As a sporting operation, the NBA manages to elevate people with less than nothing and make them global superstars to greater levels than anyone else. Even for those that aren’t die hard supporters of a franchise, the rags-to-riches stories that envelope every year out of the draft is something to behold. It is unique to the sport, but it doesn’t hold true to every player.
We all know about the players that were unearthed against the odds. Guys who had to grind just to give themselves a chance to be seen by a scout. Pros like Caron Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard had to deal with death, single parentage or outright poverty – sometimes a combination of the three. No wonder these big stars don’t blink when a championship game is on the line or they’re handed the ball for a crucial free throw, they’ve dealt with far more important problems.
Politicians often talk about terms like “upward mobility” when highlighting their policies on a run to office. That's the idea that the American Dream was built on, using your skill and application to rise up in life. Fortunately the NBA is such a magnificent platform that once a player makes the grade, the knock-on effects help the next generation. For many of the rich athletes that didn’t have to experience what Melo and King James had to go through, their fortune came in the exploits of their parents.
Players like Austin Rivers and Patrick Ewing Jr. didn’t have to see their family work through multiple jobs to keep the lights on, or deal with domestic violence, drug abuse, education problems or other stumbling blocks that regularly prevent the best youth talent from getting recognized around the country. They didn’t have those excuses.
This is not a stick to beat them with, if anything it should be celebrated and something to strive for. Off court struggles will humble athletes and give them a grounding, but the pain and suffering along that journey should not have to be experienced in the first place. Here are the top 20 NBAers who had it good before they made it pro.
19 Ben Simmons
This one might be cheating, but it's only a matter of months until this kid puts on an NBA jersey. The first and freshest edition to the rich ballers club, young Australian baller Ben Simmons is getting ready for NBA franchises to fall over themselves. Having signed on with LeBron James’ representation, the LSU rookie is ready to pull out of the NCAA College system as quickly as he entered it. Simmons comes from healthy basketball stock from the father’s side of the family and now that the prodigy has signed on the dotted line with Klutch Sports Group, Nike are ready to cash in on his name as the Aussie is tipped to become the next $100 million athlete. His parents were well off enough to relocate him to the US to pursue his dream and there is next to no doubt that he will repay that faith with some interest.
18 Austin Rivers
“Nepotism” was a word never far from the lips of NBA and Clippers fans when coach Doc Rivers brought in his son Austin in a three-way trade with the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics in early 2015. Doc had such a distinguished playing career as an Atlanta Hawk in the 1980s and with the Clippers, Knicks and Spurs that his offspring was seemingly expected to be just as impressive. But the first ever example of an NBA player playing for his father’s team would soon pay dividends, topped off by an emotional victory over the Spurs that brought his dad to tears. Austin’s had to battle public expectation in a very unique way, but he’s never had to battle poverty.
17 Tim Duncan
Born and raised in the Virgin Islands, the exotic location allowed a young Tim Duncan to excel in freestyle swimming and to find inspiration from his sister Tricia, who went to the Olympics in 1988 representing the small territory. The San Antonio Spurs legend was headed to a life in the pool until Hurricane Hugo took out a huge portion of the facilities in the region and he decided to try his hand at basketball while he finished his College degree at Wake Forest University. Now Duncan enjoys a huge net worth with his championship-winning exploits on the court, but his tremendous standing as a respectful ambassador for various brands derives from the great education he received courtesy of family that provided him with a head start.
16 Kyrie Irving
Something must be in the water in Australia’s southern city of Melbourne, with Victoria producing Kyrie Irving years before Ben Simmons burst on the scene. The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar followed in his father’s footsteps, with Drederick playing for Boston University in the 1980s to great acclaim despite injury hampering his NBA dreams. With his late mother passing when he was only four, Kyrie’s father managed to enroll his children in private school while sometimes bringing them back to the Mitchel housing projects that he grew up in to remind them of the privilege their father didn't have. Irving’s moderately wealthy upbringing was bookended by some tragic moments that gave him a solid grounding.
