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The Seattle Mag Interview: Sports Sage

Bob Whitsitt’s book tells the tales of a colorful career as a force in the front office

By Rob Smith October 6, 2023

Sonics GM Bob Whitsitt announces future Hall of Famer Gary Payton as the club’s top pick in the 1990 draft.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

“Trader Bob.” The name conjures memories of the ’90s-era Sonics when the NBA club captured the heart of Seattle. It’s reminiscent of the controversial “Jail Blazers,” a term coined by Portland sportswriters to describe late ’90s and early 2000s Trail Blazers teams that enjoyed on-court success while suffering off-court misadventures.

Bob Whitsitt’s ability to make blockbuster trades led to his famous nickname, which is as much a part of Sonics lore as The Glove, Reign Man, and the Mad Genius. He was the league’s youngest executive when he became Sonics president and GM at age 30 in 1986, and was named NBA Executive of the Year after the 1993-94 NBA season.

Even though he resigned following a dispute with former owner Barry Ackerley in 1994, he built the 1995-96 Western Conference championship team that took the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls to six games in the NBA finals.

Whitsitt then joined the Blazers and, after a series of deals, reversed the fortunes of a franchise in decline, but not without controversy. All told, in 17 seasons as an NBA president and general manager, Whitsitt’s teams made the playoffs 16 times.

His stints with the Seahawks were equally memorable. Late owner Paul Allen, who also owned the Blazers, hired Whitsitt in 1997 (he worked for both the Blazers and Seahawks at the same time) and promoted him to general manager after he resigned from the Blazers after the 2003 season. Whitsitt helped negotiate the deal that led to Century Link Field (now Lumen Stadium) and hired popular coach Mike Holmgren, who steered the team to the Super Bowl during the 2005 season. Allen fired Whitsitt in 2004 after several player-personnel disputes.

Whitsitt recounts all that, along with numerous juicy stories — including the time he helped break up a fight between Sonics stars Xavier McDaniel and Dale Ellis — in his new book, Game Changer: An Insider’s Story of the Sonics’ Resurgence, the Trail Blazers’ Turnaround, and the Deal that Saved the Seahawks. The 256-page book comes out in October.

Game Changer by Bob Whitsitt, book cover

Image by Girl Friday Productions

 

Whitsitt is now on the board of Diamond Sports Group, branded as Bally Sports, which owns 19 regional sports networks across the United States. He and his wife, Jan, also run a sports, entertainment, and business consulting practice in the Seattle area.

Are you involved in efforts to bring back the Sonics? Let me say it this way: I am 100% committed to doing anything I can to bring the Sonics back to Seattle. I was a consultant on the Climate Pledge arena and a little bit on the hockey launch.

What part would you like to play if and when they return? I’m willing and anxious to take a very active role from part of ownership to management, to anything that makes sense. I’m ready. But I don’t want to be one of those guys trying to crash a party. If there’s no role there and I can just buy season tickets and be supportive, I’d do that, too.

What’s the perfect scenario for you? It’s a little premature and a little early for that. But I think it would be part of ownership, working with the league, trying to find and mentor the right management, and helping guide the franchise the right way. Being involved in the community is extremely important, especially in Seattle or Portland.

What will the reaction be if the Sonics return? The community will go wild. The red carpet will be rolled out, but I don’t think we can for a moment take it for granted. We have to work twice as hard in the community when we come back because these fans were the ones who got shortchanged. And I think we owe it to them to do an even better job this time around.

Why write the book now? I thought at first I should just stay away for a while. The book’s a little bit of a smorgasbord. People are always asking me to tell the stories and at some point, I might forget some of ’em. So, you gotta jot ’em down sooner or later. It was about a two-year process.

What’s the most interesting part of the book to you? The most interesting chapter of the book that goes unnoticed is how we saved the Seahawks for Seattle, which is sort of ironic, because we kept the team that was gone and the team that should never have gone (the Sonics) is not here.

Are you surprised the Sonics have been gone so long? A friend reminded me the other day that I told him in 2008 when the Sonics left, it’s going to probably be 20 years before you see a team back. And he was floored. I think now is a good time. I think the timing is good.

You used to practice with players? It was simply a matter of numbers. We didn’t have players. And with the Sonics, I didn’t scrimmage with those guys. We played some two-on-two, half court, sort of what you would call predraft workouts now. And you wouldn’t even think about doing that today.

What was the best part of your game? Today? I have no basketball game. I think probably when I played, I was a pretty good defensive player. On the offensive end my best attribute was probably shooting the ball. I also was a pretty good student.

What are your favorite memories of Paul Allen? Paul was a great owner. I’m probably putting it the wrong way, but I he had the resources. He was passionate about the NBA. And I still don’t know why. This is a guy who did not have an athletic bone in his body, who never played a sport. He was always trying to learn more. He actually tried to buy the Sonics before he got the Blazers.

