“Dream Lofty Dreams”: A Former NBA General Manager Shares his Journey
Former NBA executive Pete Babcock shares his journey from being a high school teacher and coach to an NBA general manager. Babcock spent over four decades working in the NBA, serving in the lead role for the San Diego Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and Atlanta Hawks during the 1980s, 1990s and into the 2000s. Pete is the uncle of Babcock Hoops owner and founder, Matt Babcock.
My journey began at Maryvale High School in Phoenix, Arizona, as an overachieving basketball player enamored with the Boston Celtics and the NBA. I was probably the least athletic of our starting five, but I led our team in rebounding because I was big. I was also voted the most inspirational player, which was my way of making a contribution to the team. I went on to play at Glendale Community College, a local junior college in the Phoenix area. I then decided to give up basketball to focus on my studies in political science at Arizona State University rather than playing basketball at a lower division college. My thought at the time was that I would go to law school and use a law degree as a vehicle to start a political career. After a whole week — yes, one week of law school — I knew that I had had no passion for this course of action and I missed the game of basketball. I returned to Phoenix and approached Wayne Kindall, the head coach at Maryvale, my old high school. I asked him if I could serve as a volunteer assistant coach for the season to see if I really wanted to pursue a career in coaching. He was good enough to let me do so, and I worked as a substitute teacher for the year. This led to full-time coaching and teaching positions the following year at Washington High School, another school in the area.
The Phoenix Suns had come to town as an expansion team in 1968 and I would attend as many games as I could. The price for a general admission ticket in those days was $3.50. I loved coaching high school basketball, but I knew that I wanted to work in the NBA somehow. I had no idea how to get there and I had no contacts in the league to ask for help.
I decided to study the NBA on my own by recording as many games as I could. I broke down the tapes by charting offensive sets and out of bounds plays. I wrote evaluation reports on players and built files on each team. At the end of the season, I decided that the teams would know best if my reports and files were worthwhile. I sent a report to each team with a cover letter that simply stated I was a high school coach in Phoenix, Arizona, and if they thought there was any merit to my reports, I would like to volunteer to scout for them. Some never responded to my letter, some wrote back and said thanks, but no thanks... and then I received my break! The New Orleans Jazz responded that they would allow me to work for them without compensation. Former NBA player and hall of famer Elgin Baylor was the head coach, and veteran NBA executive Bill Bertka was the general manager. I was elated and eager to prove myself. The season could not have come soon enough. I spent the next two years scouting for the Jazz for free. I made some mistakes, but I continued to get better and better at writing my scouting reports. Bill Bertka, my boss at the time, not only gave me my first opportunity in the NBA, but he also served as a mentor to me. He would critique my reports and he helped me become a better scout. During these years I spent a lot of time at The Coliseum, the Phoenix Suns’ arena at the time. I would be seated with full-time NBA personnel, including assistant coaches, general managers, and scouts. During this time, I became friends with Jack McCloskey, who was an assistant coach on Jerry West’s staff with the Los Angeles Lakers. We would talk basketball frequently, and out of the blue one day, he called me and asked if I would work as a part-time scout for the Lakers. This would allow him to save time from taking trips back and forth to Phoenix. I agreed, of course.
Two years later I was in Bangor, Maine visiting some family, and I read in the paper that John Killilea, an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks, had a summer camp in Bangor starting the next day. I knew that John was the only coach at that time to move from high school coaching straight into the NBA, so I went to his camp to introduce myself and pick his brain about career paths to the league. He told me to come back that night and we would talk, which we did for hours. That was in August, and in October he called me and asked me to scout the Western Conference of the NBA for the Bucks, as well as do some college scouting. It was still a part-time position, but more involved than the job I had with the Lakers, so I spent the next two seasons traveling on weekends scouting teams on the west coast. A common weekend for me during this time would look something like this: I would leave the high school I worked at on Friday afternoon and fly to Los Angeles for a game Friday night, then I would fly to San Francisco for a game on Saturday, and then Portland for a game on Sunday night, with a red-eye flight back to Phoenix after the game so that I could be back in class Monday morning to teach. It made for a long season, but I loved every minute of it and it was a wonderful learning experience. Had my journey hit a plateau at this point or at any point in my NBA career, I would have been happy doing what I was doing.