15 Ronnie Brewer
He might be in the D-League right now and on the outer in NBA circles, but Ronnie Brewer’s talent didn’t fall far from the tree. His father Ron was a superstar in College and by the time he was just a boy in elementary school, Ronnie grew up idolizing his dad who ran a basketball camp. “As I got older,” Ronnie explained, “probably in the sixth grade, that’s when he told me “I’ll coach your teams” and teach me from there. He coached me in AAU in sixth or seventh grade until I graduated.” Father Ron flourished at Arkansas before starting with the Trail Blazers in 1978, going on to play for seven more franchises until his retirement in 1986. That laid the platform for Ronnie to live very comfortably, to the point where Ron wanted him to explore other career options despite his obvious abilities.
14 Brent Barry
Son of Golden State Warriors champion and Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Rick Barry, son Brent had a head start over many others making the grade in the mid 1990s. The towering guard would go on to win two championships with the San Antonio Spurs, creating a Barry Dynasty with brothers Jon, Drew and Scooter all suiting up in the NBA. While Brent played in Texas with the Spurs, he still found time to get away to Los Angeles to stay in their beach house during the off season. Not bad.
13 Ed Davis
Another NBA player derived from famous stock, Ed Davis developed his skills under the watchful eye of parents Angela Jones and Terry Davis, with the latter playing 10 seasons in the league with the Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Washington Wizards. So, in 2010, when his son Ed was enveloped in a ‘secret’ agent scandal in College that coincided with a broken wrist, his father was the perfect sounding board to smooth over the waters. Now with the Portland Trail Blazers, North Carolina product Ed has used his privileged position to his advantage.
13. Damien Wilkins
The spotlight is not something the Wilkins family avoids. Sister Jasmyn became Miss Georgia in 2012 and 4th runner-up as Miss USA that same year, while Holli participated for the Furman Women’s team. Father Gerald was a 13-year NBA veteran, paving the way for Damien to grow up in North Carolina and Florida with a sense of stability and assurance. Playing as a small forward with Seattle, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia, Wilkins managed nine years across six different franchises to forge his own path.
12 Dwight Howard
“Rich” might be too strong a word in some of these cases, a point that Dwight Howard would likely reject given the heartache his mother went through. Seven miscarriages meant that Dwight as baby number eight was never a sure thing, and even though his mother Sheryl was an athlete herself at Atlanta’s Morris Brown College and his father Dwight Howard Sr. was an athletic director and police officer, the Houston Rockets star had an early grounding for how difficult life can be. The devout Christian was given a tremendous academic and basketball education at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy with his parent’s strong connections and since being picked as number 1 in the draft by the Magic in 2004, the rest, as they say, is history.
11 Patrick Ewing Jr.
It almost seems cruel to call your son ‘Jr.’ and have him share a name with arguably the greatest basketball name to come out of Madison Square Garden, but that was the hand that was dealt to Patrick Ewing Jr. With his father’s reported net worth at $85 million from his years dominating the New York Knicks roster throughout the 80s and 90s, Ewing Jr. jumped around Development League teams before playing a single season with the New Orleans Hornets in 2011. But even though he had a shadow of the talent, the name itself carries plenty of weight and he became the director of basketball operations of Georgetown in 2015.
10 Kevin Love
How can you not love Kevin Love? The Cleveland Cavaliers power forward isn’t just the son of Stan Love, a handle-bar mustache wearing Bullets and Lakers player from the mid 70s, but the nephew of uncle Mike, a man who played the sax, guitar and harmonica for The Beach Boys. Combining basketball heritage with 100 million worldwide in record sales meant that success on the big stage was something to embrace and since his days playing for Lake Oswego High School and UCLA in College, life has been good to Kevin Love.
9 Pau Gasol
Born in the exotic surrounds of Barcelona, Spain, Pau Gasol sought inspiration and life lessons from father Agusti, a second-division basketball player and hospital administrator by trade and mother Marisa, a medical doctor herself. Medicine and basketball was in the family, but when Pau watched the Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Games, his mind was made up. After joining his local side, he was picked up by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2001 and would go on to win two championships with Kobe and the Lakers.
8 Marc Gasol
The Gasol family had it good. Not only did Marc live under the same highly educated roof as Pau, but the two-time NBA All-Star would pave his own way in the sport to be a rock solid center with the Memphis Grizzlies. When they played each other at the 2015 All-Star contest. it was recognition how far they had come as a family and confirmation of what a tremendous platform his parents have given him and Pau.
