When I was thirty, I was living my dream. I’d already accomplished most of what I’d set out to achieve professionally: leading scorer in the NBA, leading rebounder, leading blocker, Most Valuable Player, All-Star. But success can be as blinding as Bill Walton’s finger in the eye when battling for a rebound. I made mistakes. Plenty of them. In fact, sometimes I wish I could climb into a time machine and go back to shake some sense into that thirty-year-old me. If I could, here’s the advice I would give him:
1. Be more outgoing. My shyness and introversion from those days still haunt me. Fans felt offended, reporters insulted. That was never my intention. When you’re on the public stage every day of your life, people think that you crave attention. For me, it was the opposite. I loved to play basketball, and was tremendously gratified that so many fans appreciated my game. But when I was off the court, I felt uncomfortable with attention. I rarely partied or attended celebrity bashes. On the flights to games, I read history books. Basically, I was a secret nerd who just happened to also be good at basketball. Interacting with a lot of people was like taking someone deathly afraid of heights and dangling him over the balcony at the top of the Empire State Building. If I could, I’d tell that nerdy Kareem to suck it up, put down that book you’re using as a shield, and, in the immortal words of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (to prove my nerd cred), “Engage!”
2. Ask about family history. I wish I’d sat my parents down and asked them a lot more questions about our family history. I always thought there would be time and I kept putting it off because, at thirty, I was too involved in my own life to care that much about the past. I was so focused on making my parents proud of me that I didn’t ask them some of the basic questions, like how they met, what their first date was like, and so forth. I wish that I had.
3. Become financially literate. “Dude, where’s my money?” is the rallying cry of many ex-athletes who wonder what happened to all the big bucks they earned. Some suffer from unwise investments or crazy spending, and others from not paying close attention. I was part of the didn’t-pay-attention group. I chose my financial manager, who I later discovered had no financial training, because a number of other athletes I knew were using him. That’s typical athlete mentality in that we’re used to trusting each other as a team, so we extend that trust to those associated with teammates. Consequently, I neglected to investigate his background or what qualified him to be a financial manager. He placed us in some real estate investments that went belly up and I came close to losing some serious coin. Hey, Kareem at 30: learn about finances and stay on top of where your money is at all times. As the saying goes, “Trust, but verify.”
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