Johnny Davis knew the end was near.

During the summer of 1985, Davis was gearing up for his 10th N.B.A. season when he noticed something about his familiar quickness — namely, that it was missing.

Davis was just 29 at the time. But the hard mileage of a productive basketball career had worn him down.

“I was getting by with experience more so than I was with athletic talent,” said Davis, a versatile guard in his prime. “It was pretty obvious that I wasn’t the same player.”

Davis was fortunate in the sense that he had time to prepare for retirement — “I wasn’t caught off guard at all,” he said — but he still had to confront the big question: What now?

As N.B.A. teams trim their rosters before the season begins this month, a new batch of players will find themselves asking that same question. There is always an end in professional sports: Athletes become former athletes; All-Stars become “Isn’t he that guy?” And while there are perks of reaching the highest level, no one avoids the fundamental challenge of ascension: coming down.

“The day you leave the N.B.A., now they tell you to start over again,” said Quentin Richardson, a guard whose 13-year playing career ended in 2013 when he was just 33.

While some players have the luxury of leaving the game on their own terms, most have that decision made for them by the effects of age and injury, their careers punctuated by the wait for another contract offer that never materializes.

“The sport generally leaves you,” Davis, 66, said. “And now you’re in this place where you have to move on from something that you have done your whole life. And sometimes that means you have to re-identify who you are.”

Pau Gasol wanted to gather his thoughts.

After playing basketball for Spain at the Tokyo Olympics, he returned to his Spanish mountain cottage last August to spend time with his wife, Cat McDonnell, and their young daughter, Ellie. Gasol went for quiet walks, and as he contemplated the past — his 18 seasons in the N.B.A., his title runs alongside Kobe Bryant — he found peace.

A few weeks later, Gasol announced his retirement at Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona’s famed opera house. He had just turned 41.

“It was not a sad moment,” he said. “It was a celebratory moment.”

Gasol had a long career, one that familiarized him with impermanence. He starred for the Memphis Grizzlies. He won two championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. He became more of a mentor with the Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs, then spent his final months in the N.B.A. laboring with a foot injury. He adapted to the evolution of his role.

“I’m not saying it’s easy,” he said. “There are times when you still feel like you should start or play significant minutes. But life moves on, and now it’s someone else’s turn.”

Before the Tokyo Olympics, he won a Spanish league championship in his final season with F.C. Barcelona, the club that had given him his professional start. “It was kind of romantic,” he said.

Gasol, now 42, has since kept busy with his foundation that focuses on childhood obesity and as a member of the International Olympic Committee, a consultant for the Golden State Warriors and a W.N.B.A. investor. He also squeezes in the occasional round of golf.

Of course, there are days when he misses playing basketball. So he copes by reading books about personal fulfillment and retirement, some of them geared toward people in their 60s. He also keeps in touch with Dr. William D. Parham, the director of mental health and wellness for the N.B.A. players’ union.

“I’ve talked to him several times to help me weather this,” Gasol said. “You have to understand that nothing will ever really compare to the thrill of playing.”

Mario West, 38, spends most of the N.B.A. season in locker rooms making connections with players by getting personal.

He might mention how in 2009 Shannon Brown, then a Lakers guard, famously pinned one of his layup attempts to the backboard. (“I’ve been a meme,” West said.) Or how he played in the Philippines and the Dominican Republic after a few seasons in the N.B.A. Or how injuries changed his plans.

Now, as the director of Off the Court, an N.B.A. players’ union program, West counsels players on life after basketball. Most of them are not stars. Most worry about surviving training camp, about extending their careers. West was like that. So he gives his cellphone number to each player he meets.

“If guys call me at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., I’m going to pick up,” he said.

Yes, even some professional athletes go into life-crisis mode in the middle of the night, when the house quiets and the internal voices of worry and insecurity get loud. Their financial concerns may not be relatable to the average person, but late-night stomach knots are a human experience.

“I answer every phone call,” West said. “We want to be the 411 and the 911.”

