Dr. Naz

Nazr Mohammed
The Players' Tribune

From now on, call me Dr. Nazr T. Mohammed, Ph.D.

I know what y’all are thinking: When in the hell did Naz have a chance to go back to school and get his Ph.D? Well … I didn’t. But I am actually about to get a B.A. in liberal arts from Kentucky. I’ve been in school the last year finishing what I started at UK back in the fall of 1995. I only needed 18 more credit-hours to graduate. I finished my work on Wednesday, and — until COVID-19 came along — I was supposed to walk across the stage at Rupp Arena on Friday to get my diploma.

And now that I’m done I can’t help thinking, I could have done this a long time ago. What if I had focused a little more?

When I finally made it to the NBA in 1998, I made excuse after excuse for why I didn’t have enough time to finish my degree. There are a lot more online classes today than there were back then, sure. But the truth is that I’ve had more than enough time to knock out my last six classes in the last 22 years. I wasted so much time watching movies on airplanes or in hotel rooms, playing cards, listening to music, going to parties, or just plain doing nothing. As an athlete, part of my job was to rest and I took that seriously — too seriously. All that time I spent “resting” could have made me a college graduate.

I even got to the point where I convinced myself that I didn’t need my degree. In a lot of ways, I was right. I played in the NBA for 18 years. I invested wisely and saved diligently. I do have a Ph.D. of a kind — a Ph.D. in professional hoops.

But that’s not enough. I have friends and ex-teammates who coach college basketball. Did you know that without a college degree, I couldn’t even get a job with an NCAA team? Can you believe that? 

Something needs to be done about that. Seriously. All my years of basketball knowledge and I’m not qualified to coach college kids? If someone works 22 years in a field they deserve credit for time served. I’m pretty sure the things I’ve learned as a player and in the front office in Oklahoma City have as much value as a number of classes.

The truth is, though, that not finishing has been hanging over my head ever since I left Lexington. I consider myself a pretty intelligent guy, and not graduating haunted me. And it was for personal reasons — not professional.

I’ve always called myself an alumnus of the University of Kentucky, but technically it wasn’t true. When people would ask me what year I graduated, I would have to correct them by telling them that I hadn’t graduated yet, that I’d left for the NBA after my junior season and I only had 18 credit hours left. (I always felt the need to slip that in.) I thought that maybe if they believed I was really close they would look at me different — not as the stereotypical athlete.

Did you know that without a college degree, I couldn’t even get a job with an NCAA team?

But those conversations always left me with an empty feeling. Every time.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have an addictive personality, that I always try to finish what I start. I don’t know how to quit things — as you could see by my 18-year NBA career. (Which, honestly, probably should have been 14 or 15 years. lol) And now I stand here today as a college graduate — and I am so proud of finishing. It’s sort of taken me by surprise how much it’s meant to me.

How much? I have an A average. That means a lot to me. But a week ago, just for fun, I calculated what I would need to score on the rest of my assignments to get at least a C in my classes this semester — and what I realized almost brought tears to my eyes. I could have gotten 0’s on the rest of my assignments.

That was one of my proudest moments. 

Graduating college doesn’t define you or your intelligence. But it does show that you can start a task and complete it. That you can finish what you start.

And now I’ve finished.

I’ve been working on my Ph.D. in basketball since I was about 13 years old. It all started at Kenwood Academy on the South Side of Chicago in 1991. I was a 6′ 5″, 250-pound eighth-grader playing pickup basketball at what was called Saturday Morning Institute. That was where the JV basketball coach, Andre Peavy, became the first person to tell me that I would play in the NBA. 

“Cokie,” as everybody called him, taught me about hard work and toughness. He used to study instructional videos of Rick Pitino from his Providence College days. He used those videos to teach me, and he also reinforced what my father was teaching me about being a man. Cokie was my first mentor, and the main reason why I chose to play for Coach Pitino at Kentucky. 

My first year at UK was the hardest of my basketball life. The practices pushed me to my physical limits and made me question how badly I really wanted a career in the game. I thought about quitting on many occasions, but I kept working because I could hear people saying, “I told you Naz couldn’t hack it at Kentucky.”

Coach Pitino taught me the importance of being in supreme physical shape. I’ll never forget walking into his office in July 1995 after losing 20 pounds. I was down to 295, and I felt like I was going to impress him.

But he just looked at me and said, “I need you to get to 250 by October 15 or you won’t play this year.” I left his office thinking that that was impossible, but guess who was down to 247 by Oct. 1? (With help from strength and conditioning coach Shaun Brown.)

At UK we learned the importance of practicing so hard that game days became like our day off. I learned the Black/White full-court press, a sweet baby hook, intensity, and sprinting the floor on every possession. What I learned in Lexington became the foundation for the next part of my basketball education.

I was drafted by the Jazz in the first round in 1998. Utah then traded me to the 76ers, whose coach was Hall of Famer Larry Brown. He has one of the most fantastic basketball minds I’ve ever been around. I realized after my first couple of days of training camp that he was a basketball savant. He walked up to me and started asking me about plays we had run my freshman year at Kentucky. He not only remembered the plays, but also the games in which we’d run those plays — right down to who’d made the shots. Honestly, I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. I had been a freshman at the end of the bench in 1996. Not to mention I was a big man, and I only remembered my own plays and who I was supposed to be setting screens for. I didn’t see plays develop, or know where everyone was supposed to be on the floor. 

