Father Time is undefeated. Eventually, your favorite player will retire from professional basketball.
Yes, even LeBron James, who’s been waging an eternal war against old age, will retire. It’s just the reality of the NBA: when you’re old, you’re not useful as a professional basketball player anymore. It’s why no NBA player has ever stepped onto the court for an NBA game past the age of 45.
So, when do basketball players usually retire from the game? Do they still get paid? What causes them to retire? We’ll answer all these questions and more in this article. Let’s take a deep dive into the life of a retired NBA player.
Why do players retire?
First, the elephant in the room: why do players retire from the NBA? There’s no age limit for retirement, and it’s fair to assume many players don’t want to retire from playing basketball. After all, they’ve poured their heart and soul into the game.
Aging and physical decline
Unfortunately, there are a few reasons why a player is basically forced to retire. The first, and most obvious reason, is due to old age. Even though the desire and passion to play is still there, once NBA players hit a certain age, their bodies just can’t keep up with the demands of the game. Human bodies naturally decline in capabilities as they get older, and in a sport that demands peak performance from its professional athletes, older players are seen as liabilities.
Injury and illness
The second reason usually comes together with older age and minutes on the court. Injuries or illnesses are yet another reason why a player might be forced to retire.
It could be a series of injuries or one major injury that keeps the player from playing the game for good. Typically, big power forwards and centers are most likely to retire early from injury because their heavier bodies mean their joints and ligaments are more prone to wear and tear. Physical guards are also more likely to see an early NBA retirement.
It could also be a life-threatening illness that makes a player retire. We’ll look into some of these cases later on in the article.
While we always hear about the career-ending injuries or those NBA superstar farewell tours, the harsh reality is that the majority of players quietly retire because the league just isn’t interested in them. We’ve all heard about the greatest busts of the NBA draft lottery, but the majority of players don’t even make the news. With only 15 available spots in each NBA team, teams can’t afford to keep weaker players on their payroll if they want to make the playoffs.
Personal or legal reasons
In more rare instances, a player might choose to retire due to personal or legal reasons. A recent example of this was Indiana Pacers guard Darren Collison. Collison retired in 2019 due to religious reasons, despite still being in his prime. Legal issues can also be the reason for retirement: some potential examples outside of the NBA are Trevor Bauer of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans. Both players could be forced to retire if they are found guilty in the cases they are currently facing.
The average age NBA players retire
So, what is the average age for an NBA player to retire? Well, according to a study conducted by RBC Professional Sports Group, the average retirement age of an NBA player is 28, with an average playing career of 5 years. However, this figure is slightly misleading, because it is an average across the whole league, in which many players never see a proper NBA playing career (e.g. the rookie deal followed by one contract scenario, leaving the player with no choice but to retire early).
As for the NBA players who settle into the league, these players typically retire in their mid-thirties. This is commonly the point where the average NBA player starts to decline physically and fall behind the “standard” athleticism required to play in the NBA. Most journeymen role players who are older retire since no team would want them (unless they have one specific skill).
There have been multiple exceptions though. There have been many players who played well into their thirties, and even played after their 40th birthday! The most recent example of this was Vince Carter. A high-flying guard in his prime, Vince transitioned into a veteran sharpshooter role later in his career. Carter played until he was 43, playing rotation minutes up until his retirement. In fact, most top NBA players who play past their forties, like NBA Championship winners Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks or Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs, had to adapt their playstyle to compensate for their diminished physical abilities.
The oldest player to ever play in the NBA was Nat Hickey, who was a coach for the Providence Steamrollers back in 1948. He entered the game as a 45-year-old player, scoring two points off of free throws.
Some unique cases
Most NBA players retire in a vanilla fashion. They announce their retirement, fans who watched them pay tribute, yada-yada-yada. If you’re a fan favorite player, you’ll get a farewell tour like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. It’s how most retirement stories go in the NBA.
However, there have been plenty of players who retired in unusual fashion. Some of these players are actually legends of the game! Here are some peculiar NBA retirements.
MJ is widely considered to be the greatest basketball player of all-time. It’s hard to argue against it: six NBA championships (earned through two three-peats) and NBA Finals MVPs, five MVPs, a DPOY in the same year he won MVP, multiple All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Star selections.
But many casual fans don’t know that Jordan retired not once, not twice, but THREE times in his career! His first retirement was in 1993, just after the Bulls’ first three-peat. Conspiracy theorists argue that he was forced by the NBA to retire due to his gambling scandal. However, it’s more likely that MJ retired out of shock from the sudden murder of his father that year.
After a brief stint in MLB that basketball fans try to forget, Jordan came back to the league in 1995. He’d win another three-peat for the Chicago Bulls but retire shortly after due to two reasons. Tensions with Bulls owner Jerry Krause, as well as lack of desire to play, made MJ retire for a second time.
However, he’d come back another time in 2001, signing with the team he owned, the Washington Wizards. He’d play some interesting years as a Wizard before finally hanging it up for good in 2003.
The tale of Chris Bosh’s retirement is a sad one, as a player still in his prime was forced to quit the game because of a life-threatening illness.