West often works with Deborah Murman, the director of the union’s career development program, who helps players cultivate outside interests.

“I like to say that it’s much easier to walk away from something when you have something you’re walking toward,” Murman said.

West’s professional career ended in 2015, when he was 31. He still plays pickup basketball in Atlanta, where he lives with his family. He has two young sons, and he wants to stay in shape for as long as possible.

“I remember dunking on my dad when I was 14, and he never played me again,” West said.

In his own way, West’s father knew when it was time to move on.

Even now, Jamal Crawford has trouble making sense of why his playing career ended.

He thinks back to the 2017-18 season, when he came off the bench and helped the Minnesota Timberwolves reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Crawford’s N.B.A. peers named him the teammate of the year — then he went unsigned for months as a free agent.

Sure, he had some mileage. He was 38 and coming off his 18th N.B.A. season, but he was healthy. When an offer finally did surface, it was with the Phoenix Suns the day before the 2018-19 season. He signed up for one year as a role player on one of the league’s worst and youngest teams.

“You found beauty in the fact that you were helping guys learn to be professionals,” he said.

Crawford thought he set himself up well for a new deal that summer by ending the season with high-scoring games. He thought wrong. The next season started without him.

“I had emotional days where I’d wake up and be like, ‘Man, I can’t believe I’m not getting a call,’ ” he said.

His agent was, in fact, fielding calls — several teams had reached out to gauge his interest in joining a front office or a coaching staff in 2019-20 — but Crawford still wanted to play. He was mystified: Had his late-season scoring binge worked against him? Were teams concerned that he would be unwilling to accept a limited role?

He was still unemployed when the coronavirus pandemic forced the N.B.A. to halt play for several months in March 2020. When the season resumed that July, he joined the Nets and injured his hamstring in his first game. His season was finished. And though he didn’t know it, so was his career.

Over the next two years, as he made his desire to play again known on social media and TV, he stumbled into a new vocation and passion: coaching his son J.J.’s youth basketball team in Seattle.

“It was the craziest thing,” Crawford said, “because I never knew that I would want to coach.”

He shuttles his son to weekend tournaments. He diagrams plays on his iPad. He said he could see himself coaching for years to come. He announced his retirement from the N.B.A. in March but showed he still had it in an adult league in July.

“Honestly, I have more fun coaching than I do playing — and I still love playing, by the way,” Crawford said. “If you’re an elite athlete and in that space for so long, you’re always going to be competitive. It doesn’t turn off. So, you need to find a way to channel it.”

Cole Aldrich would be the first to tell you that his circumstances are odd, that little about his life in Minnesota makes sense.

He often hits the roads near his home on a fancy gravel bike. He’s “far too involved” in the construction of his new home. When he was golfing last fall, a member of his playing group asked him what he did for work. Aldrich, 33, told him he was retired.

“You wouldn’t believe the looks people give you when you tell them that,” Aldrich said.

In his former life, Aldrich was one of the top picks in the 2010 N.B.A. draft and spent his first two seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He bounced around the league as a backup center before signing a three-year deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves with $17 million guaranteed.

“At that point, I felt like I could take a little bit of a deep breath,” he said.

He was cut before the third year of the deal, then sprained his knee while playing in China. At home in Minnesota, his wife, Britt Aldrich, was pregnant with their first child. Cole thought he would take a year off before giving hoops another shot. But after his son was born and the coronavirus pandemic rocked the world, “an easy decision for me became even easier,” he said.

It is a rare luxury, “retiring” in your early 30s with millions in the bank. But can this type of life — stay-at-home dad, part-time cyclist — last forever? Aldrich predicts that he will want another job at some point.

“I want to go and have a career in some capacity,” he said. “But I don’t know what that looks like.”

Many people are lucky if they can afford to stop working when they’re old enough to claim Social Security payments. But in the N.B.A. world, most careers are over while players are still young. Aldrich was done in the N.B.A. by 29 and had earned millions. His life is indeed odd in the big picture.

