BOSTON — Walking through the classroom door, he ducked instinctively.
At 6 feet 11 inches tall, bending is a necessary habit, but it also immediately set him apart from the other students streaming out of the Harvard Business School lecture hall.
Festus Ezeli, a first-round National Basketball Association draft pick in 2012, hovered in the hallway for a few minutes with other professional basketball and football players. The dozen were at Harvard for a day last month to learn from the school’s famous case study method, and to be matched up with a pair of students who would be their business mentors for the semester.
Ezeli’s mentor, Alison Rapaport, could offer him insights from her summer internships and time as an asset manager.
“If you want to learn anything about finance, personal investing, that’s what I did for five years,” Rapaport told him.
“I would absolutely love to learn about investing,” the Nigerian native responded.
In the second semester of the Crossover into Business Program, Rapaport already has a season of experience. Last fall, she mentored former Ezeli teammate Al-Farouq Aminu.
That connection to Aminu, of the Portland Trail Blazers, was why Ezeli, a free agent, had picked Rapaport. Last fall, Aminu had talked with Rapaport and another student mentor, Phoebe Peronto, about starting a basketball training program in his native Nigeria. Ezeli wants to learn more about the business aspects of setting up a training program and perhaps team up with his friend.
Ezeli and the other professional athletes at Harvard were able to pick their mentors. Twenty pairs of enthusiastic students quickly touted their experience and accomplishments — mostly off the court. They don’t get academic credit for their free advice. But aspiring to be in sports or entertainment management, the students are eager to put their knowledge to work.
The program was started last year by Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse, who teaches one of the school’s most popular courses, “The Business of Entertainment, Media, and Sports.”
A few athletes, including the Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade, had taken her executive education classes. When an NBA executive reached out for guidance on how to improve the league’s educational programming, Elberse saw an opportunity for collaboration. She particularly hoped the program would attract younger, less experienced players, who might not be ready for a four-day executive education program but wanted to learn about business.
She had no idea whether Harvard business students would even be interested in a mentoring program that gave them no academic credit or money, but she has had to turn away volunteers. “They came out of the woodwork,” she said.
Last semester, the athletes were all men, but she reached out to the WNBA and called a female professional soccer player she knew. “Within a few weeks, we had a team of 20 athletes together.”
She said she believes the program is the only one like it in the country, and hopes to make it bigger and a staple within the business school.
Kayla Alexander, a center for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, won the first pick of mentors and chose student Rebecca Feickert, whom she had met earlier in the day at lunch.
Feickert, in her second year at Harvard, impressed all six WBNA players at lunch.
Over tomato-mozzarella sandwiches, fruit and cookies, Feickert explained why one of the students in the class they had just attended was making outrageous comments. At Harvard Business School, half of a student’s grade is based on class participation, including driving the discussion. So, someone inevitably offers an outlandish opinion. “There’s always one,” she said. “They even change my mind sometimes.”
Feickert had played basketball herself, small-forward for the University of Kansas, graduating in 2009. She became an accountant, but after looking up the chain of command and realizing she didn’t want to climb it, she began thinking about what else she might do.
The North Dakota native struggled to adjust to life after college basketball and saw many other former athletes struggling, too, Feickert said, as the WNBA players nodded sympathetically. She decided to attend business school as training toward her new goal: setting up a program called Trey Athletes, to help them make college decisions, from choosing a school to picking a major they can balance with their sport.
More than half of all top women executives played college sports, Feickert said, citing an Ernst & Young study, and noting that the discipline and resiliency of sports transfers well to the business world.
“Basketball is the reason I’m here [at Harvard], the reason I can meet deadlines, stay dedicated . . . .,” said Feickert, who is hoping to help others manage those skills.
“It’s kind of inspiring,” said Tina Charles, a center for the New York Liberty, after hearing her plan.
“I love what she’s doing,” said Alana Beard, who plays guard for the Los Angeles Sparks.
The players all said they wanted Feickert as their mentor, but Alexander, who talked to her the longest, got first dibs.
A Syracuse University graduate and first-round WNBA draft pick in 2013, Alexander said she had always planned to become a teacher when her basketball days were over. The Toronto native also wants to do something with the arts.
Her eyes lit up when Feickert mentioned using basketball to teach math. “It’s cool that you love education,” Feickert told her. “Sports and arts are such common ways to educate kids that there’s got to be a way to link the three.”
Ezeli is interested in education, too — in his case because his mother runs a school in Nigeria.
He told Rapaport in their late-afternoon session that he would appreciate her help finding a way to give back in Nigeria. “Some people don’t have hope. I’m that vision of hope and faith,” he said. “When people look at me, I want them to see that I have my hand at home. I want to be able to reach back and bring some others with me.”
Ezeli, who won an NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors in 2015, typically spends his days in a gym rehabilitating his right knee, which kept him sidelined in the 2016-2017 season with the Trail Blazers. Now, he’s hoping to get picked up by another team. In the meantime, the economics major is reading Harvard case studies.
“Being a ballplayer is not enough,” he said. “There’s life after basketball.”