When I was 19 years old, I was drafted into the NBA by the Vancouver Grizzlies.
Along with trying to acclimate myself as quickly as possible to the life and pressure of professional basketball, I had an additional challenge: trying to find my place on a team with players very different than me.
At that time, the average age on the Grizzlies was 30 years old, and most of the guys had families. Here I was, a 19-year-old African American from Atlanta, GA, born and raised Muslim and the son of an imam. With one year of college under my belt and no one to worry about but me, I didn’t exactly fit right in with the rest of the team dynamic. And I certainly didn’t fit the mold of your standard Canadian!
Playing basketball was the “easy” part compared to fitting into Canadian culture. The weather was different (it rained almost EVERY day!), I couldn’t find a lot of the foods I loved, I had to navigate new currency and exchange rates, and there was very little U.S. news to see and read. Plus, Canada’s main sport is hockey, so garnering attention and excitement for basketball didn’t come as easily as it did back home.
But the five years I played in Vancouver were some of the most formative years of my life. I learned, and I was challenged. In order to perform in the high-pressure, results-driven environment of the NBA, I had to figure out how to be productive and contribute to my team, fast—as well as acclimate to Canadian culture.
The only way to do that was to be open. I had to get to know my teammates and learn about them—their motivations, their experiences and their concerns—and I had to get comfortable sharing about my own life as well, so that my teammates could get to know me in return.
The key was finding the similarities between us, instead of focusing on our differences.
I’ve used this approach throughout my entire career—as a player, a coach, and now on the corporate side of the NBA—as I’ve worked and played with people from all different backgrounds and walks of life.
The results of this approach have opened up so many opportunities for me and helped me form connections that have enriched many aspects of my life.
It’s also sparked a passion in me to help create similar eye-opening opportunities for others, especially kids from underserved neighborhoods who might not otherwise get the chance. I founded the Future Foundation for this very reason.
When I think back to that first year on the Grizzlies, I feel so lucky that the guys on the team welcomed me into the fold.
They could’ve treated me as an outsider because I was younger than them or didn’t look like them or was from a different city, but they didn’t.
My life was enriched because they included me.
There is so much value to be found in being open to others and focusing on the similarities we share with people who are different than us.
It can be such a powerful experience for everyone involved—and it might even be the catalyst that changes a person’s entire life.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic to know you’ve had that kind of impact on someone?
It all starts with being open, finding similarities between yourself and others, and then reaching out to make the connection.
Here’s a tip: one of the easiest ways to focus on similarities is to identify the common goal between you.
You may have starkly different viewpoints, opinions, or upbringings, but there’s always one thing you can connect over. Find it. Maybe it’s your love of a sport, your need to provide for your family, or a deep desire to create or perform at the highest level.
Whatever it is, find the common goal and connect there—then work together to help each other achieve success.
I want to hear from you!
Please leave a comment below and let me know…
Is there someone in your life who you’ve connected strongly with, despite your differences? What is one way that relationship has enhanced your life?