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In rethinking the Wizards, Ted Leonsis blocked the noise and called Barack Obama (and 77 others)


Ted Leonsis picked the brains of Gregg Popovich, Adam Silver and Barack Obama, among 75 others, in developing Monumental Basketball. (Getty Images; Washington Post photo illustration) (Tyler Remmel/Washington Post illustration)

On April 2, Ted Leonsis dialed up Adam Silver to share the news — and seek advice on what to do next.

The Washington Wizards’ managing partner and the NBA commissioner communicate regularly about league matters, but near the end of the 2018-19 season, the conversations shifted to a specific topic: Leonsis wanted to know how other teams have organized their basketball operations departments.

Through the spring, Leonsis had been coming to the determination that he needed to dismiss longtime team president Ernie Grunfeld, which would press the reset button on his front office for the first time in his 10 years owning the franchise. During that call, Leonsis made it official, telling the commissioner he had fired Grunfeld and needed help in his search for a replacement, or better yet, an entirely new model.

Leonsis didn’t stop with Silver. Over the next 3 ½ months, Leonsis said he spoke to 78 people in professional sports and beyond, seeking to learn where he had erred and how he should reconstruct the Wizards into a modern sports organization. He picked the brains of the youngest general manager in Major League Baseball history, a former NFL executive of the year who led his franchise to a Super Bowl win and even the 44th president of the United States.

He allowed significant offseason events, including the Wizards’ lottery pick in June’s draft and July’s free agency frenzy, to pass without a hire as speculation and misinformation about potential candidates filled the void. But behind the scenes, Leonsis kept asking questions.

The talks included exit meetings with Wizards players, Monumental Sports & Entertainment executives and members of the ownership group, but also stretched to giants of their industries such as San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich and sports agents Rich Paul, David Falk and Mark Bartelstein.

“It was a very, very long gestation process,” Leonsis said. “It wasn’t what people were expecting, which was ‘It’s a small pool of candidates; you’re going to hire a replacement for the last executive who was there.’ I knew I would get grief on it, but if I did the work, my partners and the executive team would feel good about it.”

What Leonsis learned from this stretch of conversations shaped the creation of Monumental Basketball, the radical restructuring of all his basketball properties, announced last month and built on collaboration among many executives.

Although it remains to be seen whether this will become a revolutionary model or turn out to be a squandered offseason, it all started when Leonsis sought information from Silver. That day, the commissioner gave Leonsis a suggestion: Call Mike Forde.

***

Throughout the Wizards’ search, as Leonsis quietly went about a fact-gathering mission that even confused the job candidates, facts were scant. An early misinterpretation of the Wizards’ process was that Leonsis had hired a search firm.

“If people want to put six names on the board,” Forde said, describing his company Sportsology, “they probably don’t need us to help.”

Forde, who had declined interview requests since being hired by Leonsis for an undisclosed sum in April, recently opened up about his work with Monumental. Sportsology is not a headhunting search firm, Forde said, but rather a consultation group that works with and caters to the specific needs of professional and collegiate sports teams. Forde, in a sense, is a broker of knowledge, and over the years his company has gained 35 pro sports teams as clients. Within that base are owners, general managers and even league commissioners, and Forde has come to know Silver while helping other NBA teams with restructuring.

Forde began sending Leonsis articles to read as well as board structures of other teams and how they got there. Most importantly, Forde was a sounding board when Leonsis started the first round of general manager candidate interviews with Gersson Rosas, Troy Weaver, Danny Ferry and Tommy Sheppard, the longtime Wizards executive who would eventually land the permanent job with Monumental Basketball.


Leonsis, left, inherited Ernie Grunfeld, right, as team president when he bought the Wizards in 2010. Grunfeld, who was in that role since 2003, was fired by Leonsis in May. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Leonsis knew letting go of Grunfeld was the right move, but recoiled at the thought of simply replacing him with another all-powerful president.

