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Google, Facebook, 2K score with NBA interns

A group of NBA players spent the off-season job-shadowing at some of tech's biggest companies, including Facebook and Google.

It's no stretch to say Hollis Thompson knows how to hustle.

The Philadelphia 76ers swingman -- he plays both shooting guard and small forward -- regularly shows his mettle in the fast break or transition, or with a clutch shot.

This summer, the NBA helped the fourth-year Georgetown product take his skill set to a new arena: business. For two weeks, Thompson interned at 2K, the video game company that makes the popular NBA2K and Mafia III titles, pitching big retailers Target and Walmart at the E3 gaming conference in Los Angeles.

"It was pretty exciting and more hands-on than I could've even imagined," Thompson said in an interview. "Besides playing basketball, this was one of the best experiences of my life."

Thompson isn't the only baller looking beyond the NBA, whose regular season tipped off on Tuesday and heads into its first full slate of weekend games. Twelve other players joined the league's Career Crossover, an unpaid job-shadowing program that matches players with companies in different industries to spark interest in "second career" possibilities. The NBA leverages its corporate partnerships -- companies love to associate themselves with pro sports -- to secure opportunities for players.

Greg Taylor, the league's senior vice president of player development, says increasingly that's meant tapping tech behemoths, such as search giant Google and social network Facebook, because the tech industry is cropping up more often in post-career conversations with players.

Philadelphia 76ers' swingman Hollis Thompson's image on the NBA2K 17 video game. Thompson interned at game maker 2K this summer.

Philadelphia 76ers' swingman Hollis Thompson, as he appears inn the NBA2K 17 video game. Thompson interned at game maker 2K this summer.


In addition to Thompson, other players who spent time at tech companies include vets Ryan Hollins and Al-Farouq Aminu, at Facebook, and C.J. Watson, Dahntay Jones, Wilson Chandler and Moses Ehambe, at Google.

"The main purpose of this program is exposing the players to multiple career options and letting them see what skills they need to develop in order to be competitive in this other world," Taylor said. Technology companies were popular destinations because "this generation of players lives and breathes with technology and their smartphones."

The NBA players union is also stirring interest in post-basketball career possibilities. In July, the union held its inaugural tech summit in San Francisco to connect players with Silicon Valley companies. The three-day event was led by Golden State Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala, a renowned tech investor and a vice president for the union.

Fans see headlines about millions of guaranteed dollars and wonder why any ex-player would need to take a job. They read about all-time greats, like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, and imagine all players will be as successful off-court as they are on.

Basketball doesn't last forever

The reality, says Michael Goldman, a sports management professor at the University of San Francisco, is usually different.

"I'm far more concerned for the lesser known, midlevel players who are living a high life," Goldman said. "Then suddenly it all stops, possibly due to injuries or declined play, and they're struggling with what to do next."

That's why Thompson and peers like Hollins, a journeyman center still looking for a contract in what will be his 10th season, all volunteered to take part in the NBA program. For some, like Watson, a 12-year veteran who's in the second of a three-year, $15 million contract with the Orlando Magic, the end of a career is within sight.

At Facebook, Hollins and Aminu, a forward for the Portland Trail Blazers, spent time with the company's sports partnership division, which handles the Facebook's relationships with sports leagues and sports media outlets, as well as product and marketing specialists.


Top photo, NBA players Dahntay Jones, left and C.J. Watson (far right), pose with an unidentified man along with a self-driving car during their visit to Google headquarters this summer. Bottom photo, NBAers Wilson Chandler and Moses Ehambe also pose with the vehicle.


Facebook took advantage of the pair's presence. Hollins and Aminu were asked for their opinions of the Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headset a Facebook subsidiary makes, as well as Facebook Mentions, Instagram and Facebook Live.

Hollins said the experience was too short -- just two days -- but well worthwhile. If a second career in the broadcast booth doesn't pan out, he says, he's going to pursue tech.


NBA players Ryan Hollins, left, and Al-Farouq Aminu pose in front of an Instagram logo while spending time at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters as part of the league's Career Crossover program.

"There's a real push to have internet access everywhere. How do we get this to Africa, Haiti and India?" Hollins said of Facebook. "That's commendable."

The social network, which has hosted NBA players on its campus for three summers, calls it a "mutual learning benefit."

"We're just as excited to hear what they have to say," a Facebook spokesperson said. "Their feedback on our products and insights into their social media behavior are invaluable for our teams."

At Google, the NBA players sat in with teams that build the search firm's varied products, which range from its core business to email to storage. They sat in with the YouTube business, which is working to monetize its popularity.

Watson, a point guard on the Orlando Magic, told me he was enthralled with Google's program on self-driving cars, which had a fun but intense atmosphere.

"They sort of want to be the cool kids," Watson said. "They do a lot of things outside the box, which I respect."

A Google spokesperson said the partnership was valuable to Google because it valued the NBA's culture of collaboration, strategic foresight and leadership under pressure.

"In fact, we use the term 'general athlete' when we describe who we're looking to hire," the spokesperson said. "People with highly transferable skill sets who can hit the ground running when they get here."

Video gamesmanship

2K had even more ambitious plans for Thompson, an avid gamer, and wasted no time putting him to work, says Alfie Brody, a marketing vice president.

After time spending a week at E3 in Los Angeles, Thompson, 25, headed back to 2K's headquarters in Marin County, California, pitching in with the development teams on the popular NBA2K game, widely praised as one of the best sports video games on the market.

Thompson also worked alongside engineers, designers and artists for the franchise. His responsibilities: providing them with feedback on the players he's faced, to help the game capture that real feel.

He also weighed in on his own player rating -- 72 -- which he thought was too low (LeBron James of the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers has a 96 rating, and reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors has a 94).

Thompson offered his opinion on other aspects of the game, too, particularly the MyTeam and Franchise modes, where users can create their own NBA franchise, with its own look and team name.

The baritone-voiced Thompson said 2K took his feedback to heart.

"I think I was surprised by the amount of people involved and the work that goes into making a game," he said. "It's a much bigger operation than I thought."

2K was impressed, Brody said, and Thompson has an open invitation to return next summer.

"Hollis knows things right down to the smallest detail," 2K's Brody said. "He provided a ton of insight into the life of an NBA player."

Thinking about his future, Thompson, who just had his $1.5 million team option contract picked up by the Sixers this season, said he's game with 2K.

"Yes," he said, "I'm definitely coming back."

First published October 22, 2016 5:00 a.m. PT.

Update, October 28, 2016 at 2:14 p.m.: Adds background, material on NBA players union.