“Either you leave the game, or the game leaves you,” Mario West says.

For West, who played four seasons with the Nets and Hawks and another five in Europe, Asia and South America as a shooting guard, it was the latter. And it changed his life.

Like countless men and women who have played professional sports, West spent years focused on the relentless, glamor-free reality of turning an impossible dream into a steady career. His days were tightly regimented. He had a workout routine, a strict diet and a tight schedule.

The sacrifices constrained him, but they were necessary. But then West was granted crippling freedom: he tore his Achilles tendon.

Not only did the injury cause West to lose out on a more lucrative contract, but he also became undesirable to teams. Barely in his thirties, his career was done, but life went on.

“I could no longer do the things that made me - me,” he says.

West couldn’t hang out with the guys. It weighed on him mentally. What was next? He wasn’t destitute, but there was no money coming in and too much going out.

Head Coach Mike Woodson of the Atlanta Hawks discusses a play with Joe Johnson #2 and Mario West #6 during the 2009 NBA Training Camp on October 6, 2009 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.


To get back into the game, he took a job working as Director of Player Personnel for the men’s basketball team at his alma mater, Georgia Tech. He oversaw the players’ day-to-day needs and organized the team’s community service activities. He wanted to coach but was passed over for that opportunity.

That’s when West talked with Purvis Short, the Warriors great and longtime fixture of the National Basketball Players Association. Short advised West to look at the NBPA’s programs. So, West did, participating in ones for leadership development and coaching. He wound up gaining a new purpose in life.

“I discovered that my passion is serving and helping others while being connected to the game itself,” West says.

He is now the director of the NBPA’s Off the Court program, which helps players transition to life after basketball. The program began in 2017 under former NBA All-Star Antonio Davis.

“It gives me the best of both worlds,” says the 38-year-old. “It allows me the opportunity to assist players where I struggled most and to have direct impact and influence. What matters more is there’s a bridge for players to make the journey into the unknown with confidence.”

"There is no uniform course of action for a basketball player’s next chapter", West says. Some want to get a college degree or a certification through the NBPA’s continued education reimbursement program. Some want to look at broadcasting. Older players, he says, frequently p. 11 need a resume or to learn LinkedIn to get a job. Others are still playing and want to plan ahead. Off the Court alumni who have found success in another venture, such as Josh Childress in real estate, speak about their perspectives on life after basketball. Users can also “build their own experience” and see what a job at Amazon or Nike looks like.

“It’s sitting one-on-one and meeting guys where they are,” West says.

Everything is done in-house. To borrow a phrase from NBPA head Tamika Tremaglio, West calls Off the Court, the 411 and 911 for players. The five “pillars” of the program are mental health and wellness, physical wellness, financial literacy, career and the brotherhood.

“It’s a holistic approach to serve the players that involve every aspect of the NBPA,” says West, who struggled with all five of Off the Court’s pillars. “Not everybody will struggle the same. Without basketball as a career, some former players suffer an identity crisis or grow bored. They could get out of shape.”

West says the COVID-19 pandemic, which paused the NBA season in March 2020, raised awareness of a basketball-free future, and active players aren’t sticking to sports — witness Draymond Green’s podcast/ TNT appearances, LeBron James’ school or Giannis Antetokounmpo’s part-ownership of the Milwaukee Brewers.

When restrictions were lifted, West started to make his presence known. He’s based in Atlanta, so there are at least 41 opportunities a year to approach players before or after a game, not to mention numerous events — pro-ams, Summer League — where players gather.

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks to pass against Mario West #6 of the Atlanta Hawks in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on May 9, 2009 in Atlanta, Georgia.

That includes holding health screenings for retired players with the National Retired Players Association. One was held during Summer League in Las Vegas.

In building relationships with current players, West doesn’t press. He identifies himself and what he does. He’ll offer to set up a player with a gym in Atlanta or a trainer. It’s all about showing up, checking in and showing that he cares.

“What I’ve found is once you mention what you do, being a former player, maybe the first time they’ll say, ‘What’s up? Nice to meet you,’ West says. “After that second or third time, they’ll come up to me with, ‘Hey man, I was thinking about x, y and z.”

In late September, West hosted a workshop for eight to 10 “transitioning” players in New York. They toured the NBPA office, met the staff and learned more about Off the Court’s resources. A panel discussion was planned, along with a talk by Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, one of West’s mentors.

“You want to create that intimate, locker room feel to engender conversation,” West explains.

There is life after basketball ends.

“When we played the game, you played for the award,” he says. “The award is the trophy. You can play for that championship. Things have come full circle because I know what it felt like to struggle — the loss of identity, the loss of confidence. It’s no different than playing in the game, and you are in a slump, then you have that old veteran reminding you of who you are and what you’re capable of doing.”

What’s the trophy for West now?

“The reward for me is that I was able to be transparent and be vulnerable and share not only my intimate, personal story and how I got on my feet, but also provide a service,” he says, referring to helping someone through the five pillars. “When you see that person after talking to them on the phone, and you get that dap and that bear hug, there’s no greater feeling.”

In fact, he says, it’s a lot like when a shooting slump ends. You’re on fire, the opposing team calls a time out, and your teammates leap off the bench to greet you.

The brotherhood is still there. This time, the arena is different.