Perhaps thanks to Hollywood’s ability to retell stories of rags-to-riches in such entertaining ways, there’s long been a misconception that most basketball players come from bad homes, from the “wrong side of the tracks.” But for every Michael Oher who struggled with indescribable heartache and hardships, there’s a Kobe Bryant who had many things handed to him, yet also had great skill.
As a society that loves sports enough to pay its athletes hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s no surprise that we’ll also pay hundreds of millions of dollars to watch television shows, go to see movies, and read books about our favourite athletes who struggled to get to the top. Stories of war, death, prison, drugs, hunger, and all types of other afflictions are the ones we are drawn to the most.
Entertainment value aside, learning about how these gifted athletes faced astronomical odds to play the sport they love is pretty incredible. Reading how parents give and sacrifice in order to encourage their kids; how coaches put in countless hours of training and go above and beyond to be mentors and friends; how teachers give time and encouragement, often taking away from their own families to help someone else; and how relentless friends will push until they can’t push anymore – these are the people we wish we could be. They are equally as inspiring as the athletes they support.
It may only take a hoop and a ball to play, but to nurture the talent and skill necessary to be great requires heart, perseverance, support, and money. The great basketball players listed below only lacked one of these four in their pre-NBA lives, and it definitely wasn’t heart.
15 Larry Bird
The “Hick from French Lick” was born near French Lick, Indiana, as baby number four of six in his family. Things were tough for the Bird family; Joe Bird worked various jobs over the years, including factory work and construction, but was often unemployed and the family barely had enough money to keep the home heated. Their coal furnace often broke down, making winter nights particularly tough. Joe was also an alcoholic, when meant his earnings were sometimes spent at the bar instead of on bills or food for the family.
Poverty is a powerful motivator, though, and Bird said that escaping these conditions was a big reason why he pursued basketball. After two failed attempts at post-secondary schools and a stint in French Lick as a garbage man, Bird finally played for Indiana State in 1976. He was drafted to the NBA in 1978 and signed a contract in 1979 that gave him $3.25 million over five years with the Celtics.
14 Allen Iverson
Iverson’s mother was just a teenager when he was born. A few years later, the boyfriend she was living with was arrested and sent to jail for drug dealing, leaving her to care for young Allen and his two sisters. It was hard for her to make ends meet; the phone and power were occasionally shut off, and in Iverson’s sophomore year of high school the family was evicted from their rundown apartment. After a brawl at a local bowling alley, Iverson was arrested and spent four months in jail before being pardoned by the governor. This meant he had to finish high school at Richard Milburn High School, a school for at-risk kids.
While at Richard Milburn, his unusual basketball skills caught the attention of the coach at Georgetown University and Iverson was granted a full scholarship. He was drafted by the 76ers in 1996 and offered a $9 million contract.
13 Serge Ibaka
Born in one of the poorest countries in Central Africa, the Republic of Congo, into a family of 18 children, Ibaka’s childhood was not an easy one. His parents were both professional basketball players, but that didn’t shield them from wartime tragedy. The whole family was forced to leave their hometown, so Ibaka was raised by his grandmother during the Second Congo War, in a home with no electricity or running water. His mother passed away and his father was a imprisoned for several years. The young power forward learned the game of basketball by playing on the streets, wearing shoes with so many holes that he used cardboard inserts to cover the soles.
Ibaka played ball in Spain for a while and then joined the Oklahoma Thunder in 2009. This past season he played with the Thunder and Toronto Raptors and made over $12 million.
12 Jimmy Butler
His father abandoned them when he was an infant, and at 13 years old, Butler’s mom kicked him out of the house without a penny to his name. “I don’t like the look of you,” she told him. “You gotta go.” With no other family to turn to, Butler stayed with friends for as long as he could. After having a 3-point shooting contest with a kid named Jordan Leslie, Butler went to stay with his new friend’s family for “a few days.” And a few days turned into a few years. There were already seven kids in the house, so money was tight, but the family welcomed him, loved him, and encouraged both his academic and athletic abilities.
