What About Bob
The Golden State Warriors’ rookie general manager epitomizes the team’s surprising new brand of basketball.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
It’s a brisk November night in Northern California when the Golden State Warriors zoom out to their most prolific quarter of the young 2012-13 season. They score 39 in the first period – with tall two-guard Klay Thompson dropping eight in the first two minutes and change – on the way to a balanced, almost easy 10-point win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The game is littered with moments that speak to an ongoing evolution in Oakland: a perfect no-look drop pass from new center Andrew Bogut to streaking point man Stephen Curry for a baseline bucket; a nimble alley-oop from new acquisition Jarrett Jack to power forward David Lee; a big three late from surging rookie Harrison Barnes; and, most importantly, a resilient team defense that stymies the snap-quick Cavalier backcourt when pressure mounts.
But in the bigger playbook of Bay Area pro basketball – wherein the Warriors look to shake off the heavy shackles of loserdom and claim a place among the National Basketball Association’s elite – a more telling moment happens an hour before, with zero scoreboard flash or crowd roar.
It’s the moment when new club General Manager Bob Myers, a former college basketball reserve, talk radio host and successful player agent – and, at 37, the third-youngest GM in the league – sits down for dinner. He doesn’t dine with the owner, major sponsors or Head Coach Mark Jackson, nor with player captains, longtime beat reporters, veteran season ticket-holders, his family or his laptop.
He dines with bloggers.
GMs have long been defined far more by distance and secrecy than accessibility and candor, more by hard-core basketball strategy than philosophical reflections. But Myers doesn’t belong to that era, just like his Warriors – already buoyed during Myers’ short tenure by savvy free-agent signings and arguably the best draft in franchise history – no longer belong in the basement.
Bay Area News Group basketball beat writer Monte Poole recently called out “a habit the Warriors have perfected over the years”: losing.
“They lost games during which they played well, lost games when they deserved to lose, lost games because they simply gagged away the final minutes,” he wrote.
Because of those painful bricks – the Warriors have made the playoffs just once in 18 long years – few accuse the organization of being ahead of the game. But as its venture-capital-minded ownership pioneers an openness to fans and the media, and top-to-bottom developmental league strategies – by way of boho Santa Cruz, of all places (see story, p. 24) – that’s precisely where they find themselves. As words like “trust,” “transparency” and “communication” surface more than rebounds, steals and assists, the Warriors are in a place that feels more like a sensitivity retreat in Big Sur than a front office in the hyper-competitive NBA Western Conference.
But such is life when the team’s relatively new ownership group – which bought the team in 2010 for $480 million – is a blend of creativity and cunning whose wild success leans toward technology and Internet startups. Their field doesn’t exactly lend itself toward conventional thinking. So out goes the old GM model that veteran executive and Warriors VP Jim Weyermann knows.
“Usually you see this huge division and the isolation of basketball ops guys like Bob from everyone else,” he says. “They’re kinda like the president of the United States – no, the pope,” he says. “You’re not supposed to even whisper. Don’t let him hear you breathing.”
Myers credits team co-owner Joe Lacob, a self-made man who put himself through college, grad school and Stanford business school, made partner at Silicon Valley’s marquee venture capital firm, participates regularly in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and runs pick-up games with Warrior employees.
“If your owner is mingling with ticket sales staff, making himself available, it trickles down,” Myers says. “He comes from a venture world where a 23-year-old has the best idea in the room – or the city – so it’s not a caste system. Our company embraces new thoughts and ideas, not old-time hierarchy.
“Joe would say, ‘There’s more than one way to do things.’”
Myers was Lacob’s hire, one of the earliest examples of another trend the Warriors are leading: Younger chief executives shaped as much by business as by basketball.
Not long after 6-foot-6-inch Myers earned a walk-on roster spot with a UCLA team that would go onto win the 1995 NCAA national championship, he jumped into the world of player representation, earning a law degree by night and studying at the side of legendary basketball agent Arn Tellem. (Full disclosure: Myers and I became acquaintances at UCLA.) He emerged steeled by 13 years of intense negotiations and complicated contract, salary-cap and luxury-tax entanglements.
“Bob’s background is representative of a new breed of GMs in the NBA,” Lacob says. “We are building an NBA team ownership and management for the next generation.”
The most successful GM of the last generation, NBA champ and Hall of Famer Jerry West, recognizes that – and validates the new leadership’s nose for pedigree by his presence on the Warriors executive board.
“Go out and look at the people they’ve hired,” West says. “It’s people at the top of their class. In terms of a business standpoint, that’s very impressive.”
The new Warriors way, he adds, is an appropriate adaptation.
“They have a different idea of how to run a team,” he says. “The league is so different than it was years ago, with so many issues to cover far beyond sport. Financial issues are much greater, with a new collective-bargaining agreement, and you have to be much more responsible to the press and the fans.”
Myers’ time doing the UCLA Bruin post-game report elevated his ability to articulate hoops with a rabid fan base. His agent days taught him several lessons that are already netting results – including, as he says, something directly from Tellem: “Never make decisions based solely on money.”
