Forward position: Former UDM player courts 'dream job' in NBA


– Photo by Paul Janczewski

By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Muhammad Abdur-Rahim’s dream was to play professional basketball in the NBA, and obtaining a solid education was only a means toward that end.

Along the way, after successfully playing basketball in high school and college, Abdur-Rahim realized he would not get to the NBA as a player.

But by getting serious with his studies and obtaining a law degree, he realized he had an opportunity to reach the NBA after all – by working as legal counsel in the front office.

Know this about Abdur-Rahim. He sees the big picture, has taken advice from family and friends to reassess his career goals, and goes all out when trying to accomplish anything.

He recently graduated from the Cooley Law School following an internship with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats and is preparing to take the bar exam in Georgia in late February.

“I took the same work ethic, the same determination as I had toward basketball and applied it to law school,” he said. “If I’m not working hard, somebody else is, and that’s how I treated basketball, and that’s the work ethic I carried over into my studies.”

Hint: Don’t bet against him.

Abdur-Rahim, 27, grew up in the Atlanta area. His father, William, was a preacher, and his mother, Deborah, a special education teacher in an Atlanta suburb.

In all, Abdur-Rahim has 13 brothers and sisters, although only five of those are immediate members of his family.

He attended school at his father’s Muslim mosque, but said his hard working, middle-class parents always stressed education. He went to Joseph Wheeler High School in Marietta, following in his older brother’s footsteps by playing basketball and breezing through the academics.

After all, basketball was like “family tradition,” he said. An older sister had played and then attended Emory University. His brother, Shareef, earned a full scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley and then played for more than a decade in the NBA.

And another brother attended Southeastern Louisiana, received a master’s degree, and coached at Georgia Tech.

“It was common nature, it’s just what I knew,” Abdur-Rahim said. “You graduate high school, then go to college, but more so to just play basketball.”

He graduated in 2002 after concentrating on his studies after a coach there stressed good grades were necessary to play college ball. After being recruited by several colleges, Abdur-Rahim chose the University of Detroit Mercy.

After redshirting his freshman year, the 6-foot, 4-inch, 220-pound Abdur-Rahim started 22 games as a sophomore and over the next few years found the coach used him as a role player and a “chemistry” player who entered games in crucial spots to defend the opponent’s top scorer.

“I started where they needed me and I accepted that role,” he said. “There was a big difference between high school and college basketball.”

Knowing how hard it is to make the NBA, he began thinking of a back-up plan.

“With my statistics, I knew I wasn’t going to make the NBA, or even play professionally overseas,” he said.

Still longing for a career with the NBA, Abdur-Rahim got involved with a sports agency after graduating from college, helping players land jobs overseas or hooking them up with professional teams.

But he realized that having a law degree might further that career choice and even land a job on an NBA team in its front office.

He also thought back to a conversation years earlier with his older brother. Shareef Abdur-Rahim played basketball at UC-Berkeley and was drafted third overall in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1996.

He also played for the Portland Trail Blazers, Atlanta Hawks, and Sacramento Kings. He was a member of the 2000 Olympic gold medal winning U.S team and an NBA All-Star, ending his 13-year career in 2008 before working in the front office for the Kings.

His brother told him that if he wanted to become an agent, or work with the NBA in some capacity, he would be better off following the example of Fred Whitfield, who worked for Nike at the time after earning a law degree.

In that conversation, when Abdur-Rahim was still in grade school, his older brother suggested he further his education to reach goals.

“Back then, like most kids, I was hard-headed,” he said, acknowledging that instead of studying he spent more time in the gym. “I didn’t take education seriously until college.”

But now, after graduating with a liberal arts degree and spending a year as a runner in a sports agency, Abdur-Rahim saw the need for a law degree to market himself and get where he wanted.

So while working at his family nonprofit foundation in Atlanta, The Future Foundation, which helps at-risk youth, Abdur-Rahim applied for law school and was accepted at Cooley.

“I thought it was a perfect fit,” Abdur-Rahim said. “It’s competitive, but the relationship you have with professors is like no other.”

Plus, his wife, Noel, a Certified Public Accountant now working at Pricewaterhouse Coopers in Detroit, made Cooley a place where he could attend school and she would be close to work. He started in 2009.
While at Cooley, Abdur-Rahim was a teaching assistant and intern for U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara, which gave him a strong interest in practicing law and litigation.

That led him to contact Whitfield, CEO and president of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, for career advice and to pick his brain. It also led to an internship there during the recent lockout.

One of the benefits while there was meeting Michael Jordan, the team owner. Abdur-Rahim only met the former Chicago Bulls superstar a few times, but said M.J. was always smiling and it was a great experience.

“When he came in the whole office changes,” he said of Jordan, who starred at the University of North Carolina. “You could tell on everybody’s face the dynamic impact he had.”

Jordan, who knows his brother, Shareef, would ask about the family. Abdur-Rahim said it was interesting to observe Jordan and his star power at work.

The actual internship also taught him a mixture of law and business, professional responsibility, and other fine points of being a corporate attorney for an NBA team. Besides dealing with player contracts and
other issues, he worked on licensing agreements for other entities that used the arena and settlement issues arising from its use.

“It was a very worthwhile experience,” Abdur-Rahim said.

Now, Abdur-Rahim is in Georgia, preparing to take the bar exam. But he credits Cooley for preparing him to take the next step in his career.

“Cooley has a reputation for preparing us for a law career,” he said.

Abdur-Rahim credits Auburn Hills Dean John Nussbaumer as being a mentor he could look to for help, and all the professors for giving him the book knowledge he needed and the hands-on applications of
life experiences those professors had while practicing law in various fields.

The support staff at Cooley also helped him prepare for interviews and gave him direction when seeking his internships.

“Everyone there puts you in a position to succeed,” he said. “The appreciation I have for Cooley is endless,” he said.

Abdur-Rahim said he did not have great scores on the law school entrance exam, but Cooley gave him the chance to prove himself.

“If they didn’t give me a chance, I might have given up, and never got a law degree. And for that, I am forever indebted to Cooley.”

After passing the bar exam, Abdur-Rahim will start looking for work.

“My dream job would be with the front office of NBA team,” he said. “But I’m leaving my options open.”

He also has an interest in labor employment law, but being involved with sports would be a major plus. But Abdur-Rahim said he has no regrets how his future has unfolded and that he did not make the NBA
as a player.

“I gave it all I had. I worked hard at it, even though I was not as athletic as other players, or as tall or as quick,” he said. “But the best thing about sports is it teaches you about life.”

In college, when things were not going the way he wanted, he looked in the mirror and started to give it his all. In law school, when he received a grade lower than he thought he deserved, he just worked harder.

“When adversity happens, it’s how you respond to it,” he said.

One of his favorite quotes is how adversity causes some men to break, and others to break records.

Hint: Don’t bet against him.