Monday, April 7, 2008

Well Rounded Players, Well Rounded People: An Interview With The NBA Development League's Senior Director of Player Development, Kevin Carr

It's easy to forget in the lights, the glory, and the box scores, that athletes are human. We hang on their every performance, make estimations of their character based on their ability to play in a particular game, and consider them to be something more than human, yet less than a god. However, more often than not, players find themselves in desperate situations after their playing days end. It's a shock to discover the outside world that most of us take for granted is something wholly unfamiliar to them. At some point in their careers, at such a young age, they need assistance. To learn how to work and succeed "once the ball stops bouncing."

That's where Kevin Carr steps in.

His title is Senior Director for Player Development for the NBA D-League. What he does is help players both before and after their playing days end. He oversees the league's player assistance programs, which include continuing education, player awareness programs that cover important topics on how the players can take care of their careers and their lives, player counseling services, and business training. He's available to help the players in whatever situation they may find themselves in, to protect both the player and the league from harmful decisions, and prepare them for life after basketball.

Carr joined the NBA in 2001 after working in player assistance programs at Michigan State University and Florida State University. He has worked with the Rookie Transition Program, with the NBA All-Star Game and NBA Draft, and has worked heavily in the NBA's community service programs.

His primary job, though, is giving players in the NBA Development League access to resources to help them develop as businessmen and as people. He oversees monthly Player Awareness meetings with all teams, a practice that is also in effect in the NBA, which help players with a series of topics including drug prevention and sexual health awareness, business management, and financial planning.

He helps players young and old with the problems and challenges of a world off of the hardwood.

Mr. Carr was kind enough to take a few minutes to speak with me last week on how he became involved in these programs, what programs the D-League offers, and the importance of what these programs provide.

HP: Thanks so much for your time, Mr. Carr. I've heard great things about the programs your department provides.

KC: No problem at all, looking forward to it.

HP: You graduated from Florida State. What prompted you to become so heavily involved in the development of young people's lives?

KC: Well, my own brother was a major college athlete. He had all the promise in the world, but due to injury, his career was cut short. After professional sports didn't work out for him, he had no real plans. My family was devastated by his lack of direction, and he was unprepared for anything outside of sports. I decided if I could help out people like my brother, I needed to. I wanted to. So I first became an academic advisor. From there I ended up working with athletes like Charles Ward, Sam Cassell, Bobby Sura, George McCloud, Warrick Dunn, Marvin Jones, Derrick Brooks. We experienced a championship there, which was a great thrill.

HP: I've heard a bit about your team awareness meetings. What's involved in your team awareness meetings?

KC: That's one of the programs that's an opportunity to sit down together, as a business, with our players and orient them to the business of basketball. We cover personal development topics, similar to what they cover in the NBA. We add more, because we feel our guys need more preparation outside of basketball. We try to prepare them so that they can go beyond a ten-day, and handle their roles and expectations off the court. We give them off the field, or off the court training. We just consider it spending time developing our most valuable asset. The players' names and their faces are our business, so we teach how to meet and greet. We cover how to manage their time, and make the right decisions; to manage their careers, staying away from substances that can get them out of the leagues. We do all of this really so that when this player is on the court, that his total self and mind is clear of the personal issues that interfere with their ability to perform. If their personal life, finances, and relationships are in check, that's only going to help them add value to themselves, the league and the team.

HP: You've been providing continuing education. That's a great option for players. What's been the reaction from the players towards that?

KC: It's been one of amazement. For a lot of the guys, they're playing basketball so much, it consumes their time. They forget that they started out going to college not just going to play basketball but to get a degree. We show that the guys in our league with degrees will make more money and last longer. It increases stock and credibility. And it helps to make the transition away from basketball easier. We have three or four ways to pursue education, in what we consider a hybrid model.

The first option simply assists in them going back to their respective school to finish their degrees.

The second option we provide through a partnership with Michigan State, and it focuses on business practices and online business systems. It provides training on things like negotiation, conflict resolution, how to run a business meeting, and how to write a business memo, among other things.

The third option is provided through the University of Phoenix, which awards full scholarships for players to finish college based on merit. Randy Livingston, while simultaneously playing to get a call-up, is trying to get a degree through Phoenix. They have one of the more sophisticated models. The University of Phoenix has tailored it so that players can start a class every month or every other month. They have a great set of advisers and they communicate with the player on papers and research. Randy has been very involved in the program. He's really pushing the envelope.

The other option that we've started to develop is for the players to be able to interact with Harvard's E-learning program. They can pursue E-learning modules developed by Harvard's professors for business settings.

We've developed continuing education in these different areas, because we really feel it's beneficial for them to finish school, or just to educate themselves.

HP: I know you're partnered with the University of Phoenix; are there any plans in progress with other universities?

KC: We're going to expand it to where several players in our league who have scholarships can pursue not only an undergraduate degree, but a Masters. Corey Violette of the Idaho Stampede wants to get an MBA. They can even get a Ph.D through this program. We have plans to try and make it to where players can educate themselves, and we're going to push that as far as it can go. The kind of people we have in our league, we believe they can get their degree, we just need to give them the chance to achieve both of their dreams. All they need is the opportunity to pursue their careers and their degrees in a way that's congruent with the NBA lifestyle so that they can excel both in the NBA and in the pursuit of their degree. We're looking to pioneer the education of players where they can have the best of both worlds. They can get called up to the NBA and have a transition after basketball.

HP: What do you find is the biggest reason for players to take up CE?

