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From Basketball to Bachelor's Degree

Back-to-School Student Spotlight: Former NBL player and current ASU Undergrad, Russell Hinder
August 22, 2019

The Global Sport Institute is fiercely aware of the importance of education as a pathway for an athlete’s life and career development outside of playing sport. We share this belief through our work in education, one of four pillars that define our mission to thoughtfully examine critical issues in sport.

Take the case of prospective №5 overall 2020 NBA Draft prospect , Rederick “RJ” Hampton Jr.’s, creative loophole. The 6 ‘5’ Point Guard from Little Elm, Texas will forgo college to play professionally with Australia and New Zealand’s professional basketball league, the “NBL,” as part of the Auckland-based New Zealand Breakers, Next Star’s Program.

Although he didn’t play for the New Zealand Breakers, similar to RJ, Russell Hinder played on multiple teams in the NBL, also premature of a university degree. He too was paid for his talent, honored with awards and earned career achievements made of young players’ dreams. But when his professional career of 13 years came to a quick halt, he struggled finding a profession outside of the sport, eventually moving to the U.S. with his wife in support of her new job at Arizona State University.

Relying on the bulk of his career as a professional athlete and his wife’s new ASU network, Hinder discovered the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University. Through multiple meetings and conversations with Global Sport Institute leadership, Hinder capitalized on the provided resources, hope, and guidance. Now he is on a journey to finish a degree in Liberal Arts from ASU with hopes of becoming a teacher, and eventually a basketball coach upon receiving his diploma.

To learn more about his challenges faced both on and off the court during the build-up to Russell’s international basketball professional sports career, we asked him to share his personal journey of lessons learned, how he managed to overcome adversity, and what led him back to school.

What first drew you to basketball?

I had a different beginning to basketball than a lot of my friends and then later on, my teammates. My parents both worked full time jobs and so their rule for sports was “pick one because I’m not spending my weekends as your taxi!” So from ages 5–10, I played soccer, from ages 10–15 I played Australian rules Football, and when I got tired of getting tackled in the freezing cold rain and mud as a 6’6” super skinny white kid…that’s when a friend’s Dad introduced me to basketball.

Indoors, controlled temperatures and no tackling. I was in. I kept growing but was terrible and just tried to play every single day with the aim to get better. When I was 17, the Australian Institute of Sport took a chance on me, and I went to live at the Academy which is like a prep school in the USA but 100 times more professional. Then it was off to the University of San Francisco for 2 years of hoops and partying where the best thing I got by a country mile was my wife, with whom I have 3 amazing kids and we just passed our 17th year anniversary.

You’ve had quite a career as a professional athlete abroad, to enlighten us, what are the major differences between the U.S. highest professional league, the NBA, and the Australian/ New Zealand league: the NBL?

Playing in the NBL is a job. I never earned enough to retire on, not even close. Sydney is currently the 3rd most expensive city to live in on earth and so when I say my salary ranged from $14,000 — $125,000 over my 13 year career, you can see the main difference between NBA and NBL. The last few years have been much better with an influx of cash and publicity to the league, but we still have a long way to go to catch up to the NBA.

Can you walk us through some of the challenges and advantages of being a student-athlete? What was your major? What type of support, if any, did you receive in balancing the life of a student-athlete?

I really struggled at USF. I was very much alone and home sick and my Coach was a pretty bad guy that didn’t care about anything other than what you could do for him on the court. This affected my studies greatly and my grades really suffered. Thank God I met my wife and she got me focused for my second year, but by then I had had enough and went home to turn pro. I have a lot of respect for the current systems that seem to have a much greater emphasis on building a culture of success and support both on and off the court.  

Russell Hinder with his wife and three kids posing on a sandy beach with palm trees, Hinder is sporting a Sun Devils t-shirt with pride. Photo courtesy of Russell Hinder.

What skills did you gain as a collegiate and professional athlete, and what do you believe all athletes of that caliber possess that are valuable and can be brought to the workplace?

I love basketball because it feels like the ultimate team sport to me and I honestly feel that this weaves its way into being a great contributor to both society and any workplace you may enter. Communication, teamwork, knowing your role, supporting your teammates, sacrifice for the greater good of the team, commitment, the ability to follow instruction and the list goes on.

Do you think these experiences, lessons, and skills are missed or undervalued in the workplace?

Everyday. Mostly by academics that have never sweat on purpose a day in their life but that’s ok because if you’re a true athlete, you have that fight in you to show them that maybe there should be more than just a 4.5 GPA or an internship that we didn’t have time to do. Any time an athlete gets in a workplace, the level of commitment and attention to detail and pursuit of perfection is always going to be at a level previously unseen.

Give us a little more insight into your career journey post professional athletics. What are some of your biggest challenges?

I knew the score every day, every hour, for 17 years. I knew if I had won or lost immediately. In the workplace, you play the long game and your days are mostly inconsequential little tasks that whilst important, don’t really give you that rush or excitement of winning a scrimmage or competition.

How have you managed to overcome them?

It has been really difficult. One of the hardest parts has not being able to get interviews for jobs that I didn’t meet the qualifications for but know that I would be the absolute best candidate for the job. Thank God I had an amazing support system around me of my wife and kids but I have watched a LOT more friends struggle through depression and divorce post career than have thrived.

What do you think can be done to support professional athletes in this transition period?

I think it is a place where career guidance and counseling could be on offer. Every athlete is so different in their progression into the “real world. ”

Is there anything in particular that has happened since your retirement (the last 5 years) in this area that has made you hopeful? Discouraged?

It was really dark and difficult in the first 2 years as I sold radio advertising. I had spent my entire life screaming through day to day with my hair on fire and having the best time ever and then I had to be at a desk at 8 a.m., with 30 minutes for lunch, until 5 p.m. and you have to sell ‘x’ amount of dollars of a product that I hated and didn’t believe in with a lot of people I didn’t know and didn’t like. We left Australia and again I couldn’t find work since I didn’t have a degree and it was dark again. But through staying with the journey and again, with the support of my wife, family, and Global Sport Institute I got through it to where I am today.

When and what degree will you graduate with?

I am pursuing a Liberal Arts degree which excites me. I have such a broad spectrum of interests when it comes to academics so this degree has been a lot of fun so far.

What excites you most about your ASU Academic journey? Any new dream jobs in mind?

Everything. It can take me to a place I want to be, which is a teacher and eventually pursuing coaching again at a high level.

How do you stay active today? Are you still involved in your beloved sport, Basketball, in any way?

I clean pools as a day job which I actually enjoy. It keeps me active and outdoors and gives me a level of freedom with my schedule that I love. I coach kids 3 nights a week at Powerhouse Hoops in Tempe as well which is amazing to stay in touch with the game but I have much higher aspirations to get back into the game in a far more full time basis.

Like Russell Hinder, it’s important to continue to support conversations and resources for those transitioning in and out of sport. We thank Russell for sharing his journey to help shed light on the value of helping athletes at every level find continued fulfillment and success.

Want to help further the conversation on supporting athlete education and transition? Global Sport Institute designed the panel “What’s Next? Empowering the Transitioning Athlete” for consideration of the SXSW festival set to take place March 2020 in Austin, Texas.

The panel is currently in the “community voting” stage with the voting period ending August 23rd. You can further support our efforts by voting at this link.