Chicago native and NBA veteran Nazr Mohammed has not officially retired after an 18-year stint in the league. And he doesn’t have much to say about when that announcement will come.
“I realized a long time ago, seeing other friends and teammates go through it. Only the great ones actually retire. The rest of us get retired,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need to officially retire, but I am retired. What I mean by that is, you know, there’s always a situation you would play for, but after a year has passed, I’m not really thinking in that mindset as far as playing again. I’m looking more into the business of basketball. There are things I want to do as far as looking for the right situation that can teach me the business of basketball and put me in a position where I have an opportunity to learn as much as I can. My dream is to one day run my own organization, whether it’s GM or as the president of an organization. I think I can manage and help build a championship team.”
But Mohammed is a multidimensional thinker whose skills have stretched far beyond the court. So for the next chapter of his career, he’s continuing to give back to others and teaching life skills to young girls and boys through his foundation. His off-the-court endeavors include the Nazr Mohammed Foundation, a fundraising organization that focuses on bringing awareness and money to a cause of his choice while hosting its own programs.
“You know how so many start a foundation and they have one particular cause? Just with me, it’s so many different things that I believe in and so many different causes that I’d like to support,” Mohammed said of his multilayered unit. “I decided that, you know what, one cause just isn’t enough, so I keep my foundation pretty broad.”
The University of Kentucky standout was selected in the first round of the 1998 NBA draft by the Utah Jazz right after his junior year. Utah traded his rights to the Philadelphia 76ers, with whom Mohammed spent the first two seasons of his NBA career. The 6-foot-10 center was an integral big man for the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Bobcats, Oklahoma City Thunder and his hometown Chicago Bulls. He played for the Thunder last season.
Mohammed attended high school at Kenwood Academy in Chicago and grew up in a big household led by his father, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana.
“There’s 10 of us. Three brothers, six sisters. I’m like fourth from oldest,” he said.
In February, he shared information about his life, his childhood and growing up in a Muslim household in a blog post about religion and politics. He wrote about his experiences with online racism, and his story picked up national attention.
“It’s funny, when I do my blog, something happens that’s just constantly being talked about on TV, and I knew I had an opinion,” he said. “I do plan on doing the blog again. I don’t know when, I don’t know what it’ll be about. When there’s something to talk about, I just have some things I need to say about it, and I just start writing and put it out there.
“The funny part is I never thought I was a writer. I actually didn’t like writing a whole lot, but after I get started, I think I’m getting better. I enjoy it, and once I get started I can’t stop.”
Meanwhile, Mohammed is busy running The Village Project for boys and girls ages 14 to 18.
“What we do is we get up to 100 kids. We try to get about 50 girls and 50 boys. We go through different things and different situations that kids may be going through from bullying to etiquette, financial planning, etc. We create the curriculum according to the what we feel are tools they will need to excel. Then come in and talk to them about financial planning so they can get an understanding about how to handle money, how to save, what bills to expect. When you’re young, no one ever really talks to you about money and financial planning. I think that’s something, especially in the black community, we kind of have to learn on our own.”
Mohammed spoke with The Undefeated about his foundation, family and his overall journey.
What was the idea behind starting your foundation?
I was trying to do something for my high school. I wanted to do something where I help them out academically and athletically, so I decided it was time to start up my foundation. I can kind of use my platform, my name, to try and help to raise money or have fundraisers for them.
My first fundraiser we raised a total of $40,000 for my high school. It helped them upgrade a couple of academic areas. We were able to upgrade some things in their main gym. My second year, I decided to change it up. It was a couple of organizations that I felt that were doing some outstanding things in Chicago and I wanted to highlight them. One of them was Sue Duncan Children’s Center, a place I attended in elementary after the school day to play ball. Back when I attended it didn’t a have a name, so we called it Sue’s. It was at a church; Sue made us read then do a book report before we could play. The other option was to read to some of the younger kids. Sue’s son, Arne Duncan, later became the superintendent of Chicago schools. President [Barack] Obama later named him secretary of education. We donated money to Sue Duncan Children’s Center. Also a place called CircEsteem. It’s an organization that is an afterschool program that kind of keeps kids engaged. They are teaching them like circus tricks. And another one was called Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. In the third year, I switched it up again. This time I did a big fundraiser for Kovler Diabetes Center with the University of Chicago. And the reason I chose diabetes was because of a couple of people in my family suffer from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. And I wanted to just kind of give back and bring awareness, because we all know how prevalent it is in the black community.
We would help them with the things they were doing as far as research, and they had programs where they were helping people pay for their medicine. In our fourth year, we decided to do something for autism. We did a big fundraiser to raise money for a couple of groups that were helping out in black communities, and communities everywhere. In the fifth year, we also donated to a couple of local organizations.
So that’s kind of what we do. We’re all over the place. If I see something where I feel like it’s a credible organization, or they’re doing great work and I can lend my name, or I could do something and raise money for them, I kind of just do it.
What’s been the hardest part of fundraising for you?
The hardest part is, it’s kind of sad. … You have so many people who say they want to help and they want to be part of what you’re doing, but they really want to help in certain ways. They only want to do certain things. So finding people who are willing to donate their time, or money, or their expertise, it’s been hard. There have been times where people have had their own agendas.
Which cause is the most like heart-tugging for you?
