Babcock Proud: A Tribute to Rob Babcock
Today is March 26, my uncle Rob Babcock’s birthday. It was his first birthday since he passed away last May. I want to share a tribute I wrote for him in honor of his memory.
On many occasions, I have begun articles, conversations, interviews, and meetings with something like I am Matt Babcock. I come from a ‘basketball family,’ the Babcock family. Without hesitation, I can say that I am unapologetically proud to be a Babcock. Today, I would like to share a story about one specific family member, my uncle, Rob Babcock.
First, to give you some background on our family, my dad, Dave Babcock, and my two uncles, Pete and Rob, have all had long, successful careers working as front-office executives in the NBA. Pete is the oldest Babcock brother, followed by Rob, and then my dad, Dave — only ever referred to as Peter, Robert, and David by their mother, my grandmother. Before their NBA careers began, they had a relatively modest upbringing as they came from a military family. My grandparents settled in Phoenix, Arizona, in the early 1960s once my grandfather retired from the Air Force. There, all three brothers were high school and college basketball players. Following their playing careers, they all became high school and college coaches and eventually worked their way into the NBA. The three brothers have always been reliable and hardworking, but, most importantly, they have lived their lives with integrity, the main reason they have succeeded, in my opinion. The Babcock brothers have accumulated nearly 100 years of combined NBA experience.
From what I have been told, growing up, the Babcock brotherhood was a very typical one; they could never go more than a few minutes without teasing one another or getting into a childish disagreement. This is something, to this day, they have never outgrown. However, there is one thing that they could never argue: Rob was, undeniably, the best shooter of the three brothers. He was a standout high school basketball player at Maryvale High School in Phoenix, Arizona, and he was heavily recruited to play in college. But Rob chose to stay near home to play at Grand Canyon College, just down the road from his parent’s house. At 6’4”, he was a good all-around player, but outside shooting was his key attribute. The guy could flat-out stroke it from anywhere on the floor.
Once Rob’s college playing days ended, he coached at the high school and college levels. During that time, he married my aunt, Laura, and they had two sons, my cousins Chris and Nate — two of my best friends. Some of my favorite memories as a kid were playing ball with my Uncle Rob, my dad, and my cousins. Chris, one year younger than me, and Nate, two years younger, had some great battles playing different sports while we were growing up, especially basketball. This sport has kept all of us so closely connected throughout the years.
When I was growing up, every year at Christmas time, we would all meet in Phoenix at my grandparent’s house, and, with the weather generally allowing us to be outside that time of year, we would often walk down the street to the nearby elementary school to play some hoops. On Christmas Day in 1994, if I remember correctly, we had planned to play our annual game. Still, before we could go, we had to take a family photo in my grandparent’s backyard. Just as we finished taking the photo, my cousin Chris pushed me into the pool. Although the temperature outside was comfortable, the water in the pool was freezing cold, and I was wearing my brand new red satin Atlanta Hawks jacket that my Uncle Pete had given me as a gift. The jacket was completely fine, but I cried hysterically, nonetheless. My Aunt Laura had her camcorder handy and got it on film; she filmed everything back then. In the background, you could hear my Uncle Rob shouting at Chris, ‘Christopher’! You knew he was in trouble when Rob would address Chris with his full name. That happened a lot. Subsequently, our basketball game that day was canceled — thanks a lot, Chris! Although not funny at the time, it is a funny story for our family now. There are a lot of great memories from that time. I miss those years!
Years ago, my great-grandfather retired in Newport, Rhode Island, and my dad and two uncles would visit most summers in their younger days. Once my cousins, sister, and I were around, our family continued the tradition as we routinely had family vacations at my great-grandfather’s house. If we weren’t at the beach during those trips to Newport, chances were you could find all the Babcock boys at the old YMCA. As Chris, Nate, and I got older, Rob would lead us through epic shooting workouts at the ‘Y.’ Having been taught by their dad growing up, it’s no surprise that Chris and Nate are now assistant coaches in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks, respectively. As a result of the teaching that Chris and Nate have received from their ‘Pops,’ I have zero doubt that both are sure to have a significant amount of success in their careers moving forward.
