As the National Basketball Players Association’s first executive director and a major player in helping enhance the league’s image in the late 1980s, Charles Grantham has an interesting perspective as he closely watches the 10-part documentary, “The Last Dance,” detailing the final Chicago Bulls season with Michael Jordan.
Grantham was privy to Jordan’s rise to prominence, his superstardom, and sudden retirement after helping the Bulls win three straight titles.
Now as director of the Center for Sports Management at Seton Hall University, Grantham said he uses the documentary as a teaching point for his students on how sports teams operate and the behind-the-scenes chaos for even the most successful franchises.
“I think it’s quite a documentation of that time,” he said. “And actually I used it in my class to give the students some semblance and understanding of how professional sports franchises actually work, and the division of labor, the general manager, the president, the coach, the owner, promotion, marketing, the importance of utilizing the strength of your team.
“At this point [in the Bulls’ run], they had such a wonderful roster but also the dynamic between the coach and the GM and the owner, and particularly at a time where the team was doing well and it was announced that this is the last season for the coach [Phil Jackson].”
The Bulls, as the documentary reveals, were a franchise in turmoil, with GM Jerry Krause determined to reboot the most successful team of the decade, even if that meant losing the greatest player in the game.
“Those are inner workings of how a team happens to work that most people aren’t exposed to,” Grantham said. “What you normally see and think about the franchises and how they work is everybody is having fun and everybody is getting along and everything is going well. To that degree, I don’t think people would recognize. There’s always something organizationally that may be happening.”
What Grantham noticed, and what was apparent during the documentary, was how Jordan carried himself and how he set the tone for his NBA brethren. Players carried themselves as businessmen. Jordan was meticulously dressed at all times. What’s more, it was a ritual for NBA veterans to take their rookie teammates suit shopping. Jordan became the face of the league and the NBA relied upon him heavily to boost the league’s growth.
It was a lot of pressure and eventually the Players Association warned the NBA about putting too much responsibility on one man.
“Those players set the tone because what we always knew during that time is our players are like walking billboards,” Grantham said. “Each individual had unique stories about how they got there. Once they decided this was their presentation, between Jordan and Magic [Johnson] and Isiah [Thomas], they started to dress in a way, and those are things we talked about, that it was a good presentation.
“Years later there were issues about [commissioner David] Stern and his dress code, but we didn’t need a dress code. Our guys dressed well, presented themselves well.”
While Jordan could be credited for helping save the league, the NBA had already evolved. Before Jordan, there was Julius Erving and before Erving, there was Elgin Baylor. To think that the league needed Jordan may be cause for debate, but his impact became immeasurable and still unmatched, even in today’s social media era.
“Jordan clearly was a generational player, the best player ever, but we also go back to think about guys like Julius Erving,” Grantham said. “When Julius Erving ended his career, what are we going to do? It’s a supply-and-demand business. The talent level of professional basketball was just getting better and better. It’s not like we said there will never be another Julius. Well, of course there was. Magic and [Larry] Bird and then Jordan.
“I think that everyone believed at some point there was going to be another generational player that was going to come along. Who would have thought LeBron [James] or Kobe [Bryant] would come along?”
Grantham was the union’s executive director when Jordan walked away from the game after the 1992-93 season to pursue baseball.
“One of the issues that came up at the time was the league was overusing him and we ultimately had to put a damper on the league’s ability to exercise and use Michael,” Grantham said. “But I also left open the idea that he would return because he still had a lot of star quality left in him and clearly was still able to play at a level that was far beyond his competition.”
When Jordan arrived in 1984, the league was rebuilding, trying to escape its drug-ridden image. His presence, performance, and popularity fostered the league’s growth, speeding up a process that had been planned by Stern, Grantham, and others in the league office.
“When we go back to the ’80s and we were creating this revenue-sharing contract with the owners, it required that we have a unique partnership because the business was in such turmoil,” Grantham said. “The TV ratings were down. People don’t recognize that in 1980, the Finals were shown in tape delay. Our value was down, ticket sales, the whole deal. It was in very bad shape and it was at that time the partners got together and said, ‘We have to be able to fix the business.’ I always felt the challenge of both organizations is to take a look at these outside forces that are having an impact on your business.”