Honestly, all of them have been pretty equal. With autism, I had a friend who had two of his young children on the autistic spectrum. I had another friend whose son in high school was autistic. So that was something that was close to me. As far as diabetes in my immediate family, I have so many that are Type 1 and Type 2. Cancer, at the time I decided to do my fundraiser for cancer, I also had one friend pass from a form of cancer. I had another friend, his mom just found out she had cervical cancer, and I had two friends dealing with breast cancer, so that was something that was really close to me. With each fundraiser we did, there was definitely something that meant something dearly to me at the time and still does. I do have to admit, it is very rewarding doing The Village Project just because this is where we can help teenage kids, we can help young kids, and give them some directions.
As a ‘Windy City’ native, how do you feel about some of the community issues that have been plaguing the Chicago area?
Since I don’t live there full time, I can’t say it directly affects me. But being in Chicago, you just feel it. Growing up in Chicago and playing basketball, when I played, you almost had like an athlete pass, where if you’re doing good, you’re the good player, you are pretty much allowed to go play here and play there, and going to different neighborhoods and no one pretty much messed with you. The saddest part about the violence that’s going on in Chicago, you no longer see that pass. In the last couple of years, there’s been a couple of prominent high school athletes from Chicago who had been killed. When you talk about my city, I want you to talk about it for being a great city, it is. With all the violence that’s going on, the murder rate being so high in certain areas.
I think it’s time that I try and figure out what I can do. I’m as bashful about what exactly you can do with most people. There’s a lot of people working on it. I’m actually trying to find the right organization that I want to partner with, see where I can help.
How do you feel about rappers like Chance the Rapper and Common and others who are speaking out and taking a stand for what’s going on in the community there?
What Chance has been doing, it’s just been amazing. Just to be such a young guy. How intelligent and how passionate he is about the city, putting his money where his mouth is. It’s just been amazing. Some people forget Derrick [Rose] gave a million dollars to an after-school program in Chicago. It’s not talked about much; once it’s done, people forget quickly. Derrick put his money where his mouth was too. There’s people stepping up, people trying to support the city in whichever way they can, whether financially.
Are your children aware of and involved in your philanthropic efforts?
Yeah, definitely. I try to have them involved in little ways whenever we can. I definitely have them around when we do the big group stuff so they can just see what’s going on, letting them help fill gift bags, little things like that, just so they got a feel for what’s going on and kind of be part of it. I have a 14-year-old daughter who will be starting high school this year, 11-year-old son who will be in the sixth grade, and an 8-year-old daughter will be in third grade.
What’s been the most interesting part in being the giver?
I hate to say it, but one of the biggest reasons why I do it is when you give, that’s an opportunity to be selfish. What I mean by that is, when you give … I do it because it makes me feel good. At the end of the day, knowing that you’re in a position that you can help others and you can give and the smiles that you put on people’s faces and the happiness that you bring to others. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel good about myself, so if I can make myself feel a little bit better by giving to others, when I have the opportunity, I try to do it.
How has being a Ghanaian player in the NBA been for you?
It’s funny because I’m just doing my thing, and they’re so proud because I was the first Ghanaian in the NBA. So they’re so proud of it, but at the same time it’s one of those things, because I’m American-born, some people feel like, ‘We don’t know.’ Both my parents are from Ghana. I can’t pick where I was born. I feel like it just had a great impression on me. It’s a quality, and it’s something that is ingrained from different things for me. You know, growing up being the African kid in the neighborhood. You’re treated differently. People look at you differently. Your parents speak a different language but hear the accent.
My father, he really wanted us to understand the difference between being poor in America and Third World poor, how he grew up. We just got different culture and different view on things. Being included, once I became a good basketball player, having that background, my Ghanaian part and just being an African-American in America. I just got a chance to develop so many different views and be a part of so many different groups. That’s something I touched on in my blog about religion and politics.
How has your culture shaped you into the man you are now?
It’s in my DNA. My pops was a hardworking, smart, whatever it takes to be successful, whatever it takes to feed his family. It rubbed off on all of us, all the kids. It’s just part of our culture. You do whatever you have to do, especially being the man of the house. You feed your family, you keep a roof over their heads, you work hard, you try to achieve as much as you can, you learn as much as you can. It definitely shaped me into the man I am today. My father, he did it all first off. It’s kind of hard to explain what he did. During my lifetime, he owned gas stations, he’s done all types of things, but during my lifetime, he drove a cab first. He drove a cab in Chicago, then he wound up went into medallion. Medallion is the right to have a cab in Chicago. A friend of his wanted medallion, but he couldn’t afford to put it on the street, so my father bought his medallion. So now he had two cabs. He slowly put together where he at one point owned 11 cabs. He was a jack-of-all-trades, he did it all. We had a restaurant for a year or two. My pops, he would just work hard, get it out there, try to accomplish it.
If it fails, get backup. Try to figure out another way to accomplish another goal. He always told us, if you can, don’t work for anybody, work for yourself. I’ve always had that in my mind, but of course I haven’t been able to achieve considering it’s kind of hard to be on a team and work for yourself. I’m trying to figure that one out now.
Did you experience any racism growing up?
I feel like at some level, you can always question the way someone treated you, is it some form of racism or prejudice, but you don’t truly know. I found social media, that’s a wild experience. Most of my racism is through … I don’t really count that though. I haven’t experienced much racism that I can confirm in person. No one has called me out my name in person. It’s been more like you’ve had this feeling. And that this person could have been a racist or could have been prejudiced, prejudiced against tall people, black people, whatever it may be, Africans or in which box you want to check for me.