* Welcome to the 91st installment of The Quaz Q&A. This feature—a question-and-answer session with a person from sports/entertainment/politics/whatever—will appear every week on jeffpearlman.com. If you have any suggestions/ideas for people to speak with, hit me up at email@example.com. I’m listening.
When it comes to the Quaz, few things are better than former pro sports general managers willing to spill the beans on their careers. As a fan, as well as a journalist, I love hearing the stories inside the stories inside the stories. How a trade developed. What caused a team to draft a prospect. What’s it like, analyzing a make-or-break deal. Really, those are the sorts of things that really get me going.
Which makes Pete Babcock one awesome friggin’ Quaz.
Now a highly regarded scout with the Cleveland Calaviers, Pete is best known for his impressive career as a general manager with the Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets. Ever since breaking in as a part-time scout with the New Orleans Jazz in 1974, Pete has worked for seven different organizations. He is also well-known (and well-regarded) for his myriad charitable endeavors.
Here, Pete talks about why, oh, why, he traded for J.R. Rider; how an NBA deal comes into play; the highs of watching Dominique Wilkins dunk and the lows of being fired. One can visit Pete’s excellent website here.
Pete Babcock, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Pete, you’ve had a fascinating career, filled with amazing highs and dazzling accomplishments. You’re smart, wise, honorable. All great things. So let me ask you this: Why, in God’s name, did you trade for J.R. Rider when you were with Atlanta? And how long did it take for you to think, “Eh, this might not have been the best decision”?
PETE BABCOCK: I regretted making the trade for Rider before we made the trade. It was the worst trade I was involved with in more than 30-some years in the NBA. We had just finished the lockout-shortened season only two games out of first place in the East (I think that is right). In any event, we had a very good regular-season record. We beat a very good Detroit team in the first round of the playoffs and advanced against the Knicks. They swept us in four games and then went on to the NBA finals. We had home-court advantage and played well in our home games in the first half and then dropped the games in the second half each night. There was a prevailing thought throughout our franchise that we should trade away our long-term contracts and start over with short-term deals and rebuild the team.
When the decision was made to take that step (which was the first mistake) we were given marching orders to bring back one-year contracts … and Steve Smith (one of my all-time favorites) had the longest-term contract and Rider had one year left on his deal. I had always believed that character was a huge part of building a team and obtaining J.R. went against everything I believed in. I held several meetings with all our basketball people, including all our coaches, and I printed out hard copies of all J.R.’s previous issues and then read them aloud in each meeting to re-emphasize what we were getting into. For whatever reason (I assume the hangover of getting swept in the playoffs), no one objected to making the move. I even called one of my brothers, Rob, who was with Minnesota and had been with J.R. in his early years … and he said under no circumstances should we get J.R. I shared that with everyone on our staff … but no one voiced an opinion against the trade. The coaches were worried about Steve Smith’s knees going forward and we were told by those we answered to that if J.R. was too big a problem we could waive him.
I regret making the deal as we traded Steve Smith for the “anti-Steve Smith.” Steve represented everything you want your franchise to be on and off the court and one of the best days of our franchise was acquiring Steve and Grant Long from Miami in the 1994-95 season. They both were strong character leaders of our team for quite a long time. We ended up waiving J.R. before the end of the season, but not soon enough. He did not report for training camp on time and, in retrospect, we should have waived him then. We had added a number of young players, including Jason Terry, and the last thing we needed was a toxic presence on our team. Biggest mistake I have ever been involved with.
J.P.: Here’s what I know, Pete. You spent more than 30 years in the NBA, working as a volunteer scout, regional scout, assistant coach, director of scouting, director of player personnel, vice president of basketball operations, general manager and president with eight different franchises. What I don’t know is this: How? How did you get there? How did it happen?
