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My Story: From The NBA To An MBA

Abdur-Rahim with a young member of his Future Foundation

Abdur-Rahim with a young member of his Future Foundation.

SNEAKING INTO HAAS CLASSES INTENSIFIES AN INTEREST IN AN MBA

The idea of going to business school had been an ongoing one. It was initiated through my experience with the NBA. What sparked my interest in business was meeting with all of the different owners of the teams I played during my NBA career — I would ask them about their other businesses. The late Michael Heisley, the former owner of the Memphis Grizzlies, I think had the biggest impact on me, of all the owners I met. I think it was because he was the most open and willing to share his experiences. I remember sitting with him during the NBA summer league in Las Vegas, way up in the stands. He talked with me about how he got started in business, his other businesses, and how they help to fund his investment in the NBA. He offered me investment advice — he told me that Asia was where you can find growth. He said, “Just think of how many people there are in China.” It didn’t really register with me at the time, but during an export Shanghai trip in B-school I got it. I was always interacting with these people. I was fascinated with what they did and how they did it.

From there, I was involved in contract negotiations, being a team representative of the player’s union. I was involved with the collective bargaining agreement (the CBA) and understanding the process and the things that go into creating a working agreement. That also piqued my interest in business. When I finished playing, I also had the opportunity to work in the front office of the Sacramento Kings. Again, that just took me to another level in learning the intricacies of managing a team.

At that time, I was thinking, “How could an MBA add value to the experiences that I had as an athlete and being an executive, considering what I understood about both the chemistry and the operations of a team?” But I knew that I needed some fine-tuning of my skills. At the time, I was finishing my undergraduate degree at Cal. At Berkeley, you have Haas. A lot of times, Haas was on my way to where I would be going for classes. So when I was on campus and in between classes, I would just go into the Haas building and sneak into the business classes and sit and listen to what was going on in the classes. At that time, I couldn’t always follow it, but it was really fascinating.

Hanging out with USC classmates after the final day of class.

Hanging out with USC classmates after the final day of class.

Fast forward a couple of years. I had finished my undergraduate degree and I was still working for the Sacramento Kings. And the team was going through the process of possibly being sold. If that happened, I didn’t think any of us would be retained. I had gone through a process like that with the Vancouver Grizzlies when they moved to Memphis, so I was thinking to myself, “What would I do?”

At that time, I really started investigating business schools. I applied at a few different places. My family came first. I asked myself, “How could I do it and be active and not upset the family too much?” Then, I looked at the type of experience for me and the type of people at these schools.

In the process, the Sacramento Kings, my employer, were sold. I thought they were moving, but they ended up staying. New management came in and they asked me to stay. I signed a three-year contract with them. Still, in the back of my mind, I had the idea that I wanted to go to business school. I contacted USC and asked if I could defer my acceptance for a year so I could see what would happen with the Kings. I did that, but after a year I just decided that I needed the experience of business school. This was, for myself and my family, the right time to do it. So I left my job with the Kings and started business school. So I would go down to Los Angeles, but my family stayed in Sacramento.

‘HONESTLY, I WAS A LITTLE INTIMIDATED’

The transition at USC was huge. Three to six months before I started, I had already received a number of my books. I had a wonderful tutor and teacher named Dr. Melissa Cadet. She really was a God-send, an amazing lady. We meet at coffee shops or her office. She really helped me bridge the gap on some of the skills I didn’t have yet or review material I hadn’t seen since high school. Starting the first semester, I felt like I had a grasp of the information. Being back in school, the pace was different from undergraduate school. I was a sociology major: the people, teachers, and flow of marketing and economics was totally different. Honestly, I was a little intimidated. Looking around, I thought that all the people there were just so much more prepared. From my athletic background, I knew that I belonged and I could compete. I knew that I would work hard enough to give myself the opportunity to do well.

Abdur-Rahim with his family

Abdur-Rahim with his family at USC graduation.

As far as the courses, I loved everything strategy. I really liked finance. I wasn’t great at it. It was tough. I had to work at it. For strategy, that process of thinking — guiding decisions, laying out the framework for how you do things — I enjoyed it. Plus, I had some really good professors. My strategy professor was Arvind Bhambri — I loved the way he encouraged us to think. My finance professor was Julia Plotts — she was just amazing.

FINDING COMMON CAUSE WITH PEOPLE FROM VERY DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS

In some ways, the biggest lessons were reinforcing things you knew intuitively; I didn’t have a landscape for understanding them. Strictly classwork, I learned a lot about how you tabulate the present and future value of money and the cost of capital — just understanding the granular level of business — things that might easily get lost. They were important because we would always go over those things … and they would always come back. I also learned a lot about coming up with strategies, making decisions, and the tradeoffs and the manner in which your decisions should follow and reinforce each other. You look at marketing and the different ideas that you evaluate and the segments or buckets that you put things in. We looked at customer lifetime value, things if you asked me about a year or two earlier I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. So those were the technical things that I learned.

On a personal level, I learned a lot about myself — just the idea that I can figure things out. 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.