By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
- Georgia Tech has two home basketball basketball games remaining, and chances are that Isma’il Muhammad will be in McCamish Pavilion to reminisce each time when the Yellow Jackets play NC State Thursday night and Wake Forest Saturday at noon.
Just don’t look for him to dwell.
The former forward who so frequently dunked so viciously as to land regularly on highlight shows still loves hoops. Yet he’s perfectly content outside the game connecting people to “life-changing” jobs as a vice president at Atlanta’s Barton Executive Search.
And his Georgia Tech experiences as a student, difficult as they were, and as an athlete from 2001-05 set him up.
“We’ve had guys transfer in and transfer out, and everybody would relay back that Georgia Tech was the most difficult, by far,” Muhammad said. “When you have that knowledge, and you’re able to graduate after taking in the rigors of Georgia Tech, you can do anything.”
Muhammad knows well, yet it was a small surprise that he built himself on The Flats.
Coming out of W.D. Mohammed High School in East Atlanta, he was lined up to attend the University of Miami. Then, Hurricanes head coach Leonard Hamilton left to coach the NBA’s Washington Wizards.
Muhammad, 34, had another solid plan, as first-year Tech coach Paul Hewitt and his staff had recruited the 6-foot-6 forward who averaged 28 points, four rebounds, six assists and four steals as a high school senior.
He was long into hoops after early years loving soccer and always into school. Muhammad was an honor roll student and a member of the Beta Club.
“Paul Hewitt recruited me pretty aggressively, and people older and wiser told me, ‘you want that Georgia Tech degree,’“ Isma’il recalled. “It was a mix of … I really liked the coach, his style of play, his vision, and academically there was the education.”
Muhammad was a top-shelf on-the-ball defender for much of his career, and perhaps the greatest dunker in program history.
He started six games and played in 38 in 2003-04 when the Jackets went to the NCAA championship game against Connecticut, scoring 10 points and grabbing five rebounds against the Huskies.
His right knee began bothering him late that season, however, and the patellar tendonitis flared late in his senior season.
Muhammad was simultaneously determined to give professional basketball a try and prepare himself for life as a professional businessman.
As the management major was sidelined, he took action.
“When I was not able to play at end of season, I wanted to focus on life after basketball, and I asked Paul Hewitt [for advice),” he said. “He said, ‘I’ve got a perfect guy.”
That was Tim Barton.
He founded his executive search firm in 1989. He and his Vinings office have been friendly over the years to Georgia Tech students and graduates.
“I got exposed to the 2004 team through Paul Hewitt. I was at a charity golf event for the Michael Isenhour fund ... and bid on a trip (and won),” Barton said. “It was a silent auction gig, and I traveled with my son to see them play at Ohio State. I got to meet the team, and Ish.”
That was the fall of 2003, and when Muhammad in 2005 sought Hewitt’s counsel on a possible internship, the coach connected him with Barton.
“I’ve always said I had no desire to just be a basketball player. I want to be the best at [whatever I do],” Muhammad said. “Most student-athletes don’t know exactly what they want to do. Some do. I wanted exposure. I knew I wanted to do something in business, whether it was own my own company or ... “
After his initial internship in 2005 with BES, Muhammad’s path grew long and kept circling back to Barton’s office.
With a healthier right knee, he worked a stint in the NBA’s summer league and spent time in preseasons with the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks, only to be cut by both teams. Then, he played professionally in France, returned to Atlanta, graduated from Tech in 2006, and took flight again.
Between pro basketball stints in France, Iceland, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, China, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand and Arabia, Muhammad always returned to Atlanta to work with Barton all the way up to when he hung up his sneakers in 2013.
“Even if I made it to the NBA, I was going to come back here to work,” he said.
Barton locked onto Muhammad long ago, and Isma’il’s not the only Georgia Tech graduate who’s landed at BES. Former football players Deon Hill and Omoregie Uzzi also work for Barton, and he’s had several other interns from the school.
“The things I would say about a Tech kid is typically they’re choosing a more difficult path, more forward thinking, an investment,” Barton explained. “There were schools where they could go and have an easier time. They chose the coach and the team and also the education.
“The kid that is capable of performing (athletically) at this level and the academics, when they survive that rigorous, intense experience, when they enter the real world, they’re far more prepared to do what’s good for the company, the team. Their intellect is high. When they get in the real world, they kill it.”
Muhammad spent seven years or so with Barton on the research side of the business, running background on potential job candidates to be forwarded to BES clients looking to fill positions.
He’s become a front-facing member of the office since joining the firm full-time, and was promoted to vice president last year.
Life is good as he interacts directly on a regular basis with BES clients and potential job candidates.
Having grown up in Ellenwood/Decatur, he’s living and working in his hometown, where his entire family -- all three older sisters, older brother, mother and father – live. He’s in a sweet spot, and it’s all the better that he’s close enough to attend Georgia Tech athletic events.
He rarely misses home football or basketball games, and drops in on the Yellow Jackets while maintaining contact with former teammates Jarrett Jack, Theodis Tarver, Chris Bosh, Will Bynum, B.J. Elder, Anthony Morrow, Anthony McHenry and former coaches Paul Hewitt and Peter Zaharis.
Muhammad returns frequently to his launching pad, going back to Tech often.
“I do not find jobs for people. I find people for jobs,” he said. “At Barton Executive Search, I’m close to my strengths, my personality and my values in life. It’s more than filling jobs; you’re really fulfilling people’s lives. You are truly changing people’s lives.
“(Tech) gives you that self-confidence that is so important. And knowing that you have that Georgia Tech network, the family, and that if this opportunity doesn’t work out I’ll land on my feet. No matter what you encounter. It really gives me that sense of self confidence that I’ve done way harder.”