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Athletes are often considered one of a kind, but almost every athlete has some sort of mentor or influence.
Virtually anyone can benefit from having a mentor. And many athletes can identify a special person who provided what they needed to develop as a person and an athlete.
Some of these are obvious like on the Chicago Bulls the last few years with Lindsay Hunter teaching Derrick Rose the ropes of the NBA. These are the kind of mentors we often hear about and that everyone says are so valuable.
However, there are other influences in the NBA that are a little different. There are many NBA players with influences outside the NBA that affect their careers on and off the court.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the All-Time leading scorer in the NBA with 38.387 points.
For part of his career however, he went by the name Lew Alcindor.
He grew up in Harlem, NY and was admittedly very race conscious for a lot of his life. He spent most of his adolescence playing basketball on the streets and disliked many people for how they treated blacks.
Later in life his perspective changed because of the religion of Islam.
He said, “I eventually found that…emotionally, spiritually, I could not afford to be a racist. As I got older, I gradually got past believing that black was either the best or the worst. It just was.”
Lew Alcindor first learned his Islam from his mentor, Hammas Abdul Khaalis, a former jazz drummer.
It was by him that Alcindor was given the name Abdul Kareem, then changed to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, literally "the noble one, servant of the Almighty.” Soon, however, he determined to augment Abdul Khaalis’s teachings with his own study of the Quran, but he never lost his respect for the gift Abdul Khaalis had given him.
Shaquille O’Neal loves playing basketball and being the center or attention, but there is something else that he likes almost as much: Being a police officer.
Shaq has taken posts with the police forces at many of his stops in his NBA career including Miami, Phoenix and Cleveland.
The best moment of Shaq’s police career may have been during his time in Miami. He helped the police force catch a hit-and-run driver in January of 2007.
He and his bodyguard Jerome Crawford had just gotten back from an away game in Chicago when a car driven by Emmnueo Cibrin, 18, veered into O'Neal's parked 2007 Cadillac Escalade.
O'Neal and his bodyguard saw Cibrin leaving the scene, and they jumping into their damaged car to chase them. They followed the car for about five minutes before catching up with it near Southwest 17th Avenue and Coral Way. Miami police quickly arrived on the scene to assist in the arrest.
Ron Artest has been pegged as the crazy guy in the NBA. Often sports figures are pegged as one-demensional people, but like many other athletes Ron Artest is not a simple creature.
He may not be the best role model, but he does try and has a softer side than the guy that famously entered the stands in the Palace at Auburn Hills. Many people consider him a thug or worse because of that incident, but there is little other evidence to back up a truly violent nature. However, there is a lot of evidence to show that he is trying to be a good person.
For example, he spends many of his summers working with Hank Carter, the founder of Wheelchair Charities.
"We've donated 30 (Wheelchairs) this year, and most of these people can't move their body. We couldn't have done this without Ron," said Carter.
Artest lived with Carter for a year while attending La Salle High School in Manhattan.
Artest credits his success in life to Carter because he has helped “keep his head on straight.”
It is Carter’s praise of Artest that is even more convincing saying, "Ron is special. He's always given. When he was a junior and a senior, he had a chance to go to Paris with (his Amateur Athletic Union team) ... but he stayed and played for the people in the wheelchair. He's one of the few guys who play in this game who pays for his own (plane) ticket and his own hotel. We've had years where we didn't have enough players, and he always rounds up enough guys to make it work."
Ron Artest may now be a perfect person, but we can give a lot of credit to Carter for making him what he is today.
Yao Ming may be the greatest Asian basketball player ever, but he didn’t achieve success on his own.
He has to give a lot of credit to his mentor Li Quiping. He was the coach of the Shanghai Sharks who discovered Yao Ming and started his pro career.
His parents allowed Yao to play basketball hoping for much less, Yao says, “My parents never hoped I would play basketball. They hoped I could be the college student type and treat basketball as an amateur hobby.”
Quiping saw much more from Yao who grew to 7’2” before reaching age 16. He spent time teaching him post moves and working on his shooting form. Playing for the Shanghai Sharks years later he received the nickname “Little Big Man” because he was so tall and so skinny.
Quipang put him on a weight training program and got him a spot on the Chinese National team.
