3 Ways to Turn an NBA Internship into a Full-Time Position

How I turned an unpaid internship into a 13-year NBA career

John Ross
John Ross
Apr 8, 2020 · 7 min read

I set my sights on a career in the NBA, I applied for everything. I kept telling myself, “Just get your foot in the door.” I applied not only for basketball operations internships but for business internships, marketing internships, and anything else that would get me in. When the NBA preseason started and I still hadn’t gotten an internship, I turned towards the G-League before finally being offered a public relations internship with the Philadelphia 76ers.

I was set to start on a Monday when I got a call from my would-be boss, Sean McCloskey. “Can you delay your start by a week? I got flown out of town.” “No problem,” I said. I went back to my job as a university admissions counselor, answering phones for another week.

A week later, I got the same phone call: “Can you come in next week? I got flown out of town again.” “No problem,” I said again. “I’ll come in Monday. If it’s a good fit for both of us, I’m ready to go,” I continued. And Sean echoed, “That’s great, we’d love to have you start as soon as you get here.”

In the meantime, Kaleb Canales, the Video Coordinator from the Portland Trail Blazers called. It was Friday night and he said, “What would you do if I offered you a video internship with the Blazers?” I told him, “I’d probably say no — I’m planning on going to Philadelphia. We haven’t finalized it but I’m planning to start there on Monday.”

An hour later, Kaleb called again. “I am offering you the internship.” I responded, “Wow, okay. I’ll let you know my decision in the morning.”

I literally fell to my knees in my neighbor’s yard in Lynchburg, Virginia, overwhelmed by the decision I’d be making in the morning.

Will I move to Philadelphia or to Portland?

I called Philadelphia to let them know of my decision and then I called Kaleb and Tim Grass (Assistant Video Coordinator at the time) and I accepted an unpaid internship in Portland, deciding I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to work in basketball operations and having already built a great rapport with Kaleb over the phone.

That was Saturday. On Sunday afternoon, I packed all that I owned into my 1990 Ford Taurus and started a 4-day drive to Portland, Oregon.

Tim greeted me at the entrance and I walked in the practice facility where Darius Miles introduced himself. I chatted with Greg Oden and Josh McRoberts who I had grown up in the same area as in Indiana. It was all surreal.

I couldn’t believe it. My dreams had come true.

And two weeks later, I was ready to quit. The work was hard. The days were long. And I was struggling. I decided to finish my year out and leave as soon as I could, as in, find a team with warmer weather where it didn’t rain every day.

But over time, I built relationships, improved at my job, and I fell in love with Portland. After completing an unpaid internship, I returned to Portland for a minimum wage internship. I even started a third year as an intern before Kaleb was promoted to an Assistant Coach and Tim to head Video Coordinator.

I remember to this day where I stood in the weight room. I was getting a workout in after the day when Kevin Pritchard (the Trail Blazers General Manager at the time) walked over to me, shook my hand, and offered me a full-time position with the Portland Trail Blazers as the Assistant Video Coordinator.

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Kaleb Canales, John Ross, and Tim Grass at 2017 NBA Summer League

I was never the most qualified but I learned how to stick around. In my previous article (3 things you need to land an NBA job), I shared about what you needed to land an NBA job. Below are:

3 Ways to Turn an NBA Internship into a Full-Time Position

1. Work ethic — love the work that you do!

Kaleb kept a quote at his desk: “Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.”

Yes, there are a lot of hours as an intern. But it’s not so much working all the hours as it is loving all the hours. Even today, after 12 seasons, I get asked, “Do you have to go to all the games?” “Nah, I get to go to the games,” I respond. I get to go to work. I never don’t enjoy a day at the office.

I was told before I took the unpaid internship what the work rhythms would be like. Mornings, afternoons, evenings, 7 days a week, no holidays, and no vacations.

So is it a lot of work? Yes and no. I think we would all say we are lucky and blessed to get to do this for a living. And it’s not just working in basketball that makes it great, it’s the people you get to do it with.

2. Be available — turn the lights off!

I was far from an expert at video. I had a lot to learn. But I was present. I was there on the weekends. I was there in the evenings. I was there to watch game film. I was there to rebound for players. And after a while, the GM and other scouts would start asking me, “Who was in the gym last night?” or they may call me on a Wednesday night or a Sunday afternoon and ask me, “Is anyone in the gym right now?” because they would want to bring one of their kids over.

Even if I was struggling at my job, the one thing I could always be was… available.

To this day, the interns who come in, turn the lights on, keep their heads down, work hard, and turn the lights off, always find a way to stick around.

3. Improve at your craft — get better at everything!

I always say, even in my role now that my job is about 30% of the job description and 70% of whatever needs to be done.

As I stated earlier, I wasn’t great at my job for the first year.

I remember getting called into the conference room by Kaleb. “Are you okay? Is everything alright?” Translated: “Is there something else going on in your life? Because you really suck at your job right now.”

I had made several mistakes in the video room. I set a timer for a DVD player and recorded Days of our Lives instead of a Celtics versus Wizards game. I had coded games incorrectly. I was overwhelmed and out of my element.

At one point, Tim, to my shame (yet betterment as an employee), put me in a room, closed the doors, and told me, “Don’t come out until you figure out how to connect all the wires.”

Tim was right. They had let me go on a one-game road trip to Utah. And I was freaking out a few minutes before the team was to watch game film because it was all in black and white. Kaleb came over to where I was stationed, switched the cables, and we were good to go.

I had a lot to learn.

But I did.

I learned the printer. The fax machine. The magnet boards. The lunch pick-ups. The players' pets.

And I learned how to break down game film, how to connect wires, how to run spreadsheets, how to code plays, how to scout opponents, how to scout college players.

And eventually, that opened a second door for me, the one that led from internship to full-time job.

Additionally: Humility — find your place to fit in

There’s a lot of egos in professional sports. And that can be a good thing. You need confidence. You need to believe you’re better than your opponent. But… video coordinators and staff members, and interns don’t need to have egos. You need to be confident, find where you fit in, and play that role. It’s okay to be a utility guy. Because everyone is still needed to make the whole thing go.

One of our assistant coaches when I arrived with the Trail Blazers, Dean Demopoulus, used to always tell me:

“If one player is worth 99 cents and you’re at the end of the bench and you’re worth 1 cent, we still need you both to make a dollar.”

Everyone has to play their role. From players to coaches, to staff, to interns. And if you come in with a strong work ethic, make yourself available, improve at your craft, and carry yourself humbly, there’s a good chance that not only will you be able to stick around, those around you will be asking you to stay.

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3 former Trail Blazers interns, now with 30+ years of combined NBA/WNBA/NCAA experience (Preston Fawcett, Danny Connors, John Ross)

NBA Video 101

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