Originally published in SLAM 177

by Pete Croatto

Like many high-profile achievers, Jamal Mashburn has life-defining anecdotes. As his business stature exceeds his basketball past, one will be repeatedly told behind podiums and absorbed by concerned parents with basketball-obsessed progeny. 

Young Jamal is taking the subway down to 72nd and Lexington, the New Yorker’s New York, near his school at St. Jean Baptiste. When the train hits the 90s, the energy changes. The men and women now carry briefcases, something he doesn’t see while waiting for the older kids to finish their runs at the Ralph J. Rangel apartment complex in Harlem. This everyday sight fascinates him. What’s inside? When his stop arrives, Mashburn exits toward a glorious tomorrow, one where he is the athlete turned restaurateur—instead of another cautionary tale. 

Life is more than a game, son. Get inside and start studying.

The kid will trudge to his bedroom and find out more about this Mashburn guy. On YouTube, he’ll behold a blend of grace and strength, a 6-8, 240-pounder who had the muscle to post up, the speed to drive and the range to keep defenses honest.

“Jamal was ushering in the new era of the point-forward, the multi-dimensional 3-man that could play on the post and guard 4s but also play on the perimeter,” says Jim Jackson, his one-time teammate. He scored 50 points in games nearly 10 years apart and possessed endurable talent that allowed him to make his only All-Star team at age 30. “You couldn’t play him a certain way—he was one of the tougher covers in the League,” says Dan Majerle, who played with and against Mashburn.

Perhaps the kid will learn how Mashburn practically saved men’s basketball at the University of Kentucky. He may even discover that Jamal Mashburn, business success, does not exist without Jamal Mashburn, basketball player.  

Mashburn’s first love was actually baseball. In NYC, that meant playing stickball, not baseball with its gloves and base paths and hardballs. Predictably, the 10-year-old’s first baseball tryout was a failure that brought plenty of tears and one vow: He would never be unprepared for another opportunity. Aha! There was a full-length court in the back of his apartment building. That might work. Mashburn spent two or three years shooting by himself and picking up lessons from Bird and Magic on tape-delayed games. 

By age 13, he was 6-3 and playing center against men in their 20s. “You had to get rebounds or wait for someone else to give you the ball,” he says. “Nobody showed me how to post up when I was younger or demand the ball, so that’s how I started to learn how to dribble and become a versatile player, because the guards didn’t give me the ball. I figured if I want to score and I want to get the ball, why should I rebound and throw it back out? I should rebound and dribble it out.” 

Going mobile aligned with Mashburn’s guiding principle: Where do things lead to? He knew unless he kept growing, a 6-7 center couldn’t compete in DI, let alone the NBA. His homegrown game was allowing him to tear through AAU, routinely playing above his intended age group. Basketball could put some distance between him and a not-so-great neighborhood. 

Mashburn’s size and skill set were obvious, so college attention was inevitable. Providence College assistant coach Herb Sendek’s love ran deep. He adored the teenager’s soft hands and sky-high basketball IQ. After Sendek headed to the University of Kentucky in ’89, Mashburn was still in his thoughts, even if the school had ceased being any sensible recruit’s top choice.  

Thanks to 18 rules infractions, the NCAA reduced Kentucky’s scholarships and banned the Wildcats from post-season play in ’89-90 and ’90-91, Mashburn’s anticipated freshman year. Even if Mashburn were interested, new head coach Rick Pitino wasn’t entirely sold on the Bronx (NY) Cardinal Hayes star. Pitino told Mashburn he was going to have to work a lot harder and the teen, who craved honesty, chose the dark horse with two hooves in the glue factory. What Kentucky could lead to mattered more than sanctions or its illustrious history, of which the playground kid knew nothing. Mashburn did know he would play right away—“You could have started for that team,” Pitino told me—for a future Hall of Fame coach who had enjoyed NBA success and could lead him to that briefcase.

“What kid today would choose a college where they can’t be on television, they can’t play in the NCAA Tournament and they have bad players returning?” Pitino wonders. “What player would choose a college like that? In today’s world, there’s not one.”

“He was looking to make a decision so he could develop and become the best player he could be,” says Sendek, now the head coach at Arizona State. “He wisely understood that Coach Pitino was the man to help make that happen.”

Once Mashburn got in the shape required for Pitino’s up-tempo game, “he only got better,” says Gimel Martinez, Mashburn’s teammate and longtime friend. “He was obviously a physical player, but just how agile and smooth he was. He had a great crossover dribble. He could take contact and score and rebound. An all-around fabulous player.” 

