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The Swing Man

As told to Ian A. Stewart | November 28, 2016 | Story News and Features National

Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about local influencers, insiders, and rabble rousers that our sister magazine, San Francisco, is publishing over the next month, all part of the December 2016 Power Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue’s contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

Courtside: That’s where the power is.
That’s where I’m trying to get. Most people might think that’s a strange thing to say, given that when I go to work, I get to share the floor with the greatest athletes in the world, and have the biggest spotlight possible shining down on me. When Steph Curry hits a three-pointer and Oracle Arena starts going crazy, it’s like standing at the very center of the universe. Even on the road, I can feel it. Fans start the game booing us, calling us the villains, the superteam. But then they see us play, and something switches. They want to call us the bad guys, but once they see Kevin Durant hit a sweet shot—it’s all cheers. And then they love us.

So, yeah, it’s easy to feel at those moments like you’re one of the most powerful people in the world.

But I know better. Because when I’m at Oracle, I get to look back up at the crowd and see where the real power is. I can see Eddy Cue, the VP of Internet Software and Services at Apple. Or Ben Horowitz, one of the top VC players in the world, sitting next to our bench. Or Jim Goetz, from Sequoia Capital, or Jan Koum, the CEO of WhatsApp. When I think about the impact those fans sitting courtside have made in the world, it’s incredible.

One of the main reasons I signed with the Warriors back in 2013 was to get myself into that position. Getting to be a professional basketball player is an amazing experience—we get to travel around the country, stay in five-star hotels, and meet fans from all walks of life. But it doesn’t last forever. The average career in the NBA is only about five years long. And even if you make a lot of money, it can be hard for players to find something meaningful in their lives once the game’s over. It’s all most of us have ever known.

Luckily, I have a family to go home to every day: my wife, Christina, who I married last year, although we’ve known each other since grade school, and who is an amazingly smart woman (I think she got a near-perfect score on her ACTs); my son, Andre Jr., who’s nine; my daughter, London, seven; and another child due in May. For one thing, they help me remember where my biggest priorities are. Whether we win by 40 points or lose by 40, I have to go home and be Dad just the same.

So in 2013, when it came time to sign with a new team and I had the chance to come to the Bay Area, it was a perfect match—on the court, for my family, and for me personally. I knew that this team was ready for big things. And it was also a perfect opportunity for me to come to Silicon Valley and be at the center of the tech universe, where the Apples and Googles and Ubers are changing the world. I wanted to be a part of that, to learn how the people behind those companies do what they do.

One thing I’ve learned is that succeeding in basketball and business require a lot of the same traits. Both take a level of competitiveness and sacrifice that honestly not everyone has. I’ve been fortunate in terms of basketball—I’m tall and have long arms, and I’m athletic. That’s just good genes. But it’s not everything. Most people don’t know how hard it is to stay in the NBA; they don’t know about lifting weights every day, about shooting a thousand jump shots every day. They don’t know about putting your kids to bed and then heading back out to the gym. It hurts! The only way you can keep doing that every day for 12 years, like I have, is if you have a love for it. It’s one part passion, one part perseverance. It’s grit.

A huge part of developing that grit is being willing to learn—from anyone and at any time. When I first got drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2004, I learned from my older teammates, like Aaron McKie and Kevin Ollie. I watched how they carried themselves, what they did. I asked them questions all the time about everything, basketball related and not. Where do you bank? Who manages your money? People don’t just tell you things when you’re a 19- or 20-year-old and first entering the league. You have to seek that information out and surround yourself with people you look up to and trust. I’ve seen people struggle both in basketball and other parts of the entertainment business—you’re dealing with a lot of wealth and celebrity. There are lots of horror stories out there of people losing everything once they’re finished playing. So the biggest thing for me has been to try to learn from those mistakes so I can avoid them, and then pass that knowledge along to my teammates.

My first NBA contract was worth close to $2 million, and right away I began to work closely with my business partner, Rudy Thomas, on how to invest that money. Before getting to the NBA became a realistic goal for me, I’d wanted to become a businessperson, although I never knew exactly what that’d look like. (Actually, the other job I envisioned having was being a math teacher; in high school, my precalculus teacher told me there’s a shortage of male African American teachers in the school system. So I wanted to be a teacher and coach—most of my coaches weren’t teachers, or if they were, they led PE classes.) Neither of my parents were businesspeople. My mother worked for the housing authority, and my father, who was born in Nigeria, worked for the city of Springfield, Illinois. But one thing they taught me was that if you want something, you have to go get it. You can’t rely on other people. That was my mother’s thing: You’ve got to have a career. You can’t just have a job.

So early on, I set up an E-Trade account and bought stock in a few companies I knew about: Nike, Apple, General Electric, those sorts of bluechips. Rudy started sending me articles about emerging tech companies, until the point that now, I read tech and business news all the time—the Wall Street Journal, Recode, Fast Company, Wired, and TechCrunch. I started investing more and more in tech—Facebook, Twitter, Tesla—until I had a pretty decent portfolio.

When I got to the Bay Area, one of the first things I did was reach out to those companies and the venture capital funds in Silicon Valley to learn and become more involved. I could have easily just let my money sit in savings, or invested in real estate, but that’s not where my passion is. Investing in startups and emerging tech stokes the same competitive urge that makes me good at my day job.

