When Jerome Williams graduated from Col. Zadok Magruder High School in suburban Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., he was 6-foot-2. He’d been a standout on the high school team. But at that height, he knew high school would be the extent of his basketball career.
So he started pumping gas at a Chevron station for $6 an hour, to put himself through nearby Montgomery County Community College. At the same time, “I prayed and I asked for 7 inches,” he said. “And I grew 7 inches.
By the end of the summer, he was 6-foot-9. He upped his game. And, he’d been smart enough to figure out which local courts were frequented by the legendary Georgetown Hoyas coach John Thomas. “He recruited me off the park,” Williams said in an interview last month.
That unlikely path to the NBA, his middle-class upbringing as the son of an electrical engineer and a civil servant, and most of all, the humbling summer-long job, shaped his perspective. Over a career that saw him make millions as a tenacious good-but-not-star player, he’s tried to be a voice for all of the also-rans in the world. Not everybody can be the standout star, but people can realize their value – and demand to be rewarded fairly for it, he believes.
A New Company For NCAA Athletes
At the NBA, as a player’s union representative, he helped negotiate the mid-level exception, which gave teams more freedom to sign players who weren’t necessarily stars to higher pay levels. He also advocated for the players’ revenue share that has made the Big3, the new 3-on-3 league for retired players started by rapper Ice Cube, unusual in the sports world, according to Williams and former player Cuttino Mobley, who was present at the negotiation.
Now, Williams is moving to start a company that is taking advantage of an NCAA rule change going into effect this fall that would allow student athletes to make money from endorsements. There’s been a rush of new companies jumping into the market to offer services to NCAA athletes, though most of the money is expected to go to a tiny handful of stars.
Alumni Pros Global Sports is one of the new companies. According to its web site, it is a community and platform for all athletes, enabling them to establish and control their intellectual property for fees of $2 or $10 a month, or to join a community with advice and mentorship for $10 a year. It will announce more services as the rules become clearer, Williams said. The company’s CEO is Nikkollette Williams, Jerome Williams’ wife of 21 years.
The company, which he formed with partners including banker George King and investor/entrepreneur Robert Smith, aims to give athletes, he says, a fighting chance to claim some of the profits made from their bodies by establishing a legal track record of their intellectual property and helping them negotiate with brands. It could be a winning idea as influencers of all kinds become more important to brand marketing.
“Young black men make up the majority of men’s football and basketball players, while the coaches, team owners, and executives are predominately white. The NCAA earns billions of dollars annually through games, sponsorships, merchandise and more, yet they position players as “in it for the love of the game” in order to take advantage.” he said by email. “By not paying them adequately for their sacrifices, they are perpetuating both financial and racial injustice.”
The current system, in contrast, rewards stars after they leave school, and institutions.
“The institutions – colleges and universities — are worth billions,” he points out. “None of that revenue ever trickles down to athletes, families and communities.”
Inherently Patriarchal? Inherently Racist?
I asked him later whether winner-take-all systems are inherently patriarchal.
“They seem to be as these types of systems were some of the first to ever be put in place and a “winner-takes-all” mentality often goes hand-in-hand with notions of masculinity,” he said by email.
Williams’ career combined basketball and business, starting with his time in Georgetown. He had to stay centered as a student while navigating the pressures of being an athlete – which meant remembering that even though the rewards he was getting had changed, he hadn’t.
“I was thrust in this limelight,” he said. “I had had jobs. Nobody gave me free shoes. Now there’s this humongous meal ticket.”
When luck again saw him picked 26th in the NBA draft, he decided to make the most of it as a player and as a business opportunity. He eventually played for the Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks.
In the off-season, “I decided to intern with the NBA. They would teach you the business of basketball,” he said. “I was the only one that took the internship out of 60-some-odd draft picks.”
He found two mentors: One was Steve Mills, who went on to become president of the NY Knicks, and the other was Adam Silver, eventually the commissioner of the NBA.
After retiring in 2005, he started volunteering and working as a coach at Finley Prep, and at 45, came out of retirement to work on the Big3. He’s currently negotiating to buy several more teams. He has a son, who is now 11.
Over those years, Williams met former NBC players who were by no means wealthy. Some were “near welfare.” Given a chance by Ice-Cube to own 10% himself with Mobley, he asked for a different deal. “I’m saying to myself, damn. I’m kind of like having this outside of your body experience,” he said. “What if we, as players, had 10% ownership of the NBA what would that look like for our families in perpetuity?”
The players don’t own 10% of the NBA, but they could get a revenue share of the Big3, in effect giving them an ownership stake. What he hammered out with Ice Cube, he said, in a Nevada hotel room gave all the older players working for the Big3 a chance to own the value of their work. The league has been increasingly popular, with the media noting that it’s turning old guys playing basketball into first of all, entertainment, and second, a viable business model. The Big3 did not respond to a request to confirm his role.
When Do People Step Up With Dollars?
Williams also has a nonprofit, Shooting for Peace, that promotes reading and education in underserved communities by holding events, distributing workbooks and funding scholarships. The nonprofit partnered with HBCUs across the county to offer $8.7 million in scholarships, got the nonprofit into 100 schools, and recruited other retired players to help. But it’s still hard to raise money to help kids in the communities that produce many of the country’s student and pro athletes, he says.
Alumni Pros was born when, looking at the NCAA rules, the partners realized that athletes needed a currency to carry along with them through the system. “Once we aligned with our partners and connected the various alignments we realized the missing piece was scoring athletes to enhance their value,” he said.
The company’s signups so far number in the thousands, and are coming from partnerships with BeTheBeast, BallDawgs and PlayBooked, he said.
Williams’ conclusion after being part of the sports machine since he was in high school? It’s not exactly his talent that’s worth money. The money rolls in his talent is harnessed in service of an institution, which are almost always controlled by the elites. White elites, to be exact. “The minute I decide I want to pick up a basketball to earn other people some money, everybody’s all for it,” he points out.
This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.