For Andre Iguodala, basketball is a game of teamwork, selflessness, leadership and, oddly, cooking.
That’s because it takes a special person to mix all those winning ingredients together on the floor to spark a championship team.
It’s a bit like food preparation, where the 2014 NBA Finals MVP is the one stirring the proverbial pot.
“I do a little bit of everything … kind of like being a chef on the court,” the Golden State Warriors star tells CNN’s Human to Hero series.
Now in his 13th season, the 31-year-old has an infectious level of unselfishness (he didn’t wince when asked to come off the bench for the first time in his career last season) and is tasked with all the team’s intangibles, from guarding the opposition’s best player (including, ahem, LeBron James in the NBA Finals), to running the floor.
“Whatever the coach needs me to do; whether I need to handle the ball, set up my teammates to be a playmaker … (or) defensively being the main guy who gets everything started, makes sure everyone is in the right position,” says the 6-foot 6-inch, 215-pound small-forward about his sizable list of responsibilities, adding that he “kind of oversees everything.”
On a team boasting flashy marksmen — namely league MVP Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — Iguodala has emerged as a calming presence on the Warriors’ mission to defend the California team’s first title in 40 years.
It all starts with mental preparation, Iguodala says.
“I use my brain a lot now, I’m getting a little older,” he explains. “So I have to think a lot, I can’t use my body the way I used to, really running around (and) jumping around. (I’m) a little sore, so I have to be a smart player, but it’s helped me grow.”
He’s learned a lot from watching leaders in other sports, particularly one fellow champion approaching the summit of his career.
“I’m a tennis fan, so I like Roger Federer,” he adds. “He’s always two or three steps ahead, so he’s hitting a shot but he’s also thinking about the next two shots. So I try to be in that frame of mind — to always be ahead.
“The same way you train yourself to be physically gifted player — whether you do weights, or running to get in shape or swimming — the mental side is the same way. You’ve got to train yourself to be ready for whatever.”
Iguodala was born to a Nigerian father and African-American mother in Springfield, Illinois, where basketball and church were the two constants in his life.
“I started basketball when I was around four or five years old, pretty much my whole family played — my mom (Linda Shanklin) played, my uncle played and from there pretty much all the kids my age in the family played,” he recalls.
He was also strongly affected by his faith. “Just growing up in the church with my grandmother, and really having people of faith around me, keeping me in check … it helps you appreciate the right things and keeps you away from the wrong things,” he recalls.
Being an Illinois native, Iguodala idolized Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen growing up, but didn’t have the means to attend Bulls games at the time.
“There weren’t too many role models who looked like me growing up, so there were a few that came around every once in a while and I really appreciated those moments,” he says.
“But the guys I looked up to I never really got a chance to see,” he laments. “Michael Jordan — I couldn’t get to the game to see him play, never got a chance to meet him until later in life.
“So when I see kids that are from where I’m from, I know exactly what it was like to be in their shoes. I always want to give back and give them a sense of hope that there’s a chance,” he says.
Indeed, when his hometown was affected by a severe tornado in 2006, the Springfield native established a disaster relief fund.
Iguodala also gives back via his youth foundation, which organizes basketball camps and an annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway in Springfield, while inviting motivational speakers from the basketball world to inspire the youths in his program.
“They don’t have to be basketball players but they can be successful at whatever they put their mind to,” he says.
Iguodala claims he never realized he would make it as an NBA player until he was drafted out of college. But he was good enough as a sophomore at the University of Arizona to garner the attention of league scouts, prompting his then-teammate and now Golden State interim head coach Luke Walton to say he would be one of the best players in the program’s history.
With the new season having just started, Walton is taking the reins from coach Steve Kerr, who is sidelined indefinitely with back surgery. All three played under legendary former Arizona coach Lute Olson — a happy coincidence which Iguodala says allowed him to understand Kerr’s request to come off the bench for the Warriors prior to the start of last season.
“It wasn’t a surprise,” he said of the decision, which reduced his playing time from 32.4 to 26.9 minutes per game last season — though, crucially, in the finals, his effectiveness against James prompted Kerr to move him back into the starting rotation and play him the third-most minutes on the team.
“We had the same coach in college — even though it was about 20 years apart — so I kind of know the way he thinks,” Iguodala says of his relationship with Kerr. “We had a talk about it before and it wasn’t a surprise; I knew how to handle the situation and make the most of it.”
He made so much of it, in fact, that by the end of the season he was hoisting the finals’ MVP trophy after averaging 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and four assists over the six-game series against the Cavs. How did the recognition affect him?
“Not as much as people would think,” he says. “It was pretty cool, but I wasn’t trying to get it. I always knew my status and my role on the team, and that was the perfect setup or situation for me to flourish.
“I think it was just a reward for the sacrifices I made throughout the season and it was a great feeling — but the big trophy (the Larry O’Brien trophy presented to the NBA champions) was what I was most happy about.”
In the first four games of season — all wins for the Warriors — Iguodala has settled back into his substitute’s role as a likely contender for one more award: Sixth Man of the Year.
Aside from trying to repeat as champions with the Warriors, Iguodala has another repeat title quest on the horizon — this one with the U.S. Olympic basketball team, which will be defending its title in Rio next year.
Iguodala, a member of the London 2012 team, was excused from August’s national mini-camp, which coincided with wedding his high-school sweetheart Christina Gutierrez, but he is still very much in consideration for one of the few coveted spots. Despite his recent accolades, however, Iguodala feels he still has to earn his place.
“I think everyone has something to prove,” he says. “You have so many great players in the league; you can’t go wrong if you only take 14 guys, and it’s tough to pick 14 guys out of 30 or 40 well-deserved players from our country. So just being mentioned as a guy with a chance or opportunity is a great thing.”
As a member of Team USA with African roots, Iguodala has an interesting perspective on Olympic representation. “You see a lot of guys playing for different countries; their mother might be from one country, but their father from another and they have to pick which side,” he says. “It’s a special moment, and I’m definitely representing Africa wherever I go.”
Either way, he knows repeating the London success will be a challenge. “Every game you are getting your opponents’ best,” he says. “You are the target for everybody, so it’s a great feeling to overcome that pressure and put it together and win a gold medal.”
It sounds a lot like the uphill battle the Warriors face this season defending their NBA title.
With the benefit of all this perspective, Iguodala could be carving out a future as a coach. Is he contemplating it?
“No, (I’ll) never coach! I’m impatient,” he says, while breaking out a championship grin. It’s hard to believe, however, that a person as selfless as Iguodala won’t want to impart his wisdom on a future generation of players.
If he does change his mind, one thing is for certain: He’ll continue to prepare ahead of the challenge at hand — just like all the great chefs.