College Basketball's 40-Year Lesson And The Expiration of The Student-Athlete Status
Sports highlights. They are an essential part of the way we consume sports. Highlights not only visually summarize a game for us, but also show us who performed better and who made the big plays. What they don’t show us is the hours that went into preparing teams for the highlights. For every player that shines in a two-minute SportsCenter clip, there are dozens more fighting in practice just to earn minutes that may never make the highlight reel. If players aren’t making the highlights, what do they make of simply showing up to practice everyday and putting the work in?
To get some insight on this question, we interviewed Wade Morgan, a former D1 walk-on, who played basketball at Stanford University. As a 4-year member Wade helped the team win the NIT twice, and make a run to the Sweet 16. Wade started his career at LinkedIn in their Business Leadership Program and eventually landed on the SMB Account Executive team. Since then, he’s been at Airtable helping grow their business as an Account Executive. He shared his perspective on the 40-year lesson gained from college basketball and learning how to approach the expiration date of no longer being an athlete.
How did you put yourself in a good position to walk on and make the team?
I tried to envision myself in it before I got there, which was big in terms of acting like you’ve been there before. When I got there, the first thing I did was go to the coach and talk to them about what it takes to make the team. Then it was just about being persistent and making sure they wouldn’t forget about me. Every open gym and team event, I made sure that I showed up. Obviously it wasn't my decision, but I knew that I could put myself in the right position. They happened to be a good fit for me. They happened to have a roster spot open and it was good timing.
How did perception match up with reality when you walked on?
It was eye opening in many ways. Not all the press clippings were fake, but at the end of the day it's just people on the court hooping. You play against and with people who are super highly recruited out of school and deservedly so, but then eventually if you keep practicing and playing, you realize you can play with them. Whether or not that shows up in gametime, it's kind of a mentality that you have to develop.
It hit me in a couple ways. We would play against Arizona, Duke, or any other top team, and we were playing against all these people who are projected to be lottery picks with the highest expectations. And I realized that once the coaches put a scouting report together and showed us what the other team was or wasn’t good at, there was a systematic way to approach how to win. It's not just luck. It's a lot of hours put in, watching film, practicing, and doing drills. You eventually realize that that methodology applies to a lot of things, not just in sports. When I said everything is fake, I don’t really mean that. What I mean is that, whatever problem is at hand, you realize that there is a systematic way to approach it and once you internalize that, then very few problems seem too big for you to solve.
How did that realization affect your experience?
You can only go through but so many scouting sessions of the other team before you realize you can scout your own teammates. If I’m trying to fight for practice and game minutes, I can put my teammates in positions that are uncomfortable for them. Vice versa, I can put myself in positions that are advantageous for me. I can start to understand the psychology of the coaches and literally just ask myself what my job description was. What are they asking me to do? How do I perform at that level? How do I perform above that level? When you’re able to take a step back and get out of your own head, you’re able to understand all those things holistically. And I think doing that allowed me to have a better experience than if I didn’t.
On a PAC-12 Team, where guys are highly recruited, how did you find your role?
I realized that I wasn’t going to be the starting guard. I did have aspirations to hopefully fill a consistent backup role. And I realized that wasn’t going to happen. I was then able to be comfortable being a big leader on the team. I helped institute a winning culture. I was able to be a coach and mentor to my peers and younger guys. So learning how to be a leader despite those circumstances was what I focused on. I knew that that was going to be the 40-year lesson for me as opposed to the 4-year lesson.
My senior year, I was fortunate to win the team’s leadership award even though I wasn’t a captain and I was a walk-on still. I think that kind of validated the impact that I thought I was having and the coaches and players thought so and that was a really great moment for me on a personal level.
Was there an example of leadership that you followed to put you in that position?
I honestly think leadership was something that I developed myself. Everybody has their court. Everyone has their thing that they are the Michael Jordan of. For some people it's actually the basketball court, for other people it's another arena. I realized mine could be basketball, but while I was at Stanford I really thought about what I could be the best at. For me it was team leadership and setting the example to be the consummate student-athlete. All those things were things I knew I could accomplish so that’s where I spent my focus. I also don’t want to make it seem like the not playing stuff was cool. At the end of the day, you’re a competitor and you want to compete and win. You want to be a reason why the team won. You want to be on the court. You want to hit the game winning shot. You want to make those clutch free throws. You want to get the defensive stop. For me it wasn’t a moral victory that I wasn’t playing. It was frustrating, but I was able to contextualize it.
How did your identity compliment where you saw yourself going?
