Jeff Pearlman talks with former NBA GM Pete Babcock on how the AOL Time Warner merger ruined the Atlanta Hawks
Welcome to The Quazcast, a weekly podcast that brings listeners in on a frank conversation between myself and a random person from the world of sports.
These interviews are about digging deep and avoiding the cliché questions and answers that too often plague sports conversations. My guest could be anyone. I might speak with a 90-year-old NFL kicker one week, the manager of a Major League Baseball team the next, and a bull fighter the week after that.
This week marks the first time we'll venture into the world of professional basketball. Our guest is Pete Babcock, who has worked as the General Manager for the Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Hawks, the Director of Player Personnel and is currently a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Working in the league since 1984, he has a wealth of basketball experience.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation and a recording of the complete interview. As always, to get future podcasts downloaded straight to your listening device, you can subscribe to The Quazcast on iTunes.
Jeff Pearlman: Are there guys in the NBA, superstars who you just can't win with or is that myth?
Pete Babcock: My opinion I guess would be that if a player is a superstar - and I think there are only a handful of superstars in every generation, I don't think you have more than that, it's just the nature of the beast basically and the business - if you have a true superstar by definition I think that that person helps you win and helps you win big time because there are so few players that bring their team up to a level The years with the Hawks we had trouble getting through Michael Jordan as did everybody else in the NBA and Michael Jordan was one of those extraordinary competitors who, you just couldn't get through him and he brought his team to a level that was just kind of off the charts. So by definition I would argue that if a player is really truly a superstar then the cause and effect is that he causes his team to win and win at a very high level, a lot of players get called superstars and are not really superstars they're just really good players.
JP: You were a high-school teacher and a high-school basketball coach in Phoenix and correct me if I'm wrong, you just sent out your stuff to a ton of basketball teams, is that the basic sort of story there in a nutshell?
PB: Well yeah, pretty much Jeff. It was the early 1970s and I always had this fascination with the NBA. I knew I was never going to play in the NBA. I wasn't even close to that kind of player and I was coaching high-school basketball as you said, teaching American History but I knew I wanted to be involved in the NBA in some way, shape or form.
Back in those days there weren't many games on television, but I videotaped every possible game I could video tape and I broke down the tapes, I built files on the teams, basically as an educational process for myself so I could learn about the teams, learn about what they did, their basic offensive sets and out of bounds plays, special situations, strengths and weaknesses of players and all that. I did it for a whole season and at the end of the year I thought, well, the people who will know if my reports were any good should be the team themselves. So I just wrote a letter to a number of teams in the league, not every single team, but a number of the teams who I had written reports on and built files on. I sent the Celtics their file and the Bulls their file and the Sixers their file and on and on and in the letter I just said, you don't know me, I'm a high-school coach, I live in Phoenix, Arizona. Here's a report I wrote on your team this year. If you think it's any good I'd like to volunteer to scout for your team for free.
Teams come through Phoenix to play the Suns, I'll go down at my own expense, I'll scout them and send you the report, it won't cost you a penny and the majority of the teams didn't write back at all, I'm sure they just threw my stuff away. Four or five teams were nice enough to write me back and say thanks but no thanks. One team - the New Orleans Jazz - basically just said we don't have a very big budget for scouting so if you want to scout for free then go ahead. So I did and I did it for two years and worked for Bill Burke.
Bill really was my mentor and he was great in helping my learn because those two years working for free for New Orleans, I was having a great time, I loved it. I'm down in the arena, I'm watching games, I'm writing reports and I'm mailing them to New Orleans and Bill would critique my reports for me. He would call me and we would talk about them. He'd say you really did a great job with this part, this part you need to improve upon. I made my mistakes. I learned to do a better job and then in the process of being at the games every night you're meeting people who are full-time in the league like Jack McCloskey - who at that time was an assistant coach with the Lakers when Jerry West was the head coach. He used to come over to Phoenix to scout very regularly, about a couple times a month and we happened to sit together and talk basketball. Two years later he calls me up and offers me a job as a part time scout.
JP: How difficult is it, or can it be as a general manager when you don't see eye-to-eye on a transaction with ownership when you're the guy responsible on paper and usually you're responsible period, but when your hand is forced, like we talked a couple months ago when you were with the Hawks and you had to trade Steve Smith to Portland for JR Rider and how you consider that maybe the most frustrating transaction of your career. What is it like to be forced into situations as an executive that you don't particularly feel comfortable being in?
PB: Well it's not comfortable. I don't know any other way to explain it. It's part of the business because unless you own the team you answer to somebody. Whether you're GM or president of the team there's somebody you answer to. Fortunately in my career we didn't have too many situations arise where there was any major conflict over player acquisition whether it's a free agent or trade or the draft because in most cases it was the GM's responsibility and in most situations that I worked in, the owners that I worked for would defer to you and if they weren't happy with it years later they would get rid of you and get somebody else but they let you do your job.
It worked that way in Atlanta for a number of years but then towards the end all of the dynamics changed in Atlanta. We worked for Ted Turner. We had certain guidelines we worked under and we were really able to do what we needed to do to try and improve our team. It seems kind of crazy but as the ownership became bigger in terms of Ted merged with Time Warner which ended up being a real positive thing for the Hawks and the Braves both, but then when they merged with AOL it became a negative thing.
This is my opinion now so some people may not agree with it, but my opinion was it became a negative for both the Braves and the Hawks because AOL Time Warner, the largest media company in the world at the time and maybe still so - I don't know - we represented about one-tenth of one percent of all their holdings. It was actually three teams, the Thrashers, the Hawks and the Braves and we were being asked to cut our budgets. We were being asked to scale everything back and we were like a blip on the radar screen for all their holdings and I don't know whether that was because they intended on selling all the franchises and they wanted to get the numbers down, but that's the direction things were going and it just didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense, certainly if you're trying to win.
To hear the entire interview – including more on Babcock's transition from volunteer scout to NBA GM and the overlooked difficulties professional sports executives experience - you can download the podcast here or listen below.
Jeff Pearlman is a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He is the author of six books including Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, The Bad Guys Won (a biography of the 1986 New York Mets) and Boys Will Be Boys (an account of the Dallas Cowboys dynasty from the 1990s). His newest book – Showtime (due to be released on February 11, 2014) - explores another famous sports dynasty: the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s.