TrueHoop: Tom Penn

Counterprogramming for a worthy cause

July, 9, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
George Karl, Alvin Gentry
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Alvin Gentry and George Karl had a lot more to talk about than just hoops.

The date for the St. Jude/NBA Summer League Tip-Off Dinner was set months ago.

The charity banquet and auction to support the unique cancer research and treatment facility in Memphis was scheduled, as it always is, for the Thursday night before Summer League. Cocktails at 6 p.m., with dinner to follow at 7 p.m. Attendees for the event include several NBA coaches, execs, agents and a handful of players. And like everyone else in the world with a vested interest in the NBA, they had one thing on their mind when things got started at 6 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Thursday night:

Finding the closest television.

On opposite sides of an anteroom outside the main hall, two large screens were set up to for some of the most plugged-in people in basketball to watch LeBron James announce his intentions on national television. The likes of Phoenix head coach Alvin Gentry, Golden State head coach Don Nelson, Denver general manager Mark Warkentien, Denver assistant Adrian Dantley and former Suns assistant general manager David Griffin gathered around the tube. For an hour, the spectacle of James' proclamation, conversation about what this means for the league, whether James should run the offense as a point forward and the likelihood that the Heat can breeze to a championship dominated the room.

A little after 7 p.m., attendees filtered into the hall and sat down at their assigned 10-top tables. The room was still buzzing about James and the coup pulled off by the Heat. After some brief introductory welcome, the program shifted to a video chronicling the lives of children who had been spared thanks to treatment received at St. Jude.

Then, something profound happened:

Minutes after one of the more monumental moments in NBA history, a group of people whose lives are consumed by basketball and the machinations of the league shifted their focus.

After the video presentation, David Aldridge took the podium. Aldridge's mother died of cervical cancer almost 25 years ago, something that inspired the reporter to serve as emcee of the event, a task he's performed for the last three years. Though it's been nearly a quarter of a century, the impact of Aldridge's loss has stayed with him. He was deeply emotional, pausing repeatedly to gather himself, as he passionately spoke about the goals and achievement of St. Jude.

The breadth of St. Jude's work as one of the top pediatric cancer care hospital in the world is immense. But the easiest way to capture St. Jude's mission is this:

If your kid has cancer, he will receive the best treatment in the world at St. Jude, whether you can afford to pay for that care or not. No questions asked.

St. Jude has around 5,700 active patients and raised $682 million last year -- and 81 percent of that money goes directly to research and treatment. There are a lot of worthy causes and institutions in the world, but few of them manage themselves more efficiently than St. Jude.

Aldridge's poignant testimonials about how his mother's cancer has stayed with him set the tone for the program. Former Portland Trail Blazer assistant general manager Tom Penn was an executive with the Grizzlies for years just a few miles away from St. Jude. He's been out front in the effort to make St. Jude a centerpiece of the NBA community's charitable work. When he took the podium, the juxtaposition between the 6 o'clock and 7 o'clock hours wasn't lost on him.

"There's been no mention of free agency, the salary cap, or the guy who signed in Miami," Penn said.

After dinner was served, a couple of families whose children were saved by the treatment they received at St. Jude were introduced on stage. Over at Table 10, Dallas Mavericks assistants Dwane Casey and Terry Stotts were finishing up their plates. Casey hasn't had the best of weeks. On Tuesday, he lost out on the Los Angeles Clippers' head coaching gig after being the odds-on favorite throughout most of the process. But as the families' affliction and recovery were described by Penn, Casey leaned over.

"Our problems?" Casey said. "They're nothing."

St. Jude always attracts strong support from the NBA, but George Karl's battle against neck and throat cancer this past year lent Thursday night's event a particularly strong sentiment. In addition, Karl's son Coby was has been treated for thyroid cancer. Karl was presented with the inaugural George Karl Award for Courage in Sports, then addressed the crowd.

"We as successful people -- players, coaches, general managers -- it's our responsibility to give. We say, 'back to the game,' but it's really 'back to life' because we get treated very, very special," Karl said. "We have a lot of people in this room who like to compete. I'm one of them ... I've found that with cancer, in these last three and a half month, there are hundred of thousands of competitors that fight this disease with an attitude, passion and commitment as great as we do in our profession."

Those present last night to hear Karl's story and the appeals of Aldridge and Penn will inevitably return to the business of basketball as Summer League kicks off on Friday. But for a few hours on Thursday night, while the rest of the world was hung up on James' big choice, those without the luxury to choose had a few big voices broadcasting their plight.

