Million Dollar Walk-On: USC's Sam Dhillon balances basketball, investment firm, pre-med curriculum
As someone with a detailed understanding of investment returns, Sam Dhillon gets why outsiders might be perplexed by his decision to walk on to USC's basketball team.
Walk-ons, after all, have no guarantees of playing time, scholarship aid or even respect. Instead, they're promised nothing more than hours of practice, grueling weight-lifting sessions and long bus rides. It's a full-time commitment—a job, some might say—especially in Division I. And Dhillon already has a full-time gig.
Three years ago, just after he graduated from Inderkum High in Sacramento, Dhillon launched his own investment advisory company, Quest Investment Firm. Now worth more than $3 million in capital, Quest has three part-time employees, 32 client accounts and, Dhillon says proudly, a 100% client retention rate.
Then there's his major, Human Biology. Oh yeah, Dhillon mentions casually, he wants to be a brain surgeon.
Dhillon has always been fascinated by biology and knew he'd found his future when he watched a chief neurosurgeon drill a hole in a patient's skull to remove a brain tumor last summer during an internship at the Loni Institute of Neuroimagery at USC's Keck School of Medicine. He loves to "see how science works," and feels called to help people. That's why he started USC's first-ever mobile health clinic—he couldn't handle the thought of UCLA, which has run a mobile health clinic for years, being in the only show in town—last fall. Each week, Dhillon partners with other USC pre-med students to educate and provide basic medical services and referrals to government services to underprivileged community members. His end-goal and dream, he says, is to one day own a "huge building, with one side as a medical practice, and one side as Quest Investment, which by then is hopefully a $100 million company. Why not keep both?"
In the meantime, he'll play college basketball. Or practice, at least.
A 6' 8", 20-year-old junior, Dhillon has played 17 minutes in three seasons, scoring four points. This year, with No. 21 USC boasting an 18–5 (7–3 Pac-12) record, Dhillon has only attempted one shot, connecting on a two-pointer to push USC to the century mark in 100–64 win over Lafayette on Dec. 23. Says Dhillon, who powered through three defenders for the score: "I guess I was on the scouting report, if I got triple-teamed.
"Seriously though, I was like, 'I have the ball! I have to score!' Walk-ons get limited opportunities, you know."
"When he scored," says USC coach Andy Enfield, "I think everyone in the arena was happy for him."
Dhillon arrived at USC the same season as Enfield, turning down scholarship offers from smaller Division I programs like Pepperdine and University of the Pacific to immerse himself in "the amazing Trojan network." Enfield and his staff, transitioning to the Pac-12 from the Atlantic Sun's Florida Gulf Coast after a dazzling run to the Sweet 16 in 2013, wanted a few non-scholarship walk-ons as they established their program. They felt Dhillon's attitude fit. "You have to be a special type of person to do it, and to be asked back," Enfield says. That's why, despite limited in-game contributions, Dhillon has remained—though Enfield adds that this year, Dhillon can at least participate in a practice without getting pushed around.
Dhillon knows he has no future as a professional athlete. And it doesn't matter to him.
"I get treated great, and my teammates are my best friends," Dhillon says. "I love seeing us succeed, and I believe in coach Enfield's whole vision. I want it all: Go to the NCAA tournament, be in the Sweet 16, hopefully a Final Four. I wanna live the dream: The game, the packed gyms, people who are wild. I love it."
His teammates love him, too—and not just because he helps them balance their bank account (seriously) and doles out spending advice. He's also a good tutor.
Most financial advisers spend five or six years studying their craft before passing an exam that registers them as certified. Dhillon, who graduated high school as valedictorian with a 4.7 GPA, did it in a few months. Long fascinated by numbers—it's a family affinity he says, pointing to his entrepreneur father and electronic engineer mother—he started analyzing trends as a senior and made his first investment. In March, he loaded up on books to prep for the Exam Series 65, gaining insight to available investment products and regulatory history. He pored over different investment scenarios and came up with varying answers for all types of clients. (Sample test question: What investment would you suggest to a 65-year-old in a retirement stage who still wants steady income?) By July, he was a federally certified financial adviser. He founded Quest by filing "many, many pages of paperwork with the government."
So when Katin Reinhardt, a junior guard, needed last-minute help on his Introductory Statistics final last fall, he knew who to call in crunch time. Dhillon borrowed Reinhardt's statistics textbook, read it in two hours, jotted a few notes about concepts he figured would be on the exam—the Z test, the T test, the T curve, etc.—and drilled Reinhardt. Reinhart passed—with a B.
Dhillon's roommate, junior guard Julian Jacobs, says when Dhillon does something extraordinary—like garner a nomination for this year's Top Wealth Manager Award of the Year in Los Angeles—Jacobs just shrugs and thinks, "Yep, sounds like Sam."
"It's refreshing to see someone that ambitious at that age," Jacobs says. "If I have a son, I want him to be like Sam. If that means being a basketball-playing nerd, that's cool."
He might not fill up a stat sheet, but Dhillon has found other ways to contribute. Figuring a good chunk of his teammates had never been given a reason to dress up and dine out, Dhillon surprised them earlier this season with a Hummer limo and dinner at Mastro's Ocean Club, a waterfront steakhouse. He encouraged them to order as many drinks, appetizers and entrees as they could handle, then footed the entire $6,000-plus bill (and the tip). He had, he says, money to spare.
A 4.0 student juggling 20 credits, Dhillon also plays a range of instruments, including the violin, cello and piano. He doesn't have much time for music these days, though. By the time he leaves USC, he hopes to have built a network of fellow athletes who will come to him for financial guidance. "My whole goal is, let's help athletes secure their financial future so they're not out on the streets looking for other jobs," Dhillon says. He's given himself a deadline, and wants to be on the cover of Forbes by the time he's 28.
First though, USC has to travel to Tempe and Tucson for games against Arizona State and Arizona. Dhillon knows he'll likely be riding the bench. But if it's a blowout, the walk-ons might get on the court. From the outside, it might look like a small return. To Dhillon, it's well worth the investment.