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
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
Etan Thomas: Mr. Pete Babcock. How are you doing,
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
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
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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?
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,
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
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
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?
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.
So, it could be a factor, but not the factor?
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.
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
Right. Absolutely. Without question.
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,
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.
That's completely false. I was there. That is completely
I'm asking you because you were there. You lived it. But that's
what was heard around the NBA.
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?
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.
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!
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?
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.