Sean Marks rises to an inside job with Spurs
The lanky figure of Sean Marks lumbers around the San Antonio Spurs' practice facility.
As he strolls about, he glances up at photographs, depicting magical moments in the NBA franchise's storied history. Out on the main training court, he points towards the four championship banners hanging on the top wall, before exchanging a joke with veteran big man Matt Bonner.
A contemplative Marks stands still for a moment. During his 11 years in the NBA, he lined up alongside some of the greatest players in the world, including Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill, Tony Parker, Alonzo Mourning and Chris Paul. He became the first New Zealander to play in the league - one of just two Kiwis to do so.
These days, he's still pinching himself.
After hanging up his sneakers two years ago, Marks, 37, was fortunate enough to move from the front court into the front office, landing a job as basketball operations assistant for the Spurs.
Marks spent three years as a back-up big man with San Antonio, winning an NBA Championship there in 2005. While he was at the Texas-based club, he not only formed a strong connection with coach, Gregg Popovich, and general manager, RC Buford, but also developed a keen appetite for the business side of basketball.
He was intrigued by how NBA franchises put their rosters together and the challenges they face in running their day-to-day operations. As a member of the Spurs, Marks would regularly tap into the minds of front office executives and began to think about it as a viable career path once his playing days were over.
"From an outsider's perspective, I think I enjoyed looking at different teams and organisations and looking at their makeup and thinking, ‘How does that fit together?'," Marks says.
"I really got an eye-opening experience (while playing for the Spurs) . . . Ever since then, I made it a goal of mine to hopefully get back in the front office somewhere. I'm obviously ecstatic and very lucky that it's worked out so far.
"I stayed in contact with Pop and RC over the course of my career and I'm glad they found a place for me."
Marks only spent a year as the Spurs' basketball operations assistant before quickly being fast-tracked into a new role this season, following the departure of Danny Ferry and Dennis Lindsey, who both left to take up NBA general manager jobs over the off-season.
He is now director of basketball operations and general manager of the Spurs' development league affiliate team, the Austin Toros, which effectively makes him third in charge at the franchise, behind Buford and assistant general manager, Scott Layden.
There aren't many better environments Marks could be in. The Spurs have set the benchmark for small market success in United States professional sport, only missing the playoffs four times in franchise history, and claiming four NBA titles since 1999. This week they advanced to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs after completing a 4-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Marks' job description is wide-ranging. As director of basketball operations he is responsible for player scouting, contract negotiations, trade discussions, and long-term planning. The Toros are very much his "baby", where he has to make calls around the roster, talk with player agents, and try to unearth the next "diamond in the rough", who is capable of stepping up and playing for the Spurs.
"This year, I'm 5 per cent on the court (involved with the players) and 95 per cent in the front office, which is the way I want to go. I'd like to go into the management side of things," Marks says.
"It's been really good for me to make those personnel decisions (at the Toros). It's been a great experience."
Buford has been at the Spurs since 1988 and is widely regarded as one of the most astute general managers in not only the NBA, but US sport. Marks says he is always available if he needs advice, and admits he's been a tremendous mentor in his short time in the job.
"I'm trying to be like a sponge and constantly learn from both him and Pop.
"That's one of the best things I've learned from RC. His management style and how he deals with agents and players on trade calls. The thorough background checks (on players). Nothing is done hastily."
Marks' ultimate ambition is to one day call the shots for his own NBA franchise. For now, he's more than happy honing his craft and working with the best in the business at the Spurs. "Obviously that's the goal. You've got to set your aspirations high and hope that's what you can achieve."
Marks still finds it hard to believe how lucky he has been, not only during his NBA career, but with life after basketball.
For a tall, skinny kid, who left Auckland's Rangitoto College to attend the University of California, Berkeley, back in 1994 on a hoops scholarship, it's certainly been an incredible journey.
"To be involved with basketball through college, the NBA, and now this, you're looking at just under 20 years, which is phenomenal.
"The sport has been great to me. I owe the sport, and I owe a lot of people - that's for sure."