Last week, 60 players had their NBA dream become reality when their name was called in the 2017 draft. Top prospects like Philadelphia 76ers point guard Markelle Fultz and Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball will earn more than $5 million from their rookie salary alone, and all 30 first-round picks have a guaranteed contract that will pay them at least $1 million if they join their NBA franchise.
If the incoming rookies are financially savvy, they’ll be set for life. But that’s a big if.
Twenty-one years ago, Antoine Walker was selected sixth overall by the Boston Celtics. He walked across the stage, shook NBA commissioner David Stern’s hand and couldn’t stop smiling.
The forward had an incredibly successful career, winning an NCAA title at Kentucky in 1996 and an NBA championship with the Miami Heat in 2006. Over his 12 NBA seasons, he averaged an impressive 17.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.2 steals. He was a three-time All-Star and he earned over $108 million from his NBA contracts alone.
However, when Walker is referenced these days, it’s typically as a cautionary tale. Rather than discussing his achievements on the hardwood, most conversations relate to the financial trouble he encountered near the end of his NBA career. Less than two years removed from his final NBA season, Walker declared bankruptcy and made national headlines in the process.
“I came into the NBA at 19 years old and I made over $108 million off my NBA contracts, but I lost it all because I mismanaged it,” Walker told HoopsHype. “I filed for bankruptcy a year and a half after leaving the league and I want these young players to realize that it can happen to them too if they aren’t smart with their money.”
Today, Walker shares his story with collegiate and professional athletes so that they can learn from his mistakes. Four years ago, the financial service firm Morgan Stanley launched a Global Sports and Entertainment division. They hired Walker as well as former NFL linebacker Bart Scott, who played 11 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, as consultants to speak to athletes.
Walker, Scott and the division’s managing director Drew Hawkins went on to design a financial education program that teaches athletes how to budget their money, save long-term, build and maintain credit, make smart investments and understand taxes. The curriculum also helps athletes avoid common pitfalls that Walker knows all too well, such as overspending on luxury items and feeling obligated to provide for all of his family and friends.
The program’s goal is to teach athletes how to “make, protect, save and grow” their earnings. Since launching, the program has been implemented by 40 top-tier colleges, 24 pro teams (in the NBA and NFL) and some agencies. In total, 4,750 individuals have taken the course. Eventually, they also hope to incorporate their course – or at least a condensed version – into the rookie transition programs that each of the major professional sports leagues hold for incoming players.
“Having someone like Antoine, who has gone through this and has a lot of experiences to share, just provides the program with even more credibility,” Hawkins said. “We know the players are more likely to listen to Antoine as opposed to someone who works at a financial service firm and can’t relate to their background or experiences. He’s genuine and he’s doing this for the right reasons. This opportunity wasn’t about the money for Antoine, it was about wanting to pass on these significant life lessons that he learned. Antoine wants others to benefit from his mistakes and it’s been great to see him in action. When he was shaping our curriculum, he’d tell us what would and wouldn’t resonate with the athletes. Then, seeing him in the sessions, he’s so open and candid and sincere and willing to answer any question. The athletes immediately understand that Antoine is there to help them and the only thing he wants to get out of this is steering people away from the path that he went down. He even follows up with the athletes afterward, going above and beyond to help. I’ve seen other people who faced financial challenges and they just want to hide and not discuss it; Antoine has been the exact opposite.”
Walker describes his new career as “therapeutic” and he gets a thrill out of teaching others the things he wishes he had known as a young professional athlete who was only thinking in the moment.
“When I went through my financial difficulties and ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 2012, I really got a chance to see all of the mistakes that I made,” Walker said. “I indulged and I was uneducated, which is what led to being bankrupt. When I went through all of that, I learned a lot and I wanted to turn my negative story into a positive story by helping others avoid the mistakes I made. I realized this could serve as a healing process for me while helping others. I want to be open and transparent to these young athletes about the mistakes that I made, so that they don’t go down the same road. When I do these presentations, I’m honest with them about the challenges that they’re going to face.
“I try to teach guys to build the proper team around them – from their agent to their financial adviser to whoever is investing their money. Also, I try to get them thinking about generational wealth. When a guy comes into the league at 18 or 19 years old, he’s usually thinking short-term and materialistically. He’s not thinking about generational wealth and making sure he’s putting enough money aside for when he’s 40 or 50 years old. He isn’t thinking about providing for his future kids or future grandkids. A teenager usually isn’t thinking like that, so I try to put those things in their head.”