After seeing him play in the World Championships the US scouts took notice and the Houston Rockets made him the top pick in the 2002 NBA draft. He has been one of the most dominant centers it the NBA over the past decade.
Lawrence Frank is one of the most unlikely coaches in the NBA. He never even played college basketball much less in the NBA.
He spent a few years as the coach of the New Jersey Nets leading them to a 225-241 record over parts of 7 seasons from 2003-2010.
The thing most people don’t know is that Frank learned his coaching chops from being a student assistant and team manager at Indiana under famed coach Bobby Knight.
The General has as many charges in the league as head coaches than anyone else. Tons of Indiana players have gone into coaching, and Knight also gets credit for a former Indiana team manager, New Jersey's Frank.Knight has tutored many current college and NBA coaches in his time including Lawrence Frank, Randy Wittman, Mike Woodson, Mike Krzyzewski and Isiah Thomas.
The funny thing about this list of coaches is that none of them known for using Knight’s trademark style of being tough on their players. Whatever lessons they learned from Knight, his attitude was not one of them.
Frank is almost the anti-Knight. He rarely explodes and always appears calm, cool and collected. However, if you ask him about his biggest coaching influences Knight’s name will appear near the top of the list.
Allen Iverson has been said to have had as big an impact on Hip-Hop as he did on the NBA.
He brought Hip-Hop to most of the NBA audience that had simply been able to ignore it by changing the radio station.
Iverson was the bridge between the Jordan Era to the Kobe and Lebron Era in the NBA. Much like Jay-Z was a bridge from early 90s hip-hop such as Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac to the hip-hop of today.
Loved for his scrappy, physical and amazing play, Iverson on the court was everything an NBA player should be: a treat to watch. What’s great about Iverson is there’s no middle ground. You have to pick a side, love him for his ability or hate him for his thug image, The Answer made a lasting impact on the NBA.
For many years, you would see inner city kids wearing Iverson jersey’s to NBA games he wasn’t even playing in, he was the first player to really bring hip-hop into pregame introductions and it has been a trend ever since.
He even released his own hip-hop album, which failed, but paved the way for others like Shaquille O’Neal and Ron Artest to do the same.
No matter what you think of Iverson as a basketball player you cannot ignore his impact on hip-hop and the NBA.
The NBA is considered a league where skill takes precedence, but since Michael Jordan entered the league in the 80s everyone has been trying to find the next Jordan.
This has lead to a change in the way players are drafted into the league, putting and emphasis on athleticism over skill many times.
This has created a league filled with athletes that are less skilled than the players in the past. Field goal and free throw percentages are way down compared to the days of Larry Bird and Jerry West and other supremely skilled players who lacked the sort of freakish athleticism teams look for today in the draft.
This is what has lead to many draft busts like Kwame Brown (1st pick), Kedrick Brown (11th), DeMarr Johnson (6th) and Darius Miles (3rd).
Many players who have fallen in the draft because they lack freakish athleticism have become solid NBA players such as Carlos Boozer (34th pick), Steve Nash (15th), J.J. Redick (11th) and Manu Ginobili (57th).
When Dirk Nowitzki's shot disappears on him, there is only one person who he can call.
The man who created it, Holger Geschwindner, the German basketball guru.
Nowitzki gives all the credit to Geschwindner saying, "I've said it all along, if I would not have met him when I was 16, 17, I wouldn't be here at this stage. He taught me everything, he taught me all of the moves but also how to handle myself on and off the court. He's been like a second father to me. I learned pretty much everything from him."
When Geschwindner first met Nowitzki he saw a tall, skinny teen with lackadaisical skills but a knowledge of the game that couldn’t be ignored. Geschwindner was so intrigued by Nowitzki's mind and talent that he volunteered to work with him.
He quickly realized he was dealing with a prodigy. "After three, four practices, I said, 'Dirk, we have to talk to your parents,"' Geschwindner said.
It's pretty refreshing to see someone voluntarily be schooled by a 60-year-old man who isn't being paid.
Geschwindner decided Nowitzki needed something unique to make him stand out. So instead of teaching this 7-footer a sky hook or other post, he took him out to the three-point line and told him to start shooting.
