As the sports world turns its eyes to New Orleans for the Final Four this weekend, we stopped to check in with a son of New Orleans, now mixing with basketball as the CEO of The NBA Retired Players Association, Arnie Fielkow.
The Wisconsin native and longtime Chicago resident took the position in October of 2011, after six years spent in public service helping rebuild his adopted hometown of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The NBRPA is the only retired players organization for NBA, ABA and Harlem Globetrotters alumni in October of 2011.
Prior to running for public office, Fielkow served as Executive Vice President of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints from 2000 to 2005. In this capacity, he served as the top senior management official presiding over all administrative/business departments, including marketing, sales, regional development, governmental affairs, community relations, business media relations and youth programs.
Prior to joining the Saints, Fielkow was involved in Major League Baseball’s player development system and served as President and General Counsel for the historic Southern League of Professional Baseball Clubs.
Previously, Fielkow served as Deputy Commissioner and General Counsel of the Continental Basketball Association, then the official developmental league of the NBA.
We stopped to ask Arnie about the organization, where it is going and its upcoming initiatives, including a great fundraiser and special night with some bold face NBA alumni in April for a production of the new play Magic/Bird on Broadway (details are at http://www.legendsofbasketball.com/)
What have been the biggest changes from a business perspective you have implemented since taking over as CEO of The National Basketball Retired Player’s Association?
Since my arrival in October, our board and staff have agreed to focus on moving our organization forward as the very best retired players organization in all of sports. Our focal point at the NBRPA is helping our members – former NBA, ABA and Harlem Globetrotters players – navigate the game of life as adeptly as they once played the game of basketball. With this mission in mind, we have worked very hard over the last several months to implement a number of programs in the areas of health, finance, career/life skills, education and legal to help equip our members with the tools for success.
How did the move of the offices to Chicago from New York benefit the organization?
Our move to Chicago made sense on a number of levels. We have NBRPA Chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Orlando, Dallas, Phoenix and Atlanta – Chicago is centrally located to each of these locations, as well as to the NBA and NBPA offices in New York. Our move to Chicago also included an innovative partnership with a sports legal practice in our office space and this arrangement helps equip our team with a host of in-house resources that few organizations of our size have access to on a daily basis.
From a marketing standpoint, what kind of value does the organization bring to brands that cannot be gotten otherwise?
Founded 20 years ago by Oscar Robertson, Dave Bing, Archie Clark, Dave Cowens and the late Dave DeBusschere, our Association is made up of former athletes who literally built the game of basketball. We call stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Julius Erving NBRPA Members, and we also count unsung heroes like Earl Lloyd – the first African-American to play in an NBA game – amongst our members. From a marketing standpoint we deliver value by being the only organization capable of bringing basketball’s legends to our partners.
What is a business success story people might not know about but should?
During the recent NBA All-Star Weekend in Orlando, the NBRPA partnered with Wells Fargo to celebrate Black History Month. As part of a day-long celebration on Feb. 26, former New York Knicks star Dr. Dick Barnett and our own Legends Band – a soulful music act comprised of former NBA and WNBA players – delivered a rousing assembly to a group of local school children to celebrate African-American heritage and the opportunities that lie ahead.
Later that evening, the NBRPA and Wells Fargo hosted a public reception and historic panel discussion on African-American impact on the game of basketball and sports. For two hours, NBRPA members Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Spencer Haywood, Earl Lloyd and Dolph Schayes – joined by Sharon Robinson (daughter of Major League Baseball’s first African-American player, Jackie Robinson), sports/social activist Dr. Richard A. Lapchick, author Mark Johnson (son of former Harlem Globetrotter Andy Johnson) and emcee Marc H. Morial, President & CEO of the National Urban League – were united in frank and captivating discussion about the historic relevance of race in sports. Several hundred people attended the Hardwood Pioneers Reflect panel at the Walt Disney Swan Resort in Orlando and hundreds more accessed the historic discussion live online at the NBRPA’s newly-relaunched official web site, LegendsofBasketball.com.
