Welcome to Cracked’s Silly History of the NBA. This week, we’ll be exploring the oddities and eccentricities surrounding some of the most talented and richest people to regularly wear tank tops to work. We promise to solve no GOAT debates or write anything of consequence beyond fun and goofy stories about putting a ball through a modified peach basket. Lace up a pair of Jordans, put on a 90s throwback Penny Hardaway pinstripe jersey, and start counting to 21. Check out part one here

Much like schoolteachers, NBA players get an off-season. And much like schoolteachers, it’s not really time off, damnit, there is a lot of work that goes into the final product that you don’t see; support teachers’ unions and thank a teacher today. But while schoolteachers make $38k a year and sometimes take second jobs to make ends meet, NBA players are millionaires. Young, physically fit, millionaires who have summers off. This leads to some hilarious side projects. Sure, the cliche is for pro athletes to be actors or rappers, but what about the hilariously weird stuff? Not yachts, not strip clubs, not restaurant ventures (though no shade to those wonderful institutions, of course). We’re talking ham farms. Yeah, you read that right, ham farms. 

Dave Cowens Drives A Cab; Sells Christmas Trees

The player: The heir to Bill Russell’s big shoes as Boston Celtics center, Dave Cowens was a cannonball of a player who won two championships and an MVP. He sometimes gets buried, narratively, as the Boston Center between Russell and Robert Parish because the ‘70s as a decade doesn’t get as much attention as the ’60s, ‘80s, and ’90s do. That’s a shame because Dave Cowens could ball.

The side hustle: Back in the '70s, mental health was disco dancing away the nightmare of the Vietnam War and ignoring the fact that Nixon just made it impossible to ever trust American presidents again by ending your workday with a carton of Marlboro Reds and a case of Bud Light. Nutrition, medicine, and, crucially, sports psychology were all yet to be invented. So when a guy’s had a little bit too much of the bright lights and championship pressures, what was he to do?

Photopixel/Shutterstock

It was the 70s, so fair guess, but no.

Remember that episode of Ted Lasso where Coach Beard goes on an After Hours-style odyssey through the seedy British underworld to walk off a loss? Dave Cowens did that, but with selling Christmas trees in Kentucky. Eight games into the 1977 season, Cowens needed a break from banging bodies with dudes taller and heavier than him, so he took a job where he’d be the tallest thing around. Keep in mind that this was the '70s, and the NBA wasn’t on TV all the time. How often do you reckon 6’9” Cowens got told he “should try basketball” by some bourbon-soaked old Kentucky grandma?

Cowens having a second job on his family Christmas tree farm is one thing—NBA players in the 70s made like 50 bucks a year—but what’s hilarious about Cowens’ cab driving is that he did it for fun. “I paid $35 to become part of the Independent Taxi Operators Association. As long as you filled up their car at the end of the shift, you got to keep the fares you made,” he said. Imagine cramming into the back of a cab in Boston with your boys Sully, Mikey, Jimmy, Sully, Bill, and Sullivan, then seeing your driver is a 6’9” giant with a Celtics championship ring. You’re all hammered drunk because it was the yearly celebration of Teddy Williams’s cryogenic freezing ceremony. Suddenly you recognize: “hey, boys,” you say to your boys, “I think our friggin’ cab drivah, guy behind the wheel of the cah, I think this friggin’ guy is Dave friggin’ Cowens! Wicked!” You’d be right, everyone would cheer, and no one would remember the next day. 

Winningest Coach In NBA History Owns a Pot Farm, Plays Poker With Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson

The player: Don Nelson is famous for being kind of a portly player, holding the record for most coaching victories, and favoring an up-tempo, fast-paced style of play that employed quick, small players and long-range shooting. It was seen as gimmicky during his time, but you can see the seeds of how the game is played today growing in Nellie’s schemes and strategies. Nellie and his “Nellieball” style has not really gotten the credit he deserves for pioneering and innovating, but that’s probably because he was trying to do it with Monta Ellis instead of Steph Curry.

The side hustle: Is Don Nelson spending retirement bitterly drinking his days away, stewing in his misery, a visionary unappreciated in his time simply because his crazy ideas never resulted in summiting Mount Championship? No! Dude has a stake in a cannabis growing operation in Hawaii. He spends his evenings playing poker with Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson, and you have to imagine they all get so high they don’t know whose name has a “W” in it or whose name has a “Nelson” in it. Coach Nelson seems very at peace with life, living the old guy’s dream of retirement. Good for him. Some people work until they die, always searching for the fulfillment they can’t define and may never achieve. Nelson knew his resume was missing a championship, but he decided to take his millions and cultivate the herb in Hawaii. That’s how you go out.

Sean P. Anderson/flickr

Seen here looking exactly how we’d feel in his situation.