Grantham is hopeful and optimistic the current season will resume. He said it will allow the NBA to try new ideas, including pushing the start of next season back to December and using summer play to compete with Major League Baseball.
“I think Adam [Silver has] done a great job,“ Grantham said. “He’s letting the science dictate, to some degree, and he’s letting it unfold in a way where he will reintroduce the players at a time when it’s safe for them to resume play.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see a cancellation of the season. So it’s pretty clear that their goal is to complete the season and have the playoffs. If you can get that done by Labor Day, the analytic part is if you’re going to compete with another part of the industry, you’re better off competing with baseball in the summer than football in fall. This is going to fit the timeline that will allow them to take a shot at the plan.”
The league reopened some practice facilities Friday and will clear more to open in the coming weeks. Silver said the league will need an estimated 15,000 tests to resume.
“If something like [a Disney location] can be arranged, I think the key would be testing. That can be worked out, I believe,” Grantham said. “If you can do that, I think you can get the Finals and the playoffs done. And, if you can get that done, then it’s a matter of timing of where the science takes us with the pandemic, in terms of how to deal with larger crowds.”
While the union and owners have clashed and disagreed over the years, the current world situation will instead create labor harmony in these difficult times.
“The question is, how safe are the players going to feel coming back?” Grantham said. “The issue primarily is about the business again and that requires collaboration and compromise. You’re going to have disputes about various things. This is not when you get a call from the commissioner and fighting on the phone. This is a call of, what do we do today? It becomes a ‘we’ approach.”
Peter Vecsey a winner in his unique game
We talked to veteran NBA reporter Peter Vecsey last week about his 50 years covering the league and, of course, the stories were overflowing. Vecsey covered the NBA for the New York Post and used his personality and basketball skills to cultivate sources, while bonding with players and coaches.
He said one of the most memorable assignments was traveling to Seattle to cover the Sonics’ playoff run in 1978. Sandwiched between the Bill Walton-led Trail Blazers’ title over Julius Erving and the 76ers in 1977 and the Lakers’ first title with Magic Johnson in 1980 were compelling Finals series between the Sonics and Bullets in 1978 and 1979. The Bullets won the first matchup and the Sonics won the rematch.
“Here I am from the New York Post, I picked the Sonics to win that first year. The Knicks got knocked out [in the Eastern Conference semifinals ] and my editor said, ‘Why don’t you go out there and cover them?’ ” Vecsey said. “It was amazing. The Sonics and Bullets didn’t get the credit they deserve.”
During those days covering the Sonics, Vecsey began a trend of working out with some of the players following practice — something that would never happen in today’s NBA. Vecsey was able to lure Sonics coach Lenny Wilkens, a Hall of Fame player, into a one-on-one game following a practice. Wilkens was no slouch. He had only retired as a player after the 1974-75 season.
“He could play,” Vecsey recalls. “He beat me. We went at it and that bonded me with a lot of those teams. I remember in the mid-’80s playing with the Suns’ second team after practice.”
Former NBA players Lionel Hollins and Paul Westphal were assistants to Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons and decided to participate in the post-practice full-court game. Hollins, one of the league’s best defenders during his playing days, basically told Vecsey he wasn’t going to let him score because he didn’t want Vecsey writing in the Post about how he scored on an NBA player.
“He was a great defensive player,” Vecsey said. “We laughed about that for years.”
There was a rookie who also took part in that pickup game, a second-round, seldom-used player named Steve Kerr.
“I saw playing with him how tough he was,” Vecsey said. “I couldn’t believe it. It stuck with me to this day. K.C. Jones let me work out with the second team and [Mike] Fratello let me work out with the Hawks and I worked out with the Sixers. There’s so much stuff that would not happen now. My life is so golden. I was living the dream.
“In ’86, when I went on that trip with the Celtics, I played [Larry] Bird one-on-one in practice in front of the whole team.”
Yes, Vecsey played one-on-one with Bird following a Celtics practice in the late 1980s. Bird, as competitive as they come, did not take Vecsey lightly.
“He wasn’t fooling around. I tell the story that he says, ‘If you want to play me, let’s play,’ ” Vecsey said. “Everybody watching and I hand check him. He hit my hand as hard as he could, slapped it. It hurt and he said, ‘You want to play or you want to [expletive] around?’ I said I want to play. It was one of the greatest things of my life. I scored on him. He beat me, 11-5. I played with Julius on the same team. I played with [Pete] Maravich on the same team. Playing against Bird was unbelievable.”
