When Kareem Maddox quit his podcast production job in January 2020 to pursue his dream of making the U.S. Olympic 3x3 basketball team, he never expected where the path would take him. The U.S. men’s 3x3 team seemed all but guaranteed a spot in the Tokyo Games as the reigning World Cup champions, but was shockingly knocked out of the running when they lost in qualifiers to the Netherlands.
Although Maddox isn’t an Olympian quite yet, his journey to the top of men’s 3x3 is a testament to the thrills and lessons that result from risking everything to chase passion. In the final episode of the “My New Favorite Olympian” podcast, Maddox explains why his Olympic aspirations are just beginning, despite not making it to Tokyo.
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Maddox’s breadth of interest in sports began when he was young, as he tried his hand at swimming, track, water polo, and tennis. Basketball, however, was the sport he was destined for. He is named after Los Angeles Lakers icon Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, after all.
After playing professionally in Poland following his Princeton graduation, Maddox shifted gears to producing radio. While working as an NPR producer and host of All Things Considered, he toyed with the idea of giving up the traditional career path to give Poland another shot. He decided to go with the latter, so he quit his job and went all-in on basketball.
“When I was in Poland, on the one hand I was seeing my friends in the States who had stable jobs, were starting families, getting married, and doing all this stuff I wasn’t doing at the time,” Maddox said. “But, the question was, should I be over here at all, or should I be doing what everyone else is doing?”
Once Maddox found out that men’s 3x3 basketball would make its Olympic debut in Tokyo, he knew he had chosen the right path. Though his eyes were set on qualifying for the 2020 Games, Maddox wasn’t ready to throw in the towel on his production career. He took a job producing podcasts for Gimlet Media, which later was acquired by Spotify. As it turns out, there were unexpected parallels between his contrasting paths.
“You have to communicate clearly [in both],” he said. “You have to over-communicate, honestly, on the court.”
Eventually, the time came for Maddox to leave the media industry behind (again) to train for Tokyo full-time. All signs were pointing towards the U.S. men’s team qualifying for the Games and Maddox was thrilled. That is, until the unthinkable happened. First the Games got delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Then Maddox’s team fell short of qualifying.
In the face of all these setbacks, was the risk of putting his career on the backburner worth it? Maddox surely thinks so.
“The story of disappointment and failure is one that’s super valuable too,” he claimed. “That’s not the worst thing in the world. I think that’s valuable and teachable, and I hope that I can spread that message somehow.”
Like many other professional athletes, Maddox continues to juggle his Olympic ambitions with a more reliable, lucrative career. The road to 2024 may be full of uncertainties, but one thing is clear: Maddox won’t be afraid to risk it all to get there.
"My New Favorite Olympian" is the third season of the Sports Uncovered podcast from NBC Sports. New episodes drop every Wednesday and will introduce you to the most inspiring members of Team USA and the issues they champion. The series is hosted by Olympic trailblazer Ibtihaj Muhammad and NBCLX storyteller Ngozi Ekeledo.