Walter Colon, NBPA Program Manager | Hoop Story #064

Walter Colon, NBPA Program Manager | Hoop Story #064

What’s an interview without the proper introduction? Fill us in on your upbringing and view on the game?

I grew up in Queens and I reside in Jersey now. Growing up I always loved basketball. I wasn’t a football guy or baseball guy, I was strictly basketball. I grew up watching the Knicks with my pops. This was the Larry Johnson, John Starks era. I came into my own in the future watching the Lakers during the Kobe and Shaq era. I used to play a bit in high school but I had terrible grades, was cutting class and things like that. As a result, I couldn’t join any teams since I struggled mightily in high school. At the time I went to Franklin K. Lane, one of the worst schools in Brooklyn. They don’t even exist anymore honestly. I mainly just went to gym, photography, and home after that. I didn’t graduate high school till I was almost 21.

What was the progression within your career? How did you go from struggling in high school to the NBPA? What challenges did you encounter?

Well I took my college studies seriously after taking a year off from anything school related. My main goal was to get an internship in sports whether it was a league, team or some type of experience. Once I graduated with my Associates degree from BMCC, I had an opportunity to go to NYU or Baruch. NYU was 60k a year while Baruch I received financial aid. NYU spoon feeds you a bit and Baruch is where you hustle to get the opportunities you need. I chose Baruch and from there I wondered how I could grind and find opportunities. The main place I felt I could find the best opportunities was in the Career Office. I took a position in the Career Office for a couple months and found an internship in Ad Sales for WABC. I knew they hosted the NBA finals so I figured I could finagle my way into the sports world. At the time everyone wanted to work for more glamorous departments like ESPN, Disney, Kelly & Michael etc. I chose to apply for ad sales because no one wanted to work in that field. I just wanted to get in, I didn't care how. When I got to the interview site the lines for all other positions wrapped around the building. The ad sales position line only had 5 people in it. I felt good! The guy I ended up interviewing with graduated from Baruch which made me believe he understood my struggles as a Baruch student. From there, we locked in my position at WABC-TV. I worked under the people who sold TV spots for whatever shows they had like the morning news, Quantico, NBA Finals etc. During my time at Baruch, before ABC, I was applying to MSG and I was rejected 4-5 times. Once I put ABC on my resume MSG accepted me for an interview. I came in knowing my stuff prior. During the interview I would go off top and ask very specific questions about the partnerships, programs, and initiatives of the company. That impressed them because it showed I was passionate about the company. I also at the time had an internship with Viacom lined up as well. As a result, I felt I had to be very transparent during my Madison Square Garden interview. I told them I had the internship lined up and that I applied 4-5 times signaling this is truly where I want to be. I expressed that even though they couldn’t make a decision overnight I would appreciate it if we could get a second interview for next semester. They told me to my face that they couldn’t promise me anything but they actually ended up calling me the same night offering me the internship. I feel my transparency helped tremendously. 

At this time Porzingis got drafted and the Garden was buzzing. I got to sit in on meetings, be behind the scenes etc for any brand activations with the Knicks, Rangers, and NY Liberty. Though Hockey didn’t interest me, I got to see the model of the business. I got to help setup and break down brand partnerships with the teams, sit in meetings, etc. Once I got in the door though, I didn’t want to stop at partnerships. I asked my supervisor at the time if there was any way I could help people directly on the team side, for free even, I’d love to do it. He talked to the team (Knicks) and I got to help with the Knicks Basketball Clinics in different boroughs on the side while still working with partnerships. I got to schedule one on one meetings with people who were associated with or working with the Knicks to gain advice and develop relationships within the organization. Once my internship ended I was offered a position in Fan Development as an intern. I got to work directly with the team and build relationships with the community and the players. Things like bringing the players to specific suites during game nights to speak to partners, invite local community leaders to pre-game shootaround, and even help manage ball boy experiences. 

I graduated and now needed a full time job. With these sports teams, it's hard to get positions because once people get these jobs within the company they rarely leave. I applied for the NBA Student Associate program and didn’t get it though I felt as if I aced my presentation and interviews! Breaking into the sports world can be a full time job. 

Because I managed my relationships well, the VP at the time for MSG came to the NBPA and asked if I wanted to interview for another intern role and I accepted. I used the same strategy that I used in MSG during my next position within the NBPA. I interviewed and got a position in Grassroots Basketball and Operations for the organization. I offered a helping hand in other departments and ended up getting some real meaningful responsibilities like booking the players' flights, hotels, merchandise, catering, and stuff. Those were things that you would have to have someone you trust in position to do. I was able to do a lot because the organization was small and I was able to play a big part. 6 months in, I went from Intern to Coordinator and in less than a year I was a Program Manager. 

For those who aren’t familiar with the NBPA what is it and why is it important?

The National Basketball Players Association, is a union for current professional basketball players in the NBA to ensure that the rights of NBA players are protected and that every conceivable measure is taken to assist players in maximizing their opportunities and achieving their goals, both on and off the court. Before the union there was no pension plan, health benefits, and the average salary was about $8,000. So the players formed and created a union which wasn’t taken seriously until the players almost boycotted the 1964 NBA All-Star game. The NBPA stood and stands for players when no one else will. It’s grown more over the years but if it weren’t for those original players and the development of the organization these modern day players wouldn’t have the luxuries they have today. That’s a big piece of it. Making sure players have rights, equal pay and more. 