A new kind of Blazermania

March, 20, 2010
Abbott By Henry Abbott
A few days ago, the Portland Trail Blazers fired their assistant general manager, Tom Penn.

And one of the NBA's most robust fanbases is starting to freak out, to the point that there is literally talk, in Blazer fan blog comments, of riots.

Around the League Penn is seen as a guy who knows a thing or two about basketball, but he's mainly prized as the former criminal defense attorney who mastered the NBA's more arcane stuff like the collective bargaining agreement.

And nobody mourns lawyers. Right? (Even fans of that assistant GM, if such people exist, could hardly be too upset -- Penn will keep drawing paychecks for more than two years even if he doesn't land another job. But teams are interested, and Penn is a shoo-in for a good position. Just last summer he passed up an offer to run the Timberwolves' basketball operations.) It's the kind of story that just about does not matter to fans ... in most cities.

But in Portland, things are different, because the firing of Penn is the first serious crack in the facade of the new-era Blazers. And through that crack, fans can peer into the team's inner workings. The scene is ugly. It may even foretell the end of the happy Blazers story Portland fans celebrate as real-time folklore.

In this story, Penn serves as a kind of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He's a bit player to onlookers. But when he went down, it was clear the big trouble was imminent.

Nothing like the real World War I is remotely close -- but for Portland fans, the worst thing imaginable may well be on the horizon.

The face of the franchise, and perhaps the most beloved general manager in the NBA, is Kevin Pritchard. The former Kansas and NBA player's drafting and trades have built a Blazer nucleus with players like Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Camby, Andre Miller and Greg Oden, to go with an exceedingly bright future. Last year, with one of the youngest teams in NBA history, Portland finished tied for second in the West with 54 wins. This season, despite a historic series of injuries -- the team played without a center at all for a long stretch -- the Blazers may well win 50.

Until Pritchard took over, the city of Portland's only major sports franchise was a laughingstock, known as the Jail Blazers. The players were talented but underachieving. The fans, and at times the police, weren't happy with the players' off-court behavior. The business office was at odds with the basketball operations staff. In a city famous for rain, the Blazers were a multi-year thunderstorm.

The theory about discordant teams is that no matter how talented, they will crack under pressure. In giving up a 15-point fourth quarter lead to the Lakers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western conference finals, the Portland Trail Blazers proved that theory as well as any team ever has.

But in recent years, that has all been forgotten. In the summer of 2008, the Blazer executives went on a team-building retreat in the Arizona desert. The talk, coming out of the retreat, was of a basketball staff that had bridged old divides with the business staff. Through the magic of ranches, and Kevin Pritchard, everyone was on the same page. Naive though it may have seemed, it was portrayed again and again as one big, happy family.

Trail Blazers president Larry Miller insists that Penn's departure is no sign the Blazer stakeholders were faking team harmony all along. "What happened with Tom was unfortunate," Miller explains. "But the results that this organization was able to make happen I don't think could have happened if we weren't on the same page working together and pulling together."

And yet, for the last couple of days it has not only been hard to find Pritchard -- who is usually in heavy contact with the media -- but it has also been hard to find anyone who will predict that Pritchard will stick in Portland for the long haul, whether he departs of his own volition or at the instigation of the team.

"If they fire KP," said a comment from "iDea" on the Blazersedge blog, "after building the team back to being respectable and with a winning culture, it’ll be the last straw with most fans."

"Could you imagine the scene if KP left ... There might be an actual riot" writes "blazeraddict." Another commenter, "somanluna," quickly added: "I would be in it (the riot) It would absurd to let the man responsible for rebuilding the franchise to what it is today go at this point. He’s done so much and is very passionate about the team and doing what’s right for it so who would be better?"

"I think their fears are justified," says Warren LeGarie who represents both Pritchard and Penn, when asked if he could say anything to settle down Blazer fans. He offered no tonics. "We've been given no indication that this team sees Kevin as somebody who will be there on a long-term basis. All we've seen is them taking away people that Kevin feels are important to his ability to do his job successfully. ... I've been a Blazer fan from early on. I've been involved in some way with the team for many many years. I want them to be successful. They gave Kevin an unbelievably wonderful opportunity. But in order to make that opportunity work, he still needs to have people who believe in him around him, and people that he'd like to have, and that's certainly not the case anymore."

Perhaps the worst possible news for Blazer fans is that according to sources, last summer LeGarie became so convinced that the Blazers would not commit to Pritchard for the long haul that the agent has spent the season looking for another team to take on Pritchard and Penn. His concerns would seem to be validated, somewhat, by the firing of Penn.

