NBA X HBCU Fellowship Program gives hands-on experience to 60 students

The inaugural NBA X HBCU Fellowship program helped 60 interns learn the ins and outs of life in the corporate world of basketball.

HBCU Fellows at program orientation.

Ever wanted to know what it is like to work behind the scenes in the NBA? That dream was made a reality when the NBA and NBA Foundation’s inaugural HBCU Fellowship Program recently completed its 10-week long session. Over the summer, 60 graduate and undergraduate students from Historically Black Colleges & Universities were placed in paid internship roles with various NBA franchises and the league office.

The HBCU Fellowship Program aimed to give greater opportunity and access to HBCU students while teaching them the business side of basketball. Fellows worked different roles in various departments such as ticket sales, corporate partnerships, human relations, social responsibility and marketing.

Just getting to the point of being accepted was a highly competitive process. The 60 students were selected after a rigorous period that saw more than 2,700 applicants. In total, 24 HBCUs were represented in roles scattered throughout the country.

The Fellows’ journey tipped off in New York City at the NBA Headquarters in June. The two-day event featured a message from Commissioner Adam Silver, a star-studded panel featuring current NBA players, networking opportunities and some NBA-issued swag, too. After that orientation session, the students were ready to soak up what they could learn from the 10-week internship.

Four students — Cierra Carter (Tennessee State University), Afiya Ward (Florida A&M), Jonathan Jackson (North Carolina A&T) and Andre Spivey (Morehouse College) — spoke with NBA.com about what the 10-week program was like, what experiences they gained from it and how it will shape their professional careers.

(Editor’s note: The following conversation has been condensed and edited.)

NBA.com: Which department did you work in? What projects were you assigned?

Carter: This past summer, I worked with the Suns. I had the privilege of working with the people and culture team in their HR department. Some projects I got to work on were in recruiting and I was able to help host a career fair with the Suns. From these projects, I was able to gauge how a well-functioning team works, understanding what is needed from different departments.

Ward: I worked with the 2K League, specifically with league partnerships and activations. I had my hand in a variety of projects on a day-to-day basis — tasks included creating decks for presentations, tracking sponsor hits, creating partner deliverables spreadsheets. I was able to work on the 2K League’s HBCU strategy and also speak at social responsibility programs.

Spivey: I worked in the partnership, marketing and media sales department within Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, who own the Denver Nuggets and several other Denver professional sports teams. I thought it would be Nuggets-based, but it dealt with four major sports teams — I was there during the Stanley Cup Finals (for the Colorado Avalanche) and got to do game activations during home games. That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Andre Spivey interned with Kroenke Sports & Entertainment in Denver.

Jackson: I got to work in corporate partnership activations with the 76ers. Some projects I got to work on were corporate sponsorship activations and getting to fulfill various assets for contracted partners.

Jackson was offered a full-time role at the end of his 10-week internship. How has that transition been?

Jackson: I would like to say it has been seamless but, honestly, I am still learning every day. It has been a very smooth transition, but I appreciate being still in the state of learning.

NBA.com: What was one of your favorite experiences throughout the fellowship?

Carter: Assisting with Brittney Griner’s shoe drive, seeing the compassion and care around Phoenix and the philanthropy work here has been amazing.

Cierra Carter at her internship in Phoenix.

Jackson: One of our partners invited us to the Eagles’ training camp, and before I even came out to Philadelphia for this internship, they were my favorite team! What this day showed me was that the sports business world is big but small! A lot of us know each other. I was just standing there taking it all in and thinking ‘I can’t believe this is work.’

Spivey: Before the Nuggets left for Summer League in Las Vegas, I got to sit in on some practices. I got to be in the gym with the Nuggets and for me, well, I want to be a GM one day — and just seeing both the GM and assistant GM in the gym, me standing in the corner, acting like I am supposed to be here.

NBA.com: Were you star-struck by any professionals or players at any point?

Ward: Yes, the whole time — especially meeting Joe Dumars! My dad grew in Los Angeles, so he is big on the Lakers and Clippers. When I met Robert Covington that was great. Oh, and meeting Adam Silver and Mark Tatum, just seeing all of them at the Draft.