Yao Ming Saves China’s Sharks

The player: Yao Ming is the first Chinese NBA player of major consequence. At 7’6”, he’s the kind of tall that flirts with record-breaking (the tallest players in NBA history, Gheorghe Muresan and Manute Bol, both measured 7’7”). Unlike most guys who are that gigantic, Yao was a bonafide All-Star. Yao is the reason half of the NBA players the casual fan has heard of does a China tour in the offseason. Yao was such a phenom that the Milwaukee Bucks, perhaps operating under secret government intelligence indicating China was growing a crop of ultra-talented ultra-tall basketball players like super soldiers, drafted Yi Jialian sixth overall in 2007.

The side hustle: It’s not really a side hustle, but Yao Ming partnered with the environmental organization WildAid and directly saved a bunch of China’s sharks. 

Shark fin soup is a Chinese delicacy, but the fins are harvested through a process called “finning,” which involves removing the fin and then throwing the sharks back into the sea alive, where they will slowly drown. Unlike most awareness campaigns, lack of awareness was a huge problem when it came to shark finning. Demand for shark fin soup dropped 60% in the first two years of the campaign and has decreased ever since. It’s like what Blackfish did to SeaWorld. And as a pathological ocean lover, I think it’s rad Yao has been able to have such a positive effect.

José Calderón Has A Ham Farm

The player: José Calderón spent his career as a solid point guard, not an All-Star, but starter- or first backup-level. The 50-40-90 club, a semi-exclusive statistical shooting achievement reserved for the best shooters, could count Calderón as a regular member. He won a bunch of medals with some of the best Spanish Olympic teams ever assembled. Calderón is a top-tier Toronto Raptor, fondly remembered up north. He’s a good, not great, sentimental legend in his own right. 

The side hustle: Way back in the Blog Era of the internet, Trey Kerby wrote a post I can no longer find anywhere for The Score’s The Basketball Jones titled something like “José Calderón Just Wants To Sell Some Hams, Geez.” It was a one-paragraph writeup linking off an interview, maybe this one, where Calderón clearly did not get why it was funny that he owned a ham farm. Since then, The Basketball Jones went to work for NBA.com as The Starters, then The Athletic as No Dunks, and all along, they have referred to José Calderón as Hams Calderón, which I would like to honor in my small way. Hams Calderón has a home here.

Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons

We’re not sure how being nicknamed after one farm animal is dismissive while being nicknamed another is the highest honor in sports.

Now, I’m a dude who’s fascinated by Spain. That said, I’ve never been there, and I only personally know a few Spaniards—I’m kinda limited in cultural knowledge to movies and books, you know? So I don’t know how common ham farms are in Spain. Calderón says they’re common; I believe him. I do know that Iberico ham is legendary. I know that it’s a painstaking process to make. My wife and I’s first fancy date was to a spot in downtown Chicago that billed itself as a “swine, wine, and cheese” bar. I don’t exactly think of owning a ham farm the same way I think of, say, the noble-but-common-to-me North American corn farm. Calderón makes it seem like really not a big deal, and sure thing, José. It’s very cool to me that you own a ham farm.

Potential Finals MVP Starts Coffee Company During COVID Pandemic Bubble

The player: Miami Heat guard/forward Jimmy Butler just wants to work hard and be the man (shoutout to Trey Kerby again). After being drafted a lowly 29th overall pick by the Chicago Bulls, Butler willed his way to superstardom by sheer effort. After some ill-fated, bad-look stints in Chicago, Minnesota, and Philadelphia that were largely not his fault, Jimmy Butler found happiness in Miami and took the team to the Finals during the NBA bubble playoffs in Disney World. Miami hasn’t won it all yet, but Butler is firmly the leader of a highly competitive, cooperative, beautiful game-playing Heat team that’s so cool even the bitter Bulls fan writing this article cheers for them. 

The side hustle: Those of us lucky enough not to get sick and die at the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns all tried new things, right? Maybe you started making sourdough or adopted a pet. Maybe you binge-watched The Last Dance or Tiger King. Me, I started writing for Cracked.com; hey!

Jimmy Butler, while holed up in a mostly-secure hotel and campus in Disney World for the delayed 2020 NBA playoffs, started making cups of coffee and charging people $20 for it. He put a menu sign outside his room and everything.

He called it Big Face Coffee, and it has since grown into a real brand that sells beans and merch. What started as a pandemic joke became a real rootin’-tootin’, roast-slingin, bean-lovin’ coffee operation (Jimmy Butler loves country music, so I put on a cowboy voice for that last sentence).

Chris Corlew can shoot from three and handle some playmaking duties, but will absolutely not get back on defense. He is one half of b and the nothingness and co-hosts The Line Break Podcast. Send him DeMar DeRozan highlight videos on Twitter

Top image: Karepa Stock/Shutterstock

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