“He wanted something different than he had in the past,” said Rosas, who was the first candidate to interview with the Wizards but was named president of the Minnesota Timberwolves shortly after his Washington meeting. “A lot of it was just a broader approach, different perspectives.”

Leonsis had general ideas but needed direction. Forde began to connect Leonsis with many of his clients from other leagues so Leonsis could gain insight about the structure of their organizations.

“Some of them were five-minute calls; some of them were meetings. There was a lot of information gathering,” Forde said. “Some were email exchanges of ‘How do you structure this?’ Or: ‘Hey, we’re thinking about creating this role. What did you guys do?’ ”

According to Silver, a talk with Leonsis may require the interviewee to clear his or her schedule.

“When Ted does an interview,” Silver said, “those are not half-hour interviews or hour interviews. In many cases, I know first-hand … some of those interviews were a full day long.”

Forde lined up several of his NFL clients to speak to Leonsis, including Mickey Loomis of the New Orleans Saints, who is also the head of basketball operations for the New Orleans Pelicans and won the NFL’s executive of the year honor in 2006. Forde also connected Leonsis with Jon Daniels, who became the youngest executive to run an MLB team when he was hired by the Texas Rangers at 28.

Leonsis also reached out to someone he considers a friend: President Barack Obama.

Obama has apparently never been shy about giving Leonsis his opinion of the NBA, according to someone with personal insights into their relationship. The two spoke in late April about the importance of building the right culture for the Wizards. Obama championed the “beauty of the game, teamwork, sacrifice” and surrounding franchise stars with complementary pieces. Obama, who has taken on a role with the NBA-backed Basketball Africa League, also encouraged Leonsis to invest in scouting in Africa.

On May 17, though, Leonsis’s conversations suddenly narrowed to focus on just one person: Tim Connelly.

Less than a week after Connelly’s Denver Nuggets were eliminated from the Western Conference semifinals, the team president flew from the NBA combine in Chicago to Washington to meet with Leonsis. Connelly, a Baltimore native with local ties, was the reported front-runner for the Wizards job, but later that weekend, he turned down an offer, according to several people close to the executive. Leonsis declined to comment on whether he offered Connelly the job, but a person who knows the Nuggets executive well said the Wizards came up less than $1 million short of Connelly’s asking price of $5 million annually.

When asked whether the current structure of Monumental Basketball would exist had Connelly taken the president position, Forde said the result probably would have remained the same.

“That was still a goal, to build a deeper, wider organization of talent,” Forde said. “I still think we would have ended up [with Monumental Basketball] with whoever we would have taken.”

After Connelly, potential candidates flew off the board and pivotal dates loomed without a permanent head of basketball operations. The process was running long, and in the view of multiple people around the league, Leonsis was allowing too much time to drift by.

“I really felt like Tim Connelly would have been a great choice. Because this was the first time Ted did a search, I don’t think he understood the timeliness of making the decision,” said a person close to the situation. “They were cornered a bit.”

***

Weeks turned into months without a peep from Leonsis.

“People were writing, ‘Oh, we’re running out of candidates,’ ” he said, “and that was the media’s conclusion.”

But Leonsis was digging into interviews with innovative baseball mind Billy Beane (who encouraged him to embrace a data-first mind-set, which led to the hiring of analytics pioneer Dean Oliver as an assistant coach) and San Francisco 49ers president Paraag Marathe (who influenced his thinking that more smart people in the room is a good thing, which motivated the organization to hire more talent).

There were talks with Nationals owner Mark Lerner, Philadelphia Eagles executive vice president/general manager Howie Roseman and Los Angeles Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, one of the executives of the NBA franchise Leonsis has said he wants to imitate.

Leonsis also reached out to Popovich.

“I talked to Gregg Popovich for 90 minutes. Not about the job. About, ‘Tell me what you’re seeing in the league, tell me about the candidates that I’m talking to, tell me about how you built excellence in your team without breaching any confidence,’ ” Leonsis said. “It was like getting an MBA.”

But at no time, according to Leonsis and Forde, did he try to get an audience with Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri.