Robert Covington speaking with HBCU Fellows in New York City.

Carter: In Phoenix, I met both Devin Booker and Chris Paul. I saw D-Book and went ‘oh, snap!’ That was my star-struck moment. But also seeing what Paul does for HBCUs and getting to meet and tell him a little about me and my journey was special.

Jackson: Back at orientation meeting players like C.J. McCollum, Robert Covington and, really the whole panel … just knowing the impact that they hold. That was a real star-struck moment for me.

Spivey: In Denver, I first met Monte Morris, and that was awesome. I always use the Nuggets in 2K. I got to see one of my favorite players, Bones Hyland, go through a private workout. Man, that was awesome.

NBA.com: What was it like to be prepared for an early career in sports entertainment? What aspects of the program helped prepare you?

Carter: What helped me was just allowing myself to be uncomfortable and ask as many questions as possible that I can. I truly got to be myself in this space, I helped develop my own ideas and I truly learned what it is like to be a part of a well-working system.

Spivey: Fredrick Salyers said to us: ‘this is a very catapulting summer for a lot of you,’ and that stuck with me all summer. This program helped me realize how the industry is big, but a handshake can go a long way. When I was leaving Denver, they told me ‘Let me know if you need anything in Atlanta, I know people out there.’ Just staying connected, I am going back to do well in school and I feel like the sky is the limit right now.

Ward: Through the Fellowship, I feel we are getting a deep and broad understanding of the sports industry. It was insightful, learning about how NBA works as a business. You know, we watch and love basketball, but we did not understand nearly as deeply on how it operates as a business.

Afiya Ward interned with the NBA 2K League.

Jackson: In high school, I wanted to work in a front office, but I did not know what that looked like. I knew about basketball operations, but not all the other sides — group sales, ticket sales, partnerships, activations, finance etc. So many different roles to get into besides being a GM. Now I know what route I want to go to get to where I want to be.

NBA.com: What new knowledge, skills, or insight are you taking with you into the following year?

Spivey: If you can see it, you can be it. I am a junior, I’m still young and in that phase of uncertainty. But these past 10 weeks seeing people in the roles of where I want to be, having good conversations —  it made me feel I can do this too! This sharpened my skills for next year, the network has grown and I feel more motivated than ever. I was on my own in a new city and I really enjoyed it. I am in the go-get-it phase.

Ward: This internship gave a glimpse into a life that I want. It helped me to see the path of how to get there and I am taking a huge network with me. Even beyond the league, being in New York City, it is just so much here. The network we were able to build was amazing.

Carter: How I view being a leader. Coming back to my campus this fall, it is going to want me to show up differently.

Jackson: This experience reassured me the importance of building relationships, when I had one-on-one time with colleagues, I would start asking them about their position. The next thing you know it turned into a personal conversation about their experiences or myself. I leave it like, ‘okay, I know this person now.’ I feel they are truly in my network.

NBA.com: What advice would you give to HBCU Students who are looking to apply for the 2023 HBCU Fellowship Program?

Spivey: Apply! Take it from me, I applied on the last day — make sure you get it done on the first day. I cried when I got accepted. This opportunity will catapult your career and network … it is a blessing.

Jackson: It could set up your life. I am 22 and just graduated three months ago, now I am on a full-time contract with an NBA franchise. This would not have happened so quickly if I did not take this opportunity and program so serious.

Carter: Be teachable, always. You never know what knowledge people have and can pass to you. Be uncomfortable and ask questions, growth comes from being in a new space.

Ward: In the application process, research what roles you may be interested in. It makes a big impact on your experience if you genuinely love what you are doing.

The HBCU Fellowship program was successful thanks to the efforts of the inaugural class. Whether it was being offered a full-time position or heading back to their campus for a new semester, these fellows have unique experiences and insights from this program. As the inaugural class, they will be known for blazing a trail for future HBCU students to follow. Stay tuned for details on the 2023 application process this fall.