MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
All this week, we're hearing about the growing wealth divide in this country. It's a subject Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke addressed at length in his speech yesterday. One example he mentioned: superstar salaries paid to top performers in fields such as entertainment, investment banking, law and sports.
NORRIS: As a group, NBA players are the richest professional athletes. Their salaries average more than $5 million. But for many skilled basketball pros not quite there, the financial gulf is huge.
NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN: If the NBA is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, then Lance Allred's dirty white Nissan Ultima is pretty close to the other end.
Mr. LANCE ALLRED (Idaho Stampede Player): We just jumped in my car and this is my buddy, Mac. He's quite a little traveler.
GOLDMAN: As we head out into the streets of Boise, Idaho, Allred's black Scottish Terrier, Mac, is perched on his master's left leg. Mac patiently waited the three hours Allred was practicing with the Idaho Stampede of the NBA Development League. Now, Mac sits with his ears back, eyes glued to the road ahead.
Mr. ALLRED: So just for therapeutic reasons, I decided to get myself a dog because she's definitely a relaxer for sure.
GOLDMAN: That comfort is especially welcome when the 6 foot 11 inch Allred thinks about the capricious basketball fates, fates that landed him in the NBA's top minor league and others in a world of instant wealth.
Mr. ALLRED: It blows your mind, because yeah, you see guys that I played against and you know you can play against, and they're just making just an obscene amount of money.
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GOLDMAN: Milwaukee Bucks starting center Andrew Bogut is one of those guys. Now battling the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, Bogut was battling against Lance Allred just a couple of years ago in college. Head to head, they played about even in points and rebounds.
Bogut, an Australian, remembers how they competed in 2005 for the NCAA Men's rebounding title. Bogut finished second in the nation. Allred, third.
Mr. ANDREW BOGUT (Milwaukee Bucks Player): I always loved the way he played. Every game was played flat out. I think he was one of the best players in that conference at that time.
GOLDMAN: The Bucks crowned Bogut best player, period, and took him first in the NBA college draft. He makes $4.6 million a year.
Lance Allred was not one of the 60 players drafted. He now plays in a league considered the closest to the NBA. The Development League averages around 15 player call-ups per season. But while Lance Allred's world in Boise may be close, it's still a whole lot of decimal points away from the NBA.
What do you make?
Mr. ALLRED: Let's see. I am making about $15,000 for the whole year, full season.
GOLDMAN: Player salaries in the 6-year-old D league range from $12,000 to $24,000 a season, paid in part by money from the NBA. Modest salaries beget modest living conditions like the apartments Stampede players share in Boise.
Who did the decorating?
Mr. JERMAINE BLACKBURN (Idaho Stampede Player): Decorating? No, we're just trying to work hard, you know, (unintelligible) on.
GOLDMAN: Jermaine Blackburn and Ronell Taylor's three-bedroom apartment is a testament to lives on the move and on the cheap. The white walls are completely bare. The team covers rent and utilities. Blackburn and Taylor pay for their groceries and the $40 monthly charge for leasing a washer/dryer.
Taylor, a 24-year-old guard from Alabama, says they split all costs down the middle.
Mr. RONELL TAYLOR (Idaho Stampede Player): That's another way of saving money. Just going out there and buying two of everything when we can buy one big thing and just share it.
GOLDMAN: Life on the road is a financial challenge as well. While traveling NBA players get $100 a day spending money, D Leaguers get $30.
Mr. TAYLOR: Breakfast, lunch and dinner. A lot of fast food. Get a cab to take you to McDonald's, which might be on the other side of town, so that might be some of your money right there.
GOLDMAN: The players talk about money and lifestyle in a matter-of-fact way. There's no complaining. Many could be earning more money in Europe, but they know in D League towns like Boise or Sioux Falls or Bakersfield, it's easier for NBA teams to look for and find a player who can fill a sudden need.
Mr. BRYAN GATES (Idaho Stampede Coach): Ricky, you're coming up. Your good shoulder - you're catching - hey, listen. If you don't have a catching shot, Lance, we're going to post Randy up right there. Yes, sir.
GOLDMAN: It's the end of the third quarter in a game last month. The Stampede lead the Bakersfield Jam by 14 points. Idaho coach Bryan Gates sits facing his players in a sideline huddle, urging them to not let up.
Mr. GATES: Hey, the game is ours. We've got to take it. We've got to knock them out right now. The game is ours.
GOLDMAN: The Stampede won the game playing the kind of unselfish, team-oriented basketball Coach Gates preaches whenever he can. It's a challenge sometimes selling the team style in a league where guys know there are scouts watching for great individual performances.
But Gates relishes that challenge, and as he did in his post-game speech that night, always seems to acknowledge the collective quest in the D League to move up.
Mr. GATES: We're all here for a reason. Me, every - I mean, all of us. Okay. We're not there yet. Okay? You've got to figure out a way to motivate yourself.
GOLDMAN: It's not hard for the Stampede, especially when you consider that one of the team members is a constant reminder of where D Leaguers want to be.
Mr. EDDIE ROBINSON (Idaho Stampede Player): My first two years was with the Charlotte Hornets. Then another five year deal with the Bulls in 2000.
GOLDMAN: Eddie Robinson's deal with the NBA's Chicago Bulls paid him $32 million. At the age of 24, he was set. He did what a lot of instantly rich players do: bought his mom a house, bought himself a silver Bentley, and built a gym for underprivileged kids back in his hometown. His financial team, Robinson says, also invested and put him on a budget.
Mr. ROBINSON: $32,000 a month. That's after all my bills and stuff are paid. I have like that much money to do anything with.
GOLDMAN: That's half your -
Mr. ROBINSON: Groceries, things like that.
GOLDMAN: Groceries, clothes.
Mr. ROBINSON: Clothes, shopping, whatever.
GOLDMAN: Robinson broke his foot in 2004. He's been out of the NBA since then trying to heal. A comeback attempt has brought him to Boise, where ERob, as his teammates call him, has become a kind of basketball Yoda, imparting wisdom about the NBA game and about the winner-take-all economics at the top level.
He doesn't need the salary he makes in the D League. He sends it to his family in Michigan.
Mr. ROBINSON: I'm really not here for that, you know, financial money. I'm not here for that. I mean, I love playing basketball and this is the league that's going to get me back to the next level.
GOLDMAN: And because of that, the competition is fierce to make the D League and earn its paltry money. Lance Allred remembers pre-season tryouts for the Stampede when bad shoes literally ripped the skin off the balls of his foot.
Mr. ALLRED: But it's camp, and you're not guaranteed. So you've got to keep playing on it. So you just put some Neosporin on it and wrap it up and just rub some dirt on it and bite the bullet and go back out there. And so -
GOLDMAN: What were your feet like after practice? Bloody?
Mr. ALLRED: Bloody, and I would go cry in the shower so no one could see me crying because - but it's what we do.
GOLDMAN: That cherished NBA jackpot is more lucrative than ever. The salary cap limits the top individual salaries - if you can call $21 million a year limited - but average salaries continue to grow. And with the NBA aggressively courting overseas markets, revenues and payrolls stand to grow even more.
Globalization also is creating more competition for NBA jobs. There's a much larger pool of legitimate prospects in places like China and Africa. When I was in Boise, the Seattle Sonics of the NBA sent their 6' 11" rookie from Senegal, Mouhamed Sene, down to Idaho for more playing time.
Coach Gates said Sene's presence wouldn't hurt the chemistry of his team. It would mean fewer minutes on the court for Lance Allred, Gates said, adding Lance knew it was going to happen. He understands.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.