If you watch any March Madness basketball in the coming weeks, you'll likely see an NCAA promotion or two in which a student-athlete speaks about the life skills she has honed from her college experience.
Indeed, it's worth remembering that while a few student-athletes in the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournaments will have careers as hoops professionals, most of them will enter other vocations.
Interestingly, there are a few successful NBA executives whose college basketball careers did not include a March Madness experience. The reason? They played for schools that were not Division I programs.
Their stories provide a timely reminder of a familiar lesson in talent development: You might not cultivate the leaders of tomorrow if you only search where the spotlight shines today. Here are three NBA execs who happened to miss March Madness during their days as college cagers:
Masai Ujiri, president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors. He played for two seasons at Bismarck (North Dakota) State College. The team went 23-8 in 1993-94 and a 24-8 in 1994-95. Terrific records, but BSC is not a Division I program. Neither is Montana State-Billings, where Ujiri played for one semester in 1996. So March Madness was never truly on the table for Ujiri and his teammates.
Trace Ujiri's path from his college days to his current life as an NBA exec and you'll find the hustle and hard work that made it possible.
For example, in 2002, when the Nigerian-born Ujiri wanted to break into coaching, he reached out to David Thorpe, a personal trainer with few NBA connections. At the time, Ujiri didn't have a cell phone, so he gave Thorpe's number to everyone he met. "Within a few days, I couldn't use my own phone because of all the calls Masai was getting," Thorpe told Sports Illustrated. "He networks like no one I've ever seen."
In his first job, as an international scout for the Orlando Magic, Ujiri agreed to work for no pay--just the Magic's credential and partial reimbursement of expenses. One year later, another team, the Denver Nuggets, noticed his drive and his ever-expanding Rolodex, and gave him a full-time job. By 2007, he had become their director of scouting.
After leaving Denver for a brief stint with the Raptors, the Nuggets lured Ujiri back by offering him the general manager job. Then in May 2013, the Raptors wooed Ujiri back to Toronto with the presidency. There he stands today, on the verge of leading the Raptors to their second straight playoff season.
Rob Hennigan, general manager of the Orlando Magic and Sam Presti, EVP and general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Their stories are intertwined through college basketball.
Hennigan was a standout at Emerson College in Boston, earning the Great Northeast Athletic Conference's player of the year award three straight times (2002-04). But since Emerson is a Division III basketball program, March Madness was not an option.
Nonetheless, Hennigan parlayed his Emerson career into an internship with the San Antonio Spurs in 2004. One reason he was able to do this was because of his connection to another former Emerson basketball player in the Spurs organization: Presti, who had graduated four years before Hennigan.
Presti, for his part, was Emerson's first Rhodes Scholar nominee. He was also twice named to the GNAC all-tournament team. One of his claims to fame after joining the Spurs was influencing the organization to draft point guard Tony Parker in 2001.
Thanks in part to Parker's development as a franchise point guard, the Spurs won titles in 2003, 2005, and 2007. Presti--who began as a video intern in 2000--rose to VP and assistant general manager by 2007. Hennigan rose with him, becoming the Spurs's basketball operations assistant in 2005 and director of basketball operations in 2007.
That was when the Oklahoma City Thunder--known at the time as the Seattle Supersonics--hired Presti to become their general manager. Presti, in turn, hired Hennigan to be the director of college and international player personnel.
Over the next four years, they transformed the Thunder into a powerhouse. Led by young stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder made it to the 2012 NBA Finals.
It was then that the Magic tabbed Hennigan to be their general manager, citing his eight years of experience in helping to build two of the NBA's top teams.
While Hennigan has yet to turn the Magic into a winner, he has once again shown an astute eye for personnel. He netted a bounty of talent in exchange for disgruntled star Dwight Howard. And he drafted promising guards Victor Oladipo (2013) and Elfrid Payton (2014) in back-to-back years.