Former NBA GM on how media coverage, false narratives impact players

Former NBA GM on how media coverage, false narratives impact players

This article was originally published on BasketballNews on June 1, 2021.

Pete Babcock is a former NBA executive, who served as the general manager of the San Diego Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Hawks. He also worked in a variety of capacities -- from scouting to coaching to player personnel -- with the New Orleans Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers over a 42-year period. In his final two seasons, with the Denver Nuggets, he also served as president and minority stakeholder.

After my most-recent article (“After 20 years of public degradation, Kwame Brown is fed up”), Babcock replied on Twitter: “Great perspective Etan. It is sad how these false narratives gain a life of their own around the league. And even sadder that we all (mostly) bought into them.”

In the article, I wrote: “The public degradation and the false narratives perpetuated by the media actually hurt Kwame financially, as NBA teams listened to those narratives regardless of whether they were factual or unsubstantiated… They began broadcasting a false narrative that was detrimental to Kwame when it came time for teams to sign him. It lowered his market value. They remembered what was said. It didn't matter that there were no facts or proof; the rumors that were created by the media impacted these decision-makers.”

The response to the article has been great. However, some members of the media and other naysayers pushed back on how the false narratives perpetuated by Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless and others could have possibly affected Kwame financially. 

In response, I followed up with Pete Babcock so that he could go into a little more detail about his comment and how the media influences NBA front offices. He spoke from personal experience about how false narratives hurt two other prominent players, and the regret he feels for allowing these narratives to affect him. This was a very honest and open discussion. 

Etan Thomas: Mr. Pete Babcock. How are you doing, sir?

Pete Babcock: Fine. How are you?

Etan Thomas: I'm doing good. You are a former NBA GM and you worked around the league over a 42-year period. That's an impressive resume. You've been in the game for a long time.

Pete Babcock: I've “been around a long time,” just means you're old. It doesn’t mean anything special (laughs). But I was very fortunate and got a chance to do a lot of different things in the league and work with a lot of great people over the years.

Etan Thomas: Great, great. You made a comment under my article on Kwame Brown, saying, "Great perspective, Etan. It is sad how these false narratives gain a life of their own around the league and even sadder that we all (mostly) bought into them." Tell me a little bit about what you meant. Go into a little bit more detail because I thought it was very interesting.

Pete Babcock: Well, my experience was that there were certain players that maybe got labeled one way or another. I'll tell you the two that jump out, that I feel the worst about in the sense that I listened to the rhetoric that was out there... Craig Hodges and Mahmoud [Abdul-Rauf], both of them. The rhetoric out there... the message from their teams basically was they were washed up, that [they] lost a step and they couldn't play any longer. And I bought into that rhetoric, which I think most teams must have because nobody was signing those guys. Both of those guys could shoot the ball. Even if they'd lost a step, everybody's looking for shooters, especially coming off the bench. And I should've known better because we drafted Craig Hodges with the old San Diego Clippers. I had a relationship with Craig. I knew Craig. We got him in, I think, the third round. It's back when we had 10 rounds of the draft. And Craig was a really good player for us. Then, he goes on and obviously has the success he had in Chicago.

If I had to do it over again, knowing what I know today, I think I would've signed both of those guys. Partially because we needed shooters, but probably I would've also done it just because I think it was the right thing to do because nobody was signing them and they deserved an opportunity to continue playing. But my point is whether they lost a step or not -- and I don't know the answer because we never brought them in -- but from my perspective, I can't speak for other GMs, but I wish I would've given them an opportunity to come in and play for us and see if they could help us win games.

Etan Thomas: It's interesting. We had this situation pop up recently, and I mentioned it in the article, with Carmelo Anthony. The word around the NBA was that he couldn't play anymore, that he was a troublesome player, that he caused trouble -- all of the different things that were put out there by different sources. And it was just amazing to me how everybody believed it, and he was out of the league for a year!

