Taqwa Pinero's knowledge is its own currency, and he's paying it forward

Taqwa Pinero's knowledge is its own currency, and he's paying it forward

Taqwa Pinero has had every reason to fold.

From witnessing his mother commit suicide as a 6-year-old child, to losing both of his grandparents and uncle by the time he was 9, to his older sister running away afterward without telling him, to shockingly finding out they shared the same father after believing it was another man for 33 years, to going through two divorces and winding up completely broke after his retirement from basketball, Pinero’s life has been rife with trauma and abandonment.

Even as recently as last August, Pinero was wrongly fired by French pro franchise Élan Béarnais after just three months as the team’s general manager due to his Islamic faith. 

But now, inspired by Kyrie Irving, Ja Morant and Paul George, the 39-year-old senses it’s the appropriate time to open up about his mental-health odyssey, and that’s what he did while addressing his 17U Epic Elite AAU team out of New Jersey in a video that spread quickly across Twitter and Instagram just a few weeks ago. Sharing his story and the positive message that comes with it is his purpose right now.

“You can't control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it,” Pinero told Basketball News. “I could've followed what the statistic says about someone that experiences what I experienced, but I decided to see the brighter things with life. The biggest thing death taught me was it took all fear away from me, and it allowed me to be present and live and understand that it can happen any day, but I became more alive because of it.”

Back home in New Jersey since last month, Pinero desires to teach both sides of the age spectrum in hoops. Boasting a playing career that spans 17 professional seasons across Italy, Russia, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Iran and France, he’s garnered a greater understanding and learned quite a bit.

Having traveled the world, Pinero is convinced that the United States is behind, and that’s not just in sports. He’s seen people in these countries learn the English language as a requirement and gain ground on America in the space of education, mentioning how U.S. curriculums don’t necessitate studying other cultures as sternly. One of his examples? China’s academic version of TikTok called Douyin, which strays far away from the viral-nature based, entertainment-heavy app Americans use in the States. 

On the court, Pinero feels that Europe’s basketball ascension started in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona with The Dream Team.

“The rest of the world got to see that stage of basketball: Jordan and Magic, everybody together. If you've seen since that time, that pushed Europe and the rest of the world to improve their game," Pinero said. "It started with that. [European] kids started to believe, 'Okay, I can be a Michael Jordan or a Magic Johnson.' We just felt we were far superior. And year-by-year, these kids started to gain.”

Early and often, Pinero noticed this shift. He recalls competing against a young Ricky Rubio in 2009 and seeing Luka Doncic play with the U18 Real Madrid team before matching up with the parent club. A few years ago, he watched Victor Wembanyama dazzle with U18 Nanterre 92 ahead of his game.

“You see that, shit, the level's a lot higher than high-school basketball,” explained Pinero, who pointed directly at the NBA’s recent stretch of international stars being the cream of the crop.

He is adamant that the fundamentals of the game are the driving force behind Europe’s talent taking over both the league and worldwide. It’s the very reason why, while there are exceptions to the rule, Pinero has a gripe with “AAU culture.” Falling back on what Kobe Bryant alluded to when he retired, the longtime pro is disheartened with the isolation, force-it, standout nature of the talent development in America. Though he understands much of it is due to wanting to earn scholarships and for recruitment purposes, Pinero maintains the gap is closing — and closing fast.

“[What] most teams now are looking for, especially in Europe, [is] continuity. They're looking for players that help the team win, and it's not 1-on-1,” Pinero said. “So guys like Manu Ginobili and those types of players, that's the type of basketball I like to play. That's why Europe was so good to me, being able to shoot the ball. Stretch 4s, that's the name of the game now, 5s are now shooting. 

“You see Victor Wembanyama, he's f—ing 7-foot-3 and you see him shooting the three-point shot and then catching the rebound and dunking it. But his skill level, people don't understand that he works diligently on his skill level; that's being able to pass the ball, left-hand, right-hand. That's the European style... There's gonna be a European NBA team. It's evident if you saw that Adam Silver has made a contract with the French president (Emmanuel Macron) on developing French basketball. It's coming. It's inevitable."

Taking it a step further, Pinero envisions international prospects taking advantage of the freshly instated NIL aspect of the NCAA, which, again, could give the local talent an uphill climb because of the development difference.