"We knew one thing: A 7-footer who can play a little defense and is skinny has no chance in the NBA," Geschwindner said. "So we had to demonstrate that he could do something they never had seen before - a 7-footer who could shoot three-pointers."
There were reading assignments, he practiced rollerblading for balance, used fencing lessons for tips on footwork and Geschwindner brought in a world-champion rower to help Nowitzki improve strength and coordination. He also gave him a saxophone.
"I know from my experience and my job that 30 percent of intelligence, how you move, can come from music," Geschwindner said. "It's just to learn the tunes, different mentalities. It gets him thinking in a way most ballplayers don't."
Geschwindner may not have the most common training methods, but he did help turn Nowitzki into one of the best power forwards of all-time.
Steve Francis isn’t around the NBA much anymore, but he and his mentor, Nathan Peake, had a great impact on how the high school to college to NBA transition happens these days.
In 1996, Steve Francis was an 18-year-old with unparalleled athletic potential, no high-school diploma, and way too much free time. He'd been in and out of high schools in the are and dropped out for good after his mother died of cancer in 1994.
Nathan Peake was a basketball coach at Langley Park Boys and Girls Club in the summer. He was seven years older than Francis, and Peake was known for taking young athletes from the streets to courts and colleges.
"Nate's always been like a brother to me. There's nothing I won't tell him or he won't tell me," said Francis.
"You do A-B-C," Peake said to Francis, "and D will happen."
"D" was going to the NBA.
Peake talked Francis completing his GED and going to San Jacinto JC in Texas. He played well there, but got homesick and enrolled at Allegany JC in Cumberland, Maryland which was much closer to home. He averaged 23 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds and led the team to the championship game.
He then decided to go to the University of Maryland, but after excelling for one year he decided to turn pro. Peake was trying to get his young star in the best situation to succeed, so he wanted him on the right team. The Chicago Bulls whom Peake desperately wanted to take Francis chose Elton Brand number one overall.
The Vancouver Grizzlies had the second pick. Peake and others around Francis felt going there would destroy his endorsement deals.
Francis’s representatives told Grizzlies GM Stu Jackson that "I just want to reiterate that it presents personal and professional problems if you select Steve."
"I understand," Jackson responded, "but I have to do what's in the best interests of the Vancouver Grizzlies."
The Grizzlies chose Francis anyway and as expected his representatives demanded a trade. After long deliberations the Grizzlies and Houston Rockets completed the largest trade in NBA history, an 11-player deal. Going to the Rockets allowed Francis to land one of the largest rookie shoe deals ever with Reebok.
Francis had a very up and down career in the NBA and was traded many times, but his play was not his biggest impact on the NBA.
Kobe wasn’t only influenced by one MJ.
If I told you that Kobe Bryant was influenced in his life my Michael Jordan it would be hard to argue. You would probably even be able to name a couple ways that he has been.
However, Bryant was also influenced by another MJ, pop star Michael Jackson. It may not be as easy to see, but there are many similarities between the two.
Preparation is one thing that Bryant says he learned from Jackson. Kobe prepares harder than anyone in the league. Jackson had that same type of work ethic.
“We would always talk about how he prepared to make his music, how he prepared for concerts,” Bryant said. “He would teach me what he did: How to make a ‘Thriller’ album, a ‘Bad’ album, all the details that went into it. It was all the validation that I needed – to know that I had to focus on my craft and never waver. Because what he did – and how he did it – was psychotic. He helped me get to a level where I was able to win three titles playing with Shaq because of my preparation, my study. And it’s only all grown.”
“That’s the mentality that I have – it’s not an athletic one. It’s not from [Michael] Jordan. It’s not from other athletes.
“It’s from Michael Jackson.”
Bryant learned another thing from Jackson; life isn’t all about making money. He wants to be the best at what he does, not the highest paid. Jackson wanted to be the best performer; Bryant wants to be remembered as a winner and not a brand name.
“Guys have voices now, want to build brands,” Bryant said. “I don’t identify with it, but I understand where it’s going, why it’s going there. That’s not for me. I focus on one thing and one thing only – that’s trying to win as many championships as I can.”
Bryant has evolved from a player that wanted to do it all himself to one that wants to make others better in hopes of winning. Maybe he learned a lot from one of the weirdest influences in the NBA, Michael Jackson.