How I Got to the NBA from Being a D3 Basketball Player
John Halas - Scout, New York Knicks
There is no specific how-to guide...
to get into the profession that you want. Especially when its working for an NBA Team. And I mean actually working with the team, not just in ticket sales (no disrespect, that job is THE toughest in the world and I admire the perseverance and resiliency those people show on a daily basis). So, let me tell you how I got to the NBA from being a D3 basketball player. Hopefully it illuminates a path you can take if you want to get there yourself.
Like most college athletes, I was not ready for my playing career to end. And like most college athletes (98.5% to be exact), I was not talented enough to make millions on the court, so I had to get a little creative to keep that dream alive. My goal was to spend a couple years, if possible, collecting a paycheck for playing basketball. I ended up having to invest a couple hundred dollars in entry fees to “agency camps” thinking that was my way to get a deal. It wasn’t. I never heard anything from the agents, but looking back I feel good knowing that I helped their families eat out a couple nights with the entry fees I paid. Luckily, the agents weren’t the only one at these camps. I managed to catch the eye of an owner/GM of an ABA team based in New Jersey and got my foot in the door that way. I spent my first year out of college playing in the ABA(American Basketball Association) and then the USBL (United States Basketball League). My second, third and fourth (and final) years were spent playing for a mildly successful and very talented team in Rochester, NY. Our team played in a 10,000-seat arena and routinely had crowds over 5,000 (a huge change from D3). And, best of all, I got a steady paycheck while my only job was playing basketball. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make a real living doing this, but it quenched my thirst of playing above the college level and I could still see the green…my goal of working in the NBA. Playing past college is something few accomplished, so I saw it as a separator on my resume. A little bit of street cred, if you will.
To get into any competitive industry, you must separate yourself as much as possible from the rest of the candidates. I didn’t have the network or connections to get in at this point, so the next move was broadening my skillset while expanding my connections. Considering most of my significant relationships were forged in school, that seemed like the logical next step. Sport Management School at UMass fit exactly what I was looking for. In two years, I’d have a Masters in Sport Management and two years of coaching along side the legendary Dave Hixon on my resume. It wasn’t working in the NBA, but it achieved a few goals that I knew would help. There were not many 27-year old guys with a college degree from a very good school, played professional basketball, coached college basketball and had a Masters Degree in Sports Management from a top graduate school. I was confident that I now had a resume that wouldn’t get immediately discarded.
So now I had a Masters in Sports Management, coaching experience and playing experience! But, I was forgetting one thing, nobody in the NBA knew that. A lot of timing and luck is involved with success and with me it was no different. What I didn’t know, is that there was a team looking for someone that had all those traits and through their due diligence in the hiring process, called around to UMass for a list of potential names. I didn’t make that list, but when the team searched deeper, they called a few more sources and my name popped up with a glowing recommendation. I made it onto the radar, with a huge assist in the luck department because of the path I had taken. Now I had the chance to make an impression in real life, or on a tiny screen via Skype…but you get the idea. My first interview with an NBA team went well. Igot into the last round of candidates for a coveted position with a great organization, but ultimately the job went to someone else.
I took a job as an assistant coach at a Prep School in New England. I wanted to stay in basketball and missed out on the NBA and a few other positions in college before this one fell into my lap. Initially, I thought that may be a step in the wrong direction, that I wouldn’t be able to see the green from my current position. Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. That year, there were nearly 20 players in the NEPSAC (the high school league I was coaching in) that would go on to play in the NBA, NBA G League, or NBA Summer League. That experience showed me what NBA players looked like when they were in high school. And I knew their coaches. Both of those details ended up being extremely important as they are of tremendous value in the scouting process. Staying in basketball was the right choice.
Fast forward to the following summer and because the NBA is volatile and management changes happen all the time, I found myself with a job offer with the Orlando Magic. I didn’t have to “interview” since the new GM was part of the interview process I went through the first time around. We had stayed in touch, and I was able to give him some tidbits on players I was coaching against that helped his previous organization in their draft process.
Staying in the NBA, as a player or on the sideline is all about production and network. If you are incredibly talented (nearly everyone who makes a roster/staff is) and people like having you around (not always the case) then you have a pretty good chance of sticking. It also helps when the team you’re on wins. It’s an uphill battle to make it, and extremely tough to last. It’s the same as going through tryouts every year. You’re expected to grow and develop your skills. You’re expected to be better for each season than you previously were. It’s no different than what you’ve done your entire life in sports. And there are tons of people that are eager to take your spot. My first week on the job, I received over 1,000 correspondences from people trying to get their foot in the door!
It’s a process. You aren’t going to be the best right away. Chances are, you’re going to struggle at first. But if you don’t get out of your comfort zone and improve, you won’t make it. My mindset when taking different steps was to “always see the green.” Know what your end-goal is, and continue moving towards it. A shot that slices into the woods may seem terrible at first, but sometimes you end up with a decent lie and a clear shot at the flag. It’s all part of the process that you have to trust. The results will take care of itself, if you take care of the details.
What you can control, is your process. Your determination. Your resiliency. All the traits and characteristics that produced success on the court or the field.
John is a basketball lifer. As a player, he played college ball for Trinity College and then professionally for the Newark Express, Harlem Strong Dog, Brooklyn King and Rochester RazorShark. He coached at Amherst College and Northfield Mount Hermon. In the NBA John worked in the front office for the Orlando Magic and is now a Scout for the Knicks. You can find him on most social media outlets, @JohnnyHalas (Twitter/Instagram) or via email email@example.com