GREENBURGH, N.Y.— Typically, Harvard MBA courses don't permit visiting students to participate in class. It's school policy. But in this instance, professor Anita Elberse was willing to make an exception.
"They couldn't contain themselves," Elberse says. She had opened up her class, called "The Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports" in September to 10 current and former NBA players as part of a crossover program between Harvard and the league. The goal that day was to provide the players with a glimpse of the type of thinking Harvard's MBA students engage in. The players would then be paired with student mentors. Together, they'd spend the semester analyzing various case studies.
The lesson that fall day focused on LeBron James. In Elberse's hypothetical, it was up to the students to decide which video game he should sign a deal with, and the players had thoughts. New York Knicks forward Lance Thomas doesn't remember his response, but that Elberse hit him with a follow-up question. "Why do you think that?" she asked. She wanted numbers, data or some version of a fleshed-out answer.
Thomas, sitting between nearly 90 Harvard MBA students, was stumped.
"I wasn't prepared for that," he says after a recent Knicks practice. "I was like, 'Alright, next time I say something I'm going to make sure I know everything about it.'"
The next time Thomas was posed a question by Elberse came in December, via Skype, for his final presentation. Thomas' task was to pretend he was representing Dwyane Wade to renegotiate a deal with the sock company Stance. He came prepared.
"He was one of the few players who realized he could use Wade's presence in China (through the athletic goods company, Li Ning) as leverage for this deal," Elberse recalls.
"If I had gotten asked those questions within a week of getting to Harvard, I would have had no clue," Thomas says. "I learned how to break down the analytics of this stuff in a way that I never knew."
Thomas, like many NBA players, has post-career plans. He's wary of sharing them. "I got a few things up my sleeve, but it's a big board that needs to be cleaned up," he says. But he was eager to learn how to best develop the businesses he'd like to form. Playing days don't last forever and Thomas, 29, recognizes that he'll need to move on to a second career sooner than his non-NBA peers.
The league, through its Player Development Department, offers numerous career programs to current and former players, from front-office apprenticeships to shadow positions at external companies. Thomas has always wanted to take business courses, but Duke, where he earned a bachelor's degree in visual arts, didn't offer the major to undergraduates.
"(Signing up) was a no-brainer," Thomas says. "A lot of people want to be an entrepreneur. It's an easy title to have, not an easy title to hold."
This was the official first year of the crossover program, though Elberse has been welcoming players into her classroom for about four years. She enjoys seeing how both her students and the players are able to learn from one another.
"I had students come up to me after the class to say, 'Thanks for sharing your perspective (on the case studies), I never thought of it like that,'" says former NBA guard Dahntay Jones, who participated in the course. "And I felt the same way about them. I had so many great dialogues."
NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall, Elberse says, was the first athlete to come through. He told Wade about the course, who then told Pau Gasol and Chris Paul, and after that, word filtered through the NBA and eventually to the league office, which decided to create a more formal partnership.
"What they were doing certainly aligned with what we try to do here," says Greg Taylor, the NBA's senior vice president of player development. "It's an area our players have a significant interest in learning more about, and they recognize that students at Harvard have skills that they can learn from."
Between the first class and the final presentation, the lessons come courtesy of the players' student mentors—who are assigned via draft. Elberse decided the order through a lottery system following the first class. It included Ping-Pong balls, much to the dismay of Caron Butler, who was adamant that his status as the oldest among the group of 10 players should have earned him first pick overall.
"But it ended up working out for me anyway," Butler says. "For guys like me, the goal is to try to create a forever legacy, how to be a partner and not just a worker. The course helped hone that for me."
As for Thomas, he was awarded the third pick. He chose a pair of roommates he met earlier that day, Matt Duarte and Danny Haluska. He liked that they lived together—easier to reach, he figured—and he was impressed by their previous experience, which they highlighted in their pitch to the NBA students. Duarte, 28, had worked at Madison Square Garden. Haluska, 29, at Tom Brady's company, TB12. The trio spent the semester speaking over the phone and through Skype, once or twice a week.
"It's a lot of work," Butler says.
Duarte and Haluska would send Thomas case studies, he'd review them, usually on team flights or in hotel rooms on the road, and then he'd answer the four or five attached questions. They'd study companies like Spotify and discuss how products are marketed and investments are allocated. They'd talk about which numbers mattered and which were frivolous, and ask Thomas what he would have done had he ran the company and, of course, why.
"At the beginning, we weren't really sure how seriously he was going to take it," Duarte says. "And then we had our first case-study conversation and he had all these detailed notes. It was really impressive."
Even with the NBA season underway, Thomas asked Duarte and Haluska to send him additional articles. He was particularly interested in the venture industry and how to best structure a team of people around himself to help with future business decisions.
"It's great to be able to make a relationship with these guys," Thomas says. He, Duarte and Haluska have remained in touch.
The last official call he had with them came the day before his final presentation. He was excited and wanted to share his notes. "Like a student preparing for a final exam," Duarte says. Thomas told them what points he planned on making. He asked their thoughts and checked in with new questions throughout the day.
The next day, Duarte and Haluska received a text. It was from Thomas.
"I killed it," it read.