The earning potential for an NBA star is massive, but the career –– relatively speaking –– is a short one.
The reported salaries of the top players are often eye-watering. Still, unlike most industries which can last a lifetime, a professional basketball player might have 10 years or less during which to capitalize on those salaries. Somewhat surprisingly, the average career length of a player in the NBA is just under five years.
That’s five years of good money, adrenaline-pumping games, and adulation of the crowd before a lifetime away from the court. Some players turn to punditry, journalism or coaching, looking to stay around the game. Others will move into different professions such as films, advertising, or fitness. But whether as a means to make money or to keep engaging in competition, plenty also wind up spending a lot of time at the poker tables.
You don’t need us to remind you that four-time NBA champion Tony Parker’s career extended well beyond the average, running for 18 years in total. He joined San Antonio Spurs in 2001, finishing with the Charlotte Hornets (yeah, that really happened) in 2019. Despite the fact that Parker is likely more than set for life though, the point guard turned to poker in retirement, recently qualifying for the 2021 World Series of Poker. He won’t be the first NBA star to try his luck around the WSOP tables either. Paul Pierce –– who joined 2020 inductee and former teammate Kevin Garnett in the Hall Of Fame earlier this year –– is one of many former ballers to have featured in poker’s main event.
So, what is it that makes poker attractive to former NBA players?
One answer could be the money. The players that tend to find themselves around the poker tables are the ones who have longer careers and may have disposable income to play with. A typical buy-in to a major poker event can be around $10,000, which is likely beyond the reach of many lesser-known professionals. Even playing online can be expensive if you choose to go down that route, with plenty of tables matching or exceeding those $10,000 buy-ins –– though with a limited number of states allowing real poker, most ex-NBA players tend to stick to in-person games. Mostly that means hitting the Vegas tables, though we’ve seen players like Pierce involved in high-stakes games in more private settings as well.
Wherever they play, current and former NBA players also have reasons beyond the fact that they can afford to play. While some players’ may be short, they also have plenty of free time during their playing days. Sure, there’s practice, and the game schedule can be intense, but there’s still a lot of time to fill when they’re not playing –– which is why many take up poker in the first place. Michael Jordan was a notorious card enthusiast on team flights and in hotel rooms, and current stars like Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul are also known to play in their spare time.
Another significant reason players may head to the tables after their careers have finished is to cope with the loss of competition in their lives. Basketball is an intense sport, one in which players thrive from the roar of the crowd, where they have to make split-second decisions and show incredible mental strength. The highs can be euphoric, but it all stops suddenly and abruptly upon retirement. Players may turn to poker for the same buzz –– the thrill of competition, essentially.
There are many other reasons former NBA players may turn to poker, but almost certainly chasing those highs is a catalyst, whether in retirement or during spells where they are not required on court.