It’s enraging and simultaneously humbling for me to watch winners of the genetic lottery – many of whom I grew up wanting to emulate – earn millions for playing a simple game only to blow it on coke, whores and the dizzying spin of the roulette wheel. It happens so often – or is simply a story the sports journos never tire of telling – that athletes are rivaled only by lotto winners for their skill in artfully blowing unthinkable sums of money. From the agents, managers, hangers-on, snake suited businessmen with pitches for shiny new car dealerships and Orlando real estate to obligations toward a family tree that sprouts evermore branches, an athlete’s net worth is subjected to a barrage of insincere requests.
But it’s getting to the point of parody.
So, we can skip the part where I tell you Antoine Walker has gone broke, burning through approximately $108 million (in salary alone) on who knows what and is now shuffling his rotund frame around the battered, sparsely attended arenas of the Development League for, what is to him, peanuts. In fact, you’ve probably already read it in an amazing Sports Illustrated piece last week. In a strange way, I always expected things to end this way for Walker.
Walker was a strange player, is probably still strange in a different way. I’m not talking about his personality – though I loved his hilarious shimmy and an expression so lethargic it’s usually reserved for the post-coital, possibly for the wrong reasons – but rather his basketball game itself. To this day, I don’t know how to describe how Antoine Walker played. He defied description.
He was extraordinarily pudgy yet never seemed to tire, despite the quantity in which he sweat. Believe it or not, Walker played for more than 40 minutes per game for three years straight, leading the NBA in minutes played during the 2001-2002 season (3,406 minutes or 42.0 MPG). More incredibly, he only missed two games total in that stretch. I suspect his refusal to play defense or wander closer to the basket than the three point line had a lot to do with his endurance.
This brings me to my favorite part of Antoine.
He shot an unholy number of three pointers, this despite him not being very good at it. It was strange, watching him, it was almost as if his brain would short-circuit each time he caught the ball, forcing him to launch away. There was no specific context to his shooting. Down by 20, up by 40, clear path to the rim, wide open. It didn’t matter. If Antoine wanted to shoot, he was going to shoot. And that’s that. He led the league in attempts three times – once even launching 645 in a season.
A week ago, he sold his 2006 NBA Championship ring – no word yet as to whether David Stern and Tim Donaghy received a portion of the sale proceeds – for a little over $20,000 to help pay some bills. His ex-fiancée is now set to marry NFL player Chad Johnson. It all fell apart so quickly, frighteningly so, but I’m not surprised.
Once the money dries up, the friends and especially the women disappear. Now I’m sure his fiancée was a wonderfully talented and self-made woman (her website advertises her as an entrepreneur and philanthropist) but, yeah, he should have seen that coming.
The most frustrating part about these self-destructions is how easily avoidable it all is, how every veteran in the locker room is a testament to what not to do. I understand one of the best things of the human spirit is convincing oneself that he or she is too smart or lucky to fall into such traps but that’s just it. Poverty, for the super-rich, isn’t a trap one suddenly falls into.
An athlete can watch as his monthly bank statement sink closer to zero, he can see that the car wash in Encino isn’t quite yielding the profits he was promised, and he damn sure knows that when a 19-year-old Dominican woman from the projects starts sexting him on Twitter, that possibly, with all his wealth and talent, he can do better.
The terrain I’m trying to get into here is why athletes, uniquely, appear so destined for destitution.
An NBA player foolishly marries the groupie who follows the team bus from city to city; he endures four years of bitter fighting before she files for divorce, taking half his net worth and half of all future earnings. His teammates will not understand that ok, maybe those aren’t the girls I should be marrying and having children with? How many more times must an athlete like Antoine Walker go bankrupt before players understand that it doesn’t have to be this way?
Don’t worry Antoine. You’re not the first. And you sure as hell won’t be the last – Dennis Rodman will make sure of that.