Jerome Williams graduated from high school in suburban Maryland at the height of 6-foot-2. He’d been a high school basketball standout. But at that height, he knew high school would be the extent of his ball career.
So he pumped gas at a Chevron station for $6 an hour, to put himself through community college. He was dealing with reality – and still hoping. “I prayed and I asked for 7 inches,” he told me in an interview a few months ago.
And guess what happened? He grew 7 inches.
By the end of the summer, he was 6-foot-9. Meanwhile, another kind of preparation paid off. While he’d been pumping gas, he’d figured out which local courts were frequented by the legendary Georgetown Hoyas coach John Thomas.
Thomas recruited Williams out of the park. (Disclosure: Williams also endorsed my new book, The New Builders).
That unlikely path to the NBA, Williams’ 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, he said. Over a career that saw him make millions as a second-tier but tenacious player, he said he 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.
Williams eventually played for the Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, and New York Knicks. 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, an account confirmed by former player Cuttino Mobley. The Big3 did not respond to a request for comment.
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Now, Williams has reached another turning point in his journey, doubling down on entrepreneurship. He is moving to start a company taking advantage of an NCAA rule change going into effect this fall that would allow student athletes to make money from endorsements.
Alumni Pros Global Sports enables athletes to 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.
I asked him for advice for Black people building businesses or negotiating. He advised making personal connections with people who have power, working through LinkedIn or local Chamber of Commerce mixers. The personal connections will help you get around systemic racism – which often shows up in the form of extra red tape and biased rules.
“I like to remember that network is directly tied to your net worth. One way to combat that red tape is engaging with a larger network or community in order to establish meaningful connections with potential advocates,” he said.
“When applying for a bank loan, seek out the individual who leads the diversity and inclusion arm of your Chamber of Commerce and build a rapport before asking for a letter of recommendation,” he said. “One could also seek the same from a spiritual or religious groups that have large constituencies or a political figure with influence in the community.”
And when you’re negotiating a salary, find out what people with similar skill sets are earning. “By doing so, you can come to the negotiation meeting knowing industry standards so you can knowledgeably advocate for yourself and your worth,” he said.
I’d add that it’s helpful to look across industries – because sometimes systemic racism and sexism have resulted in people of a particular race or gender dominating a lower-paid profession that creates wealth for the ruling class.
A professional in communications – an industry dominated by women — for instance, is sometimes offering the same strategic advice to executives as a vice president of strategy.
Or as, Williams argues, “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. By not paying them adequately for their sacrifices, they are perpetuating both financial and racial injustice.”
In other words, be aware. You can’t fight the system at every turn, but knowing how it works will help you keep the system from defining your worth down.