"I thought I was born to be a basketball player. Now I know I wasn’t."
MOST NBA EXECUTIVES began as players.
Kevin McHale in Minnesota, Larry Bird in Indiana, Isiah Thomas in New York and many others—former superstars all, guys whom even casual fans remember from the playoffs on TV. Kevin Pritchard played professionally as well, but not so you’d remember: Selected in the second round of the 1990 NBA draft by Golden State, Pritchard suited up for 94 games with five NBA teams over half a dozen years; 62 of those games were in his rookie season. He also spent time playing for teams in Spain, Italy, Germany and in the Quad Cities for the minor league Continental Basketball Association. “I thought I was born to be a basketball player,” says Pritchard. “Now I know I wasn’t. I was born to be a general manager.”
To be on the receiving end of such a revelation, Pritchard had to travel the hoops wilderness—and then leave basketball entirely. Having retired as a player in 1997, he took a job in his old college town of Lawrence, Kan., as a money manager for Trust Company of America. “It was a miserable year-and-a-half,” Pritchard recalls.
So when a fledgling minor league calling itself the American Basketball Association put a team (called the Knights) in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena—the very building where Pritchard and his Jayhawks teammates won the Final Four in 1988—it didn’t take much for Pritchard to vacate his desk job. He was supposed to take the court as a player, but when the team’s original head coach was busted for cocaine possession several months before the season started, Pritchard agreed to take the job. And having taken the coaching job, there was no way he could play—there was too much work to be done.
The ABA was the sort of league where everybody slept four to a hotel room and Pritchard himself did everything from corporate sales to laundry. Despite this, he treated the preseason like his team was about to take on Jordan, Magic and Kareem, calling up every coach he’d ever had—including Larry Brown and Roy Williams, both of whom he’d played for in college—to pick their brains. He says he scripted his first 15 days on the job by “beginning with the end in mind,” a technique from Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Two years later the Knights won a championship, but more important, Pritchard got a practical education in basketball multitasking—far more valuable than being an NBA star who went straight from his retirement ceremony to the front office. Every night at work he’d look up into the rafters of the Kemper Arena and see the Jayhawks 1988 NCAA championship banner, a reminder of his greatest moment as a player; every night at home he’d stare down the Post-It on his bathroom mirror saying he was going to be an NBA GM someday (another example of “beginning with the end in mind”).
“I wouldn’t change that experience for the world,” he says of his years with the ABA. “It set me up.”
Since then, Pritchard has approached every job he’s had as if he were one wrong move away from going back to the bush leagues. Complacency is his enemy, both on the court and in the boardroom. One of his mottos for the Blazers this season (he has used it as a sign-off in e-mails to every person working for the franchise) is “Stay Hungry, Stay Humble.”
Say one-third of a basketball team has so much talent they can get away with half-assing it; one-third has both talent and a good work ethic; and one-third gets by because of hard work. Pritchard prefers to forgo players from the first group, which is also how the Larry Brown-influenced management team of the San Antonio Spurs has gone about it. That’s what Pritchard means by “culture”— rituals, practices, clearly defined objectives and philosophies that emphasize unselfishness, hard work and putting the organization’s goals ahead of the individual’s goals. (In other breaking news, there is no “I” in “Team.”) As clichéd as certain “Pritchardisms” sometimes seem, his insistence that the Blazers won’t cut corners on character just to win more games is not always a given in the NBA.