Chris Ekstrand, a consultant for the National Basketball Association, shared his journey from middling high school athlete and fledgling sports writer to a one-of-a-kind position with the world’s most prominent basketball league.
For nearly a decade, Chris Ekstrand served as the editor of the “NBA Draft Guide,” a task that made him a strong evaluator of talent, finding potential where others might have not looked.
That background, 25 years spent working in the front office of the National Basketball Association, gave Ekstrand’s career advice on Nov. 10 to the students in Associate Professor Dan Haygood’s “Sports Information” class a strong sense of legitimacy.
“The truth is, I’m you 30 years ago,” said Ekstrand. “This is not something that is unattainable, unachievable. Anything that I’ve done, you can do. I don’t say that lightly. It’s the truth. If you have a passion for sports, if you like being in the locker room, on the field, in the mix, you can do this.”
Today, Ekstrand’s position is NBA consultant to the league’s basketball operations and legal departments. Part of what he does is scout prospective talent on the collegiate level, scouring institutions large (like North Carolina and Duke) and small (such as Bowling Green State University) for possible NBA contributors.
“In a sports information class, there was no way we could have this course without talking about scouting,” said Haygood during his introduction of Ekstrand. “And there is absolutely nobody better for us to talk to about scouting in general and sports information today than (Ekstrand).”
During his guest lecture, Ekstrand walked the students through his New Jersey upbringing, middling high school athletic career, education at Syracuse University, and first post-graduation job, working for The Associated Press. His first assignment? Covering an Albany Patroons’ practice, reporting on the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. As it happened, Phil Jackson, who later won 11 NBA titles, coached Albany. That day, however, Jackson had only nine dressed players and was forced to play with the team to fill out practice.
A few years later, after reporting for the Newark Star-Ledger, Ekstrand was at a career crossroads. An acquaintance at the NBA got Ekstrand – a pro basketball fanatic – an interview, and he impressed with his knowledge of the game, its players and the league’s history.
He turned his role as a liaison between the league’s editorial group and trading card department into an editor position for the “NBA Draft Guide,” and eventually a scouting assignment for the league. While franchises have individual scouts, Ekstrand is the NBA’s lone league-wide talent scout, and his reports are available to all 30 clubs.
“A lot of people have a real plan when they are in college, what their first job, second job, third job is going to be. Then there’s me,” Ekstrand said. “I had no idea what my track was going to look like. A lot of us in professional sports, in one way or another, whether it’s coming in as journalists or as an athlete, coach, SID, we’re in it for the love.”
It was Ekstrand’s uncharacteristic path to scouting and the NBA that Haygood wanted his students to hear. “That is really valuable for young students, because not all careers are linear,” Haygood said. “There are curves and twists, and people need to know that.”
Ekstrand’s anecdotes didn’t disappoint the class’ sports fans. At one time his office was just five doors down from former NBA commissioner David Stern. He also shared a college class with Mike Tirico, best known as the announcer of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” And last week, on the opening weekend of the college basketball season, the North Carolina-based scout was scheduled to attend three games, in three cities, in three days.
However, Ekstrand’s most compelling note was his recollection of his one-time firing from the NBA, only to be rehired within hours by another department in the league. His reputation, knowledge and work ethic made him a commodity worth keeping.
“I was not born an NBA draft expert,” Ekstrand said. “You have to work at it, and be willing to work at whatever you want to do. You have to maximize what you have. Everyone here has something to offer. You just have to find what propels you up.”