/How Andre Iguodala handled his rare NBA sabbatical

How Andre Iguodala handled his rare NBA sabbatical


ON A RECENT Wednesday afternoon, Andre Iguodala sits at a conference table inside the bustling San Francisco offices of Zuora, a public software company. He listens as the founder, Tien Tzuo, and leading executives sing the liturgical language of Silicon Valley — engagement and cadence, creating what we call pulse, customer journey, individual contributor function and muscle memory.

Iguodala might not be fluent in this dialect, but he is proficient. He indulges his hosts’ attempts at appropriating basketball metaphors to make sense of their ever-expanding sector, and he even offers one in return.

“When we talked before about managing different avenues of enterprise software, there are so many different lanes that ‘team’ really comes into play,” says Iguodala, equipped with a tablet and wearing a navy sweater with an orange V-neck trim. “You may talk to five different enterprise companies that do five different things.”

In the age of athlete self-determination and brand-building, the trope of the NBA player dabbling in Silicon Valley prompts both admiration and skepticism. Iguodala, whose awareness of social and cultural dynamics comes through strongly in his 2019 memoir, “The Sixth Man,” appreciates the perception.

“It’s in your consciousness — that people don’t think you belong there,” Iguodala says later.

With Zuora, Iguodala is less concerned. He has known Tzuo for nearly five years and cultivated the relationship outside of public life. He has been to countless meetings and conferences with the tech world’s masters of the universe, as well as their worker bees. Iguodala can rattle off a litany of facts about subscription-based platforms and their permanence in the marketplace in accessible terms.

Iguodala asks, “How can I be of help?”

This is not the first high-tech firm in the Bay Area that will trade on Iguodala’s value, and these arrangements can be mutually beneficial: A company such as Zuora gets to tout the 2015 NBA Finals MVP and three-time champion as an associate. In a tech world obsessed with organizational culture, firms can draw, if they so choose, upon his expertise as a key member of a dynastic Warriors team that is prime Harvard Business School case-study material. All the while, Iguodala gets to diversify his growing portfolio and continue his education in an area that fascinates him as he strives to be as versatile off the court as he is on it.

“A lot of guys travel with these entourages,” Tzuo says. “[Iguodala] just shows up alone. He has an insatiable curiosity.”

These kinds of meetings wouldn’t be unusual for a potential member of the board. But this is the heart of the NBA season, and Iguodala is still an active NBA player in good health who is under contract. It will be another week before he is traded to the Miami Heat in a move that includes a two-year, $30 million extension. Iguodala hasn’t played a second of basketball since the NBA Finals in June, instead spending his time living and working 1,800 miles from the team that employs him.

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WHEN IGUODALA SIGNED a three-year, $48 million deal with the Golden State Warriors in 2017, he knew there was a possibility that his future might be tied to Kevin Durant‘s whereabouts in the 2019-20 season. And after Durant announced he was leaving the Bay for Brooklyn, the Warriors moved Iguodala to make room for D’Angelo Russell.

In a flash, one of the catalysts of the original play-with-joy Warriors squad was sent off like a carrier pigeon to drop a first-round pick onto the east bank of the Mississippi River.

First-round draft picks are the mother’s milk of NBA rebuilds, and the Memphis Grizzlies scored one for the minor inconvenience of absorbing a 35-year-old veteran who still had value, albeit one who preferred to play out his final seasons with a team that wanted him for his talents. The Grizzlies shared Iguodala’s preference, so they went to work trying to find a trade partner, with an asking price of a first-round pick.

Although there were substantive discussions with a handful of teams, including the Houston Rockets, aligning money, tax implications and picks for a player with a $17.2 million salary requires some high-level cap gymnastics.

As training camp approached, the prospect of a deal before the season grew more remote. Iguodala remained in the Bay Area with his family, working out and further immersing himself in entrepreneurial pursuits. Both parties held out hope of a deal that would land Iguodala with a contender, but other scenarios grew more likely. Iguodala could conceivably play for Memphis, though a Grizzlies team starting from the bottom up didn’t acquire him with any intention that he’d be part of the team’s future.

Buyouts have become a common solution for such situations, but the Grizzlies were steadfast in their opposition to paying out about 85% of Iguodala’s salary for him to play elsewhere. Those with knowledge of Memphis’ thinking say a small-market franchise with new front-office leadership wanted to set this kind of organizational tone:

We are not a feeder system for the league’s glamour destinations. You don’t build a championship culture by subsidizing teams you compete against on a nightly basis with talent — and covering the tab. That’s a doormat mentality that sends the wrong message to your players, coaches, front-office personnel, fans, ticket salespeople, sponsors, agents and broadcast partners.

Four months into the season, Memphis had not moved from that position. The Grizzlies had a compelling case — and so did Iguodala. A hard-bitten realist who appreciates that the NBA is a business, Iguodala didn’t begrudge the Grizzlies’ being opportunistic. But there comes a point as a player when being an asset milked for every last ounce of value runs its course.

“It’s never been, ‘I don’t want to be there,'” Iguodala said last week. “It’s, ‘Let’s have the conversations in terms of what it looks like going forward. How can I be a value to you? How can you be a value to me? And then how can we make that happen?'”

The discussions never grew overly contentious, all sides say, though neither was getting precisely what it wanted. Both Iguodala and the Grizzlies agreed that Iguodala remaining in the Bay Area represented the most logical solution, however suboptimal. At the very least, his not playing would mitigate any injury risk, and the Grizzlies could continue to look for a deal. They found one they liked on Wednesday, extracting Justise Winslow from Miami.