Thanks to a full athletic scholarship, Jimmy G. “Buckets” attended Tyler Junior College and then Marquette University. He was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 2011, and his current contract gives him $95 million over five years.
11 Ben McLemore
Living in a St. Louis home that was less than 600 square feet, McLemore often had to share the space with as many as 10 relatives at a time, including his own five siblings and any number of nieces and nephews. During his childhood, his mother worked nights as a cleaner and his brother tried to help the family by taking odd jobs wherever he could. The same brother, Keith Scott, was arrested for armed burglary and sent to prison for 15 years. The second youngest of the family, Ben’s motivation to go to school was the free food offered at breakfast and lunch. Coaches, churches, and others in the community helped the young basketball star whenever they could. He still talks about his old neighborhood and says he’d like to repair his childhood home in Missouri.
McLemore went to the University of Kansas in 2011 and later joined the Sacramento Kings in 2013. Last year made over $4 million as a shooting guard for the Kings.
10 Zach Randolph
Raised in the predominately white, blue-collar community of Marion, Indiana, where he often felt the sting of racism, Randolph lived with his mother and three siblings but had no father figure. His mother, Mae, struggled to provide for her family, relying mostly on welfare, but Randolph says they were always warm and had food on the table. Kids would tease him when he had to wear the same pair of jeans to school every day for days, sometimes weeks. He spent time in juvenile detention after stealing jeans from Walmart once, was later placed under house arrest when charged with battery, and was again in a juvenile facility after being caught receiving stolen guns.
Despite these legal troubles and his lowly upbringing, his massive talent led him to Michigan State University. He has since earned over $140 million while playing in the NBA.
9 Derrick Rose
Born and raised in a rough area of Chicago called Englewood, Rose had three older brothers and a vigilant mother who, at times, worked multiple jobs. His family kept him safe and focused despite the crime and fear that was rampant near their home. There were many times when young Derrick would cry, wishing for a better life, far away from the guns and drugs that surrounded them in Englewood. It wasn’t long, though, before he was tall enough and skilled enough to dunk a basketball, earning him entrance to Simeon Career Academy, and then the University of Memphis.
These days the man who was the youngest ever to win the NBA’s MVP award plays for the New York Knicks. According to Forbes, he is worth $34.3 million.
8 Leon Powe
After his father left when Leon was just two years old, his mother, Connie, worked various flea markets to provide for her six children. When he was seven, the home they were in caught fire, so Powe and his family moved between shelters, slum-like apartments, motel rooms, and even cars. As the oldest, Leon was made to babysit his siblings so his mother could go to work, and he missed most of the fifth grade because of this. Eventually, most of the children were taken from their mother and placed in foster care. Against all odds, though, he became a top prospect at Oakland Technical High School, played for the University of California’s Berkeley team, the California Golden Bears, was drafted by the Denver Nuggets, and quickly traded to the Boston Celtics.
In his last three season with the NBA, Powe made over $2.5 million. These days, he works in the office for the Celtics and hopes to be manager one day.
7 Giannis Antetokounmpo
Having moved from Nigeria to Athens in 1991, Antetokounmpo’s parents were looking for work and a better life for their growing family. They worked on orange farms and sold sunglasses, beads, and purses on the street to provide for their growing family, and their sons helped. When young Giannis and his brother Thanasis took up basketball, they had to share sneakers, and the boys often missed practice because they were trying to help earn money for the family. The brothers agreed that they would make something of their lives so they would never have to miss meals and peddle trinkets ever again. Even after Giannis made it to the NBA, however, his family was delayed in Greece as they fought immigration laws to be able to join their son. He lived mostly on his per diem from the team so that his salary could be sent to help his family.
These days, with the whole family on American soil, Giannis has a $100 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks.
6 Scottie Pippen
An Arkansas native, Pippen was born the youngest of 12 children to Preston and Ethel. Scottie was only 14 years old when his father, who worked at a paper mill, had a massive stroke that left him unable to speak and in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. It also meant he wasn’t able to work and collected disability cheques instead. They lived in a two-bedroom house in the small town of Hamburg, and although Pippen says he never considered himself to be poor, neither he nor his family had much money in their pockets. Scottie has since bought his childhood home, where his mother still lives, as well as the land surrounding it, and made it a much prettier, more comfortable place.