Without the support of our partner, Wells Fargo, the NBRPA would not have been able to produce such a historic and socially-aware menu of programming in celebration of Black History Month. These are the types of impactful partnerships we work to create and execute at the NBRPA.
You have a wide ranging background in sports business and government, how is that beneficial in this position?
With experience in professional basketball, football and baseball – as well as time spent in government, and as a practicing attorney – I feel like I have a wealth of experience to draw from in my position. At the same time, I am also fortunate to be working for a wonderful and diverse board of directors that has given me the tools – namely a strong, hard-working staff – to position our Association for success.
What are some of the tent pole events the organization does that brands can tie to each year?
Our Association has two flagship event weekends historically – NBA All-Star Weekend each winter and the Legends World Sports Conference each summer.
During All-Star Weekend we schedule an aggressive agenda of public and private events designed to give our partners and fans the opportunity to meet and interact with our prestigious membership. We also use All-Star Weekend as an opportunity to hold meetings, conduct business and work to build and launch successful programs with partners.
Our Legends World Sports Conference is a multi-day series of learning and networking sessions for our members and partners. This one-of-its-kind conference for former NBA, ABA and Harlem Globetrotters players provides our partners with a unique opportunity to present brands and ideas to a unique, captive audience.
For future years, likely beginning in 2013, we would like to add a third flagship event in the form of a fundraising gala for our members, partners and supporters.
What kind of unique value do retired basketball players bring to the table vs. say retired athletes from other sports?
Retired basketball players are unique in that this is perhaps the tightest network of former athletes in all of professional sports. NFL teams carry a 53-man roster each season and Major League Baseball clubs have 25 players on their big league squad. In the NBA, players get to know each other intimately because teams operate with just a 12-man roster. With that in mind, our members all know one another intimately and it’s very easy to bring our retired players together because basketball is such an exclusive, tight-knit fraternity.
What is the relationship like between your group, the NBPA and the NBA?
The NBRPA has had a long-time partnership with both the NBA and the NBPA.
Commissioner Stern and the NBA provide financial support to our members and partner with our Association on nationally-recognized events like the Legends Brunch during All-Star Weekend each year. We meet with the NBA frequently and are working to expand our partnership into new areas, with discussions of how to grow our relationship. Commissioner Stern and his team at the NBA recognize the importance of former players and we are appreciative of all the support we receive from the league office.
Of course all current NBA players will someday retire and become our members, so it only makes sense for us to work hand-in-hand with Executive Director Billy Hunter and the NBPA. The NBPA supports the NBRPA financially and we are working diligently to try and broaden our relationship – exploring ideas in mentorship and beyond – to help make retirement as seamless as possible for today’s players.
Magic Johnson is obviously a great success story with what he has done in business, entertainment and social awareness. He is now part of the new Broadway play as well. How can that type of exposure trickle down to help other retired players who may not be so fortunate?
I recently spoke to Magic on the phone and he is certainly a role model – not only for our members, but for anyone in life. Magic’s business successes are almost as well-documented as his on-court prowess and we are very proud to call him an NBRPA Member. Younger NBRPA members, as well as current NBA players, can learn a great deal simply by watching Magic and he has done all of us a great favor by remaining close to the game and being accessible to his peers. The MAGIC/BIRD play is an extension of Magic Johnson’s remarkable success story in life and we are very excited to help bring this production to our supporters, partners and members.
What is the next big thing that the organization would like to achieve that people should know about in the coming months?
Our organizational focus is on the upcoming Legends World Sports Conference in New Orleans on August 17,18 and 19. As the former President for the New Orleans City Council and Vice President of the New Orleans Saints, the Crescent City is obviously a place I hold dear to my heart and I can promise our members and partners a truly unique world class event. We are filling out our roster of programming for this event weekend and are interested working with any partners that want to bring their brands and ideas to our exclusive audience of former NBA, ABA and Harlem Globetrotters players.