P.B.: I have been very fortunate to live my dream for many years. It started in Phoenix, Arizona, where I worked as a high school basketball coach. I started as a volunteer assistant at my old high school, Maryvale, and then went to work full time at Washington High School in Phoenix as a freshman coach and United States history instructor, then Greenway High School as the head coach. I always had a love of the NBA and so I video-taped games and studied the tapes and built files on each team for an entire season, just to learn about the NBA. At the end of the season I sent a copy of the file I built on each team to their general manager and coach with a letter saying I was a high school coach in Phoenix and here was a copy of a report I wrote on their team. If they thought it was any good, I was volunteering to scout teams for them who came through Phoenix—no cost to them. Only one team took me up on it—the New Orleans Jazz. Bill Bertka was the general manager there at the time and Elgin Baylor was the head coach. I scouted for free for two years for the Jazz and it allowed me to learn, make my mistakes and get better at scouting. Then Jack McCloskey hired me to be a part-time scout for the Lakers. Then John Killilea and Don Nelson hired me to do regional scouting for the Bucks and then my big break was when Paul Silas hired me to be one of his assistant coaches for the San Diego Clippers.
Due to the instability of the Clippers, I worked up to become the vice president of basketball operations in my fourth year there. When the team left for Los Angeles I felt it was time for me to move on so I resigned and signed with the Denver Nuggets as director of player personnel. I spent six years there and became president/general manager and minority owner. Our majority owner, Sidney Shlenker, sold the team in 1990 and I left to go to Atlanta as general manager for 13 years. After getting fired in Atlanta I spent two seasons with the Raptors and then the past seven seasons as a scout for the Cavs. Again, I have been very lucky to do something I love for many years.
J.P.: You spent 13 years as the general manager of the Atlanta Hawks. I’ve heard 8 million debates about Dominique Wilkins, ranging from, “One of the greatest ever” to “utterly overrated … not a guy you could win a title with.” Who’s right? Who’s wrong? And what’s your greatest Dominique memory?
P.B.: My greatest memory of Dominique is simply the pure passion he had for playing the game. He practiced just like he played every night. He simply loved the game—that is what stands out in my mind. He produced so many highlight-worthy moments with his incredible explosiveness and athletic talent that it would be impossible to pinpoint only one. The debate over his game was always over whether he was a “basketball IQ” guy or just a big-time athlete. All I can tell you is that no one loved to compete any more than Nique and he coupled that with amazing physical talent to be a very dominant player. He was the face of the Hawks franchise for many years and deservedly so.
J.P.: We all talk about trades, speculate on trades, debate trades. But how do NBA trades happen? What I mean is, can you sorta give an idea of how most trades begin, how they evolve and how, ultimately, they happen? And what do you consider to be the greatest trade of your career?
P.B.: The dynamic of each trade is so different. We made a trade with Sacramento years ago that took two phone calls. Jerry Reynolds called and asked if we would trade Ty Corbin for Spud Webb (if I remember correctly—I am getting old and I think those were the players involved). I told Jerry to give me five minutes to check with our coaches and then I called him back and we made the trade. Another time, when I was in Denver, Bob Ferry (the Washington general manager) and I had been talking about potential trade combinations from June around the Draft until October the next fall. We could not come up with a combination of players that made sense for both teams. Then, after talking for months, we came up with a deal that sent Mark Alarie and Darrell Walker to them in return for Michael Adams and Jay Vincent. The deal came together after we had just re-signed Darrell Walker to a new deal and Bob had never asked about Darrell before. Then he brought his name up and the deal began to come alive.
In today’s world so much of it is driven by cap issues and creating room in terms of salary. Back then it was simply a basketball deal. When we were instructed to move our higher salaried and long term players in Atlanta, we were forced to trade Dikembe Mutombo (another of my personal favorites) because our ownership would not re-sign him to a new deal. And the deal was driven by basketball and salary numbers. We got Theo Ratliff, Toni Kukoc, Nazr Muhammed, Pepe Sanchez for Dikembe and Roshown McLeod. Pepe Sanchez was in the deal to make the numbers work and not for basketball purposes. So every deal is rather unique in what drives it.
