BJ Armstrong has an insight into the world of sports that only a former player can provide, playing a total of 11 seasons in the NBA and winning three championship rings as a member of the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 90’s. After retiring in 2000, he joined the Chicago Bulls front office where he worked as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations until 2005, when he left and became an NBA analyst on ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. In 2007 BJ joined Wasserman Media Group, and is currently the executive vice president, and managing executive for the basketball group of team sports. BJ is currently a certified NBA player agent, and his clients include the 2011 NBA MVP and Chicago Bulls’ guard Derrick Rose, and Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green among others.
Taking his talents from his sports career and infusing them into his professional life has given BJ a competitive advantage to succeed in business. Read about BJ’s journey from sports all-star to Sports CEO.
Jay: You’ve played in the NBA for over 10 years, and played alongside Michael Jordan winning three NBA titles. Now you are the Executive Vice President & Managing Executive of basketball operations for
Wasserman Media Group. I believe there is a tremendous amount of skills players learn and develop playing professional sports that directly relates to many of the skills used to succeed in business. Am I on the right track?
BJ: No question about it. Playing sports is a craft that has to be worked on and perfected just like anything else. Whether you’re playing sports, starting a business or anything else in life, you need to identify your talents. Your responsibility is to find what you do better than anyone else. Once you identify what that is, you need to put yourself in the best position to succeed. Not everyone is a great shooter, or a great re-bounder, and if you mix your talents and focus on the wrong skills you won’t get anywhere. If you go into the PR business but you don’t understand the fundamentals of communication, you’re going to fail.
Jay: Are you able to say that now looking back, or did you learn that while you were playing?
BJ: Every player in professional sports learns this right away.
Jay: How’s that?
BJ: Sports does not exist in America today, whatsoever. It’s a game that has an umbrella over it called business. It’s some sort of hybrid.
Jay: Can you elaborate on that? What do you mean by hybrid?
BJ: Sports has television, marketing, commercials, uniforms being sold and other outside agendas involved. Let me tell you something Jay, teams are accomplishing two things: To win a championship or to make money. As a player you learn that right away. It’s a hybrid between sports and business.
Jay: Do players feel simply used?
BJ: It’s not a matter of feeling used, you just need to know what environment you’re in. It’s very important for today’s athletes to understand what their involved in. Whether you like it or not todays sports is a money making idea. You can choose to feel used or accept the reality and use it to the best of your ability. In business it’s the same way. Every company talks about employee loyalty, but if they find someone to replace you, or they need to cut costs, you’ll be fired. Does that mean they weren’t loyal? No. The bottom line is they’re there to make money, and your job is to identify your talents and become the best at your game.
Jay: When I asked people about Sports CEO, and if they thought there was a connection between sports and business, most people referenced team work. What has sports taught you about team work? You played alongside the best player in basketball, Michael Jordan. Was that a challenge to find your role?
BJ: Understanding is the solution to every problem. When you hear players complain about so and so taking too many shots, or not getting enough minutes, they’re not understanding. Since when does being on a team give you a right to take shots? Your job is to help the team win. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not everyone is a teacher, and you need to understand your roll. Your job is to help the team win. At work you don’t complain that you’re not doing the accounting work if you’re in the scheduling department, you develop your craft and perfect what your good at so your team succeeds.
Jay: Some people are hesitant to go into certain industries because of a lack of experience. You’re now an NBA agent with clients like Derrick Rose, Draymond Green and others. Has your experience as a player given you the advantage that someone without experience would not have?
BJ: Absolutely not. What does playing 20 years ago have to with now?
Jay: Having seen how the game is played doesn’t give you a better understanding of what it takes to be successful?
BJ: Look, I don’t need to explain to Derrick Rose how to play basketball, he’s doing a fine job on his own. The game I played in is completely different than what it is today. They way players work out is different, the way players communicate on Ipads at half time is different, they have more information today than they had 25 years ago. Players of today are evolving into completely different players and technology is forcing us to move quicker than ever. Different things that worked years ago won’t work today. Either you change with the times or you get rolled over. My role is to listen.
Listen to what the players are going through, the social media craze, exposure, the media turning things they say just to get headlines and help them stay true to their game. I listen to my clients. My job as an agent is to respect what players go through and equip them with the tools to deal with it. I don’t have any secret formula; it’s about helping then understand the environment. If you can understand it, you will learn how to navigate. It’s about giving them the right fundamentals. They don’t need me to teach them how play basketball.
Just think about what happens in business when you’ve got a problem to work through and your boss tells you “This is how we’ve always done this”. Tradition is a code for failure. You need to acknowledge when problems come up, realize times change and adapt accordingly.
Jay: Both business and sports thrive on good leadership. Has playing sports formed your mentality to appreciate good leadership?
BJ: Yes and no. There is no question leadership is essential, however today it’s more about group dynamics than leadership. The era of a herald figure is over. Both in sports and in business. Many CEO’s are just in title but have nothing to do with the company. When I look at a company I want to see what the group looks like, what the environment looks like, what kind of personality and culture that they have. It’s really about working together and holding everyone accountable. The same is true in sports today, where teams have multiple super stars all put together on one team. More like the dream team model. Its more about everyone working together. In sports you have players with different backgrounds, different cultures and even different languages, and you have to work together to focus on one goal. That’s never been more important than today.
Jay: Where do you see players today going after sports? The amount of money players are paid seems incredibly high. Are players looking to make money on big contracts and retire when it’s all over?
BJ: All the hype you hear about player contracts, is the media trying to get attention for their headlines. Today’s athletes are more educated and sophisticated than ever before. In the old days once you invested into a career in sports there wasn’t much else to do. Today you’re seeing many more athletes with the entrepreneurial mentality. Technology today empowers anyone at any point in their career to take an idea and make it into a successful business. In my opinion the days of sponsorships are over. Players are going to figure out how to make their own shoes, clothing, and other commodities and make the money themselves.
Similar to the way singers in the music industry are coming out with independent labels, it’s just a matter of time before sports players do the same thing. I’m excited to wait and see who will be the first guy to jump out and take the risk to do it themselves.
Jay: That leads me to my next question. Many times people have ideas but they’re too scared to get out on their own. Today everyone wants to be an entrepreneur but there is tremendous risk involved. Becoming a professional player is similar in the sense that you take your talents spending years of investing on improving those talents and hoping you’ll make it to professional sports and eventually get paid. Has that mind set carried over into how you and other players look at business?
BJ: One thing I can tell you for sure. Without confidence you are defeated twice. You’re defeated in the talent that you have and you are defeated in the race of life. When I was given the ball on any given night, I couldn’t afford to worry about missing shots. You rely on your skills, you trust your judgement and execute. Sure you’ll miss but you’ve got to be confident in your game. NO MATTER WHAT. Worrying about failure is immediate failure. If you have talent, it’s your obligation to invest in your talent. We need to teach our kids to invest in themselves. I played basketball because I was passionate about the game. Anyone who is enormously successful, it’s because they are passionate about what they do. If you’re passionate about something, do it. Invest in yourself!