Rookie Files: What I learned in my first job at the NBA

Written by Jennifer Urbanski, BMOS '09

When I consider the saying, “hindsight is twenty-twenty,” I can’t help but wonder if this is really referencing vision or if it secretly has something to do with all the things we don’t know in our twenties. I started my career when I was twenty-five – which, at the time, seemed light-years behind my peers due a courageous 3-year stint in Whistler, BC in between my third and fourth years of University. Starting my career at twenty-five as a Sponsorship Coordinator for the National Basketball Association’s Canadian office should have felt like an honour, but as I watched my twenty-five year old peers change their LinkedIn status’ to include words like “Manager” in the title, I couldn’t help but feel like I was trailing their success.

In the six years that have passed since then, my career has grown quickly and as I look back on those early days I am keenly aware of some key lessons I learned in that first job out of school.

You’re not going to be a manager right out of school

That’s right, you heard me. If you want to get into sports or marketing the reality is that you are going to have to start at the bottom and work your way up. In fact, it’s probably like that in most industries. It doesn’t matter if you got the highest grades in school, if you went to the best school in the country, if you volunteered for every single club, if you raised the most money for your sorority, if you had the most friends of anyone on campus, or if you were a favourite amongst all of your profs. The reality is that you are going to start in an entry-level role, someone is going to tell you what to do, you won’t know everything, and you are probably going to make less than $40,000 in salary. Don’t worry, breathe. It’s going to be ok.

You don’t know what you don’t know

School does a great job of teaching us theory and preparing us for our career but the reality is that what we know comes from experience. Until you start working and going through the day-to-day of your role, you have no idea what you don’t know. You don’t know what questions you have yet and you don’t know what skills you need to learn. All of this will come with time, I promise.

The smallest tasks can have the biggest impact

My role at the NBA was hybrid – I was a Coordinator in the Sponsorship Sales department which meant I got to help prospect leads, build fancy PowerPoints and host partners at basketball games. But I was also the Assistant to the VP & General Manager, Dan MacKenzie, which meant I helped to coordinate his schedule and respond to some of his emails. The second set of duties was far less glamorous than the first but can you guess which tasks had the longest lasting effect on my career? I remember feeling like such a shmuck every time I coordinated with an Exec Assistant to schedule a lunch for my boss – I was still trying to figure out why I wasn’t a Manager right out of school, let alone having to schedule lunch for someone. This wasn’t what I went to University for! But little did I realize that the senior level executives I was helping to schedule lunch with would still know me by name years later – and that to have any sort of interaction with them was a lot more than most eager twenty-somethings could even dream of. I took for granted that these “junior tasks” were actually some of the most valuable opportunities and it gave me a chance to build my brand as a professional, organized, and reliable member of the workforce amongst some renowned business leaders. How’s that for hindsight?

Don’t be a squirrel

This is one of those inside references that only my colleagues would truly understand but the concept is worth sharing. Our office reported into the Vice President of Team Management & Business Operations, Chris Granger. His business philosophy centered around information sharing, with the belief that the more you know, the better you can be at your job. He strongly encouraged his staff to share industry news and articles with the entire TMBO group, which was probably around 100 people. He would often remind us that people who didn’t share information were like squirrels hoarding nuts – that the best colleagues were the ones who would share their “acorns.” So every so often we’d see an email in our inbox from of our TMBO colleagues with a link to an article and a list of the key takeaway points. People who were brave enough to send out an article to the entire group would be rewarded with a simple word back from Granger – “acorn.” I remember as a young professional it was so nerve-wracking to send out my first article to a group of 100 of some of the smartest and most experienced professionals in the sports industry but the reward of that “acorn” back from Granger was worth more to me than gold. And the habit has stayed with me – to this day I will still send out information to my team and I appreciate it when others do the same.

Stop worrying so much about money

I mentioned this in my first point but I’d like to expand here. Contrary to what you may think, you’re not going to make wads of cash when you land your first job. The good news is that this is ok. You’ll be fine. You won’t starve, you won’t be homeless and you will still be able to pay your internet bill. I look back and consider my first 4-5 years out of school as my Master’s degree. This was really the period where I was setting the foundation and creating a launch pad for the rest of my career. The money didn’t matter. I was learning and, unlike actually being in school, at least I was getting paid something rather than going into debt. How’s that for value?

You’ve got to move on to move up

It is really only hindsight that allows me to see this final point. The reality is that it’s always hard in your early years to determine the right time to make a move to your next role. You’re trying to balance your ambitions, your lack of patience, the advice from your mentors, and your desire to add the sports package to your cable service (a.k.a. make more money). It can sometimes be hard to determine if you’re making decisions for the right reasons. But there is no shame in pursuing a new opportunity and reaching a little higher up the ladder when you feel like you’re ready for the next challenge. More times than not, this means looking outside of your organization. If you’re working for a great company, there might be very little turnover, so it makes promotions harder to come by. The majority of my colleagues at the NBA Canada office are still there today preparing for an exciting 2016 season when NBA All-Star is coming to Toronto for the first time in league history. For those colleagues, who were already a little more established in their careers before I got there, this longevity is an important phase in their careers and the reward of working for the league during such an exciting time is priceless. For someone as junior as me, I wouldn’t have progressed to where I am today if I hadn’t moved on. But what’s amazing is that I never would have launched into the career that I did if it wasn’t for the rare opportunity and invaluable experience I got to have during those first two years of my career working for one of the greatest sports leagues in the world.

So, for those of you who are about to enter the workforce and land your first job, I encourage you to remember some of these key lessons I learned as a rookie at the NBA. You will also look back one day and poke some fun at yourself for making mistakes and sometimes learning the hard way. But if you can maintain some composure, manage your emotions and not take it all too seriously, you will grow and advance and enjoy an amazing career. I wish you the best of luck and can’t wait to read your stories one day in the future.