Prologue June 2003
Tim Kiely, the legendary TNT Studio honcho is a friend of 25+ years. We worked together at ESPN in the early-mid ’90s. When he left for TNT during the 1995 NBA Finals, he took on many duties, including being the “Chaperone” for the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner during the live NBA Draft broadcast. When ESPN took over the draft from TNT starting in 2003, I was chosen to be TK’s replacement. I’d been around the NBA for a long time by then and was the studio coordinating producer for NBA content. And I had overseen SportsCenter’s remote NBA Finals coverage starting in 1994. I was very familiar with the key men and women at the league office, so the request for my services made sense. And for those of us with long term relationships in the sport, the NBA becomes a family for everyone who falls into its orbit. So I was happy to assume this assignment and spend some quality time with the “Fam” at such a big event. As I was preparing for the very first show, I called TK for a “scouting report” on the best way to work with Commissioner David Stern. David is beyond remarkable in so many ways, and has a well earned reputation for being extremely demanding. But the value of a great scouting report was never more evident than the one TK provided. Every bit of advice (5 pages worth) was spot on, so I felt ready for action in June.
LeBron and The Donald
The 2003 Draft was my first, and so memorable. LeBron James wore that white suit and absolutely “owned” the night, even at age 18. The presence that he established that night was incredible for a young man from Akron, Ohio on stage at Madison Square Garden. He just killed it. One of the memorable images of that night was 5’9” David Stern trying on 6’8” LeBron’s jacket. The juxtaposition of the NBA Commissioner looking small in 18-year-old LeBron’s jacket was a foreshadowing in many ways. Long ago, LeBron became the King of the NBA because of his unbelievable talent and intelligence. That first visual really did set the tone. Speaking of visuals, long before he became POTUS, Donald Trump was a higher class version of Rodney Dangerfield’s character Al Czervik in the movie “Caddyshack.” As the King of Developers in the Big Apple, he was one of the best-known people in the world long before The Apprentice. And he wasn’t shy about letting everyone know. I’ve seen many famous people backstage in the “Green Room” at the Draft, but none more stunning than his girlfriend at the time, supermodel Melania Knauss from Slovenia. I remember thinking at the time that she had the type of looks that inspire artists to create statues and other works of art. Of course, she eventually became The First Lady of the United States. But this was no private audience with the future President and the legendary Commish. The scene backstage at the Draft is a very festive one and the future First Couple did not have a private audience.
The Glue Guy
During the draft, I was tethered by a wired headset to the production truck. I was also tethered to David Stern, but I was more like his shadow. Because of the sensitive position I had for making sure David and the truck were in sync, they had a special communication channel for me in the truck. If I opened my key to speak, someone responded on the “Bruce” key immediately. What power! One of the reasons I was chosen for the job was because I had been around long enough that I was not going to be easily flustered or intimidated. And there were plenty of times it could have happened. But as they say in Vegas, “What happens in the Green Room stays in the Green Room.”