“The NIL now is about to be a real game-changer in the sense that these top prospects in Europe that normally sign with a pro team for $1,500 per month or even less for a five-year contract, they can now say, 'Well, shit, I can go get $500,000 in NIL over here and play in the States for maybe one or two years, get that exposure, come back to Europe and go in the draft from Europe,’” Pinero proclaimed.

“You've got to think. These [European] kids have been playing with pros for years. Like, they practice with us. We'll have three to four young prospects that practice with us as pros, so these same kids will come to play college basketball 'cause they get the NIL. I'm gonna go with the well-seasoned European guy [rather] than a young high school kid (if I’m a coach).”

Formerly known as Taquan Dean before finding out about his father, Pinero was an All-State star at Neptune High School in New Jersey. One morning in 2001, as a junior participating in Sonny Vaccaro’s famed ABCD Camp during the school year, he remembers receiving a general letter of interest from the Louisville Cardinals, but nothing substantial. Then, Pinero glanced over at the television and saw a message across ESPN’s bottom line: Rick Pitino heading to Louisville.

Pinero’s interest piqued. Having read the well-respected coach’s books as an admirer from afar, he knew everything there was to know about Pitino’s approach and loved that style of play as a defense-first, up-tempo shooter. So with the letter in his hand, seeing the news, Pinero convinced his guardian to call the number printed on the letter to try his luck.

There was one complication: Syracuse was hard on the recruiting trail too, and later that night, he spoke with an assistant coach who came to observe practice and told him he’d meet with Jim Boeheim and the Orange staff, who’d gotten a verbal commitment from Carmelo Anthony around the same time.

What followed when Pinero got home, he’ll never forget.

“Boeheim calls. And while I'm on the phone with Boeheim, you hear the beep. I pick up and it's Rick Pitino. I’ve got Boeheim on the other line,” Pinero chuckled as he recalled the surreal moment. “'Hey, it's Rick Pitino.' I immediately dropped the phone.”

His guardian promptly signaled him to get back on the line, so he got it together and started listening. While Pitino was attempting to sell him on the school, Pinero told him he’d already made his mind up to come to Louisville. He didn’t need to look around the campus or hear anything else.

“‘I know what I want, and it's to play for you. I know you can get me to that next level,'” Pinero told Pitino, who recruited him based on Vaccaro’s words. “And he was like, 'I've never had this done to me before.’ His players after they left him, they said he prepared them for life. I didn't have a father. I didn't have a father figure. I knew he could fill that role, so I guess I was wise beyond my years.”

From 2002 to 2006 — alongside the likes of Francisco Garcia, Luke Whitehead, Larry O’Bannon, Ellis Myles, Brandon Jenkins and Juan Palacios to name a few — Pinero, Pitino and the Cardinals achieved great success, making the NCAA Tournament in three of four seasons. That includes a memorable Final Four run in 2005 that Taqwa admittedly can finally appreciate.

“When I spoke to the kids, I looked back at it and was like, 'Damn, you really never took a chance to just relish in what happened.' That was special,” said Pinero, sharing that he stays in contact with most of his teammates from the time aside from Garcia, whom he hasn’t spoken to in a few years.

Louisville captured two Conference USA championships before moving to the Big East when Pinero was a senior. During that year, he led the squad in scoring and assists. Although the team didn’t make the big dance that season, he left an indelible mark on the program. 

To this day, Pinero holds every three-point record in the book (359-for-896, 40.1%), surpassing Cardinals alum DeJuan Wheat as the best shooter in school history. Despite all that, unlike Wheat, Pinero never made it to the NBA stage.

“You know what, I'm 17 years too late. I say that all the time,” Pinero said with a laugh. “I was in the era of big guards and you don't shoot that many three-point shots. So yeah, I'd say now with the NIL and the way they're shooting today, I would fit so perfectly in this style of basketball.”

Not only has Pinero stayed close with Pitino, he’s also forged a great relationship with Louisville head coach Kenny Payne and athletic director Josh Heird. Following a difficult campaign, Pinero reveals that he’s been working with the two on getting the current squad overseas for a trip that will help them come together as one — an aspect of sports that seems amiss at both the collegiate and professional levels.

“I want to bring them to Spain and introduce them to Real Madrid soccer club where they get to understand the tradition of such a club like that, that's world-known,” said Pinero, noting that Payne and Heird called the idea brilliant. “Get that culture from there, and then we'll fly to Tenerife and it would be a team-bonding week where you have team-bonding seminars, mental health practitioners.

