It’s easy to look at NBA stars and be jealous. They have tons of money, fancy cars, and can go on exotic vacations whenever their schedules allow. However, it’s easy to forget about where those men came from, where they started.
Sure, there’s some natural talent (or height) involved, but most of these men have worked extremely hard to get where they are, and more than that, stay where they are. Professional sports are a cutthroat business, someone is always trying to take your job.
We’re taking a look at those men who came from considerably more humble means than they ended up with. Some of these stories will shock you. Some will inspire you. Either way, this is not an article you’ll want to miss.
To say Jimmy Butler had a rough upbringing is an understatement. When young Jimmy was just 13 years old his mother said, “I don’t like the looks of you” and kicked him out. At just 13, Jimmy was forced to live on the streets and figure out a way to survive.
Butler bounced around from friend to friend. Until he met Jordan Leslie, who persuaded his family to take him in. Butler stayed with the Leslie family until both boys went off to college. Butler went on to star at Tyler Junior College and then Marquette, while Leslie played football at BYU.
Ever the grinder, Butler impressed enough at Marquette to be selected by the Bulls with the 30th pick in the 2011 draft. That draft selection earned Butler a 4-year contract worth over $5 million. A few years earlier, Butler was homeless and now he’s a millionaire.
Jimmy Butler may have earned over $220 million in his NBA career but Butler hasn’t forgotten his humble beginnings. With that as a backdrop, Butler is constantly giving back to the communities he has lived in. Butler’s charitable work has earned him the NBA Cares Community Assist Award. As for his family, Butler says they are on good terms. “I don’t hold grudges. I still talk to my family. My Mom. We Love each other, that’s never going to change.”
Everyone knows “The Hick from French Lick”, but not everyone knows what that really means. Born in the tiny town of French Lick, Indiana, Larry Bird was the fourth of six children. His parents worked multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Eventually, the stress ended his parent’s marriage.
Bird used basketball as a way to get away from the troubles at home and has said that being poor as a child motivated him to succeed. While his height was a natural gift, his game was a result of hard work. Work that earned him a scholarship to Indiana State University.
Larry Legend began earning that nickname at Indiana State and continued that in the NBA where he became one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. He won 3 NBA Championships and 3 NBA MVP’s with the Boston Celtics.
Bird earned $26 million during his playing career and millions more in his career as an executive since he retired. As big as he got, he never forgot his family back in French Lick. When he entered the NBA he built his mother a house. He still owns the home now, even after her death.
It’s hard to believe that someone with the talent of Allen Iverson could miss out on an NBA career, but the road was not easy for him because of off the court issues. Iverson had a rough life as a boy in Hampton, Virginia. Not only did his mother have a hard time paying the bills, but Iverson was having his own troubles with the law.
An incident at a bowling alley could have ended up with him spending time behind bars. Luckily his sentence was pardoned. That could have derailed a promising basketball career. Iverson didn’t look back from there.
Iverson went on to star at Georgetown and was drafted number 1 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1996. Iverson went on to a 15-year NBA career that saw him earn 11 All-Star Game appearances, the 2001 NBA MVP Award, and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.
Iverson earned over $200 million in his NBA career, and while he may not have much of that money left, he still takes time to give back to the community he grew up in. In 2018, Iverson donated a new basketball court to the Boys and Girls Club in Hampton where he grew up.
Kids are brutal. If you aren’t wearing the right clothes or the right shoes, they’ll let you know about it. That’s exactly what happened to Zach Randolph. Z-Bo was a poor kid growing up in Marion, Indiana. His mother worked hard but struggled to provide for the family.
This meant often Randolph went to school wearing the same clothes over and over. We would imagine the bullying stopped once Randolph began towering over his friends. Nobody is making fun of Randolph these days.
After being named a McDonalds All-American in high school and having a successful, but short, career at Michigan State, Randolph made the jump to the NBA as a first-round pick. His rookie deal alone paid him over $1 million per year.
Over 18 professional seasons, Randolph earned nearly $200 million. Once he went pro, it was his turn to take care of his mama. These days Randolph is retired, but he’s been beloved everywhere he’s played. Part of the reason is his charitable works in each city he’s lived in.
You see the news stories about Chicago weekly. The city is a mess with gang violence and daily shootings. Growing up in the tough Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, it could have very easily been gang violence that would have captured the heart of Derrick Rose instead of basketball.
