As you're watching the NBA Playoffs, ponder this: The NBA's minimum salary is somewhere in the area of $400,000.
That's enough money to buy a new house (in the 'burbs), new car and pay off student loans...not that a pro-basketball player has college loans since most of the NBA-caliber players get full scholarships anyway. But you get the point...and that's just the minimum...the average NBA salary is roughly $4.9 million.
Now that's enough - even after taxes - for a house just about anywhere in the country. Or a Bentley. That said, I can understand why young African-Americans, especially those from low-income and historically-disadvantaged (through poor school systems, what have you), gravitate toward Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson before they look up to the black school principal or the black real estate agent with ads all over town.
But the problem isn't simply that these children gravitate toward professional basketball players before professionals at anything else...the problem is that they don't realize there's anything else in the first place.
For example, a colleague of mine was recounting a story of a black student he met after giving a speech at a Pennsylvania high school. Apparently, the principal felt it was important for my colleague to know about this kid because he was a graduating senior and college is his next step in life. However, while giving the student a ride home one day, the student marveled at a black man stepping out of a luxury car and into the driveway of a micro-mansion and literally said, "Wow! Is he like a basketball player or rapper or something?"
To his astonishment, the principal replied, "No, he's actually an engineer."
This only undermines the importance of showing our youths what is possible (financial security being one component) through education, commitment to a goal, and patience.
Too often, a young black kid is encouraged to study hard because he may not be able to maintain his spot on the basketball or football team (and miss out on that $400k-plus salary one day) if he doesn't.
Not often enough is that same kid encouraged to study hard simply for the chance to one day pursue a college degree and perhaps become an engineer, doctor, attorney or school administrator.
While Michael Jordan has made hundreds of millions of dollars on the hard court, there are literally hundreds of thousands of black professionals who live comfortable, successful lives because they furthered their education and pursued careers that involve wearing suits instead of jerseys and carrying briefcases to boardrooms instead of carrying a ball to the end zone.
Similarly, while famous African-Americans like Will Smith and Queen Latifah can credit their musical talents for their lucrative lifestyles, BET founder Robert Johnson deserves more credit for paving the way for young men and women of color to be able to share their talents with millions of viewers. And as far as I know, Bob Johnson made his impact in the office, not on the stage. To the point that they too could live in mansions and drive luxury cars.
The same can be said of famous comedians and rappers like Martin Lawrence and LL Cool J, who can thank Def Jam founder Russell Simmons for his business skills and marketing savvy.
So while I do not discourage a young student from sharing and developing his or her athletic, comedic or musical talents, I do emphasize the importance of looking beyond the NBA Draft or Grammy Awards to find a career path.
And to parents and teachers: make sure to tell your children or students about men and women like the aforementioned engineer.
After all, someone has to design those mansions and stadiums for NBA players to live and work.