by Drew Zlogar
“Basketball is a sport that they play — not who they are.”
This is the mantra of the NBA’s Player Development department, as relayed to WNBA.com by Senior Vice President of Player Development Greg Taylor.
NBA Player Development’s primary goal is to help the athletes in all three leagues (NBA, WNBA, and NBA G League) make the transition from the court into real life as smooth and seamless as possible. The department has teamed up with multiple universities to offer business education to interested athletes. One school to offer such a business program is Harvard University in their esteemed business school.
WNBA players Kayla Alexander (Indiana Fever), Seimone Augustus (Minnesota Lynx), Alana Beard (Los Angeles Sparks), Tina Charles (New York Liberty), Marissa Coleman (Indiana Fever), Ivory Latta (free agent) and Elizabeth Williams (Atlanta Dream) are currently participating in the semester-long program, which runs from early February to late April and develops players’ business acumen by connecting them with MBA student mentors.
“The Harvard program came about last year, although the two entities have been working closely for a few years now. It resulted from having so many players interested in creating businesses and becoming entrepreneurs, without really knowing what that meant at the brass tacks level,” said Taylor. “We knew players like Chris Bosh were interested in technology, that Dahntay Jones was interested in entrepreneurship and real estate, and a lot of NBA players are interested in starting small businesses.”
The off-the-court interests of one NBA star in particular opened Beard’s eyes in her decision to take advantage of the experience.
“I remember hearing Dwyane Wade took a course at Harvard, and I was highly intrigued by that idea,” said Beard. “Sure enough, about a month ago, we got a league-wide email saying that they would be offering this program to WNBA athletes. I would be really surprised to find out that I wasn’t the first person to respond.”
For fans that look up to the superstars that compete in the WNBA, many just know them as athletes. They know things like, ‘Alana Beard won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017.’ Or that Seimone Augustus is a seven-time All-Star.
What fans don’t see is their smarts and drive off the court.
“I have always been in tune with how franchises were run. I have always been like that. I am constantly making sure I am identifying trends, what is working within the organization, things like that because I knew that one day I wanted to own my own team,” said Beard.
For Beard, basketball has given her a lasting and fulfilling athletic career as she embarks on her 15th season in the WNBA. However, her interests and passions for running her own business were alive well before graduating Duke University and being selected as the No. 2 pick in the 2004 WNBA draft.
“I have always had the mindset that I wanted to be my own boss. I can remember back in high school, and even middle school, that I always had the dream to run my own business,” said Beard.
“I think the purpose of the program is to build our business acumen. But at the same time I think it has made all of us athletes step outside of our comfort zone. I couldn’t have asked for a better or more unique way to learn. This program has been a blast.”
Augustus, who in 2016 was voted as one of the WNBA’s top 20 players of all time, has passions that stretch beyond the sidelines of the basketball courts on which she competes.
“As I look down the road, I have to find my next passion,” said the four-time WNBA champ. “Is it in basketball? I would say yes, but not in the coaching side of things. I would have to say that I probably will end up in the business side of things. I have been thinking about forming tournaments and fun things that I can bring down to my hometown community of Baton Rouge to get everyone involved.”
“I didn’t really have business expertise before this, but I think it was just the fact that going to Harvard has taught me how to process things better. How to absorb different people’s perspectives and relate it to how you have broken down the situation.”
Augustus said she enjoys that Harvard doesn’t allow you as a student to just slide by. If you are attending a class at the university, it will be an interactive process with everyone involved to ensure the information sticks.
“Harvard isn’t one of those universities where you just go there, get information and take tests,” she said. “They put the information out there, and then it is an open discussion on the case study that we just read: What did we learn from it, and how can we relate that to our real-life situations and experiences, and what we want our paths to look like down the road.”
Taylor has already sensed the players’ excitement and engagement level with the Harvard program specifically.
“These ladies mostly spent four years in college, so they have always been in tune with supplementing their income and figuring out what their next career move is after basketball,” he said.
Beard, for one, expressed her gratitude for such an opportunity.
“I think that Adam Silver has made it a point to bridge that gap from transitioning from the court to the real world,” said Beard. “When I put the ball down, I think that this opportunity has helped me ensure that my vision and my plans will all come together.”
As for Augustus, she sees the program as a way to find her next passion once she hangs up her sneakers for the final time.
“You have to give it your all and go after your dreams. When people ask me how I made it, I start by telling them that I had an unwavering belief in myself,” said Augustus. “When you figure out what your passion is, and you put everything you have into it and give it your all, things will start to happen for you.”