Five former Thunder players now work in different capacities within OKC’s NBA organization. Long-time Thunder and NBA players Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed, D.J. White, Mike Wilks and Eric Maynor discuss how they moved from playing on the court to working for the Thunder from the sidelines.
The Seattle Supersonics selected Nick Collison with the 12th pick of the first round in the 2003 NBA draft. The University of Kansas standout played his entire NBA career with the Sonics, later to become the Oklahoma City Thunder. Collison retired at 37, a feat seldom achieved in a sport that often grinds men down by their early 30s.
“I was fortunate to be able to play that long,” Collison said. “I could see the end of my career approaching, and I was able to prepare for the transition.”
That transition eventually affects all athletes at the end of their college or pro career. As Collison put it, “I played my whole life. It was part of my identity, so that my goal was always to be the best high school, college and eventually pro player I could be. I had a season calendar, professional goals, training camp, off season. My life was built around that calendar.”
Pro athletes face multiple transitions at the end of their sports careers: personal, professional, financial, psychological, familial, etc. Having trained their whole lives to be great at a sport, they suddenly are faced with leaving it entirely or finding ways to stay connected. For Collison, the opportunity to stay with the Thunder organization as an Amateur Evaluation Scout was the ideal way to stay connected to the sport he loved, the organization that had become family, and a role that put him back on college campuses.
“I got disconnected from amateur basketball because of the demands of the NBA life,” he said, “so it’s been fun to enjoy the game at that level again, to travel to campuses where I never went as a college player and learning about young players that might be headed for an NBA career.”
Nazr Mohammed had a standout career at the University of Kentucky, where he won two national championships, followed by 18 years in the NBA, including a title while with the San Antonio Spurs and two seasons with the Thunder. An 18-year career in the NBA is exceedingly rare, but Mohammed said the longevity gave him a chance to plan for his future.
“The greats retire; the rest of us get retired,” said Mohammed, now the general manager of the OKC Blue. “I could see my retirement coming, but I knew early what was next for me, so I’d spent my career planting seeds and building relationships.”
Mohammed recalls a point about four to five years into his NBA career when he knew he wanted to take a shot at putting players together to form a roster of his own. A lesson awaited him, though.
“When you’re a player, you have an idea of what roster building looks like, but when you get to the other side of the job, you learn you were wrong,” he said. “I never understood the idea of a ‘general’ manager until I became one, and now I know it’s not just putting a roster together.”
The general manager job does entail roster building, but also working with scouts – Mohammed works as A Pro Evaluation Scout for the organization too – helping develop younger players and end-of-roster players, day-to- day operations, meetings with various departments like medical, travel coordinator, coaching staff, etc. It’s very different from what he expected, he said, but it’s a transition that’s kept him close to the game.
“Sometimes as a player, you get retired, and then you chase the game for another year or two,” he said. “If you’re lucky enough to get to play into your 30s, you face starting a new career, so it’s best to be prepared for a tough transition. You’ve known and prepared for one thing your whole life, and then suddenly, it’s over.”
Mohammed met the great Sam Bowie at Kentucky, and Bowie referred him to a financial planner, a strategy he said the NBA encourages players to embrace. Imagine being 18 with very little, and then a millionaire at 21. Mohammed said he wasn’t a big spender, and his financial planner was conservative, so he was able to save, invest and even pour resources into his foundation in his hometown of Chicago.
D.J. White spent a lot of his professional career overseas in places like China and Turkey, and he spent several seasons in the NBA with Charlotte, Boston and three seasons with Oklahoma City. He formally retired in August of this year, but his NBA connection wasn’t ending.
“(Retiring) felt great, honestly,” he said. “I was going to play one more year, but this opportunity with the Thunder arose. I was reaching out to teams to get back into the NBA in some capacity. Once I got on the phone with Sam, and he was like, ‘We want you back,’ and I said, ‘I’m coming.’”
White is now the video analyst of basketball performance, which means he watches recordings of all the games, looking for information that will help the coaching staff. He said he’s been surprised how important digital technology is to the game, because it’s a side players don’t often see. White said he loves the new role and being part of the Thunder organization.
“I have friends around the league, and I’ve played on three teams including here, and Oklahoma City was always my favorite place,” White said. “It’s just the people with the Thunder organization, and those people are still here, just in different capacities. I love the city and I have a family now and it’s a great place to raise a family. I loved how the organization treated me like a player when I was here; it made me want to come back. It’s a very family-oriented organization, and they run it well and very professionally. It was a place I wanted to come and learn how to be on the business side of basketball.”
Being on the other side of the business – coaching, scouting or managing versus playing – provides insights that former players can’t always see until their career is done. Current Thunder assistant coach Mike Wilks, who eventually played in the NBA for 11 seasons and one with the Thunder, was an undrafted player in the 2001 NBA Draft, so he got used to scrapping for a position on a team.
“Every year could have been my last,” he said. “I didn’t come from a big-name school (Rice), and I was a free agent every summer. I worked out hard, and knew that without the guaranteed contract, I’d have to make it for five or six months a year without an NBA paycheck.”
The scrappy approach meant Wilks wanted to play until he knew what was next, so when the Thunder offered him a scouting position, he told himself it was time to transition. The switch from playing to coaching doesn’t provide much of a schedule change. Wilks talked about summer league, getting ready for the draft, trade deadline – all the new calendar items that don’t affect most players but exist as a sort of overlaid calendar to the players’ schedule.
Former Thunder and Sixers player Eric Maynor, now the Thunder assistant coach for player development, transitioned to coaching at the end of his career, a move he’d been planning since early in his career.
“I always wanted to get into coaching, and I was planning on taking some time off after playing,” he said. “Presti told my agent to keep in touch, and when they came back with an offer, I accepted. The new daily routine took some getting used to.”
Maynor said all in all the amount of time that goes to coaching for the Thunder is different than when you’re a player – there is time for family and friends – but it’s still similar to a player’s time commitment. But like the other Thunder staff who have transitioned to other roles, Maynor says it’s worth it.
“I love the game, and I want to give back by teaching all the young players what I’ve learned,” he said.