KC: I think a lot of players end up wanting to finish their degrees because they realize eventually the ball stops bouncing, and their careers are going to have to go on elsewhere. They'd rather transition smoothly. They don't want to hit the ground hard. They like this program because it provides someone that goes along with them, and helps them. It's good to have someone there to make sure they dot their i's and cross their t's, to make sure they balance basketball and going back to school.

HP: What's the biggest reason you find them to resist it? Is it because of the youth of some of these players?

KC: Because these players work so hard on that dream of being in the NBA. In the D-league, you're a step away, you're in the NBA family already. You're playing with NBA assignment players, you're working that much harder. Guys are getting called up around you. If you ask them to do anything outside of basketball, they see it as taking away from their focus. We have to remind them that basketball is as important to us as it is to them. But if one thing goes awry, they need somewhere else to go. They need to avoid having all their eggs in one basket. They're so dedicated, and they want to make it. We have to tell them.,"Hey we want you to make it, but we know how this game comes and goes. And things happen. " What we don't want to do is see guys not put any effort towards a plan, or some of other programs. So even if you don't get there right away, you're working towards it.

HP: What are your participation numbers like for the CE programs?

KC: We currently have 64 players in the D-League participating, which comprises 45% of the league.

HP: What do you attribute to the high participation rate?

KC: We challenge guys at the beginning of the season to get involved in something. That's not including guys in multiple programs. We like to think that we offer a vast variety of things that players are compelled to get involved in. We don't stretch things just to stretch it- we stretch it to make it effective. We hope it's very rewarding. We get those notes at the end, afterwards. It's often very unique. I got a note from Lance Allred, and he's sitting in the hotel after getting called up. He emailed us and a couple of guys in the front office. It said, "I'm finally in the hotel, sitting in the room. I just wanted to let you know I'll always be grateful for how you invested in me. I hope I can return that." To see a guy turn around and look back and say thank you says a lot of about you as a person.

HP: The Player Assistance program seems very interesting. There's such pressure put on these players, and any sort of difficulties are exacerbated because they're athletes. Is it primarily emotional counseling, or is there a wider range of sources?

KC: It's a very wide range. It's like any company that wants it's employees to be healthy. It covers the gamut. It's a unique opportunity. They can call in to an 800 number, and it's a wide range of services, and anything they need is available. It's totally anonymous. The player can also contact us directly. They can call in to me and say, "Hey, financially I'm not where I need to be," or "My girlfriend and I are not on speaking terms. Can you give me some advice?" and I point them in the right direction. I'm not a certified counselor, so we refer them out. We give them materials. We've used it to help teams in trying situations. When Dennis Johnson passed away last year, we felt there needed to be support, and within 24 hours, we had support in place. We want to give these players the ability to do what they do best, which is play basketball well. It's really a good thing.

HP: Is drug counseling available in the player assistance program?

KC: Yes. If a player had an issue where he needed some counseling. And if a player needs support, he can get it all the way to where he needs to go away for a little while. We've had that happen. And it's a great thing to see someone work their way back through their issues. And it's good to know we can do that. A lot of people may turn their back on somebody. We feel that if we can help someone, even when they're down, maybe they'll recover and get back to where they want to be. You deal with young people a lot of the time, and they don't make the best decisions. They just don't have the answers to these questions. It's the same thing we have as NBA employees.

HP:How do you tow that line with the league's hard line it tries to set on drug use?

KC: I think we always try and do what's right. We always try and do what's fair. Our programs are set up in such a way where it's going to be very fair, but at the same time, provide support. We try to focus on what that person may need to make sure they are educated about what they've done, and what they may need to consider. I think it's an issue that we just decided to have support, if and when someone has an issue.

HP: Is education included on performance enhancing drugs?

KC: Yeah, part of our team is dedicated to drug and alcohol awareness prevention as well as sexual health awareness. It's important to let players know what's out there and what can affect them in their careers if they're exposed to it. We spend a lot of time on how to recognize those situations where they can be in danger. We're very proactive. It's been there in our program, since the inception of our league. I'm pretty confident that our players leave well educated on where the league stands.

HP: A common complaint I hear from D-League players is how little money they make. Does the league provide any financial counseling services for them?

KC: We actually hold a money-management session. If you have NBA money as an assignment or a D-League player, it's available to you to help with those things. We start at the basics with money. We work with how to make your money work for you. We bring in financial education experts. In LA, we did a session last week with several teams together. They were broken into five teams and assigned a scenario involving money. Some of them had more money, some had less, and they had to come up with a budget. We're always wanting our players to understand about things like credit, identity theft, debt, ways to protect yourself financially. Our players are offered a 401k, if they chose to participate. They can begin putting away money for their retirement. We have very proactive regiment of programming, and if they need assistance, the counseling service is there as a backup.

HP: How much of your work mirrors that of what the NBA provides its players?

KC: When we first decided to form our program, we looked at what the NBA does. Team awareness meetings are an NBA product. There is a level of continuing education provided, but ours is a little more hybrid with the different types of players.

The mentor program is one of our products. We match them with a former NBA player or a business person. We talk to them about how to be a pro. Tangibles, about what to learn before they get to the NBA. So they can get an impact, AC Green, Norm Nixon, Tracy Murray,Walter Davis. The NBA now has a version of it. We've been successful in figuring out initiatives. We've brought in consultants, and if we like them, we push them for the NBA. The Michigan State University is now being used by the NBA on a team level to better train staffs and players. And we're finding that a lot of players that get called up from the D-League are going ahead and finishing their degrees.

HP: Kevin, thanks for your time. It's been great to talk to you.

KC: No problem, thank you.

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