Workforce

Dream Hard, Play Hard

From professional basketball to construction executive, Brian Oliver's life has been a product of his choices.
By Rachel E. Pelovitz
October 3, 2022
Topics
Workforce

It’s no secret that Brian Oliver, project executive at DPR Construction in Atlanta, loves his job. He wears his passion for the construction industry—and, most audibly, the company where he works—on his sleeve.

“I love what we do. I love what we stand for,” Oliver says of DPR. “I love how we are involved in the community. I love our core values. I feel blessed to have a hand in mentoring some of our younger builders. I couldn’t imagine working somewhere else.”

His enthusiasm for the industry would be inspiring in and of itself—but this is a second career for Oliver, who played professional basketball from 1990 to 2007, and his decision to pursue construction after retiring from the court was no coincidence. Throughout his professional life, Oliver has expertly juggled family, basketball and his dream of building things. That he has succeeded in each of his goals is due in part to hard work and persistence and in part to a natural ability to see the jump shot—and take it.

ALL-STAR STUDENT

Although he moved to Atlanta with his parents right before high school, Oliver grew up on the west side of Chicago. “As a young kid living in the inner city of Chicago, I was always infatuated with the skyline, the Eisenhower building and the Sears Tower [now Willis Tower],” Oliver says. “I had thoughts of being an architect.”

A good student, Oliver had plans that always included college. Even with a spot in McDonald’s All-American Game and even after he was named Georgia’s Player of the Year in high school, a pro basketball career wasn’t in the cards. When he was recruited to play basketball for the Georgia Institute of Technology, Oliver still might have chosen to study at any school in the country. “I knew Georgia Tech has a great architecture school, and I chose it more for the academics than the basketball,” Oliver says. He even interned at an Atlanta architecture firm, Niles Bolton Associates, discovering a lifelong mentor and a preference for building over design in the process.

While Oliver did receive a degree in building construction, he also was named All-American at Georgia Tech. He and teammates Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson formed “Lethal Weapon 3” and led Georgia Tech to the Final Four in 1990’s March Madness tournament. He was an Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) academic selection and a recipient of Georgia Tech’s Total Person Award. His achievements both academically and athletically gave Oliver the ability to choose his own future—and not by accident.

“I didn’t want anyone to pigeonhole me and predetermine what I could and could not do,” Oliver says. “To be able to go against the norm of what people have predetermined for me as a young Black man, a young athlete, and to be able to come full circle and have my hand in being able to build structures, it shows all of the other younger Black males that you don’t have to grow up and be an athlete. You don’t have to grow up and be an entertainment. You don’t have to be a rapper. You can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer, you can be an engineer, you can be a builder. You can be whatever you want.”

ON THE SIDELINES

“I was fortunate enough to go on and play professional basketball after getting my degree for about 17 years,” Oliver says. Over his professional career, he played for the Philadelphia 76ers as well as for teams in Israel and Italy. Living abroad, Oliver spent time learning the local languages—Hebrew and Italian—and met his wife, Eleonora, in Sicily, as she was exiting the university one day after he was finished with practice next door. He and Eleonora share a daughter, Hayden, whom her father calls “Little Hooper.”

It was on retiring from basketball in 2008 that Oliver decided to return to his original playbook. “Basketball kind of derailed everything,” Oliver says. “For my next step, I didn’t want to take the traditional path of many professional athletes being a coach or going into television.”

That’s not to say he didn’t receive plenty of offers, including the opportunity to announce games for the ACC. But Oliver balked at the “stereotypical box” for professional athletes. It was only a few years later that he accepted an occasional announcing gig. Now, coaching his daughter, playing in occasional summer leagues with other retired NBA players and announcing at the odd game are all he needs from basketball. Oliver even calls it a “hobby.”

“Basketball has given me a livelihood. Without basketball, there’s not opportunity to gain all the life lessons that I have,” Oliver says. “Without basketball, I would not be fluent in Italian. I would not have had the chance to see the world or to meet my wife. Basketball has always been much more than a sport.”

It’s an influence that Oliver continues to feel today. The lessons he learned from working with his fellow players on the court have heavily shaped his approach to construction project teams. “A lot of my relationships with the architects and engineers is because we work hard as a team,” he says. “Winning the game at the end is turning over that project on time and in budget. There’s no ego. It’s all about everyone feeling their role and doing everything to ultimately win, and I learned that from playing basketball.

