By Nazr Mohammed, a former 16-year NBA veteran who’s a regular contributor for SportsBlog.com, a content partner of the NBPA that focuses on first-person stories with pro athletes
As a professional athlete, your job isn’t to play. Your job is to be prepared to play. Sometimes it’s hard to understand the difference. As athletes we feel that our hard work and dedication entitles us to playing. That competitive spirit is good to have, but can get in your way if it’s not contained. Your job is to be prepared to play when called upon. There are many distractions/excuses, like the system isn’t a good fit, I don’t get enough practice reps, (and one of my favorites) coach doesn’t like me, etc. There’s the thought of, “Why did you bring me here if you’re not going to use me?!”
You’re getting paid to be prepared to play and help your team achieve its goals. Teams are not assembled to accomplish a single player’s personal goals. Sometimes personal goals are accomplished, but it’s a byproduct of the decisions made by management and coaches, coupled with that player’s talents. I believe it’s a player’s job to prove the coach wrong when he’s not in the rotation. If you’re not ready when your number is called, then you’re actually proving him right for not playing you. And what coach doesn’t love to be right lol?
That brings me to the second reason I believe I had the privilege of experiencing a long NBA career. It’s preparation, both mental and physical. Here’s the deal: an opportunity is going to present itself at some point during the season. Somebody is going to get hurt, get into foul trouble or play terribly for a stretch. That may be your chance, but you have to prepared for that moment.
I was fortunate enough early in my career to have guys like George Lynch, Aaron McKie, Eric Snow, and Theo Ratliff as my veterans. These guys told me to be ready. I can remember them telling me, “When your number is called – and it’s going to be called – you better be ready.” If I didn’t have those veterans telling me that over and over, I probably would have missed some opportunities and my career could have been a lot shorter as a result of lack of preparation.
There are two types of preparation for a game. For me, my mental preparation was huge. Before games, I visualized myself succeeding. I visualized the player I was going up against and visualized myself stopping him. The mental preparation was a key part of getting ready for the game, so when I got in the game it felt like I’d done it already. That said, being ready to play and not knowing when you are going to play is one of the toughest things you can go through as an NBA player. It was stressful to go through my mental preparation, only to be let down if things didn’t go my way. It was hard for me to continue to stick to my mental preparation (even later in my career), but it was necessary because if you’re not mentally ready to perform and you haven’t put your mind, body and soul into it…you can – and probably will – fail.The other huge part of proper preparation is the physical aspect. At the end of the day, you have to be physically ready to play. My motto has always been to be in good enough shape so that I could get in “basketball shape” in a short period of time. I believe in cross-training. Basketball is full of repetitive motions that can break down your body and playing on hard wood doesn’t help. It’s important to train other movements and muscles to get different ranges of motion. The body needs time away from the court, but getting out of shape is not an option. In the offseason, I’ve done it all: boxing, swimming, yoga, Pilates, track workouts, Jiu-Jitsu. When it comes to staying in shape, I’ll try anything once.
My physical preparation also consisted of cardio to keep my weight down (cardio can be anything from suicides to the treadmill, stair master, jumping rope, etc.) It’s either cardio or a strict diet, and there’s nothing worse than not playing and also not eating the things you like. Not being able to fulfill my emotional connection to food or play the game I love is torture. Cardio is also my mental release. Doing extra cardio and weights after practice/court responsibilities can be taxing. Most coaches don’t care how you get ready as long as you’re ready. But it’s important to find a balance between working hard and being ready to play if called. Coaches don’t want excuses about why you’re tired when your only job is to be ready. They’re thinking, “You haven’t played in a couple days/weeks/games and I just called your number. How in the hell are you tired?!”
Players who don’t play are expected to work out and find ways to stay in basketball shape without playing much basketball, which is almost impossible. It’s a tough balance trying to be mentally prepared to play every night (you know you may not) and to be physically ready (haven’t played 10-15 straight games) when live action practices are limited during the season. It’s a balance that each player has to figure out…how much is too much and how much is just enough? That’s something that a player who’s not in the rotation has to deal with at some point.
I have a lot of stories about how my preparation played a big role in the longevity of my career, but I’ll share an early memory that was definitely influential. It was my third year in the league (2000-2001) and I was playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. We were having a great year, but I wasn’t playing much. I was behind Theo, Todd MacCulloch, Tyrone Hill and Matt Geiger. I was put on the Injured Reserve list a lot. Back then when a player was on IR, he had to sit out a minimum of five games. By league rules, I also had to be given a fictitious injury, which made my back uninsurable for many years because of all the DNP-CD’s for “back spasms” I had built up (that’s a another story for a different day, smh).
In this case, I had been sitting out about 15 games. I tried to make the best of it so I came early and got an intense workout before the game. I typically played Coach Mo Cheeks in a little one-on-one from the top of the key to keep my tools sharp! (I’m from Chicago so I had to keep my handle tight lol). We had just finished playing – and I was dripping sweat from head to toe – I get to the locker room when Coach Randy Ayers tells me that Coach (Larry Brown) wants to talk to me. Whenever the Head Coach or GM wants to talk to you, your mind starts wandering and thinking the worst…Am I traded? Am I cut? What’s going on?
Coach tells me that I’m starting in tonight’s game. (Theo was hurt and Matt was unavailable) WHAT?! We were playing the Lakers – Shaq (Championship Shaq!) – on TNT. I’m dripping sweat, I haven’t played in 15 games, I’ve never started, and now I’m playing Shaq (I mean the Lakers) on national television. I knew it was a huge opportunity to show I belonged in the NBA, but I was also VERY nervous because of the circumstances and it was SHAQ! It didn’t help that I looked up to Shaq and had his Dunkman symbol tattooed on my arm (I got it in college after we won our first championship). I was hoping he wouldn’t notice the tattoo, and of course I couldn’t let my nerves show at the time lol!So while we’re going through our scouting report before the game and I’m trying to wrap my head around what’s about to happen, Coach hits me with another whammy. “Naz, I want you to guard Shaq straight up.” Are you kidding me? Shaq, straight up, by myself?! He says, “Stay between him and the basket. Try not to let him dunk the ball, and if you have to, then foul him.” I look at him and say, “I got you,” while thinking this dude must be crazy lol! I was trying to look confident and play it cool, but I was nervous. While walking out of the locker room, Aaron McKie tells me, “We got your back. The help will be there whenever you need it.”
That night, I had something like 14 points and 8 rebounds, and we won the game. It wasn’t an All-Star performance or anything, but it was huge for a young guy like me as far as gaining confidence. That helped me believe that I belonged in the league after not playing my first two and a half years. Luckily, I had great veterans and teammates that encouraged me to stay prepared. Because I listened, I was prepared for an opportunity that seemed unlikely. When I least expected it, my moment came on a huge stage at an important point in my career.
At that time, we were one of the top teams in the East and Allen Iverson was having an MVP-type season. It seemed as if the whole world watched that game because shortly after there were teams trying to trade for me. Later that year I was traded to the Atlanta Hawks where I got my first real opportunity to play major minutes. It led me to re-signing after 27 games for 5yrs/25M. Sometimes I think that if I wasn’t prepared for that opportunity then my career could have been drastically different. I could have easily finished that season on the end of the Sixers bench and been out of the league or even overseas somewhere the next year.
And now, my hope is that the young guys will take this advice from me. Fellas: be prepared. Every day, every night…just be ready.
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