Pete Babcock: Yeah. And sadly, that's why I commented. I think it happens too often, where management buys into what they hear and it scares them off a little bit or they just… It's not like an official “blacklist.” It's not that you're blackballed from the NBA. There's nothing sent out saying, "Don't sign this player." But people buy into the rhetoric that's out there. And they assume that it's accurate or they don't want to take a chance.

And, like I said, if I could go back and do it over again, both Craig and Mahmoud, I would've signed them both. Not just one of them; I would've signed them both. And I was wrong in not doing that. And then I could find out for myself. And, as I said, it's extra sad for me because I knew Craig really well because we had drafted him. I knew what kind of person he was; I wasn't concerned about that at all. I was just concerned that the word out of Chicago was he couldn't play anymore.

Etan Thomas: You said that there's not an official blacklist put out and nobody tells you, “Don't sign this player.” But do you think it's possible that baseless things are intentionally put out by whoever because they know this will have an affect on teams and they don’t want this player signed? It seems too calculated for all of these different cases to just happen by accident.

Pete Babcock: No, that's a fair point. I don't know if I have a good answer to it, but [when] something happens, whether it's a political statement like Kaepernick or if it's [something else] that develops a life of its own, then people are afraid. They're going, "Well, gee, what do we do? If we bring this guy in, our fans are upset with us; a certain segment of the fan base is upset." I don't know if there's a good answer to it, but these things take on a life of their own.

And I never knew Kwame Brown, but I heard stories about his work ethic being questioned, his motivation to improve, [that] he just didn't have the burning desire to maximize his potential that he had as an NBA athlete. And I listened to those things and I figured, "Well, it's probably accurate," because you figure that the word coming out of Washington was the reality.

Etan Thomas: Yeah. And that's why right now, you see Kwame taking issue with certain people who repeated those things. There’s video of Stephen A. Smith repeating those things over and over and over again. He was going to college campuses and repeating this stuff. He was repeating it over and over on ESPN. Every opportunity he had, he would say these things. But I was teammates with Kwame and I saw how hard he worked and his motivation. It was just the opposite of everything that you just said. After reading my article, a lot of people were shocked that the media can have that amount of influence and affect a player’s contract talks. But what you're saying right now is that they definitely do have an effect, right?

Pete Babcock: It does have an effect. And whether it's professional sports, whether it's the political arena, it doesn't matter. Stuff gets perpetuated and repeated over and over again. On the plus side with the media, they can work hard and do their research, but it depends on who they talk to. So, they talk to people who believe whatever the false narrative is. So, if you're in the media, it's like, "Well, I talked to so-and-so. And they told me they worked with this player firsthand and this is what their experience was. So, I know for a fact that the player doesn't work hard or the player doesn't [do this or that] because I heard it from this person who actually worked with him." So, it's not always where the media is intentionally trying to spread false information. But, again, as I said, these things develop a life of their own and it just builds and builds and builds. And unfortunately, that's [only worse] with social media today. It's worse today than it has been in past years because of the propensity of social media. It didn't used to exist.

When I started in the league, there was no talk radio even. They didn't have sports talk shows. When I was in Denver is when they first started. And in the beginning, I'd get calls from talk radio shows. Irv Brown started a talk show, and Irv was a long-time referee and had coached. And they started this talk show. But they would call me in the morning and say, "Hey, we're going to propose on our show today a crazy trade that we know you would never make, like you should trade Fat Lever for this, this and this. And we know it's crazy, but it'll generate a lot of calls. People will phone in. So, don't think that we really believe that you should trade Fat Lever, but we're going to throw it out there. We're just letting you know ahead of time." So, I'd say, "Fine. It's your talk show. Talk about whatever you want to talk about." But eventually, the stuff became a little more sensationalized, a little more attacking. Not their show, but just the medium itself... It was viewed by people who were in the business, on the franchise side of things -- whether it's coaches or GMs -- almost feeling like the talk-radio medium and then social media as almost a negative, like all they do is attack all the time. So, I don't know what the answer is to it, but it's part of reality now.

