Excell Hardy's playing career is over, but his love for basketball is as strong as ever.
Hardy played at Homewood-Flossmoor, and the Vikings lost 53-47 in Hardy's senior season in the Class 4A state title game in 2004 to Shaun Livingston-led Peoria Central. After spending two years at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., Hardy played for two years at Quincy University, averaging 4.3 points as a junior and 8.9 points and 3.3 assists as a senior.
He graduated from QU in 2008, then got into coaching as a graduate assistant at Quincy University for two years before he returned to Chicago to help coach at his old high school. He also co-founded The Evolution of Advanced Minds (TEAM LLC), a sports and marketing firm that worked with athletes and entertainers.
Hardy then joined the National Basketball Retired Players Association in 2012. Now 32, he is the senior director of member relations.
So do you play much any more?
I play, but usually it's coaching and training. I can't stay away from the game. What I've done since I've stopped playing is I've partnered with a non-profit called Team Up and launched a feeder basketball and baseball program with Homewood-Flossmoor High School. I oversee the basketball portion. It's for grades 4-12, and it's year round. I also run a varsity fall basketball league. We invited some of the top teams in Chicagoland area. During the summer, during the off months, we run a host of camps and clinics in the area for kids looking to continue to develop their game, and we invite some alums to assist. We run the same plays as the high school does. It's a complete system of year-round development. It's been a incredible ride.
And you're doing this on top of your full-time job?
You sound like my wife. It's just a passion of mine. My wife also is passionate about the game, and she understands the connection and fully supports me.
How did you wind up playing basketball in Quincy?
I was at Augustana on full scholarship, and after my sophomore year, I transferred to Quincy. Coach (Marty) Bell asked me if I would like to come back for another year or two to be a grad assistant, and I stuck around for four years overall. Coach Bell did recruit me out of high school. At that time, Andre Muse (a Thornwood graduate who played four years at QU) and I were in the same conference. He and I talked about it. He decided to go to Quincy right away. I took a delayed route.
What do you remember about your time in Quincy?
I think about life-long friends and relationships. It allowed me to dig in and try some different things. Quincy was my training ground, both education and career wise. While I was at Quincy, I launched a program called Bridging the Gap. What it was designed to be was finding a way, a platform, to bridge the gap from the students at QU and the community at-large and showcase the students at Quincy. We tried to create positive community activities. I developed a great relationship with the director of the Vision and Literacy Center. I would host different talent shows, different forums to introduce different topics that students were not used to talking about, like race and religion. We gave people with different backgrounds opportunities to have open dialogue. We also partnered with the streetball players formerly with And One and brought them to Quincy to play an all-star team of guys from around the area. The proceeds from that went to benefit the Vision and Literacy Center. I just really wanted to expose Quincy to things I've been exposed to in the larger markets and find ways to really develop students outside the classroom.
When you were done playing, were you looking to get into coaching?
I had no interest in coaching at all. I'm going to be honest. Midway through my senior year, I did have a couple of offers to play either in a minor league in the states or professionally overseas. I thought if I would keep playing, I would do it for five years max. I was on Coach Bell's radio show one day, and I was his guest. He announces on the show that I'm his grad assistant. We had not talked about it prior to the show. I had no idea. I just went with the flow. I just said, "It sounds great." There are opportunities that you can't prepare for but are put in your path. I've always been passionate about relationships and player development, both on and off the court. There were former teammates transitioning into a coaching capacity, so it was a natural transition for me. I really developed a passion for whatever it takes for guys to further their career off the court and start getting them to think about how to leverage the game for opportunities that exist far beyond the game.
When I asked about your time in Quincy, you didn't mention a single game.
I've always been passionate about building relationships and community impact. I've used sports as a tool to get in the door, but it was always about life skill development.
When you created TEAM LLC, you also worked with entertainers. Are you still involved in music yourself?
No. I wear many hats, and I grew up in a musical household. My father was in a gospel band for many years. I represent a few artists out of Chicago who have made an impact. One of the artists I work with is Harold Green, a motivational speaker. He was the keynote speaker for Rahm Emanuel's swearing-in ceremony. I still stay involved in the arts, but I'm more behind the scenes. My father tries to get me out every once in a while to be a drummer when my schedule allows. I also have a 2-year-old son, and he loves basketball and he loves drums.
How did you get involved with the NBRPA?
When I came back to Chicago, one of the first clients I worked with was Larue Martin, a former lottery pick whose career didn't turn out the way he would have liked. He's from Chicago, and he works and lives in the Chicago area. He's transitioned into an amazing professional career, and he was on the board for the National Basketball Retired Players Association. He said to me, "With the work you're doing for me, I could see you doing for a lot more athletes." The retired players' office headquarters was moving from New York to Chicago, and he said he would put in a good word with the CEO.
