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“Dream Lofty Dreams”: A Former NBA General Manager Shares his Journey

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 contributing 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, just one week of law school, I knew I had no passion for this course of action, and I missed 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. I worked as a substitute teacher for the year, which 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 possible. The price for a general admission ticket in those days was $3.50. I loved coaching high school basketball but knew I wanted to work in the NBA somehow. I had no idea how to get there and had no contacts in the league to ask for help.

I decided to study the NBA independently by recording as many games as possible. 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 stated I was a high school coach in Phoenix, Arizona. If they think there is any merit to my reports, I would like to volunteer to scout for them. Some never responded to my letter, and some wrote back and said thanks but no thanks. And then I received my break. The New Orleans Jazz said 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 improve at writing my scouting reports. Bill Bertka, my boss at the time, not only gave me my first opportunity in the NBA but also served as a mentor. He critiqued my reports and helped me become a better scout. During these years, I spent significant time at The Coliseum, the Phoenix Suns’ arena. 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, an assistant coach on Jerry West’s staff with the Los Angeles Lakers. We would talk basketball frequently, and one day, he called me and asked if I would work as a part-time scout for the Lakers because it saved him time from taking trips back and forth to Phoenix. I agreed, of course.

Two years later, I visited some family in Bangor, Maine. 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 then 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 and do some college scouting. It was still a part-time position but more involved than my job with the Lakers, so I spent the next two seasons traveling on weekends, scouting teams on the West Coast. A typical 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 on 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 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 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 transitioned from being a high school coach to a coach at the NBA level. I also served as the director of scouting, doing advanced and college scouting, and ran the draft for the team. It was another fantastic 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 promoted to Vice President of Basketball Operations later in the season. At that point, my role was essentially equivalent to a general manager. I was the Clippers' senior member of the basketball operations in only my fourth season. I moved up quickly, primarily due to the franchise's instability. 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. We sold the team in 1990, and I signed with the Atlanta Hawks as General Manager. I spent over 13 seasons with the Hawks, most 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 that by doing so, our draft picks would be in the middle or late first round and not likely be long-term franchise players. After three years of rebuilding and making the playoffs in two of those three seasons, we had the best record in the Eastern Conference in 1993-94. We averaged 50 wins a season for the next six seasons, and in 1999, we finished only two games off the best record in the East. However, the downside of building a team this way is that you will likely never acquire a franchise player, as they are not typically traded or leave their home teams as free agents.

Following the 1999 season, we mistakenly stripped the team of all long-term contracts. We acquired future draft picks and some veteran players, which resulted in poor records. Subsequently, 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 significant adversity right away. Our star player, Vince Carter, publicly demanded a trade. This sort of situation always puts the team in a tough spot. A team will never get equal value back when trading a star player. However, if the team doesn't make a trade, they're stuck with a disgruntled player, which is not a good situation. 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 considered that quote applicable to my life, as I have been fortunate enough to live my dream for most of my adult life.

On December 21, 2023, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame announced the list of eligible candidates for the Class of 2024, in which Pete Babcock was nominated as a contributor. Click here to learn more.


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