Wolves' Tolliver is more than meets the eye

Wolves' Tolliver is more than meets the eye

Published Jan. 19, 2012 4:00 a.m. ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- This story is a cynic's worst nightmare. It's a story of hard work and basketball, about someone who was never the biggest or fastest or most athletic. It's a story of the NBA D-League, of little-known teams in Iowa and Idaho, of a kid who always wanted to support his single mom.

Here's a spoiler: He makes it.

After graduating from Creighton in 2007, Timberwolves center Anthony Tolliver went undrafted, bouncing from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the D-League to Europe and then back again. After being cut by Portland in late 2009, Tolliver got his break when he signed with Golden State in January 2010 and went on to play in 29 games for the injury-plagued team. That was enough to earn him a two-year, $4.5 million deal with the Timberwolves before last season, and it seems that for this first time in his professional career, Anthony Tolliver has found his place.

Some players might have seen that contract as a sign they'd arrived, an invitation to sit back and enjoy what the NBA has to offer. Not Tolliver. It isn't so much that he's not enjoying himself -- he surely is -- but rather that he's learned too much in his 26 years to ever become complacent.

"My whole life I've always been kind of the underdog type player," Tolliver said. "I've always had the goal and the dream to play in the NBA, so every year I've just continued to work on my game and do the things that a lot of people don't want to do."

That work ethic is obvious at Timberwolves practices and shootarounds. Long after his teammates have wandered off or gravitated into clusters, laughing and tossing the basketball nonchalantly, Tolliver hasn't budged. He's standing, sometimes alone, sometimes will a ball boy or teammate, taking shot after shot as if he hasn't already been working out for hours.

It would seem in those moments of basketball monotony that the sport is all Tolliver has, that it's his life. But that's the irony of it all -- for him, basketball is just one facet of an increasingly complex and dynamic life.

Growing up in Springfield, Mo., Tolliver learned a lot from his late mother, Donna Lewis. He developed his strong Christian faith, and he also picked up the dogged perseverance of a single woman who raised three children on a teacher's salary. But most of all, he learned to keep his eyes open and to think beyond the court, beyond the gym.

"Going through college, four years, and getting a finance degree, you just hear about different things that make you want to go into different aspects of life," Tolliver said. "You know that basketball's not going to last forever."

That's why, in the years since his first NBA-sized paychecks, Tolliver has broadened his business horizons. He's always been interested in real estate, and the first thing he purchased when he signed a sizeable contract was a house in Springfield. In the years since, one house became several, which in turn became a real estate business called Say You Can LLC. He's also taken an active role as an investor and advisor in his friend Lanny Smith's company, Active Faith Sports, which manufactures Christian-themed athletic apparel, and he recently became involved with a gym for children near Kansas City, Mo. Called Y.E.S! Kids Fitness.

A solid foundation

Say You Can is arguably the largest of Tolliver's projects, and its reach has extended beyond just real estate. Tolliver and his childhood friend, Kelly Byrne, partnered in 2009 and began to acquire and upgrade houses in their hometown. Tolliver provided capital and a strong finance background, and Byrne, who worked in real estate after college, provided credibility and real estate know-how.

Real estate for many NBA players involves high-rise condos and gaudy mansions, but that's the furthest thing from what Tolliver does at Say You Can. His company is geared toward middle-class, first-time homebuyers. It capitalizes on stability rather than flash, and he and his partner have been cautious throughout the process of growing the business.

"We really are being patient with what we're doing and worrying as we're going," Byrne said. "We're not trying to blow up beyond our means. We really have stayed well within our means of what we could possibly be doing."

Byrne added that because they began the business after the real estate market collapsed in 2008, they've been able to learn from their predecessors' mistakes and keep the business on stable footing.

The recent NBA lockout allowed Tolliver to be more directly involved with Say You Can. He was able to go back to Springfield to check on his properties, but those visits weren't the first time he'd been back to Missouri since last season's end. After an EF5 tornado ravaged the southwest Missouri town of Joplin on May 22, Tolliver and Byrne knew that they wanted to do something to help. Byrne traveled to Joplin in the week following the tornado, and after spending time shoveling and clearing debris, he and Tolliver decided to conduct a basketball clinic for local children.

With the help of a local pastor, coaches from Missouri State University and former Timberwolves assistant Reggie Theus, Tolliver and Byrne's clinic took place on June 7. For Tolliver, it was something that few others could offer, a way to capitalize on the skills he has in a town that needed whatever anyone could offer.

"It was very cool to see a bunch of smiling kids who had been living in hotels or gyms... to see them smiling and having fun when they had to face so much harsh reality so early in their lives," Byrne said.

Faith makes the man

The drive to give back is an obvious outgrowth of Tolliver's faith. Look at his Twitter account (@ATolliver44), and you'll see his religion is a huge part of his life. But like everything else Tolliver does, it goes beyond typing 140-character bursts or thanking God after games. His religion is a huge part of his lifestyle, and it's what he and Smith bonded over when they played together for the Idaho Stampede. They attended church together and talked about their beliefs, and when Smith suffered a career-ending knee injury in 2009, the two stayed in touch.

Shortly after, Smith launched Active Faith, and he mentioned the idea to Tolliver. Smith planned to design and manufacture things like T-shirts and wristbands with Christian messages on them, and Tolliver said that whenever he needed an investor, Smith should let him know.

"A lot of people will say things like that, but when it's time to do it, they disappear," Smith said. "But not Anthony."

Tolliver has been incredibly hands-on with the brand, building its name among other NBA players and even helping to strike a deal with the nation's largest church, Lakewood Church in Houston, so that the apparel will be sold in its store starting this month.

Between that and his newest partnership with Y.E.S! Kids Fitness, Tolliver obviously has interests beyond just real estate and basketball. In fact, Smith said that what drives his friend's entrepreneurship is more than just a business sense. It's a way of thinking about things.

"As long as I've known Anthony, he's always been someone who's been cerebral," Smith said. "He's very smart, very intelligent, so he looks at things a certain way. He's one of the guys who I'd say uses basketball as a tool instead of letting basketball use him."

Tolliver has learned all too well his time as a basketball player could be limited. But especially since he found his place on the Timberwolves, he's realized there's a way to take advantage of his name to do good. Say You Can would never have had a successful camp without Tolliver's name attached to it, and it's doubtful that NBA players like Derrick Rose and Tristan Thompson would be sporting Active Faith wristbands without his involvement.

The hours logged with his businesses aren't so different from Tolliver's countless post-practice shots. He's lucky enough to have the money to invest, fortunate enough to be in the gym, and he's going to make the most of it all. That's why he studied the NBA's collective bargaining agreement last summer and became the team's player rep -- he was interested, and he knew it would be a unique opportunity to learn.

If you watch Tolliver closely in games and in practice, you'll notice his gaze. It's steely, almost too intense for the smiling, talkative player. That's because he's not just taking everything in. He's calculating his surroundings, findings ways to improve that other players might miss.

Byrne, who's known Tolliver since they had every class together in sixth grade, said that his friend has been constantly getting better at his game since high school. The two were teammates then, and Byrne, in the way only a best friend could, said that Tolliver was by no means the star. But each year has brought a noticeable improvement, to the point where Byrne is almost incredulous that it hasn't yet stopped.

But that's what happens in stories like this. The improbable becomes reality, and Tolliver is going to make the most out of the life he's created.

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