“But,” he clarifies, “the basketball stuff is a hobby, right? Working as a project executive is my one and only job.”

BRIAN THE BUILDER

Headquartered in Redwood City, California, DPR Construction has locations across the United States, including in Atlanta, which was the obvious choice for Oliver when he decided to reinvent himself as a project engineer 14 years ago. He interviewed at a few other firms, but convincing contractors to take a chance on a 40-year-old man just starting out in construction was a tough sell. After speaking with Darryl Strunk, then a project executive at DPR, Oliver realized the culture and values were exactly what he was looking for.

“DPR was the one and only company that gave me an opportunity,” Oliver says. “And they didn’t take Brian-the-basketball-player as the sole reason for hiring me. They took a chance on me as an ex-professional athlete who came in flat-out green in the industry.”

Although it was a tougher sell at home—“My wife thought I was crazy. How many professional athletes, after having a long career and doing well with their money, work at a nine-to-five in corporate America?”—Oliver’s work ethic and self-described “passion for buildings” meant that his new venture would be built to last. And he hasn’t wasted a moment of the opportunity.

A self-described “city guy,” Oliver found that no place he had ever traveled to settled in his heart like Atlanta. Besides being a hub for big business, it also has convenient direct flights to Rome and his wife’s family. “It’s not the typical Southern city,” he says. “I love what Atlanta brings. I’m diehard Atlanta—I rep the sports teams. This is my city. My dream in college was to expand the footprint of this city, and I feel like that kid is living his plan.”

Working primarily in higher education and health care, Oliver has had an influence not only on Atlanta’s skyline but on his alma mater as well. His first project at DPR, in fact, was Georgia Tech’s Center for Advanced Brain Imaging. “That was one of the most special projects, because working at my alma mater was huge for me,” Oliver says. Now, with seven on-campus projects under his belt, Oliver’s contributions to his undergraduate institution stretch far beyond the basketball court he dominated as a student.

“There’s a sense of pride, being involved in higher education and building those facilities,” Oliver says. “I want to be able to leave a legacy as far as being able to point to different buildings I’ve had my hand in building. Being one of those people that is always expanding [DPR’s] footprint is one of the things that continues to drive my passion."

Another project, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, hits even closer to home. “My daughter was about three or four years old and she had gotten sick,” he says. “I took her to the emergency room and listened to her tell the doctor, while she was on the table, that her daddy built that facility. It brought me to tears, because it’s not what we build but who we build.”

For the first seven years at DPR, Oliver and Eleonora took an inventory of his happiness on the job, but, eventually, they stopped. It was no longer necessary. “I equate a lot of what I do at DPR to sports,” Oliver says. “Do I enjoy working with my teammates? Do I feel like we all have the same goal or are headed in the same direction? And do we all love what we do?"

His family has come to love it, too. Oliver has brought his wife and daughter to various jobsites (wearing personal protective equipment) to see the fruits of a job that takes so much time and commitment. “It’s important for me because, without the support of my wife, there is no way I could do this,” he says. “My wife has always been one of my biggest supporters, even when she could have easily tried to talk me out of this.”

SECOND SUCCESS

Oliver credits his parents with much of his personal inspiration. “When I told my mother and father I wanted to be an architect and build big buildings, they never said, ‘You’re crazy. What are you talking about?’” Oliver remembers. “I had parents who always encouraged everything I wanted to do.”
For the first part of his life, that meant putting construction on hold for a career in basketball. Now, his reputation in the industry stands on its own, giving Oliver two wildly successful, yet separate, careers. “My dad has always told me, ‘[Reputation] is based on who you are, not what you’ve done,’” Oliver says. “Eight months into a project, an owner might realize I’m ‘that’ Brian Oliver. That means I’ve got a lot of respectability in the city and in the culture of building. So, I love where I am and I love what I do.”

Oliver’s mother passed away in 2015, but she was able to see him put his construction degree to work. “I was the first in our family to actually go to a major institution,” Oliver says. “I imagine that she can see where I am in my career, that I started as a kid with that dream, and I know she would be bursting with tears.”

by Rachel E. Pelovitz

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