What It's Like to Be 19-Years-Old and Then, Suddenly, a Millionaire
A 19-year-old sits at a round table near the stage and watches as three other teenagers and a 20-year-old become professional basketball players—and millionaires. Then he hears his name. "With the fifth pick in the 2017 NBA Draft," commissioner Adam Silver reads from the Barclays Center podium, "the Sacramento Kings select De'Aaron Fox from the University of Kentucky." Fox stands up and hugs his parents. On the biggest night of his life, it's the last time he'll see them for close to two-and-a-half hours. In between, he'll sit for 21 different interviews, pose for photos with an endless line of young fans, and immediately take on all the obligations of being a professional athlete.
There aren't many people here better equipped for the competition. Fox is an explosively dynamic player, with speed that's been compared to John Wall, disruptive hands on defense, and a fearlessness that allows him to take on bigger players at both ends of the court. He has work to do on his jump shot, and he doesn't have the height or the wingspan of some of the other top picks. But he has the belief, and the fire.
He's got a nerdiness to him, but he pairs it with a self-possession, a comfort with his own being, that is irrepressibly cool.
Asked about where he stands among point guards in the draft, his answer is simple: "I feel like I'm the best." Lonzo Ball, the UCLA guard who went to the Lakers at number two, came in with all the hype, not least because of a certain family member. But when Kentucky and UCLA locked horns in the Sweet Sixteen last season, Fox dropped 39 points.
And Fox is ready for the fame. Whether because of his time on the big stage of Kentucky basketball or some inherent effervescence, Fox is not just media-savvy, or "a good kid." He can command a room from a press-conference microphone, and he can jaw with a reporter without ever saying something he wouldn't want on Twitter. He's got a nerdiness to him—he doesn't go out, he says, and he plays video games as much as five or six hours a day—but he pairs it with a self-possession, a comfort with his own being, that is irrepressibly cool.
As soon as he shakes Adam Silver's hand, he's off the stage and into his first interview as a pro. It's a stand-up chat, stage right, with ESPN asking him what it's like to be the fifth freshman selected. Then he's off again, this time to a small table with a camera and a video screen. He straps on some headphones and goes again. Then it's time to head to the NBATV set, where most picks sit with the two co-hosts for a boilerplate Q&A. Not Fox, though—he's been chosen for the social-media circuit with Miles Turner, the eleventh pick two years ago. Perhaps acknowledging Fox's special sauce, the NBA taps him to play a game where he has to identify players by their baby pictures.
All of this takes place in the main auditorium, along the left aisle of the audience. It's just the appetizer. From here, he will descend to the winding hallways and various hulking rooms the league has converted from Nets athletic facility to PR factory. Fox will be mic'd up the entire time.
After another NBATV interview, we stroll down the hallway to his first press conference, and I ask him how it feels to have four different cameras flashing in both our faces. "It's just the weight of the world off my shoulders," he says, not for the last time. By now, he's swapped out his official draft hat for a Sacramento Kings visor that a team rep gave to him as soon as he left the main floor. In a draft full of great hair, Fox might just have the best. "I want it popping out," he says later. "I can't have that hat squishing my hair."
His steps are cushioned by a fantastic pair of Louis Vuitton slippers that spell "L-O-V-E" in red, gold, and green—at least whenever he stands still long enough for his two feet to sit next to each other. Now he's halfway down the long hall, explaining to an NBA cameraman how he partnered with JC Penney to design his deep-wine dinner jacket, which boasts an interior lining decorated with a thousand pink ribbons. His mother, he says, is a twenty-one-year breast cancer survivor.
"I'm the best dressed here," he says with a grin as the media scrum tightens on him, cameras flashing, questions flying.
The hallway provides one of many opportunities to mention his relationship with JC Penney and his many other new sponsors. At his suit fitting in his hotel room earlier in the week, he tried on different watches. I asked what kind of pieces he was into, and he took a quick glance at a branded bag near the pillow on his bed before responding "Tissot." He switched watches at least twice through the night, swiftly slipping a new one on as his agent pocketed the other. But somehow, it never feels cynical. Fox simply knows the demands of his new job.
At the end of the long hall, he heads in for his first press conference as a professional. He crosses Josh Jackson, the fourth pick out of Kansas who is headed to the Suns, on his way in. They share a laugh, and when Fox reaches the podium, he doesn't wait for a question. "Josh just said, 'You got a visor?' I said, 'Yeah, I asked for it.'" Asked if he'd known he was going to Sacramento and had the swag lined up, he says he asked every team he spoke with to have a visor ready for him. When the tougher questions come—Are you going to give this team direction?—he parries them easily.
Somehow, things have scarcely begun. Having already done a half-dozen interviews in various formats, he now faces a long walk—his mob of publicists and media still in tow—to the broadcast room. That's where two rows of booths, about 14 in total, are set up for local, national, and international broadcasters. The top picks are expected to stop by almost all of them. It's an absolutely grueling process, requiring Fox to constantly engage with new interviewers and new audiences while answering largely the same questions, over and over. What are your strengths as a basketball player? everyone seems to ask. Where do you feel Sacramento needs to improve? After 10 or so of these junkets, players and publicists—and, yes, even reporters tasked with following them all around—are pronouncing themselves exhausted.
"I'm not even excited anymore," I overhear one draftee say to his PR team as I walk by.
"Let's not say that," his publicist quips.
Fox, though, is air-tight. I remark on the hubbub around us at one point, and he simply responds, "Yeah, it really is." It doesn't have the feeling of a complaint—more of an acknowledgement. He genuinely seems to be enjoying himself all the way through. Early on, his press scrum passes an even bigger one around Lonzo Ball in the hallway. "Pssst, pssst," he stage whispers, leaning over a couple of cameramen trying to distract the new Laker. Later, he runs into Ball in the broadcast room and smacks his draft hat down over his eyes before they share words. And whenever he sees Malik Monk—his partner in the Kentucky backcourt last season (as well as countless games of Call of Duty) who's headed down to Charlotte—he hits him with a constant, ball-busting refrain.
"Yo, Malik," he chirps from a few yards away. "You're still here?"
At one point in the hall, Fox's agent hands him a phone and sends him down into a corner. When the scrum tries to follow, he boxes them out well enough to prove he knows a good rebounder. On the other end of the line is Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé. Fox smiles widely on the phone, and the conversation isn't short. It's the first moment in hours that I've seen him without a camera in his face. At his suit fitting, I asked him whether he felt his life was about to change or whether it already had. He leaned towards the latter, but it's hard not to think this felt like an entirely new chapter. After all, he now knows for an absolute certainty that he'll make more than $4 million in salary alone next year.
Eventually, we near the end of the PR obstacle course. Fox is approached by a Snapchat star who asks him to shoot a selfie. He flips on the dog filter and, giggling a bit as he sticks out his tongue, tells the phone's little camera how happy he is to be a King. I move to ask him about it, but in seconds he's on the phone with a Sacramento sports radio station saying the same thing. After his fourteenth interview in the broadcast room—and at least his twenty-first overall—he heads to the final stop on his tour: a portrait with his family. Only his dad and his longtime trainer are still there—Fox's press tour has gone on so long his mom and brother had to go home—but they line up, beaming, with De'Aaron in the middle gripping a basketball as the cameras flash.
They walk off the set, and I feel guilty as I ask him for a final favor: posting a message to Esquire's Instagram story. Then Fox heads out with his family, his job done. Until tomorrow, that is, when he heads out to Sacramento for another full media tour with the local outfits. It's all part of the gig.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.