That approach helped land super sixth and seventh men Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack in the offseason, two players who have proved invaluable so far. Landry, who’s averaging nearly 15 points in just 26 minutes a game, is an early contender for Sixth Man of the Year.
“Myers has dealt with so many players,” senior San Jose Mercury sports writer Tim Kawakami says. “He has an understanding about the ones who want to play hard and the ones who might not.”
Their contributions, along with a bumper crop of three rookies who are each playing big minutes – something no other team in the league can claim, this year or any in recent memory – means the Warriors have been able to weather some bad luck.
Despite the absence of two injured players – wing Brandon Rush, a premiere shooter and the team’s best perimeter defender; and Andrew Bogut, an all-star scoring-and-shot-blocking center – they’re 8-6 and deeper, younger, taller and tougher than they’ve been in a decade. They’re third in rebounding league-wide, another wildly dramatic turnaround after giving up more than 102 points a game last year and finishing an unseemly 20 games below .500.
“When we draft or sign a player,” Myers says, “we’re asking, ‘Do they have room for growth; are they competitive; do they care about the craft?’”
In other words, they’re breaking the habit.
“Traditionally we’ve been a small team and weaker defensively,” Myers says. “We’re trying to build with size that competes in half-court and can win on defensive end, not just scoring.”
When Myers was told by then-UCLA coach Jim Harrick he had successfully made the squad as a walk-on – an awkward, albeit hustling, player who would go on to become a crowd favorite, evoking chants of “B-O-B, Bob!” – he couldn’t bring himself to tell anyone. Not his parents, not his pals, not his girlfriend.
“I didn’t want to be compromised in case it didn’t work out,” he says.
That feeling disposed him beautifully for the life of an agent.
“That’s the thing about representing players,” says former Duke University star Lee Melchioni, who helped fill Myers’ void after he left his agent post at Wasserman Group for the Warriors. “It’s definitely fluid. Players switch agents and recruitment is cutthroat. You must have a contingency plan for every situation. It comes into play constantly when running an NBA team, whether it’s injuries, free-agent signings or underperformance.”
As does an insane work ethic, the kind that eventually earned him a college scholarship at UCLA.
“The best GMs seem to be in constant motion,” Kawakami says. “They don’t always make a ton of moves, but you always hear about them considering them. Myers is something like that.”
True to the transparency era, Myers isn’t shy about discussing demands or how he handles their maddening aspects.
“You’re so invested emotionally in your team, it’s probably unhealthy,” Myers says. “You can control work ethic, control culture to some degree; but you can’t control injuries. So you put in work, put in time, and have to trust the results.”
“Trust” is suddenly the operative word at Oracle Arena. Trust primarily built through truth and direct talk.
“As GM, I’m communicating a lot – with the coach, doctors, trainers, ownership,” Myers says. “People mistake that players, and people, can’t handle the truth. Sometimes it isn’t pretty, but everyone would prefer to hear it.”
Fans love that more than anyone – which is partly why he’s eager to make an unprecedented amount of front-office appearances on TV to tell fans, “Yes, I’m worried about injuries to our stars; yes, it’s hard to compete in the free-agent market; yes, I’d prefer if my $14-million center outplayed the $1-million rookie; and, yes, fans deserve better than they’ve gotten historically.”
One TV host, likely echoing viewers, recently thanked Myers for his honesty, an unofficial first for sports media working with typically slippery execs.
In giving traditional media more candor – and bloggers more access (and dinner) – he trusts the fan base with more information than ever before. In giving time to previously neglected business-side staff, he’s reminding organizations everywhere that if you can see what the boss is doing and thinking, trust comes along for the ride. And when players can take that type of buy-in to the floor – trusting each other to know and execute their roles – only good things happen.
“He’s not afraid to tell the truth,” Weyermann says. “In the 10-second sound bytes of our lives, the most profound thing I can say about the Warriors is, we’re not afraid to explain what our choices are. We don’t have trouble doing that. We don’t hide from tough issues.”
Lacob describes a desire “to connect directly with the team’s fans and open the lines of communication.”
Later he emails the Weekly about how Myers fits into that vision.
“The handling of the media is a much bigger responsibility for a GM today than ever before,” he writes. “So far, Bob has earned high marks from the media for his concise, clear, direct and open style. Transparency is something we view as a hallmark of our organization. If there is something that others might miss about Bob, it is this ability to come across, and in fact actually be, clear, concise, direct and transparent with the media and within our organization.”
“Transparency, accessibility, trust and innovation come from our owners’ success in business,” Myers says. “Both Joe Lacob and [co-owner] Peter Guber have found success employing those ideals. We’re an extension of their philosophies.”
Trust may not be a stat that SportsCenter tracks, but it’s certainly a quality the team treasures. Besides, when it comes to playing basketball in a prison yard – where there are rules to discourage taking hostages, and the penalty for an errant whistle might be a bullet – trust is a very valuable thing.
There are few NBA general managers who quote Ralph Waldo Emerson for members of the media.