How involved was he in daily operations? There wasn’t a day when we wouldn’t be on the phone at least once. It would always jump quickly back to rumor and gossip stuff, too. Like, you know, “Hey, are we really doing this?” I go, “No, Paul, we’re not.” “Well, I’m reading it online.” He didn’t quite always get how people played each other to try to get things. But he was the best owner I ever worked for because of those things.

Was he difficult to deal with? He wasn’t easy. He was tough behind closed doors. He was not a pushover. He was a pushback guy. That’s a little bit about Microsoft culture, but I would expect any owner to make you have the right answers and make sure you’re doing the right things for the right reasons. He was a great owner.

What advice do you give to younger people in terms of management? Be the first one there. Be the last one to leave. Be passionate, be collaborative, be a communicator, be innovative. Be ahead of the curve. Especially in sports, there’s a real herd mental mentality. Hire people around you that are really good at what they do versus just your friends. You’ll build trust if you do that.

What would you do differently? I wish I knew how to collaborate better. I was so driven. I was doing a lot of the work myself. There’s a lot going on with the job behind the scenes that you don’t even know.

How much does it bother you that, despite your success, the Blazers or Sonics were never able to win an NBA championship when you were there? Oh, there’s a scar there for sure. It bothers me. If I get the opportunity to be a part of something, believe me, the No. 1 thing on my to-do list is be a part of a championship team.

Do you keep in touch with the players? I don’t talk with these guys a lot. Probably the one I see the most is Detlef (Schrempf, who played for the Sonics from 1993 through 1999 and then spent the last two years of his career with Portland) because he’s here and we belong to the same golf course. But I’ll run into Sam Perkins at an event, or Dale Ellis or Xavier and different guys, and you start talking again.

How did they react to ‘Trader Bob?’ The one thing I can honestly say is I’ve never lied to a player. Now, sometimes they didn’t like me at the time because I told them the truth, or didn’t trade ’em where they wanted to be traded. Of course, there’s a deal for everybody, but sometimes the odds of it happening are like zero.

Talk a little about Gary Payton and Sean Kemp? Obviously, I drafted both of them. I believe you need at least two really good cornerstone players to be successful. And they both were sort of complicated drafts that people probably don’t know much about. I don’t want people to think, oh, these guys just showed up one day.

Did it bother you that the media in Portland was so critical? In the media business, you can grab a few headlines if you want to make a few headlines. That’s part of the business sometimes. The reality is we sold out every game when I was there. And you can say they liked me or didn’t like me, but fans weren’t buying tickets because of me, and they weren’t not buying tickets because of me. They were buying tickets because they loved our team, and we were winning.

Do you miss the high-stress work of professional sports? I loved that day in and day out.

Have you tried to get back into the NBA the past 20 years? I did work with quite a few people over a number of years trying to put together ownership groups. Not for Seattle, but for other markets, either to buy or sell teams. And if the conditions were right, I would either join teams as a part of ownership or as a consultant. But either those groups did not buy, or we couldn’t get the deal done. That’s as close as I came to trying to do it.

 

I wish I knew how to collaborate better. I was so driven. I was doing a lot of the work myself.

 

How closely do you follow the NBA? I’ve been watching more NBA now than I ever have before, which is hard to believe. I’ve talked with a lot of teams on a regular basis, coaches, scouts. You could throw me into an expansion team tomorrow and I think I could run a pretty good expansion draft. But I should not be the guy doing that. I can help find the right people and the right scouts. I can help you build the right business part of the organization.

How challenging was it to help players who had personal issues? There’s just a lot going on that you’re trying to help a player who’s actually a good guy, but he’s got a couple things in his life really going sideways. Can you help him get back on track? Today, teams commit a lot more resources and dollars to help those things get straightened out, which they should. But back then we weren’t given the budgets or the dollars for many resources and we were having to kind of do a lot of that, hit and miss, on our own a little bit.

From left: Benoit Benjamin, his agent, James Casey, and Ricky Pierce with Bob Whitsitt at a press conference announcing that both players had signed contract extensions with the Sonics.

photo by Mike Urban. MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 2000.107.016.22.01

What’s the fundamental business difference between football and basketball? Great question. One, you’ve got a hard (salary) cap in football. (The NBA) is getting closer to a hard cap. So, I think management’s going to be important moving forward. And a game or two in the NFL is the difference between making the playoffs. A game or two in the NBA, frankly, is no big deal.

How does marketing differ? The NBA is a little bit more creative and allows you to do more things in the marketing space, the broadcasting space, and the fan engagement space than the NFL allows. The NFL kind of controls more things.

Who were your mentors? I’m sad to say I really didn’t have a mentor. I wish I did. I was lucky enough that I came up during a time when (the NBA) was more unstable. And, as a young guy, I was given a lot more opportunity than I was qualified for.

Whitsitt, Blazers’ owner Paul Allen and Bill Gates at a Blazers’ playoff game.

AP Photo / Jack Smith

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