I'm Back (Again)

I’m back!

… Again!

Hold up, maybe you’re thinking, Huh? Where’d he go?

In 2016 I made a brief comeback with the Thunder. Not long after, I hung up my sneakers. It was a great run — 18 years in the NBA. I’m really proud of what I accomplished, and of the relationships I’d made during my playing career.

But part of me knew I wasn’t done.

Someone asked me a while back, “What’s the worst part about being retired?” I didn’t have an answer at the time. Now I do. The worst part of being retired has to be the sympathetic look that you get from some people, almost like they feel sorry for you. Some people treat you as if you’re about to die. The look is subtle, but what it communicates is crystal clear: Now that you have accomplished your greatest dream, what is there left for you to do?

Part of me understands why people would think that. Making it to the NBA was definitely one of my biggest dreams — but it wasn’t the only one. It would be kind of sad if it had been. I recently heard Kobe Bryant articulate something that I’ve thought for a long time. Kobe said, “If basketball is the best thing I’ve done in my life, then I’ve failed.” I never feared retirement while I was playing because I always had a sense that there would be greater things waiting for me. I just needed to figure out what those things were.

Being away from the game forced me, for the first time in my adult life, to observe the game strictly as a fan. And it only deepened my love and appreciation for basketball, and it gave me a fresh perspective. I found myself trying to figure out why certain moves worked, how certain plays developed, why certain defensive rotations worked or didn’t work. I found myself analyzing little details like shooting techniques, the proper running gait and bidirectional coordination.  All the subtle stuff fascinated me. I guess that’s just the way I’m wired.

But it wasn’t just about watching games. The player in me was always right under the surface, trying to break free. Many times, the day after watching a game, I would go to a gym and start practicing the different things I’d noticed, trying to develop training methods that I believed would have helped me as a player. It was like I was 13 years old again, mimicking the things I’d seen on TV.

If you follow me on social media, you probably know what I’m talking about. I post a lot of clips of me training on Snapchat and Instagram. Even in retirement, the workouts I was doing are just as intense as when I was playing. If you spend your whole life going at a certain pace, then that’s all you know. That mindset is so much a part of you that it never leaves.

I guess this is the part where I should clarify something: I’m not back to the NBA as a player. This year during training camp it hit me. I had no desire whatsoever to be on the court twice a day — being told to run, rebound, set picks and do whatever else was asked. No thanks. I’m good.

I’m not back as a coach, either. Not yet anyway. Right now, I don’t have the desire to put up with the hectic schedule that comes with being a coach in the NBA. As a player I was considered one of the hardest workers in the league. I believed in coming early and leaving late. I’d also noticed that my coaches were always there too—before me and after me. I do enjoy one-on-one instruction, and I have a lot that I could teach, but I’ve already put my family through almost two decades worth of NBA schedules and I’m not sure I can put them through anymore. It’s all about timing.

Instead, I’m back in the NBA to pursue an aspect of basketball that has interested me for a long time: the front office.

David Zalubowski/AP Images

As of November 20, I became a professional evaluation scout/identification and intelligence for the Oklahoma City Thunder. I know it’s a mouthful, but essentially I’m going to get a full education in all of the little details needed to make a front office tick.

A lot of people in the Thunder organization made this an easy decision — especially Sam Presti. I’ve known Sam since our San Antonio days, and I highly respect him and what he’s done. The OKC culture is really something else. This is a great opportunity to learn all the aspects of the business and become a well-rounded basketball executive. Yes, one day I’d like to aim for a GM spot, but not for a little while. During my career, I used to go around saying, “I want to be a GM.” Now that seems pretty bold — maybe even a little naive. It’s easy to think, from the outside, that the job of GM is mostly about signing players and conducting trades. In reality, there’s so much more to it. There are so many moving parts and considerations that all vary depending on what organization you’re with and what’s going on in the league at the time.

Still, my experience playing this game has given me a perspective that I think can help build a successful team. Talent is crucial to winning championships, but maybe even more important is establishing a culture that values character and a strong work ethic. I believe you can find all those qualities in one individual, you just have to know what to look for. I’ve been in a championship locker rooms at the collegiate (1996 and 1998 NCAA Champion at Kentucky) and the professional level (2005 NBA champion with the Spurs) so I know what it looks and feels like. I’m really proud of these accomplishments, and now I’m just looking forward to channeling those experiences into this new challenge.

So I realize now how much I have to learn, and I see my new position as a chance to be a student in the Business of Basketball 101. That’s the best part of my new job. I love to be a sponge, soaking up new things about the game of basketball. It almost feels like I’m going back to college. Studying, taking notes, asking questions, and learning new terminology, lingo and processes.

I guess the only difference from college is that I’m being paid to learn this time around. (Looking at you, NCAA.)

So, that’s that: I’ve officially retired … and then unretired from the NBA in the span of a year. The funny part is that my friends and family knew that I wouldn’t stay away from the game for long. They heard me, at age 12, announce that I would one day play in the NBA. They’ve seen the work I put in for the last 18 years. They know it’s almost impossible for me to sit still. They know I have a tendency to get obsessed with whatever goal or task is at hand, and that I can’t quit until I feel as if I’ve conquered it. I guess that comes with my name — Nazr (NAH-zee), meaning “Victorious.” Even when I don’t win, I never lose.

I didn’t just leap into this job without thinking about it. Retirement was an opportunity to finally be at home with my family, and to watch my kids grow up. For the first time in a long time I had the opportunity to go to my kids’ games on a regular basis and watch them develop as athletes. I never realized how busy their schedules were till now. I was starting to have a lot of fun (I’m serious) being their personal chauffeur — dropping them off and picking them up from school, practices, dance classes, workouts, playdates, sleepovers and all types of other things that I couldn’t get to while I was playing. My NBA career was a blessing, but it was full of sacrifices.

But there’s only so much idle time you can handle. And there’s only so much golf you can play. I know, because I’ve tried. I brought my handicap down with dedicated practice, but that brought only so much fulfillment. Basketball will always be my first love. Everyone I knew was still on the grind — working at their craft. The only people golfing in the middle of the day were 25 years older than me. It lit a fire under me. I needed to get back to the grind. Because the grind is what I do best.

An advisor once told me something that really stuck with me. He said, “What’s the use of having a Ph.D. in basketball and never using it?”

That’s why I’m back on my grind. I haven’t stopped. I’ve just changed clothes.

This will be the last thing I write for a while as I dive fully into this new career. When you see me at an arena from here on out, you’ll know what I’m up to. And I hope you’ll come say, What’s up? Ask me about hoops. I’m always down to talk about the game I love.