When Walker entered the NBA as a teenager, he certainly wasn’t thinking this way. Looking back, he has plenty of regrets when it comes to his spending.
“I had some personal fetishes that weren’t very good,” Walker said. “I loved cars, even though cars depreciate the moment you drive them off of the lot. I always tell guys that now. But I had a Maybach, which was $450,000. I paid that for one car. I always tell guys about that and how it depreciated. I also had some very expensive homes. There’s nothing wrong with having a nice home, but there’s no reason to have houses with rooms you don’t use. You don’t think about all of the taxes that come with those homes. And when the money is no longer coming in, the upkeep on those expensive homes is a problem. I also had a jewelry fetish. Now, I try to tell guys, ‘You don’t need to have 15 watches!’ If you want a watch, buy one nice watch that holds its value and you can have for the rest of your life. Guys want to make big purchases when they get into the league, but there are a lot of things that they don’t think about when they’re buying these things. I try to tell them some of the things I learned the hard way.”
Another issue for Walker was turning down requests from his family and friends. Today, that’s one of the most important lessons he passes on.
“That was one of the toughest things for me, personally,” Walker said. “I was the oldest of six children and I saw my mom struggle as she tried to raise all of us. I obviously wanted to help her and my siblings and get them out of that lifestyle. I also ran with a number of friends – about 10 guys I grew up with – and it’s tough because you feel obligated to a certain degree to help out your family and friends. When I talk to kids, that’s one of the toughest conversations to have. We ask, ‘How will you handle your friends and family?’ At the end of the day, you have to add the word ‘no’ to your vocabulary. It was a word that I never really used. When I played, I was very generous to my family and friends, but you have to find a balance. You have to hold them accountable. You have to be a little bit selfish and make sure that you’re taking care of yourself too because you’re the one working hard and earning the money, but it’s tough. In addition to telling guys to add the word ‘no’ to their vocabulary, we also teach the athlete to create buffers – assigning other people to be the one saying ‘no’ and giving the bad news. A lot of players feel like they can’t say no. Well, if that’s the case, put someone in place to do it for you and take that stress off you.
“Look, I want guys to help their family! I always tell guys to take care of the people closest to you, but just understand that there’s a right way to do it and a procedure that should be in place. I never tell guys to turn their back on their family and friends. Those are the people who supported you your entire life, taken care of you and helped you get to this point. With that said, we want to make sure guys keep the giving under control because that can be a big part of your downfall if it gets out of hand.”
Walker’s message has been resonating with the younger athletes. After every session Walker hosts, he says there are always a handful of players who pull him aside to get more information, schedule a follow-up chat or ask questions that relate to a specific situation they’re going through.
“It’s so rewarding,” Walker said. “Being able to help these guys is amazing; it’s why I wanted to be a part of this and tell my story. You hear about so many athletes who go broke after leaving professional sports and a lot of us are ashamed or embarrassed about it. Now, I’ve decided to be open about it because I want to lower the number of athletes who go broke. Some of these professional athletes don’t even know where their money is going or how much they’re losing to taxes. From the $108 million I made, I paid $55.2 million in taxes. A lot of athletes are surprised to hear that, but they should know how much a professional athlete loses to taxes! It just shows this program is definitely needed.”
While Walker is a pro at giving these presentations now, there was a time early on when it was difficult for him to discuss that low point in his life.
“Early on, there were times when it was stressful to discuss it and relive it,” Walker said. “I think from when I started to now, I’ve gotten 10 times better at telling my story and being open about everything. There was a point when it was difficult to talk about, but once I helped shape the curriculum for the financial education program and realized that my story could be a powerful learning tool for others, it became much easier to discuss. Now, I enjoy telling my story and it’s second nature to me. As long as my story is helping these young athletes avoid the mistakes I made, it’s worth it.”
In 2013, Walker was declared debt-free and given a fresh slate.
“It was a great feeling, knowing that I didn’t have creditors coming after me anymore and basically starting my life over again,” Walker said. “It was a huge moment. Making the type of money that I made, it’s not easy to file for bankruptcy. They really come after you hard. They really dig into your finances so that everything is exposed. It’s a process that I went through for two-and-a-half years because I had amassed so much money, so just to move on from that and not have my life under the microscope was great. I viewed it as a chance to start over. I still view myself as a young man with a lot of life to live, so putting that behind me was great for me.