Recently in 2017 we received the players' marketing rights back. To elaborate on that, have you seen things like Chris Paul and his partnership with State Farm? Before, the NBA would have had that partnership and paid the union for the likeness and image of Chris Paul. Now, these partnerships and opportunities are managed through our THINK450 team. We manage opportunities outside of the NBA that don't involve the use of NBA’s intellectual property. This allows players to build a brand outside of the NBA. We now also help promote the image and reputation of players, and help with their transition. 

You play an important role within the organization. Can you elaborate on your field and the positive effects it’s had on the nba community?

I’m currently in Career Development. I know that sounds crazy because these guys are technically involved in a career. The average career is somewhere between 3-5 years. Some guys come in at a young age and then they aren’t playing by the time they are thirty plus. We want to maximize their time in the NBA while building their brand and allowing them to live the life they want to live. My department comes in with different programs in different industries that the players may be interested in. We have the real estate program, broadcasting, technology, business program, and the build your own experience program which I created. A lot of our guys now are interested in fields like gaming, acting, etc. The build your own experience program helps players experience areas outside of the programs in place. I like to think, “What would entice me to do something if I wanted to do it myself?” I like to look at factors like what the players are interested in, the culture they grew up in, and then targeting them in those ways. We do things like surveying, organic conversations, and online research. If I can create or find an opportunity I just bring it to them knowing they are already into what I’m presenting.

Our other programs are still equally amazing! We bring experts in to teach what you can do in each field, how to do it, what to look out for and more. Within our Real Estate program this past year we held an event in Vegas. One of our former players Josh Childress led the program after coming into our program in 2018 and finding success. That’s a big story in and of itself because it shows we can have a player become an industry expert through our programs and then reach back to other players who they can relate to more.

The broadcasting program is one of our most popular programs. A lot of the guys you see on TV went through our broadcasting program like Shaq, Richard Jefferson, Vince Carter, Ryan Hollins and more. You will see them talk about it in interviews extensively. The program is about 2-3 days and they get the full real world experience and education needed to succeed. Everything we do is real world exercises here. 

Our technology program we were able to participate in cool site visits to SpaceX, What Not, and Coco Robotics. We also held a networking dinner with business owners and more. Our programs try to push an ownership mentality.  That’s how you build your wealth. We don't get into conversations about investments per se. However, everything we do is educational within industries with people and businesses who do big things. The experts also participate in and understand the culture and can steer the players and propel them in the right direction. We also try to spark the players' brains as early as their rookie year before summer league in hopes to have them maximize their time in and post NBA. 

How are resources farmed for the program in which you work for? Are people doing favors? Is it a trade system? What does it look like when you are putting together plans of action? 

The good thing about working for the Players Association is that once I say who I am and what I do it’s an automatic sit down. There are only 450 of these NBA guys and I help provide them opportunities outside of basketball. From there it’s just aligning what makes sense. For example, I had a guy that’s interested in design. I researched the best companies in NY and globally. I found one of the best in NY, found out the Director and cold reached out with the player who was interested. I didn’t talk about this but we have a tuition reimbursement program for the players. Most recent story of that initiative was J.R Smith. There are other players who have done this but just weren’t as vocal about it. I mention this because some of these fields require degrees that take 7 years in which some of these players do not want to do. The bypass is going through us and having these sit downs that produce real results. In the case of the player that wanted to do design we found out that the company we wanted to work with was renovating a stadium. The company figured, “Who better to advise us on how to design the stadium than a player who actually uses them!”. I’m really just a dot connector who tries to put the players in positions to do what they are truly interested in. From there they can take over and do their own thing. Currently, I am working with a game company and working on ways to monetize some players' gaming hobbies to make real money. A lot of fans would love to do something like play with a player online and interact with their favorite stars. The goal is to show how players can monetize this opportunity moving forward. 

What is your favorite part of the job? Also, any memories that stuck with you in particular? 

My favorite part of the job is getting to work with these different brands and get the players into industries they didn’t think they could tap into and build a brand out of it. I’m learning as well! It’s an opportunity to learn about different businesses while still being of great assistance to the players and add value. It’s dope seeing stories like the Josh Childress one mentioned earlier as testaments to the work we do here. 

My favorite memory was at an event playing against a famous rapper in 2k before it even came out. I was balling out with Jaylen Brown, I mean going crazy. I’m pulling logo threes, we’re talking trash and I dropped like 30 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds or something like that. Then behind me walks Jaylen Brown! I had just finished destroying someone with a player and that player just walks into the building and he’s laughing at what took place and picks up the controller and jumps in. That was dope, it was my favorite memory. My second favorite memory was meeting Shaq. That was my one and only fanboy moment for sure. The Jaylen one was the best one though. 

What message do you have for people out there looking to advance in their careers?

This is tough in the post covid era. You can’t do as much as I was pre covid in terms of helping out in different departments in the sports world. However, don’t be afraid to do something you don’t like or want to do to get to where you want to be ultimately. Transferable skills are just that, they are transferable. I didn’t originally want to be in Ad Sales. I had no passion for Ad Sales. I just knew that if I got my foot in the door somehow it didn’t matter where I started I had a gateway to get to where I wanted to go. Also, relationships matter. Throughout the whole story, notice, the only place I applied to was MSG. Everything else after was through relationships. My career evolved by getting in the door and building relationships. Make yourself trustworthy as well and the sky will be the limit. Timing is also big. You can do the right thing but if it isn’t the right time it isn't the right time. 


Is there anyone you would like to give a shoutout to? 

I just want to give a shoutout to you guys and what you are doing bringing these stories and experiences to life! When I was growing up I didn’t have these types of publications that give reference points for others to take note of and follow

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