The Guys at the Podium
The Draft always begins with a statement from the Commissioner welcoming the hoop world to the Draft. I did the Draft every year from 2003-2017. For my first 11 years, the speaker was David Stern. The next four years were spent with Commissioner Adam Silver. But Adam and I started working together at the 2007 Draft when he started doing the second round picks in his role as Deputy Commissioner. So Adam and I worked 11 Drafts together. From 2003-2006, Russ Granik was Deputy Commish and we did the second round together. And from 2014-2017, Mark Tatum has served as Deputy Commissioner and we worked together on the second round picks. All of these NBA executives are out of their normal roles and they morph into TV performers, but all were extremely well prepared and very precise with their words. It is to the credit of the NBA that it has always been a priority to pronounce every player’s name correctly. And with the large number of International players being drafted as high as number one, this gets tougher each year. David and Adam always had an NBA employee (usually Kim Bohuny) standing by with the list of players and the phonetic versions of their names. Sometimes despite Kim’s guidance, it’s a really tough job to not mess up. I remember in the very first draft, the Knicks drafted a Polish player with the 30th pick named Maciej Lampe. His last name was not particularly challenging to pronounce (Lahm-pay). But “Maciej?” There were many possible ways to mangle it, but David got it right. But only after practicing the pronunciation out loud at least a half dozen times before he went to the podium. For the record, the player’s first name is pronounced “Ma-Chay.” When David went in front of the cameras and absolutely nailed it, he came back to the Green Room with a big smile and was high fiving everyone in his path. After eleven eventful and enjoyable years working with the greatest Commissioner in sports history, I had the privilege of working for his successor, Adam Silver. We would eventually do a total of eleven drafts altogether, but his first as Boss in 2014 was special in several ways. Adam was very experienced from his years doing the second round, but in his very first draft, he was the crowd favorite before he even announced a pick. David always got huge cheers from the in house crowd when he emerged from the Green Room to begin the show. But when Adam came out for the first time as Commissioner, the crowd went absolutely nuts. Just as LeBron’s entrance was a foreshadowing of his dominance over the sport, Adam’s was similar but different. Everyone in that crowd had a sense of Adam Silver over the years and they could not help but cheer for this uniquely good human being. And Adam proved right from the jump that his moral compass was clearly pointed in the proper direction. Ask Donald Stirling or Kyle Lowry if you don’t believe me. Adam’s preparation and attention to detail is beyond impressive.
Excuse Me, Pardon me
The aforementioned “Green Room” is one of the nerve centers of the Draft. It is a multi-use space. The NBA family mingles with sponsors, owners, executives, friends, families, former players, and the brand new draftees and their families. But without question, the children of the invitees who are lucky enough to have access to this space enjoy it tremendously. Everyone takes photos with David, Adam, and a host of other NBA folks. There are refreshments and TV monitors with ESPN’s Draft feed, NBA TV’s feed, and classic NBA Entertainment content. That’s the good news. The other good news is that we are also running a live TV show (3-4 hours long). Without getting too deeply into the process of how a draft pick happens from start to end, the final result is a card that comes up from the lawyers’ war room. The card is handed to an NBA executive who walks up a set of stairs. As soon as I see him, I look at the card. But before we can give it to the Commish, the NBA exec has to walk over to a guy on a scaffold back stage who is going to slide the draftee’s name into a big tote board above the stage. Once that graphic is confirmed, I would tell the producer in the truck the card was up. At that point, it’s time for me to interrupt the party. And it isn’t always easy. If David was having a quiet conversation off to the side with an owner or executive, I had to break it up so the show could go on. Then I’d tell the truck when David or Adam was ready to go to the podium. I used to tease some of my friends at the NBA by saying, “I’m the only guy who can boss David Stern around.” Obviously that was never the case, but there were flashes.
More from 2014
Another highlight of 2014 was the chance to introduce our NBA Tonight and NBA Coast to Coast host Cassidy Hubbarth to the NBA family. I was the coordinating producer of those shows (my day job at ESPN) and Cassidy had just completed her first season as host of both. Since Cass was always in studio at the time and hadn’t been to the Finals that year, I wanted to make sure she was hanging with me at the Draft. I introduced her to Adam Silver, the new Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum, and a host of others that I mingled with during the evening. That night was one of the foundational building blocks of her NBA career. Cassidy has done incredible things in the past five years, and she has 100% earned it … every … single …. day. Her talent, work ethic, and positive spirit have endeared her to fans and colleagues alike.
At the end of 2017, I moved on from ESPN and no longer had my “Glue Guy” role. I would have come back to do that role if asked, but they had someone else in mind for that job. Of course, I understood their decision. Luckily for me, the NBA had an uncovered area that required similar skills to my Green Room experience. It was a one night stand as the coordinator of the Social Media Room. I would work with draftees on getting them cleanly from “station to station” so they did all their social media obligations without having to wait around very long. It turned out to be really challenging but fun. For years I experienced the moment the draftees took the stage, shook hands, and got a team hat. But in my new role, I was immersed with the player and his family as they experienced their “new normal” in real time. It was a a much different vibe. I really enjoyed meeting the parents of Aaron Holiday. He is the third Holiday son to play in the league. His parents were older and incredibly gracious. In their family, Draft night really is a Holiday celebration. It is for me too.