Professor Ruta’s Athlete Education interview | Former NBA star Damjan Rudež

Professor Dino Ruta speaks to former NBA player Damjan Rudež in the first of a new series of interviews with former athletes about their post-playing career.

Welcome to the first of a new series of interviews carried out by Professor Dino Ruta, Sport Knowledge Center Leader at SDA Bocconi, on Athlete Education. Professor Ruta has worked with numerous high-profile sportspeople from around the world, helping to provide them with education and skills necessary to take forward into their second careers and prepare them for a life after sport. 

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In a series of exclusive interviews, Professor Ruta will speak to elite former athletes and coaches in order to explore how athletes approach their post-playing careers and look at how those lessons can be applied across the worlds of sport and education. 

For this first edition, Professor Ruta spoke with former NBA and European basketball star Damjan Rudež. From 2004 to 2006, Rudež played for Oostende, winning the Belgian championship in his final year before returning to his home country of Croatia, where he played two seasons for Split. In 2014 he reached the NBA, signing a contract with the Indiana Pacers, where he led all rookies in three-point field goal percentage in his first season. In 2015 he moved to Minnesota Timberwolves, and in 2016 played his last season in the NBA with the Orlando Magic. Lastly, in 2017, he came back to Europe, where he played for Valencia, Monaco, Murcia and Donar Groningen until his retirement in 2021. 

Professor Ruta: Damjan, when did you first realise you could become a professional athlete? 

Damjan Rudež: The first realisation came when I was 15 years old, during the Eurocamp organised in Treviso and other camps that gathered all the best young European basketball players. I had the chance to match up with other peers and realized I was really good. I didn’t feel uncomfortable and I realized that in a couple of years I could have become a professional.  

The following year, I actually became a professional. I moved to the senior team of my local team and, even if I was 16 I played with grown athletes playing the first division in Croatia. 

Who have been your role models during your professional career? 

During the first part of my childhood my role models were Michael Jordan together with Toni Kukoč and Dražen Petrović, who both played for our national team. However, my first real idol was Dejan Bodiroga. Seeing a guy of my size with such an amazing skill set made me dream that one day I could play like him at professional level. 

When I became professional, Kobe Bryant was for my generation what Jordan was for the previous one. Little by little, Lebron came to the scene, but he was always viewed as an extra-terrestrial. However, if I really had to pick one I was really connected to, I would say Bodiroga. 

What was the most difficult moment in your career to date and how did you get over it? 

The most difficult moment in my career was when I was traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was a crushing moment because I had a good fit with the organisation and I felt I found my place. All of a sudden, the team decided to trade me and it was the first time for me experiencing something like that. I felt unwanted and it took me a long time to recover and realise that even if I got traded, I still had my value. 

To get over it I let time take its course and focused on what I could do. There is a saying in the NBA: control what you can control and what you can’t control you have to make peace with it. That is the way I looked at it. I focused on the fact that I was still in the NBA, I still had the chance of being productive and part of the NBA ecosystem.  

When did you start planning for your post-athlete career, and thinking about what additional education or training you would need? 

I started thinking about my post career during the last 4 years. I left the NBA at 32 and I started realising it was time to start thinking about the next steps. Even if I had time, I didn’t have the focus, the concentration, and the willingness to dive into an educational program. I planned to play the last years to my maximum and enjoy every second of my basketball. 

Maybe it was the wrong thing to do because I lost a little bit of time. I could have accomplished a little more on the educational side if I started earlier but I just didn’t feel like I should start anything without being 100 per cent focused. Literally, the moment I decided to retire, I started actively planning my next educational steps and post career. 

What professional activities have you nurtured during your career? 

I never did any vocational training during my career but playing at the highest levels, in 14 different teams and seven different countries, helped me develop a cultural agility which represents a valuable asset. 

Professional sport teaches you a lot about what you need to succeed both in business life and in sports. I think I developed a strong discipline, a feeling of responsibility towards my job, team-mates, group and organisation. I learned a lot about patience, short-term and long-term planning when it comes to personal development. My sporting career taught me a lot about working with people for a common cause. 

Tell us about the training you are undertaking or have already completed to move into the next phase of your career. 

I just finished vocational training for being a professional FIBA basketball coach, because I want to be able to go down that path if I decide to. I am also enrolled in the kinesiology undergraduate program at the university of Zagreb and at the 1-to-1 Academy in Management and Entrepreneurship at SDA Bocconi. 

I wanted to explore different playing fields, not just staying connected to one road, whether it is in coaching or on the business side. While I am waiting for the image of my future to crystalise, I want to give myself different options. 

 How do you think education for athletes needs to be different? Does it need to be more similar to training and reflect the way athletes are used to preparing? 

Absolutely, yes. Because there are certain patterns of how days are organised that athletes are more used to. Athletes are used to staying in the gym and having free time, so loose schedules might be useful. They are used to having one practice a day and that might be the only thing they have to do, so it would be helpful to go along with that schedule and be more flexible instead of doing highly condensed programs, putting them in uncomfortable positions where they wouldn’t be able to learn. It all depends on personal learning capabilities. Some guys are used to gathering more information than others, but organising the schedule would be wise. 

What are your motivations and ambitions in this second part of your career? 

My motivations and ambitions are to find something I am equally passionate about and to see if the qualities and traits that brought me to success in the first phase of my career can also be translated and copied in another playing field.  

 Do you have any role models who have made a similar transition from professional sport to working in business? 

I would definitely say Luis Scola, who was one of my teammates at the Pacers. He is now doing a fantastic transition with the project he is doing in Varese [the Italian Lega Basket Serie A team where Scola became chief executive after retirement last year]. He is a guy I always liked playing with and a very good guy to talk to. 

What were the strengths that distinguished you from the others during your athletic career, and how do they apply to the next stage? 

When you reach a high level, everybody is there for a reason. So it is hard to mention what separates you from the others when everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses. However, I was very proud of how resilient I was and how I managed to jump over obstacles. Also, my adjustability was very high and I think it really helped me to navigate through my basketball career. Looking at how athletes who climbed the ranks managed to take the next step, they based their success not on talent but on their hard work and resilient mindset. 

Talking to a lot of people from the business world, I think resiliency and the ability to adjust are good qualities to have throughout all the career. 

What advice would you give current professional athletes to build a long-term successful and sustainable career? 

I would stress that without hard and extra work it is hard to succeed. It is the extra work that makes the difference. What is good for me is not necessarily good for everybody. Follow your instincts and listen to your heart because playing basketball at professional level requires 100 per cent dedication. If your focus is shifting to other things in terms of education it could be good because you are prepared in time and you could reach the end line being ready to cross over but it might also take away some concentration. 

How important do you think it is that athletes go into administrative roles in sport, and that people in those positions have experience of playing the sport? 

It is crucial, but we need a good balance of people with different perspectives. I don’t think sport would be in a good place if it was only run by former athletes. More former athletes should hold important positions but there is a reason why businesspeople, especially experienced business people, have success. They know how to run things from a different perspective and two pairs of eyes are always better than one. 

We should find the right balance between businesspeople and people who come from the centre of the ecosystem, bringing different skills and perspectives. 

This article is part of the 2022 SportBusiness Postgraduate Rankings. To browse the entire report and view the overall tables, click here.