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Almost anyone outside the NBA's ivory tower in New York City would agree that fundamentals and teamwork have degenerated and fan loyalty has eroded since the league was famously revived in the early 1980s and propped up by Michael Jordan through most of the '90s. Dissatisfaction only increased last summer in Athens with the lackluster bronze medal showing by a U.S. Olympic team made up entirely of NBA players. But it didn't begin there. The game has been slipping since the early '90s, when the players who spearheaded the revival, such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, started hanging up their sneakers.
But look around. On seven teams the individuals making personnel decisions these days are the former players who helped breathe life back into the league 25 years ago. With a philosophy of selfless play and tenacious defense, Detroit Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars retooled his old club over the last four seasons and made it into an NBA champion in 2003-04. And two of Dumars's hottest pursuers this year will be rivals from the '80s Boston Celtics--Bird and Kevin McHale. In his first year as the Indiana Pacers' president of basketball operations Bird helped the team reach the Eastern Conference finals; in nine seasons as the Minnesota Timberwolves' chief basketball executive McHale has lifted the once moribund franchise to within two wins of the NBA Finals.
General manager Kiki Vandeweghe has remade the Nuggets in the image of the run-and-gun team for whom he played in the '80s, and to impressive effect: Denver improved by a record 26 wins last season after adding 19year-old Carmelo Anthony. Executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge will be trying to retrigger the fast break-- Celtics-style--in Boston, where he has imported more shooters and hired a coach, Doc Rivers, who favors wide-open play. Until the arrival in New York last December of Dumars's former Pistons backcourt mate, the Knicks seemed to be stuck in neutral; since then Isiah Thomas, the team's president of basketball operations, has overhauled the roster and handed the keys to point guard Stephon Marbury. And Golden State executive vice president of basketball operations Chris Mullin, like Bird a first-generation Dream Teamer, faces the biggest challenge among the seven: trying to turn around the Warriors, who haven't made the playoffs since 1993-94.
All of these guys now wearing a suit (well, it's hard to catch McHale in a suit) entered the league between 1979 and '85. Three of the seven (Bird, McHale and Thomas) were honored in 1996 among the NBA's 50 greatest players, while Dumars (six times), Mullin (five), Vandeweghe (two) and Ainge (one) were All-Stars. (For good measure, two other players who didn't get as much acclaim during that era-- Jim Paxson, whose rookie year was 1979--80, and brother John, who broke in four years later--run the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls, respectively.) They all knew how to shoot, pass, defend, move without the ball, set screens, comport themselves, deal with fans and media, and demonstrate an acceptable level of humility for getting rich playing a kids' game. In other words, all the things that many of today's stars have either forgotten or never learned.
So just how do these seven view today's NBA? And because they are the men in charge, what are they doing to enhance the quality of the game? In separate conversations SI collected their replies to those and other questions.
Are you surprised that anyone in this group wound up in an NBA front office?
Thomas: Kevin is the one guy who wouldn't seem to need it. I remember once after we beat the Celtics in Boston Garden, there was Kevin, laughing and joking with his wife. It struck me then how much balance he had in his life. I envied him. But he was always highly intelligent about the game, and this is the job where you can show that.
Mullin: The common denominator is that we played cerebrally, and this is the best way to stay around the game and be able to think about it. You have to see the big picture, how decisions today impact your team down the road.
Vandeweghe: These guys weren't just smart. They were leaders on their teams. If this job is about one thing, it's about leading.
Bird (laughing): Danny was always one of those guys who thought he was smarter than Red [Auerbach], so you knew he'd be doing this.