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Grantland: My trip to NBA Scout school
Long read, but here is part of it. Interesting....
My Trip to NBA Scout School
As grim as these scenes were, I spent a couple of my days in Vegas with a group of degenerates who had sunk lower than any other sad sacks I encountered in Sin City. They may have been the most insane people in Vegas. You see, I enrolled in something called “Pro Scout School,” a two-day seminar organized by the company TPG Sports Group, whose mission is “Educating the Sports Industry Leaders of Tomorrow.” Scout school might be the only place in the world where any fan off the street can fork over $300 for a standard admission ticket to be taught what it takes to be a professional basketball scout. Thanks to the popularization of advanced statistics and the expanded coverage of and access to NBA-level coaching strategy through digital media, the public discourse around basketball might be more sophisticated now than it’s ever been. To some degree, all self-styled “smart” fans have a little bit of scout in them, but I decided to enroll in scout school to see what makes the professional talent evaluators the best around.
This was the TPG program’s first year, and even though I’ve been around my share of high-level basketball, I knew next to nothing about life as a scout, and there was no telling exactly what I’d gotten myself into. I guess I just expected a handful of guys with much more interesting lives than mine to explain how cool it is to travel the world, watch basketball, and have NBA teams pay them for their opinions. I half-expected to leave the school convinced I should quit my job and use all of my basketball connections to land a scouting gig.
Of all the things I learned at Pro Scout School, one thing stood out: Being an NBA scout is probably the single worst job in the world. That most of my scout school classmates voluntarily paid a decent chunk of change to fly to Vegas, hear how much their dream job sucks, and then leave even more convinced that they want to become scouts tells me they’re a kind of insane I can’t even begin to comprehend.
Here’s the thing: Pro basketball scouts don’t get to travel the world and watch basketball — they have to travel the world and watch basketball. This is a distinction I hadn’t previously considered. My idea of basketball scouting was going to the coolest places on earth to watch the future stars of the NBA. In truth, being an international scout in the NBA means taking the red-eye from Bulgaria to Estonia so you can watch a 6-foot-9 14-year-old Estonian with back hair and try to figure out if he’d average 0.5 or 2.5 points per game in the league in seven years. Then you write your report on him as you fly to Turkmenistan, rinse, and repeat pretty much every day of the year. If you’re lucky, one of the hundreds of guys you scouted will actually wear your team’s jersey at some point, and if you’re really lucky, he’ll score 10-plus points in a game or two.
There are a few different types of scouts in the NBA, and they all have distinctly different roles with their teams (we’ll go over them in a second), but travel is the scourge that unites them. And so, traveling was the common theme of Pro Scout School. The beginning of each day was used to show a montage of airplanes, subways, traffic, and stats about how much scouts travel (at least 100,000 miles a year). Seemingly every speaker who addressed the crowd of 250 or so, from Mavs player personnel director Tony Ronzone to Suns GM Ryan McDonough, started his speech with some variation on “You have to love traveling as much as you love basketball, or this job will swallow you whole.” They explained how hard it is to stay in shape on the road. They discussed how it’s nearly impossible to have a family and joked that the hotel employees in cities they frequently visit are their families now. They divulged how infrequently they sleep in their own beds. They said they have to plan trips months in advance so they can see as many games as possible while adhering to a strict budget. If we took nothing else from Pro Scout School, it was clear that the scouts at least wanted us to know how much time they spend away from home.
I also learned that being an NBA scout doesn’t mean you just throw on a golf shirt with your team’s logo and go wherever you want to watch whichever player catches your fancy. No, each scout, depending on his position within the organization, has a defined set of responsibilities. Here’s the rundown.
Every scout at scout school would likely disagree with this, but based on what I saw, international scouts occupy the most dreaded position in the business. They have to travel greater distances than all the other scouts, navigate foreign bureaucracies, and deal with a new language barrier every time they step off a plane in a different country. Pete Philo, international scout for the Indiana Pacers and one of the founders of TPG, mentioned cryptically at one point how he had “learned the hard way” how his job could ruin personal relationships back home. This became even more depressing when another speaker mentioned the havoc that traveling wreaks on relationships and then added, “As [Philo] knows all too well.” By then, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that some serious shit had gone down in Philo’s life and the dude desperately needed a hug.
It’s not just the miles that make this job brutal. It’s also the culture shock. Philo mentioned that he has hundreds of contacts all over Europe to help him get around and who can serve as language interpreters, before adding that he doesn’t really need help getting around most of Western Europe but that he refuses to go to Eastern Europe without someone with him “for safety reasons.”
Last edited by jeffb; 08-01-2014 at 11:12 AM.