Darius Miles had just finished high school. Quentin Richardson was 20 years old. They were Los Angeles Clippers rookies in the fall of 2000.

Suddenly, the woeful Clippers were cool and exciting, if not yet particularly good.

“We were like a college team playing against grown men,” Miles said.

The players known as Q-Rich and D-Miles were fast and fun. Fans mirrored their signature celebration by tapping their fists on their foreheads. Then, after just two seasons, the Clippers traded Miles to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a more experienced player.

All these years later, Miles and Richardson wonder what would have happened had the team kept them together. Miles, 40, hopscotched around the league before he played his final game in 2009. He became depressed and withdrew into a “cave” to cope.

“Just losing your career, it’s one of the mental blocks that every player has,” Miles said. “Like, is it really over?”

Richardson, 42, knew he was nearing the end when the Orlando Magic cut him before the start of the 2012-13 season. He sat by the phone for months, waiting for another offer. After a brief stint with the Knicks, he spent four years in the Pistons’ front office, but he did not feel as though his opinions were valued.

“It was an experience that I would not like to experience again,” he said.

Richardson and Miles reconnected in 2018. With Richardson acting as his editor, Miles spent months on an essay for The Players’ Tribune titled, “What the Hell Happened to Darius Miles?

He wrote about growing up around drugs and violence in East St. Louis, Ill., and about “shady business deals” leaving him bankrupt. He wrote about the knee injuries that derailed his career and about being so depressed after his mother’s death that he holed up in her house for three years. And he wrote about the invitation from Richardson to move to his neighborhood in Florida.

“Q kept hitting me up,” Miles said. “I had to let the storm pass until I could see sunshine.”

Their chemistry birthed the podcast “Knuckleheads with Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles,” which offers a candid look at life in pro sports via interviews with current and former athletes and coaches.

“Guys do want to talk, and they prefer it in this realm where they’re sitting across from us and they know they’re in a safe space,” Richardson said. “They know we’re going to look out for each other.”

He said the N.B.A. and players’ union were helpful, too, as players transitioned into retirement.

“They’re trying to make it as fail proof as possible,” Richardson said. “Obviously, things can still happen.”

(In October 2021, Miles was one of 18 former players charged in an insurance fraud scheme. Miles, who has pleaded not guilty, declined to comment on the case through a publicist.)

With their podcast, Miles and Richardson are figuring out their new lives, without straying too far from the game. For some players, that might be the best way to move forward.

Miles said the podcast had helped give him purpose. “It’s the best doctor I got,” he said.

Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, Davis had many Pistons stars to emulate whenever he hit the playground courts with friends.

“One kid would want to be Jimmy Walker, and one would want to be Dave Bing,” Davis said. “I always wanted to be Dave Bing.”

Today, Davis and Bing are connected in another way: Davis is the chairman of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. Bing, 78, co-founded the group in 1992 with four other former players — Oscar Robertson, Archie Clark, Dave Cowens and Dave DeBusschere.

“We were at an All-Star Game where we talked about what we needed to try to do to help these players who were up in age,” Bing said. “Their health wasn’t all that good, and nobody seemed to care about them.”

The N.B.A. was not always the lucrative colossus that it is today. In Bing’s era, many players made ends meet with off-season jobs. Bing worked for a bank, first as a teller and later as a branch manager.

“The guys today don’t have to work and might not have to really worry about a second career,” he said. “But in the era I played in, you didn’t have a choice. You’re done at 34, and you’ve got your whole life in front of you.”

In 1980, he started Bing Steel with four employees. The company grew into a multimillion-dollar conglomerate, which he ran for 28 years before he was elected mayor of Detroit in 2009.

The retired players’ association helps players with health care, education, career counseling and financial services. But Scott Rochelle, the organization’s president and chief executive, avoids using the word “retirement.”

“I’ve got two or three guys who will see me and run away because they see me as the grim reaper,” Rochelle said. “We look at it as a change of direction. You don’t retire at 35. You just change your purpose and find something else that drives you from day to day.”




This story originally Appeared on NYTimes