Etan Thomas: You brought up so many interesting points. And those are two of Kwame's points right now. One is that these talk-show personalities, like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, become the source even though they're reporting things that aren't factual or they're baseless or they're not verified. And, like you said, it takes on a life of its own. That’s how rumors spread, and then people accept them as true. And you said that some GMs do their research and some don't. Some listen to these reports, whether factual or baseless, and then others don't. How often does that happen? I mean, you said "most." Of course, you never want to say "all." But is it something that is the norm, where people -- GMs, presidents, teams -- listen to those rumors?

Pete Babcock: Yeah. Again, I can't speak for everyone. It's all an individual thing. But I think, in general, too often in management, you're swayed somewhat by the public perception that's out there. And so, [with] the draft, when you're making a decision on who to draft and there are rumors out there, "Well, this guy has a questionable character," or, "He's got this red flag about whatever." If you really do your research carefully, you can find out whether it's true or not. Sometimes that public perception sways management, and they'll go like, "I'm not going to take a chance. I don't know if the story's true, but our fans think it's true, or there's enough out there that people might think it's true, or we don't want to be associated with it, so we're not going to draft that player," whoever it may be. So, yeah. Again, it's one of these gray areas. You can't really divide it into the right or wrong, or yes or no. It's a gray area. And I think it depends on the individual. And one GMs going to be different from another.

And, as I said, I think it was a big mistake for me not to sign Craig and Mahmoud when I had an opportunity to. I don't know if other GMs would feel the same way. But I had no problem personally with Mahmoud, his religious beliefs and his [point] that he was making. That didn't bother me a bit because I felt he had a right to do that. Now, maybe had we brought him into our franchise, I'm sure there'd be fans who would've been upset with me about it, but I wish I would have gone [through with it]... If I could go back in time, I would've addressed it, definitely.

Etan Thomas: In my article, another connection I made is that a lot of these things were specifically done toward Kwame Brown since he came into the league straight out of high school. I was part of the Players’ Union, and I sat across from David Stern. I heard him repeat those same things that Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless said about Kwame and attach it to why high school players should not be allowed to come straight to the NBA, why there should be an age limit. But from what you heard about Kwame Brown, in particular, just speaking for you, did that make you kind of think twice about drafting a high-school player?

Pete Babcock: Yeah. It would factor into my thought process because my thought process, when I was working as a GM and we were allowed to draft high school players, was, in general, stereotyping most 18-year-olds [as] not mature enough yet to handle the business of professional sports. [It wasn’t that] physically they aren’t capable of playing, but I would look back at myself when I was 18. I was way too immature. If you had thrown me into any kind of a business at that point, I wasn't ready to handle it. But that's a generalization. There are always exceptions to the rule. I'd go out and watch LeBron play. I'd watch Kevin Garnett play. I'd watch Kobe play. And it's like, these guys are exceptions because their talent level was so above board of what was normal for that time. I coached Kobe's dad with the old San Diego Clippers. And so, I knew the family. I remember going to see Kobe play a home game at his high school and met with Joe and Pam, his parents, at the game and talked to them for a while. And I knew that he was most likely going to come out. They hadn't made a decision yet, but he most likely was going to come out. With those guys, those three in particular were so talented that, yeah, even though maybe conceptually I thought that there should be an age limit of players coming in, I would've drafted any of those three players.

Etan Thomas: But when you heard all of those things about Kwame Brown, did that change how you viewed high school players because of what you heard specifically about Kwame?

Pete Babcock: For me, personally, I would still want to research the player carefully. I'd want to study them, do all the background on them, spend time with them personally, get to know them as an individual. And then, for me, I would make the decision based on how successful I thought that player could be and [whether he could] help our franchise be successful. So, I would hope that I wouldn't let the Kwame Brown situation, whether accurate or inaccurate, factor into my decision-making going forward. But I would take it all in. I would try to study it all. And so, again, I don't know if it's that gray area. I don't know if there's a good answer to it.

Etan Thomas: So, it could be a factor, but not the factor?