I am the wrong person to judge “the best trade I ever was involved in.” In my opinion we built our team in Atlanta through trades and free agency rather than the draft. Partly due to the fact our picks were always later in the first round and not early picks (in the first 10 years), so we were able to acquire Stacy Augmon by trading Doc Rivers for the Clippers’ first-round pick, acquired Mookie Blaylock for Rumeal Robinson, traded Kevin Willis for Steve Smith and Grant Long, signed Mutombo as a free agent, traded Spud Webb and Andrew Lang for Christian Lattner. We also acquired important contributors to our team in Craig Ehlo and Ty Corbin—both guys made huge contributions to our franchise.
In Denver we added Walter Davis as a free agent and acquired Michael Adams and Jay Vincent, who all helped us win a division championship.
Which of these was best? I don’t have a good answer.
J.P.: You started in the NBA when the Jazz were in New Orleans and shorts were tiny. Much has been written about the league’s race problem in the pre-Magic/Larry era … namely that fans considered the game “too black.” How big of an issue was this? And was it strictly a product of the times? As in, would that happen in 2012?
P.B.: I guess I would believe that the racial issues in the NBA were just a sign of the times as much as anything. During my involvement with the NBA I have found that, within the league itself, racism is much less of an issue than in general society. Maybe because of the presence and work of so many qualified African-Americans as general managers, coaches as well as players, trainers, strength coaches, etc. I have always felt that the NBA was ahead of the curve in race relations, but the attitude that the league was “too black” in the 1970s was more outsiders looking in and not coming from the NBA itself. Fortunately we have come a long way to progress from those days, with more progress still needed.
When I entered the league I remember talking with many of the older players of that day who played in the 1950s and 1960s about the trials and tribulations of being a black athlete and the many issues that faced them in travel and with fans. It was a sad commentary of our society at the time and I hope today’s players study the history of the civil rights movement and the progress of the NBA as those who came before them laid the groundwork for all they have today.
J.P.: After 2003, you were fired by Atlanta. I’m wondering what it feels like to be fired as a general manager, when your lowest career moment is big news and all over TV? Were you heartbroken? Relieved? Neither?
P.B.: Being fired is just part of being in professional sports. Kevin Loughery used to say we were all “interim” coaches and GMs. However, when fans read about a coach or GM being fired, they often do not see behind the scenes and just assume it is another day in sports. It is a painful process for anyone and it affects not only you personally, but your family as well. When I was fired in Atlanta, we had been actively involved with not only the team, but the community, for 13 years. It is tough on your kids in particular as they have to go to school and hear the comments of other kids and, unfortunately, some teachers. I did not feel any sense of relief—just disappointment in not getting the job done in this rebuilding process. I thought we had possibly turned the corner on paper as we had put together a front line of Theo Ratliff (leading the league in blocked shots) Shariff Abdur-Rahim (quality scorer inside and mid-range and big time person) and Glenn Robinson (as a premier perimeter shooter). We had Jason Terry in the backcourt as an emerging scorer as well. But the elusive chemistry that everyone always talks about was not there. So what was on paper and what was on the court did not mesh. It takes a while to get over the separation from a team if you have developed strong ties—as I would assume a divorce would be for anyone (luckily I have never experienced that). It takes it toll on you and your family, but if you get into the business, then you sign up for whatever comes and in today’s world of social media opinions runs strong and fast. Whether they are valid or not.
J.P.: During the Clinton years you helped write a position paper for the White House titled, “Building Character Through Sport.” Pete, I have a son who plays Little League, and I’m really starting to question how much character is being built. Screaming parents, obnoxious children, coaches who make winning the No. 1 priority. Can’t an argument be made that sports don’t build character, but merely destroy the .173-hitting right fielder’s confidence?
