Admittedly, basketball is a game of talent, and there is more of it in the NBA game now than there ever has been. Of course, as certain players have proven over time, basketball also is a cerebral game, and without at least some measure of smarts it’s going to be challenging to last long in the world’s most competitive league.
That said, there are some players who are especially intelligent, not only on the court but off of it. Fans can easily take for granted that some of their favorite athletes are actually smarter than they are, and in fact there have been more than a handful of extremely smart NBA players over the years.
There are players who are smart on the court – who always make the correct pass and who spearhead complicated defensive rotations – but the far-reaching intelligence of some pro players of the past and present is frankly pretty staggering. Here’s a look at some of the biggest brainiacs the league has ever seen:
Dikembe Mutombo – Maybe also one of the nicest players in NBA history, Mutombo has turned his prestigious education, which includes two degrees from Georgetown, into a rewarding life of philanthropy that has helped thousands upon thousands of people worldwide. He speaks nine languages, five of which are different African dialects, which is appropriate since one of his degrees is in linguistics. The other is in diplomacy, and he’s used that to do some tremendous humanitarian work in Africa over the years. He earned an honorary doctorate from Georgetown in 2010 and also has been named an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the State University of New York College at Cortland, proving his credentials are as impressive as his list of donations.
Chris Dudley – While he may have shot some of the most atrocious free throws in the history of the game, Dudley was a Yale graduate and an incredibly smart man who proved to be much more than “just” a basketball player. He came out of his prestigious Ivy League university with not one but two degrees—one in political science and another in economics. And after his playing career, he became vice president of a wealth management firm, later earning a partnership at a firm called Filigree Advisors. In 2010 he ran for governor of Oregon, but lost 49 percent to 48 percent in a heartbreaker of a vote. Still, he has been extremely successful in his life after hoops, which of course makes sense considering his educational pedigree.
Chris Bosh – In high school, Bosh was a member of something called Wizkids, which was a computer club that worked on graphic design. He also joined the Association of Minority Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers during his senior year there, all as a result of his interest in coding and computer science. While he obviously doesn’t use his talents and interest in coding on the court, he hopes someday to teach it in his years following basketball. He wrote all of this in an article for Wired magazine a few years ago, and considering his recent health scares, it’s good to know he’s got a fulfilling backup plan ready to roll should he ever find himself forced into retirement from basketball.
Pau Gasol – Growing up in Spain, Gasol lived in a home with two medical professionals as parents. His mother was a doctor, and his father was a senior nurse, so it came as a surprise to nobody that during Gasol’s first year playing professionally in Barcelona, he also attended medical school. While he didn’t finish his education there, he still spends a lot of time in hospitals, especially children’s hospitals, to sit in on surgeries and help make kids feel more comfortable. In one Lee Jenkins story from SI a few years ago, he told a story about how Gasol met up with some doctors at a children’s hospital and started asking questions about scoliosis patients and how a certain treatment might stunt their lung development. The doctors were floored, but had they known anything about Gasol ahead of time they might not have been. Also, he could have had that conversation in English, Spanish or Catalan, as he speaks three languages fluently.
Danny Granger – Having scored a 30 on his ACT in high school, Granger is very likely smarter than a lot of the media that spent time interviewing him over the course of his career. Test scores that high, particularly when they come with a strong extracurricular background like the one Granger put together at Grace King High School in Louisiana, garner the attention of prestigious universities. As a result, he was given a financial package offer to attend Yale. He didn’t go there, choosing instead to start off at Bradley University in Peoria, IL as a civil engineering major. He’d eventually transfer to New Mexico, but he’ll grow old knowing he was good enough for the Ivy League, even if that’s not the direction his life actually took.
Jeremy Lin – The NBA doesn’t see a lot of Ivy League players come through its ranks, and certainly not many that have the effect on the league that Lin has had. As a graduate of the prestigious Harvard University with a degree in economics, Lin is the only current player in the NBA to have attended an Ivy League university, and he is one of only four Harvard students ever to make it to the NBA. Lin famously was not offered any Pac-10 scholarships despite solid high school play and an incredibly high 4.2 GPA, so he went to Harvard University, where athletic scholarships do not exist, and paid to play.
Tom McMillen – While McMillen floated around the NBA from 1975-1986, averaging 8.1 PPG on four teams over the course of his career, he proved an intellectual powerhouse off the court, eventually earning a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives for the state of Maryland during the 1980s and 1990s. He graduated from the University of Maryland long before that and was named a Rhodes Scholar, but in 2011, after his days as a Congressman were over, McMillen was appointed as Chairman of the first Board of Directors for the President’s Foundation on Sports, Physical Fitness and Nutrition. He also has written a book that looks at the relationship between sports and ethics, and at 6’11, he remains the tallest-ever member of the U.S. Congress.
Bill Bradley – No former NBA player has ever come closer to becoming the President of the United States than former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, who made a strong push for the Democratic nomination in 2000, eventually losing to Al Gore. Of course, long before that, Bradley was a brilliant student, graduating from Princeton in 1965 and then being named as a Rhodes Scholar, which earned him the opportunity to complete his Master’s Degree at Oxford University. Over the course of his career he has served as a visiting professor at Stanford University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Maryland, and he also has written six books. He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame, has two rings as a member of the New York Knicks, and earned a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. To this day, he holds the Ivy League record for total and average points, as well as free-throws made and attempted. But again, this guy made the Final Four of Presidents at the turn of the century. How’s that for a basketball resume?
The NBA is full of smart players, but not all of them always took their education as seriously as these men. There have been plenty of other deeply intelligent players in league history, but this batch may be the most learned, at least in terms of school and world experience.
Interestingly, a lot of the players on this list played center in the NBA, and many of them either are seven-feet tall or are approaching it. All those jokes about jocks being big dumb oafs can go out the window. As it turns out, some of the biggest people have the biggest brains!
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