In 1979, Don Nelson, the head coach of the Bucks, offered me my first assistant coaching position in the league. However, I was now the head coach at Greenway High School, and the timing was such that we had already started our high school year. I struggled with the idea of leaving my team, even though everyone said they understood. I turned down the Bucks’ offer and stayed at the high school, but I did continue scouting for Milwaukee that season.
In 1980, former NBA player, Paul Silas was named the head coach of the San Diego Clippers. Don Nelson and Paul Westphal helped me get an interview with Silas, whom I did not know. Paul Silas hired me to be one of his two assistant coaches. I had officially made the jump from being a high school coach to a coach at the NBA level. I also served as the director of scouting, in which I did advance scouting, college scouting, and ran the draft for the team. It was another amazing learning experience, and it gave me a chance to do many tasks that would later assist me in hiring people to do those jobs, once I became a general manager.
By the 1983-84 season, I had moved into the front office for the Clippers as Director of Player Personnel. I was then named Vice President of Basketball Operations later in the season, and at that point, my role was essentially equivalent to a general manager. I was the senior member of the basketball operations for the Clippers in only my fourth season. Honestly, I moved up so quickly mostly due to the instability of the franchise. At the end of the season, owner Donald Sterling moved the team to Los Angeles without league approval and was sued by the NBA. He countersued the league and the instability of the Clippers continued.
At the start of the 1984-85 season, I made a career decision to resign from the Clippers and sign a deal to join the front office of the Denver Nuggets. In my six years with the Nuggets, I had the opportunity to become President, General Manager, and minority owner of the team. We overachieved under the leadership of head coach Doug Moe and won two division titles. Our top players at that time were Alex English and Fat Lever, both terrific players and people. That first year I was there, we advanced to the Western Conference Finals to face Earvin “Magic” Johnson and the “Showtime” Lakers. In 1990, we sold the team and I signed with the Atlanta Hawks as General Manager. I spent over 13 seasons with the Hawks, most of them with Hall of Fame coach, Lenny Wilkens.
Rather than “getting bad to get good” through the draft, we decided to retool the Hawks with trades and free agency. We accepted the idea that by doing so, our draft picks would be in the middle to the late first round and not likely be long-term franchise players. After three years of rebuilding and making the playoffs two of those three seasons, we ended up with the best record in the Eastern Conference in 1993-94. We went on to average 50 wins a season for the next six seasons, and in 1999 finished only two games off the best record in the East. However, the downside of building a team this way is that you will most likely never acquire a franchise player, as they are not normally traded, nor did they leave their home teams as free agents.
Following the 1999 season, we mistakenly stripped down the team of all long-term contracts and acquired future draft picks as well as some veteran players which resulted in poor records. I was let go by the Atlanta Hawks in 2003.
One year later, my younger brother, Rob, had been named General Manager of the Toronto Raptors. I joined his front office staff as Director of NBA Player Personnel. There, we faced major adversity right away. Our star player, Vince Carter, publicly demanded a trade. This sort of situation always puts the team in a tough spot. When trading a star player, the team will never get true value back. However, if the team doesn’t make a trade, they will be stuck with a disgruntled player, which is not a good situation either. Collectively, we decided to trade Vince and clear up cap room. We were all fired in our second season.
At this point, I assumed that I was now involuntarily retired... But then the Cleveland Cavs called. They asked if I would be interested in helping them with draft preparation and college scouting; I decided to do it. I spent the next ten seasons with Cleveland, finishing my career following the 2016 season with an NBA championship… it only took 42 years to win a ring, but it was well worth the wait.
James Allen once wrote, “Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become.” I have always looked back on that quote as applicable to my life, as I have been fortunate enough to live my dream for most of my adult life.