His family and coaches recognized his talent an insulated Rose from that world. They knew what they had and would not let it go to waste. Rose went on to prove them right, and he owes a debt of gratitude to all of them for his success.
After one year of college ball at Memphis, Rose returned to Chicago as a member of the Bulls. He won an MVP Award and was looking at an all-time great career. Then the injuries happened and robbed him of the explosiveness that made him great.
Still, Rose has earned well over $100 million in his career through his salary and endorsements. He’s still in the league today, playing for the Detroit Pistons and showing his Midwestern grit. He’s started a scholarship program called The Rose Scholars, to help students achieve higher education.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was born in Greece to Nigerian parents who immigrated there to seek a better, safer life. His parents worked as street peddlers and on an orange farm, but that’s not lucrative work. The family struggled to make ends meet.
Their son’s talent for basketball was undeniable, though financial limitations meant that they could only afford one pair of shoes for Giannis and his brothers, who were forced to share the pair. When it appeared Giannis could make it professionally, the family made the difficult decision to ration their food so Giannis could have enough to keep growing and developing.
The gamble and sacrifices paid off. Giannis signed his first professional deal in Greece before he turned 18. The family was saved. After dominating the Greek Leagues, the NBA took a chance on a young man who had yet to become “The Greek Freak.”
Now in his 6th season in the league, Giannis has earned 4 All-Star appearances, an NBA MVP, and is one of the best players in the league. In 2017, Giannis signed a 4-year deal worth $100 million. That deal will be even bigger when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2021. What an incredible rags to riches story.
Scottie Pippen may have known he was poor growing up, but it didn’t bother him. Like most kids, he was content with what he had. Truth be told, his family were struggling. His father was unable to work after suffering a stroke.
To make matters worse, Pippen was the youngest of 12 children. The struggle was real with 12 mouths to feed and only one parent able to work. Pippen didn’t get much attention from scouts out of high school and wasn’t offered any scholarships. Perhaps his dream was over.
Scottie Pippen took the long road to the NBA. He walked on to the University of Central Arkansas, an NAIA program. Despite that, Pippen played all four years, earned All-American honors, and drew the attention of some scouts.
Pippen was drafted with the 5th overall pick in 1987, and the rest is history. One of the first things Pippen did when he got that NBA contract? Buy the house his parents lived in outright so they wouldn’t have to worry about the mortgage. He went on to earn over $100 million in his career.
Ben Wallace was the 10th of 11 children. With that many kids, there were no trips to the mall when the kids needed new clothes. There simply wasn’t enough money for that. His mother saved money by making all the kids’ clothing.
When the kids wanted something, they were forced to work for it. Little Ben wanted to go to a basketball camp, but it cost $50 to attend. SO resourceful Ben started cutting people’s hair for $3 a cut so he could save up to attend the camp.
After two years in community college and two years at Division II program Virginia Union, Wallace made the jump to the NBA, eventually. He went undrafted but eventually managed to make it onto a roster. Wallace found his place with the Pistons and would be named Defensive Player of the Year 4 times, along with winning a title in 2004.
His mother didn’t have to worry about making any more clothes with Wallace in the NBA. He earned over $90 million during his NBA career. These days he’s a part-owner of the Piston’s G-League franchise in Grand Rapids.
If you’ve seen the HBO series “The Wire”, then you understand the Baltimore that Carmelo Anthony. Gangs and drugs ran rampant and threatened the lives of every kid growing up there. His mother was determined not to let that happen to her boy.
She knew he loved basketball, and he was talented enough he might just make it. She was so certain that she promised to ban ‘Melo from playing basketball at all if he ever got into any trouble.
After a senior year at famed basketball factory Oak Hill Academy to get his grades up, Carmelo became a household name at the University of Syracuse where he helped the Orange win a national championship.
From there, Carmelo became one of the NBA’s best offensive weapons. He’s still in the league today and has earned over $230 million in his career. He takes pride in his hometown though and has contributed millions of dollars to improving the lives of kids in Baltimore.
Making friends was difficult for a young LeBron James. It wasn’t because he wasn’t a nice kid, it was because he and his mother moved so often, from one tiny apartment to another. James has admitted he was embarrassed about his living situations as a kid.
That experience of being a loner pushed him to sports, specifically basketball. He could hoop all day by himself and never worry about a thing. And when he made friends, he’d spend time with them on the court, and not have to worry about bringing them to his home.