“It was a tough time obviously. I knew my whole life was going to change and my family’s life was going to change. It bothered me and I knew it was going to be very difficult since I was basically starting my life over. But I just kept telling myself that I was young, I had the rest of my life to live and I’d have the opportunity to make money again. I knew I likely wouldn’t have the opportunity to make the type of money I made playing basketball, but I knew I could find something that I enjoyed doing on a daily basis, something that was gratifying. It turns out that was sharing my message with others. Things were hard when I started doing this, but I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Now, three years in, it’s been unbelievable for me and even therapeutic in a way.”
Hawkins points out that the public doesn’t quite understand what athletes have to deal with when it comes to taxes and the limited window in which they can make a living. While another kind of entertainer can work for decades, athletes have a small time-frame to make as much money as possible.
“A lot of people see these big contracts that athletes get and they think that the individual ends up making all of that money, but you have to take into consideration their new relative who is going to be with them for the rest of their life: Uncle Sam,” Hawkins said. “Taxes take away almost half of their earnings. Then, when you incorporate agent fees, living expenses and a whole host of other things, that number whittles down significantly. In the NBA, the average career is 3.5 years long. In the NFL, that number is now 2.6 years. With that kind of career longevity, there’s a small window to earn as much as you can to set you up for life. This isn’t like other professions.”
Because an athlete has such a small window to cash in, Walker stresses the importance of saving money from the very start of their career.
“Within our program, I always stress the importance of saving aggressively early on because a professional sports career can be so short,” Walker said. “You never know when your career is going to end, either due to injury or other factors. There are lottery picks who are out of the NBA after three or four years. Some guys aren’t even in the league long enough to be eligible for their pension. You have to save money from day one, because you never know when the checks will stop coming.
“Managing your money from day one is the most important thing. Some guys think they can just turn to coaching or TV or something like that later on life, but what they don’t realize is that there are a lot of other players who want to do the same thing. It’s just like the NBA; there are 450 jobs. Well, there’s a limited number of jobs in broadcasting and coaching too. If you take care of your money when you’re in the league, it gives you time and allows you to be picky about finding that next career path. You don’t have to rush into something just because you need the money.”
Looking back on his NBA career, Walker jokes that he was born in the wrong era now that the game practically revolves around three-point shooting. Walker was once asked why he liked to shoot so many threes and he famously responded, “Because there are no fours.” He ranks No. 30 in NBA history in three-pointers made with 1,386 and he does wonder how he’d fit in today’s league.
“I do think about that; I wish I was born later!” Walker said with a laugh. “I’d be playing great in today’s NBA and I probably would’ve made $200 million with the way the league is set up now! I love this brand of basketball. It’s exciting to see guys who are 6-foot-9 and even some centers stepping out and shooting three-pointers. It’s good to see! You look at the Golden State Warriors and they’ve been able to win their championships primarily because of their three-point shooting and their ability to play small-ball. It’s exciting to see that. In Boston, I saw that Isaiah Thomas broke a couple of my three-point records this year and people were giving me kudos. It’s nice to see, and I’m happy to see the game evolving.”
Walker’s success on the court will likely always come second in conversation to his financial struggles, and that’s something he has accepted. He regrets several things about the way he left the NBA and acknowledges that he tarnished his image.
“At times, I feel [underrated], but I think I know why: I think it has to do with how I left the game,” Walker said. “My last year in Memphis, I took a buyout and didn’t play any minutes. Then, I got into some legal trouble, getting a DUI when I left the NBA. And following that, I had the bankruptcy. I think people have a tendency to remember some of the last few years or last few incidents that happened in your life. I think that was the case with me, going through all those things.
“I think that’s why a lot of people overlook my basketball career or don’t put me up there with some other talented players, but I think you can put my career numbers and body of work up against anybody. I just think the way you leave the game is so important because it affects how people remember you. I look at people who left the game the right way like Michael Strahan, Ray Lewis, Shaquille O’Neal or Kevin Garnett, guys who left the game and then went into TV or some other successful venture. When you leave the game the right way, a lot of opportunities open up for you. For me, I left the game with some negative content and I think that’s kind of taken away from my basketball [legacy]. But I understand it and take responsibility for it.”
These days, Walker is doing his best to point out all of the pitfalls that he fell into as a successful athlete and he loves that he’s having a real impact on people’s lives.
“The great thing about me being with Morgan Stanley for the past three years and helping other athletes is that I can change that narrative,” he said. “I want to help others; that’s what all of this is about. I want these athletes to learn from my mistakes, become excellent with their finances and be set forever.”
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