Sports world loses gem in former Pistons p.r. director Matt Dobek
Former Pistons public relations director Matt Dobek was found dead Saturday
Dobek was fired in May after running the p.r. department since 1981
He managed to be both a team advocate and honest resource for media
In mid-April, I flew to Detroit to interview Detroit Pistons public relations director Matt Dobek for a book I'm writing about the 1992 Dream Team. In Barcelona, Matt served as one of four press people attached to the U.S. team, his primary responsibility being coach Chuck Daly, with whom he worked in Detroit. Matt did a superior job, which wasn't surprising; he was a major player in those halcyon days of the NBA, someone who skillfully walked the line as both an advocate for his team and an honest resource for the press.
A few weeks after our interview, Matt called to tell me that he and three other longtime Pistons employees had been abruptly fired by the team. I'm not sure what happened with the other three (I didn't know them), but Matt was escorted out of the building, driven home by a security official and subsequently informed that he would be receiving no severance package. The stated reason for the firing was that Matt had violated a confidentiality clause in his contract.
On Saturday afternoon, he was found dead in his home. He was 51. And let this point of emphasis be made right now: It is almost impossible to determine, with complete conviction, why someone takes his own life, which, according to several sources, is what happened in Matt's case.
Even before the firing, Matt didn't seem happy. In mid-March of last year, longtime Pistons owner Bill Davidson died. Two months after that, Daly died of pancreatic cancer. While it's typical for a strong bond to grow between a coach and p.r. man, the one between Chuck and Matt went well beyond that. They hadn't worked for the same organization since 1992, but they had remained extremely close. During the 2007 NBA Finals in San Antonio, Matt and I and a few other NBA types were riding home from a get-together when Matt decided to call Chuck.
"It's 1 o'clock in the morning, Matt," I said.
"Don't worry," Matt said. "Chuck's up. I know when he sleeps."
Daly answered on the first ring and Matt passed around the phone.
Matt served as the family spokesman during Chuck's cancer ordeal, and in the last moments I spent with Matt, at the end of our interview in April, he handed me a CD of the Daly funeral service. "You might get a kick out of this," he said. "Rollie Massimino's eulogy was fantastic."
After the firing, we talked on the phone several times and he seemed depressed. (I'm not a doctor so I'm not making an official diagnosis.) The Pistons were, to a large extent, his life, and he felt betrayed by the manner in which he was fired and by what he saw as the lack of support from people in the organization, where he had run the p.r. operation since 1981.
I don't know if the Pistons had just cause to fire Matt. I do know that the organization is a mess. The Davidson family still owns the franchise, but the "For Sale" sign is out and the 2004 champions have sunk to the level of mediocrity, having gone 66-98 in the last two seasons.
In the late '80s and early '90s, the Pistons were NBA royalty. And Matt, who was young to be running the p.r. operation of a marquee team, couldn't have been happier. It's not an easy job because p.r. people in pro sports essentially serve four masters. First, the organization (owner, general manager, etc.), which wants nothing more than to project the image of the perfect one-happy-family team. Second, the coach, with whom the p.r. person has a de facto marriage, so closely do they work together for seven or eight months a year. Third, the players, whose wants and needs do not always coalesce with those of the franchise and the coach. And, fourth, the media, which demands inside info from the p.r. man, knowing full well that he can't always provide it.
The best in that business somehow figure out a way to work with all those groups, and Matt did it as well as anyone I've ever been around, especially considering the diversity of personalities on the Bad Boy Pistons of the '80s and early '90s. Over the years, Matt told me one or two things that no doubt deviated from the designated spokesperson party line, but that is the price of maintaining credibility with the media. Some bosses don't understand that. Never did I think that Matt was anything except loyal to the Pistons and never did he say anything to me that hurt the organization. He was a company man without sounding like one, and it was people like Matt who helped keep the Pistons palatable, even as the Bad Boys sometimes did everything to turn off the media.
His loss is most of all a personal tragedy for his family. But it goes beyond that, a loss for the NBA and the sports world in general.