Of course, everything changed for the James family when LeBron went pro and became a legend in Northeast Ohio. Like MJ before him, LeBron has become a businessman who plays basketball instead of just a basketball player. He’s worth an estimated $450 million these days.
Through all of that, LeBron has always claimed to be one thing; just a kid from Akron. He lives that out every day in the work he does in his home town. Starting a school, paying for college for his students, and so much more.
It might look like things come easy to Kevin Durant, but they don’t. he learned from his mother the value of hard work and he approaches his career the same way. Growing up in the Washington D.C area, Durant watched his mother work from dawn until dusk, only sleeping a few hours and then get up to do it all over again.
Durant used his basketball skills to earn him scholarships to private school, and eventually to the University of Texas. It was there at college that Durant first enjoyed the comfort of having his own room. What a luxury so many of us take for granted.
Durant dominated the country in his one year of college basketball and has pretty much done the same to the NBA since he entered the league as the number 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft. The lessons he learned from his mom early in life don’t have him resting on all that cash he’s earned.
And he’s earned quite a bit. Over $225 million to be exact. He’s both entrepreneurial and philanthropic with his cash. He’s donated money to OKC for tornado relief and invested in companies like Postmates and owns a film production company.
Leon Powe experienced the thing everyone fears; homelessness. When Powe was just two years old, his father left the family for good. When he was seven his house burned down. His mother tried her hardest to make ends meet but were unable to afford rent on their apartment.
This left the Powe family with no choice but to bounce around from shelters to motels and even required them to sleep in their car sometimes. Eventually, Powe and his siblings were taken into foster care.
After a solid college career at Cal that earned him a second-team All-American selection, Powe was drafted in the second round of the NBA Draft. He won an NBA title with the Celtics in 2008 and played for the Cavaliers and Grizzlies before finishing his career in Puerto Rico.
These days Powe is a basketball analyst for NESN and a Celtics Ambassador. He earned over $3.5 Million in his NBA career. That was enough for him to found his own company, PoweLific Game, which runs basketball camps all over the country.
Imagine living in a 600 sq. ft apartment. Could be pretty tight, right? Now imagine that 10 other people were living with you in that space. Forget about having your own room, or even your own bed at that point.
That was the situation Ben McLemore grew up in. 11 family members living in a 600 sq. ft. apartment. His mother would work nights to make extra money for the family. Oldest brother would take odd jobs to do the same. McLemore made sure he attended school, not for the education but the food.
After a year at the University of Kansas, McLemore bounced for the NBA, going to Sacramento with the 7th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. He’s had an average NBA career, averaging 8.8 PPG, and he’s still in the league today.
These days he’s with his fourth NBA team, the Rockets. He’s made over $25 million in his 8-year career. Not bad for 8.8 PPG. The street where he grew up in St. Louis, Wellston Avenue, has recently been renamed Ben McLemore III Place in his honor.
Imagine the challenges of raising 18 kids. Now imagine trying to raise 18 children in the middle of the war-torn Republic of Congo. Ibaka and his family fled their home and Serge was forced to live with this grandmother in a home without running water or electricity.
The war cost Ibaka his mother, and his father was jailed, but Serge managed to survive. He used basketball as an escape from the horrors around him. At 17 he moved to Spain to play professionally. Just two years later he was drafted into the NBA.
Ibaka has gone on to have a great NBA career, playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, and currently with the Toronto Raptors. He’s led the league in blocks twice and has been named to the NBA All-Defensive team three times.
Ibaka has picked up an Olympic silver medal and a gold medal at the European Championships with the Spanish national team. In 11 NBA seasons, Ibaka has earned nearly $120 million. It pays to be a big man.
Caron Butler’s life could have been very different. Butler spent more time in the juvenile detention center than he did doing anything else. It was practically his hobby. But, it was also where he changed his life.
While he was locked up Butler realized that he could make something of himself if he applied his focus and energy to basketball. It’s a truly inspiring story. He earned a scholarship to UConn, where he was the Big East Player of the Year during his final season.
Butler was drafted with the 10th overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft by the Miami Heat. Butler spent 15 seasons in the league, earned two All-Star Game appearances, and even lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy with the Mavericks in 2011.
Butler earned over $85 million in his career. In 2015, Butler wrote a book chronicling his early struggles and how he turned his life around. These days Butler works for FS1 as an NBA analyst, after working for ESPN on their NBA and college basketball coverage.