Most observers have assumed that Pritchard is on a short list of untouchably promising young GMs, along with the Thunder's Sam Presti and the Rockets' Daryl Morey. But around the League, plenty now insist Pritchard is likely to seek a new home, either because he'll be fired or because he'll resign.

Asked to promise to fans that the team's star employee would stick around, team president Miller offered more platitudes than specifics.

"Kevin is the GM here," says Miller. "I can never commit to anybody being around long term. I don't know that I'll be here long term. That's just not the way it works. To me, Kevin is our GM, and my feeling is we should focus on finishing out the season, trying to win games, trying to have a successful run in the playoffs. That should be our focus right now. The situation with Tom was in isolated incident. It's unfortunate, but hopefully we can put it behind us."

Why was Tom Penn fired, anyway?
In extensive conversations with well-placed sources across the NBA, a variety of theories have been presented about what precipitated Penn's firing just a few months after he received a significant raise and promotion. Larry Miller dismissed them all.

One reported theory is that LeGarie and Penn exaggerated word of a Minnesota offer, to get Penn a raise. Miller says: "I have no idea where that ever came from. From my perspective, I've never heard any dispute internally that Tom had a valid offer." has obtained a copy of the Minnesota offer. Is there any chance Penn was fired for faking the Minnesota job? According to Miller: "No."

Similarly, there are stories that Penn may have been flirting with the Clippers, who recently fired Mike Dunleavy as general manager. Is that why Penn was ousted? "Absolutely not," says Miller. Likewise, sources insist Penn never sought that job.

Another report said that Penn was fired because of some unspecified "H.R. issue." Miller's response was that there's "nothing valid to that."

Still more sources suggest that in the lead-up to his firing, Penn had been involved in a personal confrontation of sorts with top Blazer brass. "I'd like to know who makes up this kind of stuff," says Miller. "That's absolutely, positively, untrue. ... That, I can tell you, is unequivocally untrue."

The final theory, and one that a half-dozen sources insist is real, whether or not it led directly to Penn's firing, is that there's an ongoing and long-term power struggle between the basketball operations staff and the owner's suite. As the theory goes, Pritchard and Penn had amalgamated too much power and autonomy in making basketball decisions, and the people who sign the checks resolved to clip Pritchard's wings. Firing Penn was a handy way to do so -- Pritchard is no contract expert, and without Penn, he'd have no choice but to bring others into the process whenever he had the kinds of legal or CBA issues that Penn once handled.

Miller says that could not be so, because owner Paul Allen has never had any curbs on his own influence throughout the organization. "Paul is the owner," says Miller, "and the owner has the ultimate say on every decision, because we're spending his money. So, if Paul wants to weigh in or have input, he absolutely has that. There's nothing to that story."

What's more, Miller says Pritchard will be the key figure in hiring a replacement assistant GM, although for unclear reasons that likely won't happen until the summer.

So, if it wasn't because of the Minnesota theory, the Clipper theory, the H.R. theory, the confrontation theory, or the corporate politics theory ... why is it again that Penn was fired?

"I'm not going to talk about that," says Miller.

Miller may not, but Blazer fans certainly will.

The Blazers act fast

March, 18, 2010
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Out of the tangle of bizarreness and finger-pointing that has resulted from Tom Penn's firing by the Blazers, Benjamin Golliver of BlazersEdge has spun some comedy:
In a development nearly as stunning as their firing of Vice President of Basketball Operations Tom Penn, Vulcan Inc. announced early Wednesday morning that the Portland Trail Blazers have filled their Assistant General Manager position by hiring ESPN's Trade Machine. "This is a critical position in our management team and we knew we had to act quickly," said Vulcan Communications Director Lew T. Wharf. "We were looking for someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of every team's salary cap situation and the ability to evaluate our various options clinically. We are confident Mr. Machine brings those skills to the table and we feel he will be a great asset to Kevin Pritchard's management team."

The move quickly shores up the major hole left by Penn's firing. The remaining members of the management team -- Pritchard, Mike Born and Chad Buchanan -- are viewed around the league primarily as "Basketball People," rather than number-crunchers or salary gap gurus. Troubling for Blazers fans, though, is the fact that Mr. Machine has no prior experience working with any NBA organization or even any other professional sports organization.

Although sources close to Mr. Machine describe him as "young" and "a tireless worker prone to all-nighters," it's unclear how he will make the transition from free internet-based application to full time NBA executive. "Sure, I'm a little nervous," Mr. Machine told me at this morning's practice as he slowly settled into his new office at the team's Tualatin Practice Facility. "Wouldn't you be?"

Kevin Arnovitz makes a great follow-up point. The Rockets really did hire the trade machine, in a sense.