Pete Babcock: Right, right. You'd look back and you say, "Okay, what's past history tell us about high school players?" Then, you go through all the high school players who have come into the league and succeeded, those that didn't succeed. And why did they not succeed? Was it a lack of talent? In judging the player's physical ability? Something that happened, just immaturity or lack of preparedness for getting involved with this hard-nosed business of professional sports? So, you try to factor all that in.

Etan Thomas: And the problem is that with Kwame, what you're factoring in is a false narrative.

Pete Babcock: Exactly.

Etan Thomas: Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, at the beginning of last year, there was a narrative that COVID was a hoax. Regardless of who started it or what station promoted it or whatever, it was out there. And then some people behaved accordingly, although all of the data showed that it was very real and people were dying. That just shows you how strong narratives are. So, going back to Kwame Brown and why he wants to hold the media accountable for how they portray athletes, he's using himself as an example to show how they can negatively impact a player’s career. This is bigger than just Kwame Brown. It’s about the media having a responsibility to present the facts. Would you agree?

Pete Babcock: Right. Absolutely. Without question.

Etan Thomas: Thank you. That's what I needed. I appreciate you being honest about this. A lot of people just never made that connection. They never thought of it like that. Before, people were like, "Oh, athletes just need to get tougher skin. Everybody gets criticized." Everything like that. We're like, "No, let me break down how it all works!" And especially when it's a false narrative, it’s unfair. The story could have been "Kwame Brown, even at the young age of 17 and 18, was able to persevere through an impossible situation with Doug Collins and Michael Jordan on his back, and he never broke, although they tried to break him.” But that's not the story that was told. If GMs constantly heard that story, that would've had a different effect, right?

Pete Babcock: Well, Etan, let me tell you a story that went around the NBA. And you would know, since you were there. And I'm just going to tell you what was heard around the NBA. It was a story around the NBA, and it could be totally false, I have no idea. But [the story goes] that when Michael Jordan came back to play, one of the reasons he came back to play was to try to motivate Kwame. And that he started his Breakfast Club that he had in Chicago -- where they'd have early-morning workouts and Michael would bring guys along to work out early before practice and then take them to breakfast, and then they'd go to practice. And that when he came back to play, he tried to get Kwame to come to his early practices and Kwame said, "No, I'm not getting up that early to work out." Now, that's a story that went around the NBA.

Etan Thomas: That's completely false. I was there. That is completely false.

Pete Babcock: I'm asking you because you were there. You lived it. But that's what was heard around the NBA.

Etan Thomas: Wow.

Pete Babcock: I don’t know who started that; I have no idea. I never heard it from Michael. He never said it. But somebody started that and it developed a life of its own.

Etan Thomas: Wow. And that’s the interesting thing: They don't ask the people who were right there! They don’t ask any players or Michael or Kwame. Those should be the main sources that you ask for something like that, right?

Pete Babcock: Exactly. But that's the kind of thing that you would hear. So, talking to teams, they'd go like, "Oh wow. This guy... Michael Jordan asked you to work out with him, and you turned him down?! I mean..." 

Etan Thomas: Wow. Yeah, no.

Pete Babcock: If you hear that story, you're going, "Who wouldn’t want to work out with Michael Jordan?" If he ever asked you to come work out with him, you go work out with him!

Etan Thomas: Earlier, you said the radio host told you that they were going to put something out there and they knew it wasn't true. They knew that trade wasn’t going to happen, right?

Pete Babcock: Right.

Etan Thomas: But they knew it was going to gain attention and stuff like that. I saw with my own eyes the media making things up about Kwame that would get attention. So, all of a sudden, stories like, "Oh, he didn't know how to order food from a restaurant. He didn't know what a dry cleaner was.” All of this crazy stuff. And those stories got all of this attention in Washington. And I'm sitting there like, "Wait a minute. We go out to eat on the road all the time. He knows how to order food just fine. What are they talking about?" And that's the problem with the media wanting sensationalist things that get clicks and attention. That's where the media has to be held accountable. It can't be like the National Enquirer or the tabloids where they just put out rumors or anything like that. If you're an outlet like ESPN or The Washington Post, you need to have some factual basis to what you report and what you allow your media personalities to say. 

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