While Bird is revered as a player, especially in Boston, he has become such a reclusive and reluctant star, he goes underappreciated by the modern NBA fan.
“Everybody acknowledges how great he was. Everybody. While he was playing, after he was playing,” Vecsey said. “They may not say that about [Rick] Barry because they just don’t know. But Barry could do everything Bird could do. [Bird] was unbelievable to watch.
“Better than watching him was going out with him and listening to his stories and listening to his trash talk. I always say he was the Will Rogers of basketball with the way he tells stories. It was just fascinating. To this day, he’s still my favorite guy to talk to. He never lies. His famous line to me when he became the president of the Pacers, was, ‘Why would I care what you write? I don’t read your [expletive].’ ”
Before the advent of today’s sports media, where everyone has an opinion and there are shows dedicated to giving unadulterated takes on every sports topic, Vecsey was asked by NBC in the 1990s to give an insider’s take on the league. He had the responsibility of not only building relationships with the league’s stars, but honestly assessing their play and actions as his job.
“Julius was the best man at my wedding; I knocked Julius when he held out with the Nets and I wrote it,” Vecsey said. “When [Bird] turned against Chris Ford and he was giving the coaches a hard time, I wrote a column about that. It was pretty heavy. I handled it, I think it was the absolute reason I was successful, if you were the 12th man or the first man, I would treat them the same way. I couldn’t spare anybody’s feelings. But I was also very positive about things that happened, too.
“The league changed when they would have a PR guy with a tape recorder following me around and then it was no longer useful.”
When asked what he thinks of today’s NBA broadcasts, Vecsey is not a big fan. He said there aren’t enough one-on-one interviews and insight. Instead, he said, coverage is mostly a bunch of former players discussing a few plays in the game the audience just watched.
“I’m sorry the network wasn’t smart enough to do what NBC did to put me out to do interviews,” he said. “Instead, all they did is BS, they go over a few plays in the game we’re watching? What the hell is that? There’s no content whatsoever. After every telecast [during his time with the Turner Network], Ernie Johnson would thank me for bringing it, thanks for the homework. That meant a lot to me because Ernie, I respect the heck out of him. I can’t watch it anymore. I gave up.”
Vecsey said he receives his share of adulation in today’s social media from fans who were mere infants when he was working for NBC.
“I always felt appreciated,” he said. “I felt the fans really respected me and my paper absolutely respected me. I loved working at the Post. I had a great run.”
There were several players who were nursing injuries when the season was suspended. Kevin Durant is nearly 11 months removed from his torn Achilles’, and he was expected to miss the entire season for the Nets. But what happens if the season resumes in August and he’s healthy enough to play? It seems inconceivable the Nets would bring back Durant even a bit prematurely because of the nature of his injury. If you recall, the Warriors brought back Durant from a strained calf after nearly a month off for Game 5 of the NBA Finals and he snapped his Achilles’ just 10 minutes into his return. Even with Durant, it’s highly unlikely the Nets could win a playoff round considering they’re also missing Kyrie Irving because of shoulder surgery. The 76ers were concerned two months ago that point guard Ben Simmons’s ailing back could cost him weeks and result in a lower playoff seed. But now Simmons has had ample rest and the 76ers could be at full strength. If the regular season is over and the NBA resumed with the playoffs, the 76ers would meet the Celtics in the first round. In Boston, Jaylen Brown was expected to miss time with a strained right hamstring. Two months was plenty of time for Brown to recover and he’ll resume the season healthy . . . There are NBA teams interested in Argentine point guard Facundo Campazzo, who played the last few years for Real Madrid and also has sparkled in international play. Campazzo just turned 29 and has expressed interest in playing in the NBA, but he has a $5 million-plus buyout of his contract that he personally would need to cover to sign with an NBA team. Overseas point guards have had mixed results in the NBA, from Ricky Rubio to Sergio Rodriguez to Milos Teodosic. Campazzo is 5 feet 11 inches but plays with a burst and toughness that shined in the 2016 Rio Olympics, when he matched up favorably against Irving.