In 2016, Bosh was at his physical peak. Despite LeBron James and Dwyane Wade leaving the team, Miami was still competitive thanks to Bosh’s efforts. However, during a physical examination, he was told that he had to stop playing basketball… for good.
A blood clotting issue diagnosed in 2015 reemerged for Bosh. This time, it was more serious. Shortly after diagnosis, Bosh would announce his immediate retirement at age 31, cutting short what would’ve been a fruitful career.
For Bosh, all of this came as a sudden shock to him. In an interview for his book, he said this about the whole situation: “I was in the best shape of my life… It’s not like I did anything wrong. It just happened.”
Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s retirement is in the running for one of the most culturally impactful retirements in sports history. His bravery in announcing his reason for retirement changed the world for good and helped eliminate the stigma against HIV.
In 1991, Johnson shocked the sports community by announcing that he tested positive for HIV, and he would retire immediately. At that time, HIV and AIDS were illnesses that were shrouded in mystery and fear. There was a lot of bad stigmas surrounding those two diseases, all of which were mostly unwarranted.
Johnson coming out as HIV-positive would help remove the bad stigma and misconceptions of the disease. Despite facing backlash from his peers in the NBA, Magic would continue his fight, even returning to the NBA for a few seasons. He’d hang up his sneakers for good in 1996.
Brandon Roy remains one of the biggest what-ifs in NBA history. He was a promising young player wrecked by injuries and forced to retire very early into his career.
Roy was drafted in 2006 by the Portland Trail Blazers. Even as a rookie, he showed promise, as his brilliant scoring was on full display. With LaMarcus Aldridge on his side, the Blazers seemed like they were going to be contenders for a long time.
However, Roy would suffer multiple knee injuries throughout his career. His injury woes stemmed from a degenerative knee ailment he’s had since college. He would announce his retirement from the NBA in 2011, at the young age of 27.
Do players still get paid after retirement?
Yes, and it’s gotten a lot better over the years.
The NBA currently has a pension fund that retired players can apply for. The minimum requirement is that the player needs to have played at least three years in the NBA to qualify for this pension.
Retired players can start getting their pensions at 45 years old. However, the NBA highly recommends that players wait until they are 62 years old (if possible) to maximize their annual pension earnings.
So how much money can a player make after their retirement? Well, if a 10-year NBA veteran retiree waits until the recommended age of 62 to apply for the pension, he will get a generous $215,000 per year. That’s the maximum pension a player can get under the current rules. A 3-year vet applying at age-62 will get roughly $57,000 annually.
Players applying for medical retirement will also be covered by the NBA’s insurance policy, making sure that the salary they are owed will be given to them.
The current pension rules are thanks in large part to the NBPA board, which fought for these changes. Prior to this, a disproportionate amount of retired NBA players—despite their high salaries during their playing careers—were finding themselves broke or in financial stress within years of ending their NBA career. Current and former players like Chris Paul, LeBron James, and James Jones were all among the chief people fighting for these new pension rules to be implemented.
What do players normally do after retirement?
For most NBA players, retirement is a return to the “normal” everyday life. Players often speak about missing time with their family because of the NBA’s travel-heavy and grueling schedule. After they leave the NBA, they can spend a lot more time with their families again, way more than they experienced while they played.
For high-profile NBA players, though, retirement is an opportunity to enter new ventures they couldn’t have experienced in their playing years. Superstar players with a lot of money will almost always enter the business world, investing in certain companies or creating their own company.
Prior to his untimely death, Kobe Bryant was already looking into different ventures. He was looking at cinematography (his Oscar-winning short film Dear Basketball being proof of that) and getting into women’s basketball, among other things.
Kobe also seemed to want to get into basketball media, like when he produced his “Detail” series on ESPN. Basketball media is one of the paths most decently known NBA players go post-retirement. The crew of the critically acclaimed “Inside the NBA” is mostly retired players: Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and Kenny Smith. Other notable players-turned-TV personalities are Richard Jefferson, Paul Pierce, and Kendrick Perkins.
Other former players turn to something closer to the court after their career. Many former players are hired by NBA teams to either be a part of their coaching staff or front office. Jordan, Larry Bird, and James Jones are some former players who became part of front offices. 13 of the 30 head coaches in the NBA today are former players, including Steve Kerr, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, and Tyronn Lue. Countless more players are either assistant coaches or specialist coaches for different NBA teams.
Read more: NBA head coach salaries
All good things must come to an end. It’s the unfortunate reality we must face. The same holds true for our favorite NBA players. One day, they’ll decide to retire from the NBA or have it decided for them. It just isn’t a lifelong professional career.
This isn’t just the case for basketball either: being involved in any of the big leagues of professional sports, like the NFL or MLB, will mean you will statistically retire earlier than you would in most other professions.
When your favorite player inevitably retires, don’t feel bad that you won’t see them play. Instead, be thankful for the pleasant memories they gave you why they were still playing. And be happy for them, as they will finally be freed from the tedious job that is being an NBA player.