“If you know anything about the All Blacks, they're the all-time winningest team in sports history, and it's a rugby [team]. Their culture is bar none the best culture in any sport, any sport team in the world. It's a structure of, 'Nobody's above the team.' So they make the stars sweep the locker room daily. Everybody's doing something that doesn't signal that somebody's above the team. So these are mostly soccer clubs and European clubs, this is the structure they have. So with Louisville having such a bad year, I felt that's something that would be huge for them to see.”

Pinero’s lessons are not limited to the younger generation. He has the same kind of passion about encouraging older pros to think about their post-playing lives, which is why he helped co-found Rel8 Sports Management with Lindsay Theodule after connecting on LinkedIn before he decided to hang up his sneakers.

“After I retired, I had nothing to show for my career. It's a lot of athletes that are at the end of their careers and they're scared to death,” stated Pinero, who was trying to pick up the pieces himself at that stage. “One, they weren't taught money management correctly. Two, they're dealing with a lot of trauma that they never addressed. So, you spend all your life doing the same thing, and then when you're done, you're going through a deep depression because you don't have that anymore.

“So, we [had] come up with Rel8 to basically help those athletes figure out how to manage their career while they're still playing for the after-career, and also help those players who can't find an outlet and figuring out what they're gonna do after their careers.”

Having been gone for over a decade-and-a-half, Pinero was starting from the bottom all over again in the States. With his widespread network, he could try the agent route. Coaching was an option too. He soon realized it wasn’t that easy. The only assistant positions available weren’t at the level he’d have liked to be at. Even Louisville turned him down.

“I said, 'That's horrible, but I get it,'” Pinero remembered. “These guys have worked their ass off for 15 years that they're in, and they don't want to give you that shot because — I hate to say it that way — they were the guys at the end of the bench when you were the star. So now, the roles reverse. 'Okay, now you need a job from me.' And so, I found myself in that situation, and Lindsay kinda helped me understand the gifts that I had in connecting and helping athletes that don't have an outlet.”

Rel8 launched in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic as a way to get players in the right places in Europe. Pinero wanted to ensure these athletes became more business-savvy and were compensated fairly, especially after what he experienced overseas.

In 2006, undrafted and following a six-game NBA Summer League stint with the San Antonio Spurs, Pinero packed his bags for Italy to begin his professional career with Pallacanestro Biella. Playing “lights out” for the team, he soon found out that any franchise can buy out somebody’s contract. In mid-February that year, MBC Dynamo Moscow did just that.

All of a sudden, Pinero was headed to the EuroLeague — a huge accomplishment for as quickly as it happened because of the step up in competition and the money. The drawback? He had to be in Russia within two days of receiving the news. In a rush, he promptly gathered his stuff, brought his girlfriend to the airport and took a flight there.

Upon his arrival, the organization invited the two to the office. Executives put a $15,000 check on the table and told him they were treating his girlfriend because International Women's Day was coming up. Pinero grinned from ear to ear and told her to go shopping, thinking that he’d hit the big time. Unbeknownst to him, that was all the money he was getting. Pinero didn't receive compensation at all for the rest of the season. 

“I went home that rookie year with $2,000 in my account," Pinero said. "That's it."

Shockingly, that wasn’t even the worst of it. Pinero inked separate deals worth $150,000 and $100,000 in the following years and didn’t see a cent. It was only a harbinger of what was to come.

“I've been on eight different teams where I went five months without getting paid. There was no protection,” Pinero said of his financial situation. “They say FIBA protects us, but we're not paid [for] five months and we're told, 'Okay, but you still have to play.' And if you sit out, the team can actually just cut you. Tell me where am I protected where the agents can't do anything, and if you do sue, you have to pay FIBA almost $10,000 just to even let it be seen in court. 

“It was so bad at one point, they didn't even have heat in the gym. So I'm not getting paid, we're practicing with full coats on. In my contract, it says if I don't get paid past 30 days, I can sit out. When I threatened to sit out, they tell me that they can cut me. So I'm like, 'Where am I protected here?' And if you don't know it, this happens all over Europe and nobody [does anything].”

In many instances, Pinero says it can take up to 10 years to get the issue resolved. With that long of a process, several pros tend to not even bother and end up retiring without getting their just due. He likened the feeling to a form of PTSD.