I was involved with student leadership on the Black Student Union and in my fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. I was also an RA my senior year. There were a couple things that I knew. I knew the status I had as a college athlete was temporary. I knew the luxuries it afforded me. I also knew it had an expiration date and so I wanted to make sure I got everything out of that experience that I could. I knew that being at a phenomenal school on a phenomenal basketball program would say something about me, my character and hard work. That’s what I wanted to make sure came through. And when it came to applying for internships and jobs, those were the things i highlighted. I was able to maintain a full course load, I was able to have a GPA better than a lot of people applying, and I was able to balance that with sports and do all of these things successfully.
Transitioning away from basketball and starting your career at LinkedIn, how was the adjustment?
I joined LinkedIn because I knew there was three things I was looking for. First, I wanted a place that I felt like I could thrive in. Second, I wanted a place that I felt would invest in me. And third was, I didn't want to feel like I was killing myself working crazy hours. It seemed like LinkedIn was a great option for that.
Some things weren’t on that list at that point in time were where I was going to make the most money or where I was going to make the best friends. It wasn’t like I didn’t care about those things, they just weren’t my top priorities. In terms of what to expect about the experience, I didn't really know what it meant to work for an employer of choice or what it meant to have a phenomenal manager who could help you think about your career. I didn’t know all those things really. I just knew I wanted to work at a cool company, feel like I had a great work-life experience, and kind of slow down a little bit because I was going hard for those four years in college.
Where do you feel like the experience as a student-athlete helped you in working at LinkedIn?
I can say that what basketball did for me was help me develop a keen understanding of how organizations work and how to succeed in them given your mix of strengths, the needs that the organization has, and the things that are going to add value to other people. That was a crystal clear thing that I was able to develop. It felt like I knew the answers to the test to a certain extent before the game even started. And it wasn’t just basketball at Stanford, it was also six years of experience at my prep school from 7th to 12th grade. From 12 years old to 22 years old being in a high performance type of environment where you stand out as the only black kid in prep school or the walk on on the basketball team, it's kind of like, “i’ve done this before.” Now you’re at a company - and you’ve seen the stats - so it's feels like I’ve done this before. I’ve seen these environments before and that’s why I felt like I could succeed in them ultimately.
Was there any part of the adjustment that was more difficult?
I think having an athletic background is a blessing. It's also a curse in some ways. The blessing of it is that you’re always striving, pushing yourself forward and living with a what’s next mentality. I think that’s a great mentality to have overall. I think the curse, at least one piece of it for me was, I didn’t know what it felt like to simply appreciate where you’re at and celebrate progress.
In the sports mentality, the assumption is that you’re never actually comfortable. You win the PAC 12 tournament, okay go win the NCAA tournament. You win the NCAA tournament, okay go win it again next year. If you win again next year, then go to the NBA and be the best player. So you’ve accomplished a lot, but you’ve never attained what your actual goal was. And so for me, something I’m learning right now is being able to internalize what it feels like to appreciate my journey while still being able to push myself and obtain that stuff moving forward. This is something I didn’t know how to do and how to appreciate. And I’m actively learning it right now.
In B2B sales, is there an example where that lesson was reinforced?
I felt a great sense of accomplishment in starting my new job. I’d identified the kinds of companies I was looking to work in and Airtable fit the bill perfectly. Once my offer came through, I let myself feel the rush of excitement. I feel fortunate to be in the position I’m in. I’m motivated to do well, and wake up excited for work every day.
Now that I’m here, the lesson of self-care manifests itself in a couple ways. I’m intentional about taking time off. I’m fortunate to be in a position where I have flexibility in working from home and in the office. If need be, I make sure to take advantage of that. I make sure to spend time with friends, workout, enjoy my weekends, and overall recharge. Doing so enables me to be dialed in when I’m at work.
You’re a few years removed from Stanford Basketball. What do you miss about it?
One of my proudest memories is making the Sweet 16. When I tell other people, they’re like ‘wow, that’s a big deal.’ We were fortunate to win the NIT twice while I was there, so I at least went out on a win my senior year. And then on a personal level, I would say winning a couple of awards despite my position on the team as I mentioned earlier.
The main things are the guys and the locker room. Those moments in the games and practices where things are fun and can go one way or the other, I miss those. We had this phrase, ‘every possession matters.’ We would look at games and analyze the film. And we’d see that we lost by two points and had 18 turnovers while the other team had nine. You just break things down very systematically like that and when you apply that outside of basketball the same applies, every possession matters. I try to have that humility when I approach anything. Whether its people who want to talk to me or people who want my advice on something, I try to value every opportunity and give it the respect that it deserves. So I’m fortunate to have gotten that approach from my experience.