It’s often assumed that, for those who want it, the path out of basketball is a straight one, leading off the court and directly into a coaching or front office job. It’s certainly easy to understand where that perception comes from — most NBA coaching staffs feature at least one person you’ve seen in uniform before and former players are just as ubiquitous in front offices, working in a variety of roles. Watch a game on television and chances are one of the voices describing the action to you is someone you’ve also seen hitting jumpers on the other side of the camera.
But there are many more former players than there are basketball operations or media jobs, and for every former player who’d like to stay involved in the game after retirement, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of qualified candidates without that on-court experience. And, of course, doing any of these jobs well is not as simple as gleaning lessons from associated personal experience.
“People generally think that if you played, you can coach and you can do commentary, which is totally not true.” Cherokee Parks recently told The Step Back by phone. “Just because you played does not make you qualified to be the coach. And just because you played does not mean you can sit in front of a camera and talk about games. Both of those take a lot of time, a lot of training to be good at these things. Same with the business side of the game.”
Parks last played in the NBA during the 2003-04 season, retiring at the end of a nine-year career that saw him suit up for seven different teams. These days, he works for the NBA as a player development specialist, after having completed the league’s Basketball Operations Associate Program.
The program, now beginning its third year, takes former NBA and WNBA players and offers them professional experiences in a variety of basketball operations settings, helping prepare them to transition into an off-court role in basketball.
WNBA-vet Lindsay Harding finished the program alongside Parks this fall and spoke with The Step Back last spring about what led her to the associate program.
"“About four years ago, I was an assistant coach for the Raptors in summer league. It was the first time I’d ever been exposed to the NBA side. And it was such a great experience, it really opened my eyes that this was something I could really do.”"
For Harding, the focus was always on working with a team, as opposed to a league-level position like fellow program vet Allison Feaster, who is now the G-League Player Personnel and Coach Relations Lead. After interviewing for several positions at this season’s Summer League, Harding was hired by the Philadelphia 76ers as a pro personnel scout. When Harding spoke with The Step Back again recently, she highlighted her experiences in the program as helping open that specific door — working in scouting at the NBA level.
“You know I had never really sat down and written a report on a player,” said Harding. “You know, I’ve watched a ton of games and you can talk about it and say it but when you’re really watching the details, you’re watching the game in a different way and that was the first time I really did that, in the program.”
The perception that playing experience is the most important qualification for understanding basketball is a fairly pervasive one. If you happen to be an average Joe or Josephine and have ever expressed an unpopular basketball opinion on social media, you’ve probably had that argument thrown back in your timeline. But the inherent fallacies in that argument do a disservice to both those inside and outside the game.
For former players, a career’s worth of on-court experience can be applied on myriad ways — coaching, scouting, player development, business strategy, player evaluation, etc. Even figuring out what you’d like to try and do with that knowledge can be a challenge, before you even get to the obstacle of figuring out how to use your experience in meaningful ways.
“It’s great and you’re good at what you do from playing, but what is it that you really want to do?” said Harding. “I think one of the hardest things is, coming from off the floor, and transitioning to something new. I’ve talked to several people who said it took them years to figure it out. And I think the program is great because it shows you different avenues that you go in the game that we all love. So that expanded that for me, and the options and realizing, ‘hey, I can do all these other things.'”
For Parks, the journey out of basketball and then back in took years. In a feature with SLAM last year, he was open about some of the personal struggles he worked through during that time. He was able to identify that many of those struggles began during his playing career and were exacerbated by a lack of support and by his own inability to recognize and leverage what was available.
Park’s role now has him providing life skills training for USA Basketball rosters through their partnership with the NBA, specifically elite high school players who play for the junior national teams.
“We’re bringing all the experience and expertise that the NBA has provided for its player and its teams together, and now we’re creating some programming for these USAB players and their parents,” Parks explained. “As they’re going through high school and preparing for that next step, as they’re going through their senior year, they understand what it looks like past their senior year, there is the NCAA route, the G-League route, the international route and now they have all the information to make a decision that their comfortable with, for the players and their families.”
Parks’ experiences are extremely unique and give him an opportunity to be useful in a capacity that someone without playing experience might not be able to in the same way. He has seen the pitfalls and plunged headlong into them. He’s had the time to reflect on what would have helped and how he could have used what was available.
“The thing that I took away from my experience was effective communication. You know, you can have all the things in place and all the programs but if you don’t communicate with anybody, it’s just like leading a horse to water. You need to be able to reach out, you need to be able to understand what the purpose of people in certain positions is, what their roles are. That’s what I like about this program. It’s really rooted in helping players succeed. It’s not about where a guy goes, it’s about helping them be successful as people.”
Only a lucky few ever get a chance to suit for an NBA or WNBA team. From that select group, fewer still will have the privilege of spending the rest of their professional lives in the game they love. But from those elite high school players looking to take the first step, to the survivors on the other side, everyone is just looking to find their calling.