P.B.: I truly believe that sports help build so many positive things with young people—good self-esteem, confidence in themselves, sportsmanship, understanding, being part of a team and everyone playing their respective roles to achieve success for the greater good. However, it is the outside influence of some parents and some coaches in youth leagues that tarnishes the purity of the game and the experience for our youth. Years ago the NBA partnered with the YMCA to run a youth basketball league with unique rules as an experiment—no score kept, coaches could not talk to the players while they were on the floor (only in timeouts), no awards given and coaches and parents had to attend seminars prior to the league to listen to presentations of what the goals were and what the acceptable behavior was during games. In other words, no overbearing coaching or criticizing from the stands.
It lasted for a short time, but I always thought it was a worthwhile approach with younger kids. When I was growing up (a long time ago) we did not have youth leagues. We just played sandlot games and made up our own rules and had fun. Maybe we need to go back in that direction to some degree.
It is not the sport or the games themselves that cause the problem—it is the people around the game who want to make it the “world championships” or “gold medal” competition. At least that is my opinion.
P.B.: Without question the high point would be the recognition and opportunity to be involved in community efforts to improve the lives of others in any way. Being involved with the NBA opens the door for so many chances to help others and that is more important to me than any on-the-court accomplishments. I know I am in a small minority but I would value the Walter Kennedy Award from the NBA (community service) above any other award that the NBA gives.
The low point, I guess, has to be getting fired. But I have always focused on the positive outweighing the negatives and I would not change anything about my career (well, maybe the Rider trade).
J.P.: You served on the committee that selected the 1996 U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team and coaching staff. That team won the Gold, obviously, but I’ve always suspected it was sort of a letdown … almost like a 14th birthday party at a pizza place the year after a $70,000 Bar Mitzvah at the Plaza. Was that team doomed to lose the comparison battle to the ’92 Dream Team?
P.B.: In my opinion there was and will always be only one true Dream Team—the team in 1992 was it. I don’t know how anyone could ever call any other subsequent team a Dream Team. The 1992 team was so unique in that it the best of the best and true legends of the game playing on one roster. They should have retired the name Dream Team following 1992. It was an honor to be invited to part of the committee to select the coach and team in 1996 and I was thrilled that a true gentleman and great coach like Lenny Wilkens was selected to coach and I thought we selected a very good team again that year.
But not the real Dream Team.
J.P.: What do you love about basketball? I’d love specifics here. I mean, it’s just a game. So why devote your life to it?
P.B.: I was never an star player at any level—just an overachieving player and athlete in high school and in junior college. I never played past that level, and I thought when I finished playing at the junior college level that I was done. I went to Arizona State to finish my degree in political science and then moved on to start law school at the University of Arizona, thinking it would serve as a vehicle to help me in a political career to help make the world a better place (remember, I was a student during the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, so I was not unique. A lot of young people felt the same as I did). Literally after one week in law school, I missed being around the game and realized that I thought I wanted to be involved in basketball in some way. I left law school and moved back to Phoenix (I had just been married six months earlier and neither of us had jobs) and I went to my old high school and asked the head coach if I could be a volunteer assistant for the season to see if I liked coaching. He agreed to let me do so and I worked as a substitute teacher for the year—nd I loved it. I threw myself into studying the game, attending every coaching clinic I could, going to practices of well-respected teachers of the game at every level—high school, junior college, Division I, NBA. And I worked to learn how best to teach the game and develop a coaching philosophy of my own. Every day was fun so I knew I was on the right track. Then I started the NBA journey that I described earlier. I tell young people today that the way I knew this was my passion was that if the journey had stopped at any stage—coaching in high school, doing volunteer scouting, whatever stage it stopped—I was happy and doing something that did not feel like work. To this day, I still enjoy going to games and evaluating players. I love the opportunity to work with players in helping them maximize their potential. You are working with those not only with extraordinary talent, but those who are driven to be the best. It is very satisfying watching them develop over the years. Bill Bradley wrote a book on the love of the game and his explanation is so much more articulate than anything that I could say or write—so I would say read Bill’s book and that is how I feel. In addition, as I mentioned in another answer, the NBA provides an entrée into so many community efforts and programs particularly with young people. That has been a source of great satisfaction and motivation for me.