From PR to GM
Wizards' Sheppard likely to be running a team soon
Posted: Thursday March 29, 2007 2:03PM; Updated: Thursday March 29, 2007 7:18PM
In the next year or two Tommy Sheppard will become a role model for all of the college graduates who want to make a career in pro sports but don't know how. A dozen years ago Sheppard was a young nobody with a twanging New Mexico accent who had just been hired as a media relations director by the Denver Nuggets. During his first week he told himself he was going to become a general manager in the NBA.
Now serving as assistant to Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld, Sheppard, 38, is one of the top candidates to fulfill his goal. It will be no surprise if he is running a team by next season. (For other top GM candidates, click here.)
Sheppard's playing career went no further than as a point guard -- "and not a good one'' -- for St. Pius X High School in Albuquerque. He was a backup free safety at New Mexico State, where he graduated in 1991 and went to work in sports media relations at his alma mater and later at UNLV. Bernie Bickerstaff, who was running the Nuggets, hired Sheppard in 1994 to run their media relations department.
How has a non-player climbed so high in 13 years? The answer is that Sheppard was far more than a press officer in Denver. He was also in charge of player relations, which is a humble title for someone who spent a decade preventing executives, coaches and players from killing one another. It's hard to say that anyone is the best at anything in a business as competitive as the NBA, but trust me on this: No one in the league is more intuitive, understanding or generous than Sheppard.
I am convinced that Kiki Vandeweghe would have kept his job with the Nuggets had he promoted Sheppard to a basketball operations position in 2003-04. It is no coincidence that the relationship between Vandeweghe and owner Stan Kroenke crumbled over the next three years, because Sheppard -- like Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life -- wasn't there to fix it, to help each side see things from the other's point of view. After Vandeweghe's departure last summer, league insiders say the Nuggets tried to bring Sheppard back in a quasi-GM role. But instead he signed a three-year extension with Washington as its VP of basketball administration.
"He had a PR background, but he's a good people person and this is a people business,'' says Grunfeld, explaining why he hired Sheppard to work in basketball operations in 2003-04. "He was around the game a long time, he knew lot of people in the game. And he has a good eye, a good feel for the game.''
Grunfeld's "go-to guys,'' as he calls them, are Sheppard and VP of player personnel Milt Newton, who was interviewed to be the Cleveland GM two years ago when the Cavaliers were planning to hire Larry Brown as team president. While Newton's specialty is scouting -- he's a former CBA player who starred for Brown's 1988 NCAA champion at Kansas -- Sheppard hasn't stopped working to develop an eye for talent.
"I'd ask guys like Bernie, 'What are you looking for? What's important? What does this player do well?''' says Sheppard. "And the old scouts, guys like Dick McGuire, Al Menendez, you go to a game and sidle up to them and ask questions.''
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