“Your contract is not guaranteed anywhere. I mean, other than France and maybe Germany, you could be cut at any moment. One, you have to perform at this level or there's another American coming, quickly. Two, you may not receive your payment the next month. So you're far away from home, you're trying to provide for your family,” Pinero said. 

"At the same time with providing, you're dealing with a language barrier — now it's a lot different because you've got technology, but at the time that I was there, there was a calling card. There was no Netflix or anything like that. It sounds like a movie, what I went through in Europe.”

Pinero knew after going through that, he’d be doing a disservice to his fellow pros and aspiring ball-players if he didn’t help them avoid such a mentally draining scenario.

“These kids come from the environment that I come from, and they're trying to provide for their families, but there's people with agents that don't have their best interests at heart,” Pinero said. “And there's a lot of those agents out there. I've been through eight agents. And there's no education on, 'Okay, the agent works for you. You don't work for the agent.' A lot of players don't know that. They don't know how to read their contracts. 

“It's a lot of things going on that these players don't know, and I felt I could, through my experience, help that. And that's what Lindsay and I were planning to do with Rel8.”

One offseason while he was still an active pro, Pinero was working out at an LA Fitness back home in New Jersey. Getting a lift in with his headphones in, a white man said hello and tried to get his attention. Pinero would brush him off then and the several mornings that followed despite the man’s upbeat and positive attitude. One day, the man took those headphones off, which took Pinero aback. Calmly, the man began talking, assuring him there was no need to be in defense mode and that what he was about to tell Pinero would help him for the rest of his life. Pinero cooled off and obliged.

Speaking to his experiences with athletes and people of color, the man shared how some didn’t take the time to get to know who and what is around them. Pinero, confused, asked what he meant by that. The man referred to Pinero ignoring him every morning with a cold shoulder.

“Would you know that I was a billionaire?'” Pinero remembered the man asking him. “And [in my head] I'm like, 'Shit.' Now he got my interest. I'm like, 'Nah, I wouldn't.' He said, 'Closed mouths don't get fed,' and he said, 'The power of relationships goes a long way, so make sure you say hello and make sure you extend yourself in locker rooms and wherever you are, 'cause you never know who's next to you and who can help you or you can help them.'

“I took that advice and I made sure I made relationships. I made sure I took the time to get to know who was around me. And with those relationships, in business, I've been able to broker $150 million real estate deals and get investors to invest in basketball teams just off of relationships that I've made over my career.”

Pinero hasn’t stayed connected with the man, but that interaction gave him the confidence to say that he talked to somebody with that kind of wealth. He’s now in contact with three billionaires weekly. He wishes he’d understood the importance of networking and being friendly in college.

“Everybody's going to school to be something. You don't think about it when you're on campus, but if you take the time to get to know people on campus, you'd never know if Jeff Bezos was [there] every day. Make those relationships while you're in school because everybody's there for something. They're there to be somebody,” Pinero said. 

“So I realized that I was very humble. I've made people feel good and those relationships are now helping me when I retire and I don't have money, I'm dead broke. These people are now helping me in a sense in my business because I was a nice person.”

Giving back is what Pinero is meant to do. Much of that has to do with his journey in life and the Islamic faith he converted to while officially changing his name to what his mother originally wanted to call him: Taqwa, which means "conscience of God" in Arabic. Some see this as a religion, but he conveys that it’s a way of life. It gives him structure, allows him to visualize his days and much more.

“In Islam, a form of charity is a smile ‘cause you never know what someone's going through, and you can lighten up their day with a smile,” Pinero said. “So it's always making you aware of your neighbor and helping. And so for me, it was big once I learned that about Islam that it's about helping your neighbor, it's about being selfless and it's about being able to focus on you being present, not worrying about the past or the future.”

Pinero is paying it forward, and the knowledge he’s bestowing upon people is its own currency.

“You can pass it along and show the world that you can overcome adversity [and] obstacles, and still help someone else get out of those obstacles. I believe that everything I've been through in life was built for me to help the next generation,” Pinero said. 

“It's not [about] money, it's not [about] fame, it's not [about] ego. And that's not even saying you have to go through something tragic that I went through. But [it’s] to know that you can be whatever you want to be. You just have to be consistent and have faith that everything can happen for you.”

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