Playing professional basketball in Europe for 14 years is very cool, but transitioning into a very successful career after basketball is even cooler. Gary Gray has been with Connor Sports for 11 years and currently holds the title of Portable Sales Manager and NBA Projects Manager. Gary is finally catching his breath after another great March Madness where Connor Sports installed all of the portables and courts for the big dance on behalf of the NCAA. Gary can now cheer on his NBA clients as the playoffs start. I am privileged to be able to share his career ride in this week’s post.
Have you always had a passion for sports? Absolutely, I grew up playing soccer and other sports. I didn’t really start playing basketball until I was 14, but then I was able to parlay that into a scholarship at UC-Santa Barbara followed by a nice 14-year professional career in Europe. I do have a passion for all sports, especially for basketball, but I love all sports and watching all sports.
What did you think were cool jobs during your formative years? I wanted to be a professional athlete and that was always my main goal. Watching athletes getting paid to play sports was always my dream. I also wouldn’t have minded being a Hollywood actor since I grew up in the area.
Share a brief history about your career path? I got my degree in Sociology at Santa Barbara, but then went straight into basketball. I went to some NBA pre-draft camps including the Seattle Supersonics, but it never really materialized in the US so I went to Europe. I played all over Europe including 7 years in Belgium, 2 years in France, 2 years in Switzerland, 2 years in Germany and a year each in Portugal and England. I may not have made it in the NBA, but I had a pretty healthy career over there. Like I tell people, it wasn’t the money you could make in the NBA but it was sure better than working.
I finished up my career over there, and along the way I had gotten married to a French woman and we have two kids. We decided to come back to the US and I had planned on going into coaching. However, the idea of moving often in the coaching ranks was not something I really was looking forward to after living in 10 different countries in 14 years. Luckily, something kind of fell in my lap and so our plan changed quickly. The week I returned back to the States I was given a break through some contacts with twin brothers Dana and David Pump and heard about a job opportunity with Connor Sports. Connor was in the sports industry selling sports floors and even though it was not something I had thought about, it seemed like a logical move. I made some phone calls and overwhelmed my boss, Jon Isaacs, with phone calls from major college administrators and coaches.
The job at Connor Sports has morphed over the years and I have worn a lot of hats. My first role at Connor Sports and how I got my start was as the South West Regional Manager. That first year was the first year we became the Official Surface of the NCAA Tournament and at that time portable sales weren’t a large part of our business. However, with the help of the NCAA recognition, portable sales really started getting bigger and it became too much to maintain my role as regional sales manager along with running the portables sales. My focus and new role became National Manager for portable sales. Connor Sports still does the majority of our business with permanent floors, but portables have become a significant amount of business. I also help internationally because we are the official court of FIBA and we have supplied courts for last year’s European Championships and the 2014 World Cup in Spain.
Another role for Connor Sports is being the official contact for the NBA and manager for all NBA projects. We work very closely with many NBA teams and their facilities for both the competition floor and practice facilities so that keeps me busy as well. 40% of the NBA plays on a Connor Sports performance floor.
Who inspired you along the way or a person you would like to thank? Well, there were inspirations on a couple levels. Of course, there are my coaches at Santa Barbara that made it all possible. My head coach was Jerry Pimm and I was privileged to have Ben Howland as the assistant coach who recruited me. I was with them and my teammates almost all of the time so they had a huge impact. They were both mentors and father figures that steered us in the right direction, not only in our careers but also in life.
On the personal side, there were friends like David and Dana Pump who I looked up to and who were entrepreneurial guys that were mentors to me. In building their business from the ground up, they taught me the importance of relationships and how important they are in your career. They truly showed me “it is not always what you know but who you know” to be successful in the sports world.
Career highlight or accomplishment you are most proud of? When I look back at the two stages of my life, I look back at the basketball career and then my professional career now. In my basketball career I am proud that I was able to play professional basketball for 14 years and have a productive career. I stayed healthy and took care of my body so I was able to last. Not a lot of people can say they played professionally for that long.
In my career at Connor Sports, I am proud that I was able to learn the business after not knowing anything about sports floors. Jon Isaacs, who is my boss and another mentor of mine, took me under his wing and taught me the business. He showed me the right way to handle business and because of him I now consider myself pretty successful in this world. I love my job and dealing with the diversity that comes my way everyday whether it be dealing with Athletic Directors, contractors, architects, coaches, NBA executives – whomever — it is a great ride. I am proud of what I have done and have moved our portable business from about 7 per year to almost 40 per year.
What is your dream job? Looking back, maybe I should have put effort into being a professional golfer. Their longevity and ability to play their sport for 30-40 years would have been great. Being a GM of a professional basketball team would be pretty cool and I probably wouldn’t turn that job down. The ability to build a team and create your own destiny with a team would be pretty fun.
If you took a different career path what would it have been? In college, without basketball as an option, I would have considered owning a sports bar, but I was really focused on basketball so there wasn’t much of a plan B.
Advice for a kid going to college today who wants to get into sports? I think the cliché that is appropriate is relationships work and also don’t ever burn bridges with anyone. I would say keep your head to the ground and work hard and keep your relationships and contacts as wide and deep as possible. You never know who is going to be able to help you or assist you in your career.
Advice for making it in the sports industry? I have always been the person that has always prided my-self on my work ethic. I was never the most physically talented basketball player, but I had to outwork everyone to succeed. If you use your brains and your fundamentals while outworking the other guy, you will be successful. I have tried to carry that philosophy over to my professional career after basketball. If you have the drive and good work ethic, then add in the overlooked things like being on time, communicating properly, listening, voicing your opinion when appropriate and staying organized, you will be successful. This day in age, I would also advise newcomers to find a balance with technology and work on your social skills.
Any tips for a good work/life because Sports industry is a grind? You have to figure out how to balance everything at different stages of life. In high school it was easy because you did your homework, ate your three meals a day and hung out with friends. In college, you had to balance being a student-athlete with travel and school along with some social life. In the business world it is much more difficult. When you have a wife and two kids you have to learn when to shut it down to spend family time versus when work has to be a priority. At times it can be very challenging, but you have to figure out that unique balance.
Favorite Quote – “Be the best you can be every single day.” Not very profound but I think it can work for everyone.
Now for some fun quick hitters to see another side of Gary……
Name your dream foursome for golf? Freddy Couples, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer
What is your favorite movie of all time? Pulp Fiction
Favorite book? Any John Grisham book but my favorite was The Firm
Top 3 favorite athletes of all time? Magic Johnson, Wayne Gretzky and Freddy Couples
What was your favorite TV show as a kid or growing up? Miami Vice and Magnum P.I.
Three items you would take to a deserted island? Halle Barry, a lighter and a hammock
Favorite game to play as a kid? Clue
Hobby that would surprise people? Probably not a big surprise but golf is my main hobby.
Do you have a favorite charity you support or would like to raise awareness for? I would say what hits home the most lately would be raising awareness for autism. We have a dealer in Utah who has a son with autism and he started a charity called Champions for Autism and I also have a good friend who has a son that was just diagnosed with autism a couple months ago.
Childhood idol? Magic Johnson
Follow Gary on Twitter at – @portable_one
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