers.
The RTP is constantly being modified, but it's clear the league takes extraordinary measures to educate its callow millionaires about the perils of overspending, overindulging and overcopulating. The sexier parts of the program were not open to the press, but women were brought in to participate in skits. Whether or not there was a Kobe-in-Colorado scenario no one will say, but Bryant's situation was an under-current throughout the week.
One of the most enlightening sit-downs was with Cavaliers coach Paul Silas who, after 20 minutes of mostly lighthearted commentary about adjusting to the NBA's style and level of play, looked out on the young faces, most of them black, and told them how much their casual use of "the n word" disturbs him. "You have no idea what it was like to hear it years ago, the way I heard it," said Silas, an African-American who came into the league in 1964. "It just does not sound good?
Indeed, race is a pervasive subtext in the NBA, whose makeup is about 80% African-American. Things have changed a great deal since Silas had the n word hurled at him, but it's naive to deny that the league's image still suffers from racial bias and that its players sometimes pay more dearly for their collective sins than those in other sports. To be I sure, NBA players have contributed to this state of affairs. Nobody forced the Trail Blazers to become the Jail Blazers. And whether he's guilty of rape or not, Bryant was not whisked into that Colorado hotel room against his will.
As Bryant's case unfolds, the current crop of NBA rookies will be made acutely aware of how fragile their status as NBA stars can be—and of the price to be paid for a mistake. These are lessons that, after attending RTP, they have only begun to learn. "They're not just having us here to get us away from our families," said the 18-year-old James after the session. "We're here because people who have been in this league have made bad decisions, and this is going to help us."