But it’s a hard field to get into—it can feel like an old boys’ club when you’re an outsider. Even more so when you’re coming from a different field, like I was. I could definitely feel the stigma of being “just a basketball player” following me. So I decided to use that to my advantage. Yes, I’m a basketball player, but look how much more I can bring to the table because of that. Look how many people gravitate toward pro athletes. Look at the incredible platform we have to get new things—whether that’s tech or apparel or new media—in front of people. The Valley is all about disruption, so my mindset was to go into their world and do exactly that. I didn’t go into the business world as a basketball player. I went in as a businessman.

After I moved out West
and joined the Warriors, I was able to meet with Jeff Jordan, one of the partners at Andreessen Horowitz. Jeff was formerly the CEO of OpenTable and worked with PayPal and eBay before that. Both Jeff and I are really behind-the-scenes guys who can stay out of the spotlight. And to his credit, he didn’t see me as just another athlete. He saw that I was serious about learning the ropes and gave me a portfolio of companies to study up on. He said if I was really serious about investing, to let him know which ones stood out to me. That’s how I learned about Twice, a company Andreessen Horowitz had funded. They were selling secondhand women’s clothing and getting ready to start a men’s department as well. I’ve always appreciated fashion—I’m one of the best-dressed guys in the league—so that was a good match for me. I invested in the company and was made men’s style director. Four months later, the company was bought by eBay. That’s when I got hooked.

Since then, I’ve invested in 15 different startups, mostly in e-commerce and wearable tech, and I’m learning all the time, talking to people like Cue and Horowitz and even our team’s owner, Joe Lacob, who’s a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. I try out new apps and products all the time, trying to get a feel for what they can improve on, or what problems they’re solving. I meet with the employees of the companies I invest in and ask them how things are running, how things could be more efficient. I always ask what the CEO is like, too, to make sure we share the same core values: honesty, compassion, patience. Most of the time, my initial meetings with companies aren’t about trying to get rich quick. They’re really about starting a personal relationship.

My personality extends from basketball to business. On both fronts, I’m a perfectionist. But the way I interact with my teammates is changing. Now that I’m one of the older guys on the team, I’ve become more attuned to giving advice to teammates in a way that they’ll receive it. You can’t force-feed people. It’s not about getting on someone’s case for being two minutes late—it’s about showing them how to be a pro, leading by example. That’s the same in basketball, in business, and even at home with my kids.

One of the other things about being a veteran in this league is that I have a chance to not only set up the next chapter of my career, but help other players do the same thing. I’m a vice president of the Players Association, and this summer I helped host the NBPA’s first-ever tech summit. We invited current and former players from around the league to the Bay Area so they could meet with VCs and major tech companies and learn how to match themselves with those brands. Andreessen Horowitz, SV Angel, Binary Capital, Khosla Ventures, Jawbone, Lyft, and Halo Neuroscience were all there. And it was overflowing. There are so many players who want to do more than just be a basketball player. I looked around and realized our game is bigger than we even think. I told some of the players there, “Look how many people want to be a part of us. Look how much power we have.”

I couldn’t have imagined how popular it would be, or how successful. I spoke afterward to a few players who were able to get some of their own projects off the ground. Lou Amundson, who used to be on the Knicks, started working with a VR company, doing some testing with them. Another former player, John Salmons, who was a teammate of mine in Philadelphia, is working on a clothing line and was able to meet with a couple of companies. Mustafa Shakur, a former teammate from the University of Arizona who’s now playing abroad, told me he’s been in touch with a few tech companies as well.

Just on the Warriors we have players tapping into that world. Steph, who spoke at the summit, is the cofounder of a social media startup geared toward athletes and celebrities called Slyce, and he’s also invested in a company that helps match young athletes with private coaches. Kevin Durant is an investor in Postmates, a food-delivery app that tons of NBA players use when we’re on the road. My former teammate Harrison Barnes has invested in a few companies, too. It’s something we all talk about in the locker room all the time. I tell the guys who don’t think of themselves as business-minded: Look at what you’re already doing with social media, marketing and branding yourself online. Guys think that’s just a social thing, but it shows a business mindset. You just have to translate it into their language and say, now, how can you build on that?

That mindset isn’t just about making money, by the way. It’s also a way to align yourself with issues you believe in. Take Colin Kaepernick, for example. When he started his protest of the national anthem to point out the issues of police violence and racism, he started a national conversation about something people had been ignoring for years. What he did was brave, because some people will try to shut you up and will use fear to do it. So I understand why some athletes don’t want to speak on social injustices.

People have asked players on our team about kneeling for the anthem, and my feeling is that Colin has gotten the message out. Now it’s time to not just talk about it, but to do something about it. I want to figure out how I can help. I don’t expect the police to change, or the government to change. We need African American communities to come together—not necessarily in a violent way—and figure out how to make the world a better place. That’s where tech can come into it. If I can help get some of these young players involved with the companies that are trying to change the world, they can be empowered beyond the basketball court and can spread that message even more and start to do something really big.

Winning the NBA title in 2015 and being named the Finals MVP was the culmination of the 12 months—or in my case the 12 years—that led up to it. Getting a chance to reflect on everything you did to get there is what’s really satisfying. In business, it’s the same thing: It’s not about the end goal. That’s just where you want to go. You must remember that every day counts—the good days you build off, the bad days you learn from. If I’m not moving forward, it’s been a wasted day. That’s what keeps you hungry and keeps you humble and gives you balance.

But my end goal isn’t here yet. I’m still on the journey.

Photos: Shot at the Oakland Marriott City Center

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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