Coach Brown used to shock me with his memory. He is the only coach I have ever played for who could tell you where all 10 guys on the basketball court were 10 plays ago and precisely what they had been doing. It was frustrating to me then, but it’s amazing to me now. He would stop practice to explain all the mistakes that had been made in a three-minute scrimmage. You could not hide on the floor when you played for Larry Brown. He not only knew what you’d done and what you were supposed to be doing, but he could also see what was going to happen before it actually happened.

I’ve been working on my Ph.D. in basketball since I was about 13 years old.

Imagine seeing your five-year-old about to touch a hot stove and not being able to warn him. That’s the closest example I can think of for how it had to feel for Coach Brown to watch his players when he already knew what was coming.

After my time in Philadelphia, I was traded to the Hawks, the Knicks, and then the Spurs. In San Antonio, I learned what it took to win an NBA championship. I had won two national titles in college, in the win-or-go-home pressure cooker of the NCAA Tournament. But I found that March Madness was easy compared to a best-of-seven playoff series. The best team usually wins in that format, and there’s a need for more focus. When you’re on the court with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker you have to be locked in mentally.

It was with the Spurs that I got a Harvard Business School–type education from Gregg Popovich and his staff of great assistant coaches — guys like Brett Brown, Mike Budenholzer and P.J. Carlesimo. San Antonio was also where I met R.C. Bufford and Sam Presti. Sam would mentor me years later in Oklahoma City, while R.C. would give me lessons in the Business of Basketball without even knowing it.

What stands out most is how Coach Popovich balanced the pursuit of championships with teachings about how blessed we were to play and coach a game that kids play. He taught me that there are bigger things in life than basketball. That always gave me balance. There were times I thought Pop was going to rip into us after a bad loss. But instead he’d do something like talk about the troops in Iraq who were sacrificing their lives for our freedom.

Don’t get me wrong — I learned a lot about defensive principles, pick-and-roll coverages, contesting shots without fouling, big-to-big passing, guarding the yard and more. But my biggest takeaway from Coach Popovich was how to balance basketball and life, and be appreciative every time I stepped on the court.

I would use the things I had learned from my previous stops in Detroit, Charlotte, Oklahoma City and then Chicago. My time in OKC was very special because of our trip to the Finals and the lifelong relationships I built with teammates and people throughout basketball ops. All of those experiences shaped my path to where I am today.

Coach Popovich balanced the pursuit of championships with teachings about how blessed we were to play and coach a game that kids play.

In my 15th year in the NBA, I finally returned home to Chicago, where it had all begun. It was a rocky start between Tom Thibodeau and me. I thought I had more in the tank than was actually there, and he was looking to me to support my teammates and be a leader. That’s the funny part about the NBA. You’ve learned so much as a player that it’s hard to accept the reality of your declining skills and physical abilities. You still hear the voices of the people who have always doubted you — except suddenly they’re right. It’s hard to accept that.

Coach Thibs won me over with his work ethic. He is the hardest working, most focused, and most prepared coach I’ve ever been around. Thibs prepped for regular-season games as if they were Game 7 of the Finals. He taught me that the team with the most talent doesn’t necessarily always win during the regular season. Instead, the hardest working, most prepared team — with players who sacrifice for one another — has the best chance to win.

He also taught me that there was a game plan that could win on any given night in the NBA. All he needed from his players was the effort to figure out what was and wasn’t working. He didn’t care who was on the other team, or how good its record was. He understood that there were so many variables — the schedule, injuries, defensive coverages, players’ weaknesses, matchups — that gave every team a chance. It didn’t matter that you weren’t better than the other team — all that mattered was that you were better that night. 

In other words: You always have a chance. That’s the biggest thing I learned from Coach Thibs.

Now do you see why I think I have a Ph.D. in the Arts and Sciences of Basketball? My doctorate wasn’t earned at a university or college. It was earned the hard way — through blood, sweat and tears. I may not have close relationships with all the amazing coaches I’ve played for. But when I see them we still reminisce about old times.

There are some I wanted to mention because they made such big impacts on me.

  • Lon Kruger, who after I got traded to the Hawks gave me my first chance to show I belonged in the NBA.

  • Terry Stotts, who, after he took over for Lon in Atlanta, told me he only wanted my B game because my A game was too dependent on trying to Dream Shake people to death. lol

  • Lenny Wilkens, who when I was with the Knicks told me that he believed in me and wanted to play me the whole game — if only I would stop fouling at the rim.

We all had our time together before one of us would move on — but we will forever be linked.

I was fortunate enough to play 18 seasons for eight teams in the NBA before I spent three more years in the front office in OKC. On my journey I got to learn from Hall Of Fame coaches and players, all of whom contributed to my knowledge and future.

I say all this to send three messages. The first message is to give flowers to people while they are alive — let them know how you feel. The second message is that formal education is very important, but Ph.D.–level knowledge can be acquired through life lessons and amazing teachers. The third message is to understand your impact on others. More people are watching you than you know.

Until I sat down to write this, I never understood how blessed I was to have taken the path I took through the NBA. No All-Star appearances. No MVPs. No All-NBA teams. But a wealth of experiences, relationships and knowledge about the business of basketball — and how I believe it should be run from the front office and played on the court.

My many coaches, teachers and mentors taught me all of that.

Be well, and stay safe at home during these historic times,

Dr. Naz

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