When former Georgia Tech basketball coach Bobby Cremins traveled to Brooklyn, NY, in 1983 to recruit John Salley, the future NBA star stood six-feet six-inches tall. Salley, who sprouted to six-feet nine-inches in time for his freshman year, says he willed himself to keep growing long after most people stop, not reaching his peak height of almost seven feet until age 29.
"They told me the taller you are, the more money you make," says Salley, MGT '88. "I'm lucky I'm not eight-feet tall."
Salley has never let himself stop growing in other ways. Even before his NBA career ended in 2000, he was already branching into numerous directions professionally. "To most people, my transition from sports into business has been unbelievable," says Salley, who was recently inducted into the College of Management's Council of Outstanding Young Alumni.
The only NBA player in history to win a championship ring with three different teams, Salley has founded his own production company, Black Folk Films; acted in numerous movies and TV shows; discovered new musical talent; served as host of several TV programs, including Fox's "The Best Damn Sports Show Period"; and opened a Chicago cigar bar.
In 1997, he established the John Salley Raindrop Foundation, which funds art, music, literature, science and sports programs for underprivileged children. Writing and radio careers are the latest additions to his resume, with Salley contributing to such magazines as Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado, working on a semi-autobiographical novel, and hosting the morning show on 100.3 the Beat, the top R&B/hip-hop station in Los Angeles.
A sought-after motivational speaker for Fortune 500 companies, Salley says he has always been inspired to stretch himself professionally by someone telling him he can't do something. Naysayers told him he was too skinny for basketball, too tall for acting, and unlikely to graduate. "Every time they tell me what I can't do, I figure out a way to do it," says Salley, who has appeared in such movies as "Bad Boys" with Will Smith and "Eddie" with Whoopi Goldberg.
Though he left Georgia Tech in 1986 a year before graduation as a first-found draft pick for the Detroit Pistons, he made sure he returned during the off season two years later to complete his degree. "People said, 'If you leave, you're not going to come back,'" says Salley, who now lives in Los Angeles. "But my mom taught me that if I take something out of the cupboard, I've got to put it back. If I start something, I finish it."
Salley played with the Pistons from 1986 to 1992, winning back-to-back World Championships in 1989 and 1990. After playing with the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors, Salley joined the Chicago Bulls in 1996, winning his third championship ring that season.
After becoming disillusioned with the business side of basketball, Salley took an extended break from the sport. But working as a sports commentator for NBC inspired him to get back in the game, so he accepted the Los Angeles Lakers' invitation to provide leadership and guidance during the team's 1999-2000 championship season, during which his teammates called him "sensei," or teacher. "I was good at keeping the peace and developing positive attitudes," Salley says.
Today Salley's involvement in basketball is limited to giving pointers to two of his three daughters who play. "If you threw a basketball at me now, I'd probably duck," he jokes.