7 Joakim Noah
Not many NBA players can lay claim to being the son of a French Open winner. Joakim Noah was raised by father Yannick Noah, a tennis pro who won the tournament in 1983 and in doing so, allowed the multicultural family to flourish. A passion for Bob Marley in the household provided Joakim with a love of Rastafarian music and going to the United Nations International School as a youngster meant that the chilled Chicago Bulls veteran had a worldly perspective surpassing most of his counterparts on the court.
6 Steve Kerr
Life had been so good for Steve Kerr, all up until one fateful day. The champion Golden State Warriors head coach and Chicago Bulls-winning player carved out a stellar NBA career amid hearing the news his father had been shot and killed overseas. His dad Malcolm was the president of the American University in Beirut. That devastation came amid a childhood and upbringing of joy and exploration, traveling to Tunisia, France and Egypt where he would access the best education can bring and the best start to life in basketball. What a legacy to pass on.
5 Grant Hill
Issues of race and wealth are never too far divided in a politically and socially combustible environment, so when former Pistons, Magic, Suns and Clippers player Grant Hill weighed in on controversial comments made by Jalen Rose, the backlash was swift. The fury centered on Duke’s recruitment of African Americans as Hill referenced his fortunate upbringing to apparently differentiate himself from the stereotype of poor black communities. “I am beyond fortunate to have two parents who are still working well into their 60s,” remarked Hill in a piece he filed for the New York Times. “They received great educations and use them every day… I try to live by and pass on (that) to my children.” This is the delicate situation of identifying ballers who didn’t have to live the hard life, because they play in an environment of professionals who did it much tougher off the court than they did.
4 Mike Dunleavy Jr.
Unlike Austin Rivers, Mike Dunleavy Jr. wanted to avoid playing for his famous father in the NBA at all costs. The shooting guard was drafted by the Warriors in 2002 but stayed away from the LA Clippers who his dad was coaching at the time. Mike Sr. started his NBA career in the mid 70s with the 76ers before becoming a head coach, allowing Mike Jr. to grow up without any financial barriers or setbacks. In 2013, he signed with the Bulls. Mike Jr. had a reported net worth of $21 million to ensure that the next along the genetic line of the Dunleavy family is even more well off than he was to begin with.
3 Tim Hardaway Jr.
When a father is in a grumpy mood and exclaims, “I had it tougher in my day,” that pretty much hits the cliche nail on the head. Tim Hardaway's father is one of those guys whose expressed this sentiment. The Detroit Pistons assistant coach played for seven years with the Warriors by literally fighting for his patch of turf. “It was kind of tough,” said Hardaway Sr. “I grew up in Chicago around gangs, going to school every day and trying to fight gangs off and trying to find my own identity. We grew up differently. Kids today (grow) up with a silver spoon in their mouth because their family and their parents wanted them to have better lives.” And for Tim Hardaway Jr. this was the case, coming through the ranks in the gorgeous surrounds of Miami and being picked up by the Knicks in 2013.
2 Steph Curry
Dell Curry might be best known today for starring alongside his son in Sports Center commercials, but he did okay himself, particularly in the 90s with his local Charlotte Hornets. Steph’s mother Sonya was a Division 1 volleyball athlete as well, making basketball a genuine goal to strive for rather than a pipe dream in North Carolina. The greatest obstacle Curry faced wasn’t qualifying for College or paying the rent, it was his lack of size and physical strength. Once that wasn’t an issue for him on the court, the NBA became his playground.
1 Kobe Bryant
The champion Lakers legend is Los Angeles through and through. The glitz, the glamour, the fame – it is apart of Kobe’s make up. Son of Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe started life in Philadelphia until his dad packed up and went to Italy taking the family with him. There Bryant played both basketball and soccer and lived a spectacular life, where he would come back with the confidence and life skills necessary to jump straight from High School to the NBA. Wealth and status was all he has known and when a real estate feud erupted between himself and his mother in 2013, it became clear how jaded that family dynamic had become. The retiring great takes the golden-crusted crown for the baller that was rich before making the NBA.
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