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My Story: From The NBA To An MBA

USC MBA (and former NBA All Star) Shareef Abdur-Rahim

USC MBA (and former NBA All-Star) Shareef Abdur-Rahim

Twenty years ago, Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s scouting report would’ve trumpeted his complete game. On the court, he was versatile enough to play every frontcourt position in the NBA. Abdur-Rahim could drain jumpers with textbook touch or fearlessly take the ball to the hole. He possessed the toughness to snag rebounds and the vision to find the open man. Beyond his size, speed, and skills, scouts drooled over his intangibles: Humble and soft spoken, Abdur-Rahim led by example, with a quiet confidence and selflessness that elevated the abilities of those around him.

This scouting report readily applies to Abdur-Rahim’s life after basketball, too. These days, he has embraced the role of “servant leader,” one who steps up in the clutch to tackle the tough issues. Through his philanthropy, he helps at-risk populations in Atlanta with his education and health initiatives; outside the spotlight, he has emerged as a successful real state investor. In June, he was elevated to the role of NBA associate vice president of basketball operations.

Basketball doesn’t define Shareef Abdur-Rahim. The sport, he says, simply gave him the tools — discipline, perseverance, and poise — to succeed in other walks of life.

But the transition from athlete to business leader can be a difficult one, which is why Abdur-Rahim applied the lessons he learned on the hardwood to the classroom, a journey he completed this spring by earning his MBA from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

“I enjoyed basketball, but I’m looking forward to the next phase in my life,” Abdur-Rahim tells Poets&Quants. “If I could have an impact on other people or in the community or make the situations of others better, that’s success.”

Abdur-Rahim (bottom center) at USC Marshall's MBA graduation ceremony

Abdur-Rahim at USC Marshall’s MBA graduation ceremony.

FROM HIS PARENTS, A LOVE OF BASKETBALL AND SERVICE 

Born in Georgia to William and Aminah Abdur-Rahim, “Reef” was the second of 12 children. With so many younger siblings, he was primed to be a leader. At the same time, his parents were deeply involved in community work, fueling his life-long commitment to service.

Abdur-Rahim’s parents also inspired his love of basketball. His mother had become a basketball fan from watching her older brother play, and his father would take him to watch community pickup games. Abdur-Rahim soon took up the sport, winning a state high school championship and, with his 6’9 frame and hybrid skill set, emerging as a highly coveted college recruit. Eventually, he chose to play at the University of California-Berkeley, where he became the first freshman to earn the PAC-10’s Player of the Year Award.

Despite loving the college life and winning academic honors at Cal, Abdur-Rahim turned pro after his freshman year. He was drafted third overall by the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1996, part of a legendary draft class headlined by future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Allen Iverson. At 19, he was groomed to be the face and foundation of the Grizzlies franchise. While some might wither under such sky-high expectations, Abdur-Rahim delivered by averaging 20 points, eight rebounds and three assists per game over his five seasons with the Grizzlies, after which he was traded to his hometown Atlanta Hawks, where he made the NBA’s All Star team in 2002. He also was selected to the 2000 U.S. Olympic basketball team, winning a gold medal in Sydney, Australia.

FUTURE FOUNDATION CURRICULUM HAS 100% COMPLETION RATE AMONG STUDENTS

Along with productivity — he ranks among the youngest players to score 10,000 points in the NBA —Abdur-Rahim was the definition of reliability during his career. Despite experiencing nearly every imaginable sprain, tweak, or pull, he rarely missed a game. He even played one game with his jaw wired shut (somehow being hit for a technical foul that night). Still, it was off the court where Abdur-Rahim shined brightest. He developed a reputation for being among the most altruistic players in the NBA. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, for example, he formed Rebound America, which raised over $200,000 for the victims. He was named the NBA’s No. 1 “Good Guy” in 2004 by The Sporting News, and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he helped organize the delivery of 20 tractor-trailers’ worth of supplies to the region, even joining Habitat for Humanity to build homes for the displaced.

In Arabic, “Abdur-Rahim” translates to “Servant of the most Merciful.” A commitment to service and mercy could be considered the hallmarks of Reef’s Future Foundation. Founded in 2001, the nonprofit has helped over 20,000 low-income students and parents in the metro Atlanta area. Focused on 15 middle and high schools, the foundation aims to spur upward mobility through education and strategic partnerships, with an expansive curriculum designed to decrease risky behaviors, improve relationships, and foster healthy lifestyles. Since 2007, the program boasts a 100% completion rate among teens. The Future Foundation also operates Reef House Learning Centers and Afterschool Teen Centers to provide academic tutoring to struggling students, along with training in computers, science, cooking, arts, even drama.

Abdur-Rahim going up against Dennis Rodman in younger days.

Abdur-Rahim going up against Dennis Rodman in younger days.

During his playing career, Abdur-Rahim always kept his eye on the future. He was always looking for opportunities to build his business acumen, such as joining an investment group that included social components such as seeking opportunities to provide housing in low-income neighborhoods. He was heavily involved in negotiating with NBA owners as part of the player’s union, and learned from endorsement deals with brands like Nike. After a balky knee ended his NBA career in 2008, Abdur-Rahim moved into coaching. At just 33, he was promoted to assistant general manager of the Sacramento Kings, serving as the right hand to Geoff Petrie, a two-time winner of the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award.

A STAR LEARNS HE CAN COMPETE IN ANY UNDERTAKING

But Abdur-Rahim is a man on a mission, and despite making millions during his basketball career, he chose to continue his education. In 2012, he finished his undergraduate degree in sociology at Berkeley, where he carried a 3.8 GPA. From there, he turned his sights to an MBA program. He eventually chose USC, indulging his love of strategy while gaining a strong appreciation of finance. Freed from the commitment of a team or a brand, Abdur-Rahim became a writer whose thought-provoking posts at LinkedIn and elsewhere cover everything from the basics of leadership to the unforgiving nature of New York traffic. Like many MBAs, some of Abdur-Rahim’s biggest lessons have had little to do with financial frameworks and analytical tools.

“I learned a lot about myself — just the idea that I can figure things out,” he says. “I can go into a situation that is totally foreign to me and work and study hard enough, identify resources, and learn it. For me, especially, I spent a lot of my life in areas that weren’t academic. Being able to thrive here was really encouraging and gave me a confidence boost.”

Poets&Quants recently sat down with Abdur-Rahim to learn more about his journey from basketball prodigy to sports executive and social entrepreneur. Here, in his words, is his story.