Although Ujiri and Forde, who have a previous connection, had communicated when Forde was retained by the Wizards, the conversation was not to set up an interview. Regardless, in May, there was media speculation that Leonsis could make Ujiri the lead executive of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which includes the 2018 Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, with an ownership stake.

“Somebody writes I’m going to make [Ujiri] run all of basketball and all of hockey. So that was uncomfortable, right?” Leonsis said. “One of my partners, fellow owners [Dick Patrick] who’s built one of the great franchises in all of sports, reads that. He’s mature enough, he calls me and says, ‘Hey, I know it’s not true, but that was an article I felt was odd.’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s not true, and it is odd.’ ”

Through this period, which Leonsis described as “noisy,” his conversations somehow never leaked.

In May, Leonsis started speaking to former NFL executive and attorney Sashi Brown just to glean insight.


Sashi Brown, left, and Tommy Sheppard were introduced in their new roles with Monumental Basketball on July 22. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

“He wanted to sit down and talk. That’s really where it came from,” Brown said of his initial meetings with Leonsis. “It’s not like I came and said, ‘Hey, this is my résumé.’ It was just more [Leonsis saying]: ‘Hey, ‘I’ve got a big platform here. You’ve got some interesting, probably relatable experiences here. Why don’t we sit down and talk?’”

The Capitals, who employ a lawyer in assistant GM Don Fishman, provided an inspiration. Leonsis thought, why not hire someone who could provide a legal mind, and more, for his basketball teams? Those talks evolved into a job offer for Brown to become the chief planning and operations officer for Monumental Basketball. Brown will work closely with the ownership group and manage business matters related to technology, finance, communications, security, research and player engagement for all of the Monumental teams, players, general managers and coaches.

In June, Leonsis, a Georgetown graduate who had served on the board of trustees, reached out to university president Jack DeGioia to learn more about what is happening in colleges related to esports. Those conversations shifted to Leonsis asking DeGioia whether John Thompson III would be an ideal candidate for a new athlete development and engagement department, influenced by the Latin phrase that Georgetown has adopted, cura personalis, which means “care of the whole person.”

“He had made it clear to me there were steps he was going to be taking to strengthen the business and basketball side,” DeGioia said. “His reaching out for me was more of the interpersonal care of the athletes.”

In talks and a visit to Chicago to see Bartelstein, Leonsis learned more about the importance of the health and maintenance of the players. Leonsis had long admired the sports science of soccer clubs, and in July he hired Daniel Medina, a doctor whose background includes time with FC Barcelona, as chief of athlete care and performance.

“I’ve talked to a lot of owners over the years about different things,” said Bartelstein, who counts Wizards all-star Bradley Beal among his approximately 40 NBA clients, “but his level of commitment and passion that he’s got for this, it sticks out.”

From multiple conversations with Silver, Leonsis was encouraged to trust his gut and use his breadth of life and business experience to make his own decisions for the organization. One of those gut feelings was to remove the interim tag Sheppard had worn since Grunfeld’s firing in April.

As the team entered the draft and free agency, Leonsis tasked Sheppard with creating plans with one-year and three-year outlooks. Although Sheppard was only the interim president of basketball operations at the time, his recommendations — show financial restraint, avoid bringing back the same team that didn’t prove it was on the cusp of winning big, get younger, and fill the roster with hungrier, harder-working players who could change the team’s identity — impressed Leonsis. Sheppard was already on board with the idea of bringing more voices to the table, and by July, Leonsis had finally settled on his general manager.

“Think about how great it is for me to worry about just putting a basketball team together, instead of having to be responsible for anything in the facility,” Sheppard said. “I’ll be basketball-focused, for sure. That’s what I want. I don’t really want to be in all those other areas because that allows my time to be focused here. I’m not a physical therapist. I’m not a doctor. I don’t manage facilities.”

Leonsis returned from the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas sure about how he would restructure the organization. It was mid-July, and Leonsis had no more calls to make.

Ben Golliver contributed to this report.

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