When I was a kid, Rob was the ‘goofball’ uncle, in a good way. Uncle Rob’s crazy, elaborate, scary stories were a regular occurrence and a favorite pastime among the Babcock cousins. Stories featuring a fictional character named ‘Jimmy Castillo’ were what we grew up on. Rob would also send out a Christmas poem each year, which was always one of the highlights of the holiday season as it never failed to provide a good laugh. His sense of humor and creativity was unmatched. As I got to high school, I suppose I graduated with some advanced life lessons from my Uncle Rob. For example, he taught me about germs in public restrooms and his secret tactic of avoiding these germs. The tactic was simple: when using a men’s urinal, absolutely do not flush by using your hands, as pretty much everyone does — instead, do a karate kick to the handle with your foot. This is a perfect example of Rob’s quirkiness, sense of humor, intelligence, and practicality. Another example was his outlandish idea of planting a bunch of evergreen trees outside of his house in Rhode Island so that he could have a Christmas tree at his disposal each year instead of worrying about purchasing one. I don’t think he actually executed this idea, but this is another perfect example of Rob’s personality.
Rob had a long, successful career as a front-office executive in the NBA, lasting nearly thirty years. His NBA career began in 1988 with the Denver Nuggets. After working in Denver for a handful of years, he was hired by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1993, where he spent the bulk of his career, allowing him to raise his family in Minneapolis.
Early in my professional life, I worked as a sports agent and occasionally crossed paths with my Uncle Rob at games while we were on the road. I also would call to discuss my clients with him, as I would with executives in comparable roles with every team. He always gave me great advice but was understandably hesitant to become directly involved with anything business-related with me or my clients. He wanted to avoid any conflicts of interest with me being his nephew. This was undoubtedly the best thing for both of us professionally. For example, in 2015, the Minnesota Timberwolves signed my client, Miroslav Raduljica. Rob, vice president of basketball operations for the Timberwolves at the time, took a significant step back when those discussions and negotiations between the team and me began. All of my dealings on that specific deal were done with the head coach and president, Flip Saunders, and general manager, Milt Newton. As a result of that approach, Rob and I never really had the opportunity to deal with each other on a professional level all that much while he worked in the NBA.
However, in 2016, the Minnesota Timberwolves decided to overhaul their front office and let go of a large contingent of their staff, my Uncle Rob included, unfortunately. At the time, I was running my own sports agency, and I approached my uncle about getting involved in some capacity. After numerous conversations, we agreed he would work with me in an advisory role. In the spring and summer of 2017, my Uncle Rob and I had the opportunity to work together. We made several road trips together and even shared a hotel room as I recruited prospective clients and serviced existing clients. He also visited me at my home in Colorado that summer to work with one of my clients, who was based locally. During this period, we talked about everything you could think of, like life, our hopes, dreams, and basketball. I expressed my frustrations with the agency business and my desire to work for an NBA team one day. We talked for hours as he shared some of his philosophies and gave excellent advice. Rob told me some of the successes he had experienced and some of the mistakes he made in his career, and he shared some personal stories from his life, too. I felt like I was finally getting to know my Uncle Rob on a deeper level. And we established a better mutual understanding of one another and who we were as men. I will incorporate many of the lessons he taught me into my work and life forever. I am very thankful to have had that time with him.
Later that same year, in September of 2017, my dad called me. He had terrible news. My Uncle Rob was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They caught it early, and there was a lot of optimism that it could be treated effectively. He proceeded to go through different treatments: radiation, chemotherapy, and then a surgery called a Whipple procedure. The treatment and surgery went well. He lost his hair and weight, but everything went as we had hoped. His hair grew back, and I joked that I was happy to be the only bald Babcock again — he got a kick out of that one. He worked out every day and even beat my dad and me in tennis. I thought he was going to be okay.
Then the cancer came back.
On New Year’s Eve, we found out the cancer was not only back but that it had spread. The plan of attack was to start chemo again right away. I went to visit him shortly after, and we were able to spend some quality time together. Rob opened up about his mental approach to his sickness. He told me he would like to live another twenty years and that he would do everything to beat the cancer, but it was okay if it was his time. Rob said he had a great life and knew his boys were raised right. He had always been an extreme worrier as a dad, but he knew that they would be okay without him. I told Rob I would always be there for them and a key part of their support system. I also told him he had inspired me to be a better dad and man. I thanked him for that. That was the last time I talked with my Uncle Rob 1-on-1.
On May 15, 2019, my Uncle Rob passed away.
This has been a devastating loss for my entire family, especially for my aunt, my cousins, and the Babcock brotherhood. And although this has been the saddest of times, I wanted to share this story to acknowledge my Uncle and celebrate him. He was a great man, and I will always be proud to be his nephew. He will forever be missed.
Rest in peace, Rob.