“‘Don’t waste life in doubts and fears,’” he told reporters when asked to evaluate the uncertain season ahead. “‘Spend yourself on the work before you, well assured that the right performance of this hour’s duties will be the best preparation for the hours and ages that will follow it.’”
There are probably fewer still who hang 39 points on the board during a game at San Quentin State Prison.
That came this fall as Warriors employees and increasingly relevant rookie small forward Draymond Green visited for a game against the San Quentin team. (A then-injured Green stuck to dominoes.)
While carefully selected inmates (who practice regularly) dearly value the privilege to play four 12-minute quarters with refs and scoreboards against visiting teams, that doesn’t stop max-security guards from issuing repeated reminders: Hostage takers will be shot through the hostage, running is restricted to the court, and duck calls replace ref whistles, as they are the guards’ dead-serious distress signals. Other twists at the home to California’s Death Row: Holding cells are locked at check-in, hundreds of inmates watch their guests closely from the metal bleachers, and the adjustment center – where “Dating Game Killer” Rodney Alcala and a number of serial killers live – looms.
Warriors coach and former NBA point guard Mark Jackson shared the ball beautifully, and also shared a note of hope with San Francisco Chronicle reporter Rusty Simmons after the game.
“I went in thinking it was a chance to impact lives, and I came out knowing that it had impacted mine,” Jackson said. “I went in with my heart and prayers going out to the victims of the mistakes [they] made. That remained, but I came out with my heart and prayers going out to those guys in there, too.
“I’m sure society and the powers-that-be can treat them like animals, but they’re human beings who made mistakes. It’s important to let them know that we’ve still got love for them, we’re still pulling for them, and they can still win in spite of huge losses.”
Edgy sports journalism site Bleacher Report pulled a different takeaway.
“The Warriors and their supporters need to believe there’s something better out there than season after season of lottery picks… just like the inmates have to believe there’s a reason to be optimistic about the future,” Grant Hughes writes. “And if you think it’s a stretch to compare prison inmates to Warriors fans, you obviously haven’t been around the Bay Area for the last 20 years of hard time as a Dubs loyalist.”
At the start of the season, Sports Illustrated decided it’s “a safe bet that… [the] Warriors aren’t going to make the playoffs.”
“They’d be better served,” Ian Thomsen wrote, “to be focused on the future.”
Somebody forgot to tell the Warriors.
“We’re not interested in talking about ‘down the road,’” Jerry West says. “We’ve got this year to worry about. I’m a person who believes in now.”
A defense that was 28th in the NBA last year, and has been in the top 10 only once since 1978-79 – a decade before star guard Stephen Curry was born – is now fourth. As of press time, the Warriors lead the mighty Los Angeles Lakers by a game and are tied with the L.A. Clippers for first place in the Pacific Division.
“Didn’t see this coming, frankly,” ESPN’s NBA beat writer Mark Stein observes. “Despite playing eight of their first 14 games on the road – and playing them, for the most part, without the injured Andrew Bogut and Brandon Rush – Golden State has matched the team’s best start to this point since the ‘We Believe’ Warriors.”
But as the organization traffics in honesty more and more, the most telling truth is that it’s not good enough.
“Current standards are insufficient to get the national and international reputation our organization needs to be one of the top in professional sports,” Weyermann says. “That’s our goal. This whole experiment, money and resources into this, is a direct testament of understanding that to be in the elite, you have to be best in everything you do, from top to bottom. Not easy to do coming from the starting place we were coming from.”
Calling a $480 million investment an experiment isn’t standard. But neither is the amount of losing Oakland fans have endured – or coaches and organizations who giving a shit about three-time felons.
The owners’ competitiveness presents another edge.
“I’ve been in sports all my life,” Weyermann says. “I know [Buster] Posey, [Tim] Lincecum, LeBron [James], [Allen] Iverson, Gary Payton – but nobody who wants to win more than Joe Lacob.”
So is the outreach to bloggers. Ben Cruz of WarriorsWorld.net was part of the group that met with Myers.
“I had never even heard of another team doing that,” he says. “And Myers didn’t have an agenda; he just wanted us to learn about thought process, how he wants to shape the team.”
More news awaited.
“Myers has a plan,” Cruz says. “He has a direction, which I find refreshing. That wasn’t there before. They’re trying to change the whole culture of the team.”
Given the ways their faith has been shaken before, that means Golden State fans are discovering an unfamiliar feeling: trust.
To learn more about the Golden State Warriors visit www.nba.com/warriors
Ticket to History
• Given stadium construction, the S.C. Warriors will play their first seven of the 50-game season on the road - starting this Friday, Nov. 30, and returning right before Christmas to binge on home-crowd enthusiasm. More at 713-4393 or www.santacruzbasketball.com.
• Opening night four game “mini-packs” run $60-$140, include nightly giveaways.
• Fans can create six-home-game packages starting at $90 and receive a $20 merchandise card.
• Ten-seat ticket bundles rank among the most popular Christmas gifts.