A .500 club in ’89-90, Kentucky had the SEC’s best record in Mashburn’s freshman year, lost on Christian Laettner’s improbable buzzer-beater in that great ’92 NCAA East Regional final and reached the Final Four in ’93. According to Sendek, Mashburn was Kentucky’s go-to guy as a freshman. Mashburn wasn’t satisfied. He added muscle. He developed a reliable three-point shot. As a sophomore, Mashburn was one of college basketball’s best players. After being named All-American and SEC’s Player of the Year as a junior, Jamal headed for the NBA but left behind a changed school. Pitino credits Mashburn with reducing the basketball program’s turnaround time by years. Sendek calls Mashburn “the North Star” and the bridge between the success enjoyed by Pitino and coaches Tubby Smith and John Calipari. “Jamal had the courage and foresight to go there when maybe it wasn’t as easy as in other times,” Sendek explains.

“He was the best college player I coached,” Pitino says. “He could play all five positions on the court.” 

Anyone who has embarked on a professional life after college knows the energy of youthful philosophies wanes as adulthood arrives. Mashburn could employ “Where will it lead to?” to define his style of play or select the best college. But he couldn’t avoid getting drafted by a mess of a franchise. The Dallas Mavericks, who took him fourth in ’93, were coming off an 11-win season “highlighted” by three losing streaks of at least 12 games. Mash’s rookie squad featured first-time head coach Quinn Buckner and no veteran leadership aside from eager-to-leave Derek Harper and about-to-retire Fat Lever. “The expectation was, we’re going to be better just because we have Jamal Mashburn and Jimmy Jackson,” Mashburn says. Frankly, Mashburn felt more like a pro at Kentucky.

Mashburn adjusted to NBA defenses and was named First-Team All-Rookie. “Jamal made things look easy,” Jackson says. The Mavs won 13 games in ’93-94, but drafted Jason Kidd, the perfect, pass-first complement to the team’s two young scorers. Kidd was electric and Mashburn (24.1 ppg) and Jackson (25.7 ppg) thrived under new coach Dick Motta in an upbeat 36-win season. That represented the peak of the Three Js. 

Don’t blame the swift demise on Kidd and Jackson fighting over Toni Braxton, which both men have long denied. Unstable management in Dallas was the undoing. “Nobody taught us how to win,” Mashburn says. “I think we were all fighting for top billing and that destroyed us.” Kidd was traded to Phoenix on December 26, ’96. Mashburn—who requested a trade—and Jackson were dealt weeks later. The failure of the Three Js is one of Mashburn’s basketball regrets.

In Miami, Pat Riley taught Jamal how to be a professional. While talented, those Heat teams usually left the Playoffs early, and Mashburn’s durability was becoming  an issue. He was out 34 games in ’97-98, and another 26 in the lockout-shortened ’99 season. (In 11 seasons, Mashburn missed 259 games.) Traded to the Hornets in ’00, head coach Paul Silas let Mashburn loose. “The handcuffs are off,” Silas told him during a pick-up game. “We no longer want you to stand in the corner and be a third option. We want you to be the option.” 

After eight or nine years in the League, “especially, if you are as good an offensive player as he was, you have to learn how to read defenses,” says David Wesley, a 14-year NBA veteran, and Mashburn’s Hornet teammate from 2000-04. “You have to read how people play you, how people like to lean or try to force you a certain way. What really gets better is your mind and how you attack things. And for him, when he got to that age—he was already a good scorer—it just made him better.” 

Mashburn put up his best numbers with the Hornets, including a sumptuous 20.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg and 5.4 apg line in ’00-01. But those damn injuries: positional vertigo the next season. A knee injury obliterating ’03-04, and doctors discovering the cartilage in his right knee was worn out. It never got better. He sat out ’04-05—the 76ers acquired Mashburn in February—and retired in March 2006 after being waived by a team he never played for. 

There were no screaming headlines or tearful farewells, just a talented player who couldn’t capitalize on opportunities—who also had access to a private plane. Perhaps Jamal Mashburn tells the briefcase story because it adds drama to a life full of preparation and practicality. Brilliant, abbreviated basketball careers aren’t required to end in woe. Life extends beyond 94 feet. Mashburn knew that. So did his mom. 

Helen Mashburn wanted her son to return to Kentucky for his senior year. “She battled me on it,” says Pitino, who convinced her that Jamal could graduate anytime. The same shelf life didn’t apply to top-five NBA Draft picks. “I want you to invest his money when he leaves,” Helen, then a bookkeeper, told Pitino. 

“Helen, I’m not a money manager,” Pitino replied.

“Can you find out who would do that?” 

Pitino flew to New York and met with mutual fund managers, eventually connecting with accountant Rick Avare. The trio’s partnership, MAP, owns car dealerships and Dunkin’ Donuts and Outback Steakhouse franchises. Just over a year ago, Mashburn bought a stake in a hospitality services firm, and he’s started ventures with former Philadelphia Eagle Winston Justice and marketing executive Jonathan Sackett. Jamal Mashburn’s story as a businessman is in its early stages, but you know he already has the ending in mind.