NBA Associates Program Offers Former Players a Path Back to Basketball

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When her playing career ended due to unbearable sciatic nerve pain in 2011, the WNBA’s Ashley Battle wanted to distance herself from basketball. The sport—part of her identity—was taken away from her before she was ready, and she was filled with resentment.

“I was kind of bitter with basketball, so to speak, because I didn’t have opportunities to go back to the WNBA or opportunities to play overseas, so I just wanted to go as far from basketball as possible,” Battle said. “So, I got into banking… I was bored out of my mind.”

After an unsatisfactory few years of working in banking, she made the transition to the sports division of financial planning company Barnum Wealth Management. She was finally dipping her toes back into the sports industry, and she knew it was time to dive back in for good.

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That’s when she was introduced to the NBA’s Basketball Operations Associates Program, a yearlong paid program at the NBA league office in New York, where former players gain front office experience for positions in the NBA, WNBA and NBA G League.

Participants learn about everything from analytics to scouting to business operations. They also get experience in resume building, networking and office skills. Now in its third year, the program has placed 100 percent of its participants in positions with either the league or teams.

Right now, Battle is in her fifth month. She’s specifically honed in on referee operations but has also dabbled in basketball operations and player development work — all, she says, in the name of “ just trying to get my hands involved and learn as much as possible.” She believes she’s found her calling with the program, especially when it comes to assisting others through the ups and downs of life as a basketball player.

“For me, when I wanted to help these athletes, it was, ‘How can I help them not make the same mistakes I made or others have made?’” she said. “It was all about helping players who came before me and who will come after me.”

Another one of the program’s biggest supporters is Cherokee Parks, a former NBA player who completed the curriculum and now works in player development for the league. Parks continues to stay involved with the program and build relationships with current participants.

“It’s always great when we see guys come through the office and connect with guys in similar situations who have been disconnected for a while and want to get back involved,” he said. “The excitement and eagerness shows on their faces when they know there’s a program available and people designed specifically to help them get back in certain circles.”

While he was in the program, Parks tapped into his experience as a former player with firsthand experience with the league’s player initiatives.

“Coming into this role, you are what the programming is about,” Parks said. “Someone else puts energy into these programs, so getting to the point where, being in the associates program, you get to see how all that comes to life. You can merge the two because you see how it’s developed and know how it was being involved in these programs as a player.”

In addition to that personal experience, former athletes learn to take advantage of the unique arsenal of skills they’ve developed over their playing careers.

“We believe the skills you learn as a players are transferable, whether it’s creative problem-solving, time management, perseverance, grit, teamwork—skills that every employer in the world wants to have access to,” said Greg Taylor, the NBA’s senior vice president of player development, who works closely with program participants. “They’re not starting from scratch at all. Basketball is what they do, not who they are, and they all have different levels of skill.”

“Being a player, you just have all these intangibles, and when you’re playing, you’re not necessarily aware that they’re transferable in corporate America,” Battle added. “You have some skill sets that people are being trained to do, but you already have them.”

With the success of the program thus far, Taylor hopes that more and more former players will take advantage of the opportunity. But, ultimately, the growth of the program depends on the community of players sharing their success stories, he said.

“The most effective strategy is word of mouth, so past players saying, ‘This program is super effective,’” he said. “When the fraternity of the former players are inviting players, that’s most effective.”

That sense of stability and community is key in helping players to thrive after their playing careers are over.

“We like to say that if you join the NBA, you’re in the family for life,” he said. “Just because your playing days have ended doesn’t mean our relationship has ended. We think through the challenges of athletes, and when their career is officially over, that’s a personal decision. But while you’re in the league, you have to think about life after basketball because, someday, the ball will stop bouncing.”

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And even though the ball stopped bouncing for Battle before she was ready, the associates program has opened up new doors for her that she never could have imagined while she was working at a bank in Pittsburgh just a few years ago. Her most recent opportunity with the program featured a trip to Mexico as a league ambassador with Basketball Without Borders.

“I didn’t know there was something missing, but there was a void in my gut not being filled,” she said. “Right now, I’m getting a really well-rounded view of a lot of different divisions in the league, and the curtain is being opened to where I’m seeing things I wouldn’t have been able to prior.”

When she stopped playing, Battle couldn’t imagine devoting any more time to basketball. But now it’s back in her life, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.