Backboards to Boardrooms is a blog series that details the transition of athletes into the business world. You will get firsthand stories of the challenges, emotions, and triumphs of athletes who have faced the inevitable: the end of their athletic career and the transition that follows. The goal is to educate and inform athletes so they will be prepared for success in business and in life.
Thomas Fields is a college entrepreneur at the University of Houston. In high school he was a highly sought after prospect in Houston, Texas—receiving interest from a variety of division 1 college basketball programs. When his career prematurely came to an end, the former D1 prospect found solace in entrepreneurship.
Thomas is the founder and CEO of GRIND—a sports hardware startup that is creating a portable basketball shooting machine.
Read-on to find out how Thomas was able to rebound from adversity to find his calling as an entrepreneur.
Tell us about your playing experience—
Well, I started playing basketball in 2nd grade (7 years old). In middle school, I played with the 8th grade team as a 7th grader. Towards the end of my 8th grade year I started walking to the high school down the street after school and started working out and practicing with the varsity team. I asked the coach if they needed extra people to practice against, he said yes and I became the middle school kid hoopin’ with varsity. When freshman year came around, I tried out for the Varsity team and made it and ended up being the starting shooting guard.
I was Ranked 32 in my class in Houston TX (I have like 25 letters from Wichita State). Then 10th grade year I tore my ACL and missed the whole season. I came back dunking my 11th grade year and tore my other ACL coming down from a dunk wrong. Missed that whole season and my rank dropped to 55.
Senior year I was still chasing D1 so I went to a school with a more credible coach but before my senior season I tore my meniscus during an AAU game. Missed about two weeks’ worth of games and finished the season with a partial scholarship from Concordia College and Northwestern Iowa.
What was your transition like after sports? What emotions and thoughts did you experience?
From High school I went to a junior college with my girlfriend. She got a full ride to play ball and I ended up being the assistant coach for her team.
All I remember after graduating high school was focusing. I told myself I would use EVERYTHING I learned with basketball into life and business, so I just started grindin’.
I treated reading like lifting weights. I watched Harvard lectures like I used to watch ball handling drills. I still kept my 5am workout because I heard the great CEOs did it, so that’s when I would hoop.
My dad made business seem like it was the way out. I was always ambitious so walking around reading about Business modeling was on a way different level than selling burnt CD’s and candy out of my back pack.
Did you have a plan for life after basketball? Did you know what you were going to do when your playing career ended?
Not at all, and it was scary because I put 100% into basketball and it didn't work. I plan to do the same with GRIND but I fully understand how to work smart now. I did know I never wanted to work for someone. I leaned toward real estate my senior year but the more I learned about it the more I felt I was pursuing something that was all about money. I wasn’t changing the world in anyway or making an impact.
What are you working on right now?
As of now my life revolves around my startup GRIND. We’re building a basketball shooting machine that folds up into the size of a duffle bag for individual athletes. In more context a shooting machine is placed under the basketball goal and captures a player's made & missed shots, passes the ball back giving them a game-like pass and ultimately allows players to shoot up to 1,200 shots per hour.
I’m attending the University of Houston and have not decided what major I’ll be pursuing--either finance or management.
What inspired you to start your company?
First, I believe the basketball community is being underserved by uninspiring companies over and over again (Athletic equipment/training). These companies focus so much on what athletes do but fail to pay attention to WHY they are doing it. In turn they fail to inspire them when building a company/brand. They don’t share a message that sparks something inside of them nor do they create well-designed products. They just sell shit as long as it makes a profit. I think with the amount of effort basketball players put into this game they deserve a company that understands them better than anyone else and not only provides them with something that gets them better but inspires them internally to be their absolute best.
Second, I have this strong fundamental belief that hard-work and talent are directly related to each other. Talent is a byproduct of hard-work. The amount of work you put in is directly related to your talent level. It varies for different people because confidence and athleticism play their parts but GRIND wants to instill the belief that no matter who you are, the amount of work you put in determines your success.
With those two beliefs, it was super clear to me that my experience as a 10th grader of not being able to 100% control my grind was a problem that we had to solve.
Can you tell us about a typical day for you?
I wake up at 4:30 am, get ready, and go to work (YMCA). I go to the back room, do 300-500 pushups, then hop on the computer around 5:35 am and send out emails. Then I start checking things off my to-do-list (generally whatever needs to be done for GRIND).
I clock out at 9am and either head to the garage, or home depot, to work on the prototype all day or go to class from 9:30 am until 2:00 pm and then work on the prototype afterwards. If I’m not working on the prototype then the business model, designing a part, getting the future strategy together and making moves is usually what I’ll do. Around 8 pm or 9 pm I make a to-do-list for the next morning and get to bed by 10:30 pm.
Do you have any advice for athletes making the transition into life after sports (and into tech/entrepreneurship in particular)?
Tech and entrepreneurship is beautiful. If you’re serious about it, the possibilities are endless--and that’s what makes it so fun…
Just don’t do it for the money. Be passionate about what you’re doing and always have a reason ‘Why’. One thing Tristan Walker says and has stuck with me is, “BE THE BEST PERSON IN THE WORLD TO SOLVE THAT PROBLEM.” If you aren’t the best person to solve the problem the tech industry will run you over and take your cookies.
Read a lot! Educate yourself so much it’s ridiculous and always be looking towards the future and stay updated with what's new and what's dying.
Anything else you would like to add?
We expect to have our proof of concept prototype done by January, ready for beta testing and we’re seeking manufacturing expertise and an industrial designer.
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