So what does the National Basketball Retired Players Association do?
We're a charitable 501c3. Our mission is two-pronged -- assisting former WNBA and NBA players into life after the game, and also leveraging basketball as a way to generate positive community impact. We work with the NBA league office and the NBA players union to make sure there's support for the basketball family. We service close to 1,000 former NBA, ABA and WNBA players. We offer education, health, finance and career transition advice.
So what is your role?
I lead the recruitment and development of the players, either those prepping for retirement or those currently retired. I identify strategic partnerships with corporations. Players can add value on a personal level, they could provide a service, and I also help boost their overall brand, help spotlight the players and some of their stories. The amount of money a current retired player makes is a lot different than 10 years ago. We have to develop and transition our program to the need of our current retired players. In the past, they would look to retire and transition to a blue collar job. Now they retire with $50 million, and they're not looking for another job but learn more about investments and entrepreneurship. We want to make sure there's support for every aspect of a retired player.
How do you find the players?
We host a major event in conjunction with NBA All-Star Weekend, and we also have our annual summer conference. We can introduce our membership to the opportunities that exist. Also, we're back in Las Vegas in conjunction with the NBA Summer League. We also have a Women of Influence summit, a Northwestern Kellogg School of Management business education summit and a technology summit. It all creates exposure for players. Typically in the fall, we have a gala we host at the Mohican Sun in Connecticut as a fund raiser for our scholarship program to assist families or retired families who may be in need.
So who are some of the big names you've met?
One of the biggest pleasures was that I got to meet my idol in Magic Johnson. He's an absolute delight. I understand why he's so successful. There are quite a few names of people I've met. Bill Walton, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Dr. J. Some of the younger guys are Quentin Richardson, Corey Magette, Antoine Walker ... they all grew up in the Chicagoland area. I'm in unique position to help them from a professional standpoint. It's been a blast.
What are the needs of a typical retired player?
It runs the gamut. You have the older guys who didn't make the type of money they do now. You have those who made some, but they're not a big brand name where it resonates on a national level, and then you have someone like a Grant Hill who did pretty well as terms of their net worth. Some may simply retire. Some may say, "Excell, I want to get into coaching, but I don't know the first steps." We have an NBA assistant coaches program. They go through that boot camp, and it exposes them to have interviews and allows them to see if they are an ideal candidate. Then you have those who have retired, they have a foundation, and they are looking to create strategic partnerships that align with their foundation's mission. A lot of guys want to be an entrepreneur. A lot of our guys have had success in franchising, technology or real estate, or we can connect them with someone who can take their business plan to activation.
What attracted to you to this job?
I love people. I love basketball. This allows me to be close to the game. Beyond that, people are not aware of the dark side or the process that you go through as an athlete when you prepare for retirement. It's a scary thing. You figure out what you want to do, and you're not sure where the support is. What's my next step into the real world? Imagine playing a game for 20 years, from grammar school to the pros. It's the only thing you've known. You've got to be at practice. You've got to be on a flight. You've been told what time to be where your whole life. These guys need structure. They just showed up and performed.
So how can you help them?
I help build a circle of accountability. Some guys might not need everything. They may need only one aspect to be filled. I get to understand where they are physically, mentally and where they want to go personally, then leverage our partnerships and help them connect with guys. They're willing to put in the work just as they did as athletes. I get so excited seeing that come to fruition. That's why some athletes are successful businessmen. That same competitive nature is applied to another skill set.
Is it difficult not to be awestruck when you meet some of the players?
The only person I was completely in awe of was Magic. Everyone else, I have a tremendous amount of respect for them, but I've always seen them as just people. Instead of feeling like a commodity, these players want to listen to someone who has no judgement. I had the pleasure of working on a couple of events with Dikembe Mutombo. He is the nicest guy. He has so much humor. I wouldn't have known. He's the funniest guy. Constantly cracking jokes, personality out of this world. I got to see a side of him that most people don't get to see.
When was the last time you made it back to Quincy?
It's been a while. I was there maybe a year or so ago. I came in for a funeral. It wasn't under good pretenses. Before that, maybe five or more years or so ago.
So what's next for you?
I don't see leaving this job any time soon. The next phase for me would be young athletes, like a Jabari Parker, working with them in a business management capacity. Now that I have the understanding of what happens if players don't take care of X, Y and Z in terms of taking care their career, I'd like to mentor them to help prevent issues with finance long-term or their health long-term or community initiatives or developing their business. I'd like to take the knowledge from what I've learned for the last six or seven years and take on those guys at an earlier stage in their career and making sure what we do is to set them up for life after basketball.