- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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It was industrious, not glamorous. The kind of story you hear in Hollywood, about a studio head who started out in the mailroom and worked his way up, but rarely in the NBA where most coaches and front office executives begin by playing the game, then maneuvering their way up the food chain by any means necessary.
Guys who run teams with aspirations of winning an NBA title like the Los Angeles Clippers don’t start off as baseball players who get their first break in basketball by answering an ad for a marketing job in the newspaper.
And they certainly don’t work two decades all with the same team, focused on what’s in front of them, and not the backs they should be slapping elsewhere.
But that really is Clippers executive vice president of player personnel Gary Sacks’ story. The guy new coach and senior VP of player personnel Doc Rivers is leaning on to do the heavy lifting in the front office, the guy who very quietly finished second in the NBA’s executive of the year voting last season, really did start out working in a glorified closet at the Sports Arena, doing whatever he could to gain a foothold and stick around a while.
“From Day 1, I realized how fortunate I was to work for the Clippers and I didn’t want to lose it,” Sacks said over a long dinner this summer. “So I was going to do whatever it took to show everyone that I’m loyal, and that I would earn my keep.”
At the time Sacks was hired, the NBA was just starting to use computers. Sacks was no expert, but he’d learned a little about computers at UCLA, and was smart enough to teach himself the rest. So he took one of them home, fiddled around with it instead of sleeping, and created a database for their scouting, a Compuserve email account all the scouts could use to send in their reports after games, and flat out blew people away.
“Gary was like our original IT guy,” said Toronto Raptors executive Jeff Weltman, who was the Clippers director of player personnel at the time. “He was just so helpful with us automating everything, getting our scouting reports online and in a database. He was beyond helpful. He was the reason we were able to do it.”
At nights he’d stay at the office until all hours, watching tape and waiting for the scouts to file their reports, assembling them into a readable, usable form for the coaching and front office staffs to process in the morning. Bobby Oceipka, an assistant coach and advanced scout liked his work ethic and started teaching him what to look for on all the tape he was watching.
Weltman started to trust his opinions enough to send him out to scout on his own. Elgin Baylor, the team’s general manager at the time, always had an open door and advice to give. Bill Fitch, the Clippers coach, loved the clean, comprehensive scouting reports he always filed and officially gave him a full-time job.
“Whenever I talk about Gary, and there are a few other guys in this industry, without naming names, who’ve kind of carved their own niche in this business but by conventional standards have like no means to have done so,” Weltman said. “But they’ve carved themselves a really important niche in this league where people rely on them and care what they think, and they’ve done it because they have supreme intelligence and supreme passion for the game. That’s Gary. He’d loved the game and been a fan and all of a sudden lucked out with this internship and finds himself with his foot in the door.
“I loved having him around because he was such a sponge. He was so smart and insightful. He just had so much potential and ability and he worked his butt off.”
Weltman eventually moved on from the Clippers to work with the Nuggets, Pistons, Bucks and Raptors. Sacks stayed with the Clippers and continued his steady climb in the front office, serving as director of player personnel for many years, before landing the big job when Neil Olshey left after the 2012 season to become the Portland Trail Blazers general manager.
The Clippers conducted a search to replace Olshey, but Sacks was always the front-runner because of his reputation within the organization and strong relationships with players like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
“You become more of a decision maker,” Sacks said of his promotion last summer. “There’s more responsibility with that. But I felt like I was ready, and that [responsibility] was something I knew I had to embrace.
“The most difficult part was wanting to continue to build what we’d already gotten to and not wanting to take a step backwards. That fear really motivated me to work as hard as I could with [former coach] Vinny [Del Negro] and [team president] Andy [Roeser] and on my own to do everything I could to keep the momentum going.”
Together, Sacks, Roeser and Del Negro put together a team that won a franchise-record 56 games in the regular season. But when the Clippers lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Memphis Grizzlies, it was obvious they were missing something.
Hence the bold push for Rivers, associate head coach Alvin Gentry, the impact trade for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, and by-any-means-necessary effort to re-sign Paul to a five-year extension.
In order to land Rivers, Sacks had to swallow his ego and give Rivers the title of senior vice president of player personnel, one rung up the ladder from Sacks’ title.
“My thing is, if we win, and it helps us win, I’m all for it,” Sacks said. “There’s always going to be a thought of what it’s going to be like, but it’s been great because Doc’s made it easy. He’s great to work with. I’m not just saying that. He’s been very, very, very supportive of me. Willing to listen and work with me. What more can I ask for? The guy’s been there, he knows how to win. For me, it’s like I’m getting the benefit of getting his expertise. Why wouldn’t I embrace that?”
I know, I know. Your earnestness-meter is going haywire. A guy who has risen to a position with as much power as Sacks has with the Clippers couldn’t possibly be this sincere, right?
There are 30 of these jobs in the world and 3,000 basketball men who think they deserve them.
But maybe everybody doesn’t have to be a shark. Maybe the best organizations, like the best teams, work because they’ve got guys who don’t care how many shots they get or minutes they play.
Sacks didn’t just accept the situation with Rivers, he worked day and night for weeks to make it happen.
“I like the direction we’re going. I like what we’ve done. I like our team,” Sacks said. “Doc and I have seen eye to eye on this. But we can’t get complacent with what we’ve done, because we haven’t done much yet. The only thing that’s going to count is if we win in the regular season and the playoffs.”
If they do, it’ll likely be Rivers taking the public bows. He’ll be hailed as the difference-maker. The missing piece who got through to Griffin and Paul and got the entire organization over the hump.
Sacks will be in the background smiling, though. All these years later, having finally earned his keep.