The NBA is one of the most exclusive sports leagues in North America. With 30 teams and 450 players, the NBA employs about half the number of players the NHL, MLB and MLS do, and roughly one-quarter of the NFL’s total. It’s harder to get into than Studio 54 in the 1970s. In June, the league held its annual draft, welcoming in just 60 rookies. It was a sleek affair incorporating expensive suits, paparazzi and celebratory champagne, for those of-age. But those festivities were merely an endpoint to a much deeper story. To make the league requires lifelong effort and sweat-soaked sacrifice.
With the league’s 76th season set to begin on 19 October, it’s important to remember just how difficult it is to develop the skills to play in even a single NBA game. We caught up with three standouts – current collegiate star Zion Cruz, former Mississippi high school stalwart Brian Adams and two-time NBA champion Earl Cureton – to find out exactly how difficult the path is at different stages of a player’s journey.
The New Jersey-born Cruz, a shooting guard who committed to DePaul University in February for the 2022-23 season, stands at 6ft 5in and boasts a top-10 ranking in his class at his position (per 247Sports.com). Yet, his path to college ball – usually (although not always) the final step before the NBA – has not been simple, despite his physical gifts and significant acclaim.
“The work just got harder and harder,” Cruz says. “The long days at the gym sweating wasn’t easy when I first started, but I just committed myself and the growth is outstanding.”
Cruz, who is the first top recruit to head to DePaul in years, says that seeing his parents get up for work every day to provide for the family was his motivation. And he began to think about playing professionally in earnest when he started seeing friends jump to the NBA. But to make it to where scouts and coaches pay attention is tough. Instead, Cruz says, it’s about standing out to yourself, and the rest will come. “If you worry about impressing yourself,” he says, “the scouts will see.”
For Cruz, whose road to collegiate hoops has involved ups and downs, including committing and decommitting from schools, maintaining poise can be hard, especially with the full-time job of practice and playing games. It’s about staying focused, blocking out the noise that surrounds his talents. Cruz says he also cares about building and strengthening his character, a lesson he learned from some Chicago Bulls who visited with him and offered advice. In the end, if he doesn’t make the NBA (or if it takes years), Cruz says he won’t lose sight of the goal. “I love basketball,” he says, “it would just be another part of my journey.”
But while he’s probably headed to a professional roster at some point, others have not been so fortunate, even those with sparkling basketball resumes. In Mississippi, as a high school player in the mid-90s, Adams was a well-known name. He was a top-20 recruit the same year as future pros Kobe Bryant, Mike Bibby, Jermaine O’Neal, Tim Thomas and Steven Jackson. But when Adams committed to Alcorn State, a historically Black college, he says things went sideways. In 1995, prior to his commitment, quarterback Steve McNair was drafted No 3 overall out of Alcorn State by the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Adams believed this was the blueprint he should follow.
“A lot of people were pissed,” Adams says of his decision to choose Alcorn State over a more mainstream school like Kansas or Kentucky. “Doing that at the time, it was unheard of. I would say a lot of things changed when I made that decision. I didn’t make the McDonald’s game, nor was I Mr Basketball in the state of Mississippi. It’s like, c’mon man, I think I was head-and-shoulders above anybody in my class.”
Adams, who fell in love with the game at six, shooting hoops on a converted bicycle wheel with no backboard or net, attended the major recruitment camps as well as the well-regarded Piney Woods High School in Mississippi, winning state titles. But once he went to college, his career stalled. Adams averaged about 11 points per game his first two seasons, despite not playing for the coach who’d originally recruited him, but then his scoring dropped. He broke his foot going into his junior year in 1999, the season Alcorn State made the NCAA tournament. He averaged just three points that year, and eight the next.
Today, Adams is a coach, helping kids in Texas learn the game. He works with former NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who himself has his own tumultuous relationship with the league. Adams knows how hard it can be to sustain a sports career, saying, “You got to have the right people around you … You got to make sure you make the right decisions … One thing, playing on that level, you’ve got to have luck on your side… [Mine] could have been a sad story but by the grace of God, it wasn’t.”
But even if a player does make the NBA, the journey doesn’t end there. And that was especially true during a time when guaranteed contracts were harder to secure than an eel in an oil slick. Cureton, who was drafted at No 58 overall in 1979 by the Philadelphia 76ers, was a standout at Robert Morris University and then at the University of Detroit, recruited by then-coach Dick Vitale. Later, Cureton would go on to win two NBA championships, in 1983 with the 76ers and 1994 with the Houston Rockets. Seemingly, though, every season of his 12-year career included hurdles that threatened his livelihood. So much so that he had to sometimes go overseas.
“I was a journeyman,” Cureton says. “My first three years, I had non-guaranteed contracts. Every year in Philly, I had to make the roster.”
During his career, Cureton played with Dr J, Moses Malone, Jordan and Isiah Thomas, among others. He knew how to fit in and make teams better. He rebounded, defended. He also dealt with the league policy of the Right of First Refusal, which stated that when a player’s contract was up, his old team still maintained his rights, even if the team didn’t want to re-sign him. They could ask for whatever compensation they wanted from a team interested in signing the player. It was a convoluted practice that almost derailed Cureton’s career.
“It was a lot of mental stress,” he says. “The team had the right to ask for whatever they wanted. I was never a fan of that rule. I had to leave the country to get away from it.”
Cureton played in Italy, France, Argentina, Mexico and other locales to sharpen his game. He returned to North America to get chances with the Pistons, Hornets, Rockets and the expansion Raptors. In early seasons he earned $55,000 or $65,000 per year, compared to the 2022-23 league rookie minimum of about $1m. “It was about survival,” he says. “When I came into the league there were only 24 teams and something like 270 players. That’s an elite group.” His salary rose as time went on and Cureton earned around $2m over the course of his career, good money but certainly not enough to retire on. He now works as a team ambassador for the Pistons.
Along with Cruz, Adams and Cureton, there is a litany of talented players whose paths to the league have been fraught or ended in disappointment. In 1994, the now-infamous basketball documentary Hoop Dreams hit theaters, depicting just how difficult it can be for young, often inner-city-born players to make the NBA. The leads of the movie, Arthur Agee and William Gates, both from Chicago, go through school changes, injuries and serious bouts of doubt, ultimately not making the professional ranks.
Even big-name players who did make the league had to endure a lot. Small guards Muggsy Bogues and Spud Webb in the late 80s and early 90s were perennially thought of as incapable of making a big impact. Despite this, Webb won the NBA’s dunk contest at the 1986 All-Star game and Bogues went on to earn fame for his role with the Hornets, averaging 10.8 points and 10.1 assists per game in the 1993-94 season. A former teammate of both Webb and Bogues, 7ft 7in Manute Bol, who died in 2010, traveled from Sudan, traversing deserts and oceans to make the league. The list goes on.
NBA champion and seven-time All-Star Kyrie Irving recently shared his thoughts on Twitter about being a young, aspiring hooper pondering his chances of one day making the league. “My Dad told me at a young age, I had a 1 in 3,333 percent chance (.03%) of making it to the NBA and that I should have backup plans for my life regardless if it happened or not,” he wrote. “I am grateful he told me the truth because with or without basketball, I know myself.”
Indeed, it’s a nearly impossible task to earn a spot in the NBA, even for the supremely talented. A large section of the league’s draft picks don’t last. But if somehow one can stick around and enjoy a long, illustrious career, as Cureton notes, “That’s a serious accomplishment.”