A Chicago native scored the first basket — in fact, the first five points — of the Bulls’ preseason-opening win over the Pacers. That same South Sider also led the team in blocked shots and tied for the high rebounding total in Monday’s win over the Grizzlies in St. Louis, which should let you know that the player isn’t Derrick Rose.
Nazr Mohammed, 36, started the Bulls’ first two exhibition games in place of injured All-Star center Joakim Noah, and while his statistics weren’t gaudy, the veteran has proved that even in his 16th NBA season, he still has plenty to contribute. When Noah returns from his strained groin, Mohammed’s minutes will likely dwindle, but his disposition won’t change.
“That’s my job. As a backup center, your job is to be ready and step in, and start if you have to. But also, be ready to not play on a certain night,” he recently explained to CSNChicago.com “Be ready to come in, play 15 minutes, 20 minutes — whatever is asked for — that’s your job as a backup, so I’m definitely ready for it. I feel like I’m in better position because I know what’s going on.”
A year ago at this time, Mohammed was enjoying an even more impressive preseason, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. But when the regular season started, he struggled, his playing time was reduced and he eventually fell out of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s regular rotation. Instead of sulking, Mohammed put in extra work and when the coach finally came back to him during the team’s injury-plagued season, he played well and didn’t look back, becoming one of the most reliable players on the squad. Now in his second season back in his hometown after re-signing with the Bulls during the offseason, the Kenwood Academy product is more at ease in the system, knowing his specific role.
“It’s just an easier feel when you know exactly what we’re doing. You’re comfortable with the guys. They know what you can do, you know what they can do,” he said in a raspy voice, the result of taking an elbow to the throat in a spirited Bulls’ training-camp practice. “When Coach says something now, I know what he’s talking about now, instead of thinking and reacting, so it’s definitely a better feeling coming in this year.”
Thibodeau has a respect and appreciation for the backup big man’s abilities, which is why there’s no guarantee that the Bulls add another center to the roster behind Noah and Mohammed, as well as reserve Taj Gibson, who can play both post positions.
“Nazr’s had a great career. It’s not an accident that he’s lasted this long. I think he did go through a period of adjustment last year, but he’s been around and I thought he played very well for us down the stretch. And it’s real good veteran leadership. He comes in early every day, he stays late, he works extremely hard in practice, plays to his strengths. So he’s real good for our team and I expect him to pick up right where he left off,” Thibodeau said. “You have really three guys that can do it because you can also use Taj at the five.
“Nazr, when you’re facing the big centers, it’s good to have his size and toughness out there,” he continued. “You’re not going to knock him around.”
Entering his second year of Camp Thibodeau, Mohammed, who arrived early at the Berto Center to prepare for the official start of Bulls’ training camp, admits that the coach pushes his players more than many of his counterparts in the league. But experience of the center, once an overweight, lightly-regarded college prospect, allows him to get through it.
“The reason I say that is because I know what to expect. The soreness doesn’t surprise me. I know that no matter how hard I work in the summer, coming into training camp, I’m going to get sore because it’s another level. I like the preparation because we’ve got a lot of bodies in camp, so it definitely helps. I see the end of the tunnel, so I know we’re only going to do this for so long and I like it. Plus, just being an older guy, knowing that my career’s toward the end, so I want to prolong it. So the work doesn’t really scare me because I want to keep going as long as I can,” he said. “It’s definitely one of the toughest defensive camps I’ve been in. [Thibodeau] pays a lot of attention to defense, but he has a plan every day of what he wants to get out of it — if he wants to work on the offense, work on the defense, work on our conditioning — and it shows this year because practice has been moving great.”
Being back in his hometown, with a chance to re-enact the team’s championship days of his childhood, is an obvious benefit to Mohammed playing with the Bulls. But something else he values is a chance to give back to the community, something he does annually with a summer fundraiser through his foundation, which added an upcoming event, The Village Project, slated for Oct. 19 and 20 at Francis W. Parker School, targeting the city’s youth.
“I’m from here, so I feel an obligation to do things for the kids, for the community, stuff that I would have liked to be a part of when I was a kid,” said Mohammed, whose wife, Mandi, is spearheading the weekend while his day job gets a bit busier. “We’re having different seminars, talking about being a young man, being a young woman, talking about finances, health. Just a ton of seminars and we’ve got some great speakers coming in.”
If Mohammed continues to be an effective reserve, it’s certainly conceivable that his career could last beyond this season, but he’s already thinking ahead, pondering his post-playing career. The veteran attended the NBA players’ association’s leadership program this past summer in Las Vegas, where he got some preliminary training in the skills needed to work in a team’s front office.
“The leadership program, that was a great experience because I have aspirations — when I’m done playing — to go into the management side of basketball. So I learned a lot of things, got a chance to meet a lot of the general managers, assistant GM’s, player development [coaches], scouts, to see their different roles, to kind of see what would work best for me and get real experience,” explained Mohammed, who also received a tutorial on practical use of advanced statistics, a growing trend in basketball. “I would like to start off anywhere. Everybody has titles in this league and in different organizations, titles change, but the workload may be totally different, so I don’t know the title of the job [he wants to start with]. But I definitely want to be at a point where I learn enough, over these next —after I’m done playing — learn enough over so many years, where I can eventually be a GM or a president of a team.
“It’s about who you know and it’s about your relationships, and I think I’ve had some great relationships. I’ve learned a lot from some great organizations: here, OKC, San Antonio. Then, there are people that you pick stuff from. I remember talking to [Bobcats team president] Rod Higgins when I was in Charlotte; I picked his brain. There’s so many people that I’ve talked to and then the whole Spurs thing, there’s guys that’s other places,” continued the well-traveled big man, who has also played for Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York and Detroit, while maintaining an offseason residence in Lexington, Ky., where he attended college.
“[Atlanta Hawks general manager] Danny Ferry, [New Orleans Pelicans general manager] Dell Demps and in Orlando, [Magic general manager] Rob Hennigan and [Magic head coach] Jacque Vaughn. So I’ve picked so many different brains and that’s what the leadership program was great at because they made us think about what’s important to you, as far as building your team, your organization.
“Certain teams have impressed me and I know what it takes to win. I know the type of player it takes in the locker room. I know that it’s not all skill. It’s work ethic, accountability, good teammates, it’s so many different building blocks,” added the proven winner, who won two NCAA national championships in three seasons at the University of Kentucky (losing in the tournament’s final game the other season) and the 2005 NBA title with San Antonio.
“I’m excited for when I do move to that point in my career, if I can get an opportunity to build an organization to win a championship.”
When Mohammed won his first college crown, in 1995, current Bulls teammate and fellow Kentucky product Marquis Teague — the 20-year-old won a title with the Wildcats himself, in 2012 — was only three years old. With that lengthy track record of success, his opinion, albeit biased, of how realistic the Bulls’ title chances are should be taken seriously.
“We don’t want to start thinking championship at this stage. It’s too early. Everybody thinks they’re going to win: Miami, Indiana, San Antonio, OKC. You’ve got to win the games, you’ve got to stay healthy,” he said. “There are so many steps that need to be taken. I’m not going to talk championship, but I do like our chances.”
Regardless of how the season ends for Mohammed and the Bulls, the fact that a player once believed to be a throw-in recruit at Kentucky to entice childhood friend and retired NBA player Antoine Walker to attend the school has not only outlasted many of his peers, but continues to make an impact, on and off the court, makes him just as much of a hometown hero, if not as spectacular, as his superstar teammate Rose.