As the head of the philanthropic arm of the NBA players union, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake attended the 2023 NBA draft at Barclays Center, the home of the Brooklyn Nets, in New York. As she watched 58 players get selected over two rounds, the 53-year-old Baltimore native felt something unexpected.
“When I was at the draft and looking at all of these young people that were venturing into their lives as basketball players, I felt like a proud auntie because I realized that these young people could be my sons,” she said, adding that some of the athletes she saw in June were the same age as her 20-year-old daughter. “I was thinking to myself, ‘You know what? They have worked so hard and their parents must be so proud.’ I was just filled with emotion to say that I was a part of their journey not just on the court, but off it.”
Since being named the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) Foundation in November 2022, Rawlings-Blake has worked to coordinate and promote the charitable work of the league’s players.
The foundation partnered in November 2023 with Team Rubicon, a veteran-led global humanitarian organization, to help communities struck by natural disasters. Via a rapid response matching grant fund, a player can request up to $25,000 go toward a nonprofit’s disaster relief work.
“There are people who selflessly connect and who are continuing to try to find ways and ensure that these coalitions happen and opportunities aren’t left on the table, and she’s one of them,” Art delaCruz, CEO of Team Rubicon, said, adding that Rawlings-Blake joined the organization’s eight-member board of advisors in July. “ … She played a huge role in Team Rubicon being able to elevate our work, our brand, our volunteers and our impact, because she championed this idea that [the foundation’s] members could be part of a community broader than themselves and this idea that as citizens, we can each contribute to the needs of the greater good.”
Seven years have passed since Rawlings-Blake ended her tenure as mayor of Baltimore after declining to seek reelection. Since then, the Democrat founded a consulting firm called SRB & Associates, appeared on cable TV networks as a political analyst and represented rapper Travis Scott as his spokeswoman in 2021 after a crowd crush at his annual festival caused 10 deaths.
When the opportunity to lead the NBPA Foundation emerged, Rawlings-Blake said she pounced.
“It was a jump in industry, but not in work,” she said. “I’m dealing with their philanthropy, and as mayor, I worked with players from our team and players from Baltimore who wanted to have an impact on the city. And I know that in order for that work to happen effectively and efficiently, you need to have coordination, and I felt I could bring my experience to help with that — not just in Baltimore, but across the country.”
Charles “Choo” Smith Jr., chairman of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, said he has known Rawlings-Blake since 1988 when he graduated from Baltimore City College and she graduated from Western High School. He said they got reacquainted at the NBA scouting combine and have worked together on several projects.
“I was excited that we were both in these positions because I wanted us to really work together for the greater good because one day, these players will be retired and it just makes sense for us to enhance that and bring some type of camaraderie,” Smith said.
One of the highlights during Rawlings-Blake’s tenure has been the foundation’s hosting a “Business of Giving” certificate program at UCLA. Over two days in September, players and their charitable organizations learned how to hone their mission statements and deepen their impact. The closing speaker was former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was interviewed by Dallas Mavericks power forward and NBPA Foundation board member Grant Williams. Kaepernick, who drew widespread attention for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice while playing in the NFL, has become an inspiration for his social activism.
Rawlings-Blake said future projects for the foundation include encouraging citizens to use their right to vote and getting involved in social justice reform.
In her first 13 months, Rawlings-Blake said she has tried to forge relationships with players, whom she praised for being open-minded and willing to listen.
In both politics and professional sports, she has had to build a base and engage everyone.
“There are a lot of similarities,” she said of two fields. “In my work, I’m trying to help them find their philanthropic voice. So I talk to the players about the things that they care about, and it’s very similar to the work that I did as mayor — talking to your constituents about the things that matter and helping them make that a reality.”
Smith said Rawlings-Blake’s political background, which includes being secretary of the Democratic National Committee between 2013 and 2016, is an asset.
“Anytime you’re in a position of leadership and you have led, that’s always helpful,” he said. “The question is the direction that Stephanie wants to go and the compatibility as it relates to the players. Are her mission and core values lined up with members of the league? That’s something it takes time getting used to one another.”
delaCruz, Team Rubicon’s CEO, said Rawlings-Blake’s political experience provides his organization a way to address the needs and concerns of legislative leaders in areas impacted by disasters.
“It’s incredibly beneficial because as a disaster response organization, we have this ability to have an insight on everything that a mayor might experience and have an idea what types of challenges different municipalities might face,” he said. “Her breadth of experience and knowledge coupled with her affable personality and objectivity and ability to think creatively has been really beneficial for us.”
Rawlings-Blake said she is enjoying her time with the NBPA Foundation. But is a return to politics in the cards?
“I say, ‘Never say never,’ but this has been fun,” she said. “The reason I was interested in public service was to have the ability to use my skills and my talent to make the community better, and this role gives me the chance to do that. So I’m being fulfilled in that way.”