He’s able to do this thanks to the 17 seasons of professional basketball he played, earning him a net worth of $50 million.
5 Mirza Teletovic
When he was only seven years old, Mirza Teletovic found himself in the midst of the Bosnian War. Suddenly there was no food in his Yugoslavian home, the whole city shook as grenades fell constantly, people were screaming everywhere, and death was everywhere. His own house was bombed at one point, leaving gaping holes in the walls. Air raid sirens rang out constantly and the family focused all their energy on just surviving. Young Teletovic found time to escape life for short periods of time as he shot hoops on the basketball court, often not wearing any shoes at all.
All of this changed once he played professional ball in Bosnia at age 15, then the Belgian Basketball League, the Spanish ABC League, and finally the NBA. He now has a 3-year, $30 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks.
4 Ben Wallace
As the 10th of 11 children and the youngest of eight brothers, Wallace didn’t have it easy growing up in a three-bedroom home in rural Alabama. His mother made all the clothes for her large family, they never had a car, and they were the last family in the community to get electricity in their home. When the kids wanted spending money, they picked pecans, bailed hay, or took other odd jobs to earn for themselves. When he wanted to attend a basketball camp hosted by Charles Oakley one summer, he cut people’s hair for $3 a pop in order to save for the $50 registration fee.
Thanks to Oakley’s mentoring, Wallace played ball for Cuyahoga Community College and then Virginia Union University before going pro. Over his 16 seasons in the NBA, Wallace earned upwards of $91 million.
3 Kevin Durant
His father abandoned the family before Kevin’s first birthday, leaving his mother and grandmother to care for the four children. A determined and hardworking woman, Wanda Pratt was usually at her job from dawn until dusk in order to provide for her family, setting an example Kevin has always remembered. A beloved friend and mentor, Charles Craig often helped Kevin and many kids in the community by occasionally giving them change for snacks, bringing them home to his mother to give them a good meal, and pitching in to pay for jerseys and other fees when Kevin and others couldn’t quite do it. In 2005, a year when there were 173 homicides in the county, Craig was shot and killed during an altercation that he wasn’t even a part of.
Eventually, Durant played for the University of Texas and in 2007 joined the Seattle Supersonics. He now has endorsement deals that bring him $36 million per year, signed a $54 million contract with Golden State last year, and has started his own investment business, The Durant Company.
2 Carmelo Anthony
When his father died of liver failure when Anthony was only two years old, caring and providing for the family’s four children fell to his mother, Mary. She worked tirelessly as a housekeeper and did her best to keep her kids safe in their area of Baltimore that was called the Pharmacy, due to the drugs that were plentiful on the streets. In fact, it’s the same neighborhood where HBO’s The Wire takes place. His mother kept him on the straight and narrow, however, by forbidding young Carmelo to go near a basketball net if he was in any sort of trouble. Although he didn’t have the best grades in school at first, his skills on the court earned Anthony entrance to Oak Hill Academy and he excelled there in both the academic and athletic fields.
He played for Syracuse University for just one season before heading to the NBA with the Denver Nuggets. Last season he played for the New York Knicks and took home over $25.5 million. He’ll make $26 million next year.
1 LeBron James
Born to a 16-year-old mother and an ex-con, absent father, James grew up in Akron, Ohio. His mother first lived with her own mother and grandmother, as well as her brothers, in the old family home. But when her own mother died suddenly, Gloria and her brothers couldn’t keep up the house themselves. She then moved from tiny apartment to tiny apartment, as well as job to job, as she continued to struggle to provide for her son. By the time he hit elementary school, James was embarrassed by his lifestyle and had a hard time making friends. Basketball and football were his distractions, and when his football coach realized that James’ home life was unstable and he was missing a lot of school, the coach agreed to open his home to the young athlete.
His love for basketball prevailed over football and has played for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat for 14 seasons. These days his net worth is over $275 million.