After a report materialized this week that Iguodala would sit out the rest of the season if not dealt to a preferred team, young Memphis wing Dillon Brooks said he “can’t wait” for the Grizzlies to find a way to extricate Iguodala from the roster. Guards Ja Morant and De’Anthony Melton took to social media to second Brooks’ remark.

Yet neither Iguodala nor the Grizzlies were ever under the impression that Iguodala would report to Memphis, though the Grizzlies would have welcomed him. Although the Grizzlies’ prospects in the Western Conference playoff race had changed, Iguodala’s convictions had not. Now, Iguodala will join a contender in the Eastern Conference, and the Grizzlies will continue their surprisingly quick rebuild with an even deeper collection of pieces.

“I think when the athlete takes control of his business, it’s looked at differently than when a so-called businessman is running his business,” Iguodala says. “A businessman says, ‘I want to make this play because this is what I’m trying to do,’ and the response is, ‘Oh, that is a very smart business transaction.’ But when an athlete says, ‘This is what I prefer to do,’ the reaction is different.”

A COUPLE OF HOURS after his check-in with Zuora, Iguodala steps into the athletic facility at Saint Mary’s College, the small Catholic campus nestled on the back side of the Oakland Hills. Iguodala’s voice becomes more audible as he makes his approach to the practice court. The 19-year-old Saint Mary’s team manager, who has been cradling a basketball and waiting for Iguodala’s arrival, can’t resist a grin. Tonight, he’ll be shagging balls for an NBA champion.

Rick Ross’ “The Devil Is A Lie” booms on the portable speaker as a limber Iguodala contorts himself into deep stretches. Soon, Tyrell Jamerson is feeding him a steady diet of jumpers as Iguodala works up a sweat. When it’s time for free throws, Iguodala drains a pair with his eyes shut.

Iguodala turned 36 the previous day, which means the clock is ticking on his basketball life, even as he assembles the pieces for a fulfilling career after it’s over. It’s three days after the death of Kobe Bryant, and Iguodala says he has reflexively changed the channel whenever news of the incident or Bryant’s legacy appeared.

“That was close to me. It hit home,” Iguodala says. “I just haven’t had anything like that so close. So I’m still trying to process that one.”

Iguodala had come to regard this time away as a sabbatical from the league, a chance to recharge physically and mentally after five years of being the consummate he-doesn’t-start-but-he-finishes glue guy for a championship team. Along the way, he embodied the complexities and contradictions of NBA life.

He’s eminently coachable yet a fiercely independent spirit who accepts nothing at face value. He’s a basketball purist with a meticulous workout and wellness regimen but also a man who can’t find happiness solely in basketball. With the media, he’s both thoughtful and adversarial, and with teammates, he is someone who both offers meaningful counsel and thrills in pressing buttons.

“Andre has a wicked sense of humor and loves seeing people squirm,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says.

One such teammate was undrafted rookie James Michael McAdoo, a member of the Warriors’ first title team who didn’t want to spend his minimum salary on a new car. Iguodala admired the rookie for his frugality but also felt empathy, seeing him dropped off at the Warriors’ practice facility by his girlfriend.

Soon after the confetti fell in Cleveland, the Warriors chartered a plane for Las Vegas to celebrate. Iguodala offered McAdoo his souped-up Jeep Wrangler if he’d strip naked and streak up and down the aisle of the plane. McAdoo accepted the dare and thrilled in driving his new vehicle to the facility each of his next two seasons with the Warriors.

Asked about the episode, Iguodala says with a Cheshire grin, “There may or may not be video in my phone.”


IGUODALA KNOWS THAT there’s far more basketball behind him than in front of him.

He has been thinking about Kyrie Irving‘s comments last season about retiring in his early 30s and wonders if that’s the most sapient life span for the modern NBA player, even though he crossed that threshold a few years ago. He sees a generation of players behind him who are making themselves miserable by obsessing over the experience of being a branded NBA player at the expense of their humanity.

“They’re always on,” Iguodala says. “These are guys who play a lot of politics and position themselves to look a certain way, ‘This is me. This is my brand.’ And I’m like, ‘No, you’re a human, too. F—ing relax. Just have a conversation with me that has nothing to do with being a basketball player.'”

When Iguodala encounters these players, he senses that they might struggle with life after basketball — the phase when self-definition becomes less about your place in the game and more about your place outside it. Iguodala has gotten a head start on this transition, even as he can’t put his finger on precisely what happiness is.

In his memoir, Iguodala tells of reading Yuval Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” in which Harari chronicles the evolution of human existence and the shared fictions we create to make ourselves happy.

In Iguodala’s words, “Things that we just decide are important, even though, in the most absolute sense, they are nothing. Like an NBA championship. Like 30,000 people in a room screaming while you chase a round, bouncing ball up and down a wooden floor.”

The central tension in Iguodala’s reflections on life as a successful and respected NBA champion can best be encapsulated by a line from “Mad Men,” one of his favorite TV series: “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”

Both in his memoir and in conversation, Iguodala returns to the idea that achievement yields material and emotional fortunes, the latter fleeting and the former an illusory source of happiness.

“You have those moments where you win a championship, and they’ve helped me in life tremendously, so I don’t want to throw that away,” Iguodala says. “But there’s B.S. that comes with it, and the material things that come with some of our success, you learn, ‘OK, that’s not really it.'”

Iguodala recognizes the ultimate contradiction: Those material riches provide him the opportunity to pursue meaning, to mine the inside of conference rooms for edification, to take time between fathering and conditioning to join a world that’s out of reach for most kids from his side of Springfield, Illinois.

Never have those contrasts been more stark than during his gap year. As he navigates Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley, contemplates series A shares and all the tech-ese spoken during golf rounds at the Olympic Club, Iguodala comes back to this central complexity:

Life as a successful pro athlete can buy you anything, even as it assures you nothing.

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