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): John Koncak, the ABA, Kentucky Fried Chicken, mints, Conan O’Brien, Lily Tomlin, Diet Pepsi, Martin Luther King, Girl Scout Cookies, World of Coke Museum, Ron Guidry, space, tofu, Easter Sunday: Martin Luther King, Jr, Girl Scout Cookies, ABA, Jon Konack (by the way he was already signed when I got there), Lily Tomlin, Space, Mints, Easter Sunday, KFC, Conan O’Brien, World of Coke, Diet Pepsi, Tofu, Ron Guidry (Red Sox only—cannot vote for a Yankee in principle only)
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: We were flying after our game in Miami to Orlando for a game the next night and we hit really bad weather … wind shear was terrible … the pilot of our team plane told us we were going to try to land in Orlando but it was really bumpy and everyone on the plane was not only feeling sick but nervous about trying to land. We got down to the runway and our wheels on the left side of the plane touch as we hit a wing shear and the wing came within inches of touching the runway which would have flipped the plane. The pilot hit the gas and we took off again and circled for awhile and then he said we were going to try it again … most of the players were yelling that we should just fly to Birmingham, Atlanta, back to Miami—anywhere else but Orlando. We got down on the second try but it was pretty nerve racking and no one wanted to get back on the plane after the game in Orlando to fly home.
• The world needs to know—what was it like working with Duane Ferrell?: Paco was and still is the consummate professional….great person and a joy with whom to work. He came to practice everyday to do his job and contributed to our success in the 1993-94 season when we finished with the best record in the East. He was a very good role player on a good team and I enjoyed being associated with him. Fortunately for the Hawks, he is working for them today and is a good role model for all today’s players.
• I honestly thought Doug Edwards was going to dominate the NBA. He, eh, didn’t. What happened?: Doug Edwards was a talented player who unfortunately was an under-achiever in my view. I like him as a person and he was easy to be around, but going back over all my reports when he was at Florida State—I wrote that he would have a good half and then disappear for a half. He had spurts where he showed NBA skill and he had the tools, but just did not deliver it on a consistent basis. One of the keys to finding successful players in my view is to find over achievers and those who have consistency in their games. That was not Doug’s strength unfortunately. But he was a nice person and I hope he is doing well in his coaching career.
• I just realized—you got Mookie Blaylock AND Roy Hinson from the Nets for Rumeal Robinson. How the hell did you pull that one off?: The trade for Mookie was the result of New Jersey wanting to move Mookie and us realizing that Rumeal was not going to become a point guard. We drafted Rumeal hoping to make him into a point guard, but we were wrong and fortunately we were able to acquire Mookie, who went on to have an all-star career with us.
• Five reasons to make Bangor, Maine one’s next vacation destination?: I was born In Bangor, Maine, but we moved away when I was only 2-years old. So I don’t have a lot of attachment to Bangor. But I do go back each year to visit cousins and see friends who live there. It’s a beautiful area in the summer and fall and numerous lakes to enjoy around Bangor. And the University of Maine at Orono is just up the rode a few miles and my friend Ted Woodward does a great job with the men’s basketball team. So go see the Black Bears play …
• Five greatest NBA players of your lifetime?: Bill Russell (without question—in my opinion), Michael Jordan (hate to say it since we could never get through Chicago in the playoffs), Larry Bird (could dominate a game so many ways), Earvin Johnson (always found a way to do something to make his team win), Wilt Chamberlain (most unstoppable force in the NBA).
• Do you think, with time and love, Justin Beiber and Selena Gomez will get back together?: Justin and Selena—are you kidding? I am old, remember …
• Your last name is Babcock. Did that lead to any unfortunate nicknames as a child?: My name somehow never caused me any issues. Just got lucky, I guess.
• Celine Dion offers you $5 million to star as LeeRoy McGoo, naked streetball legend, in her Las Vegas production of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh II. You in?: Send me my ticket to Vegas. Might scare a lot of people, but I am in.