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The Life

October 28, 2002
Power Pack
ESPN The Magazine

Shaq has it. So does David Stern -- even in his bathrobe. Though their pictures are not in the dictionary under power, they do help define it in the NBA -- the Big Aristotle as an indomitable force in the paint, the Big Cheese as the inscrutable potentate of the conference room.

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But they're not the only spheres of influence in a sport that has become a world power unto itself. You might know some of them -- like Andre Miller, the Clippers' new point guard. You might not know the ones who work behind the scenes, such as agent Bill Duffy. And while you might think you know something about the legendary Sonny Vaccaro, you have no idea of the extent of his reach.

To give you a better handle on where the power lies in the NBA, we've assembled 25 shapers and shakers, be they people, places or things. And -- talk about power -- we've asked a certain Hall of Fame center and opinionator to give us his take on a few of them.


Andre Miller


Darius Miles
D-Miles is his own highlight reel.
He's far from being the most disciplined player in the league, but that's what makes Darius Miles the most exciting dunker in today's game. Darius relies strictly on instinct, and when he gets into the air, the possibilities are literally limitless. Take an oop feed and reverse it? Bang home a rebound over two frozen statues in the lane? When Darius elevates, nobody knows what's going to come down, especially the crowd. I used to call Clippers games, and the mood in the arena would change when Darius stalked the wing on a break. Cavs fans are going to find out soon -- this guy can change the mood of an entire building with one posterizing throwdown. (Bill Walton)


Want the ideal NBA GM? Clone Jerry West. Or find a former All-Star who learned from the game's great minds, crunches numbers like an accountant, understands the field of medicine and knows firsthand how far fundamentals can take raw talent. Nuggets second-year GM Kiki Vandeweghe fits that description. Son of ex-Knick Dr. Ernest Vandeweghe, Kiki befriended John Wooden while playing at UCLA for Larry Brown and started a financial planning firm after 13 NBA seasons with the Nuggets, Blazers, Knicks and Clippers. He has also tutored the league's top talent at Pete Newell's Big Man camp for the last nine years.

The Nuggets, capped out and mediocre a year ago, are all raw talent and free agent room. Their new team quarters include a private theater for game films, a video arcade, on-call massage therapists and a night club-style weight room. Another significant development? Jonathan Neidnagel, a brain expert who specializes in predicting success by reading facial expressions and physical traits, says only one other GM is wired like West: Kiki. (R.B.)


Kobe Bryant
Bryant is only getting better -- and that's scary.
A dedicated athlete stays in shape, even in the off-season. A superior one gets bigger and faster. Then there's Kobe Bryant, who incorporates world-class training methods into a six-hour, six-phase, six-days-a-week routine. That 6-6-6 may symbolize a hellish problem for the rest of the league.

Joe Carbone, Bryant's personal trainer, arrives for a two-hour workout in Kobe's personal gym as early as 7 a.m. Then it's down to the Lakers' training facility for box jumps -- jumping onto boxes of various heights -- medicine-ball throws, 30-yard sprints, acceleration drills and, of course, shooting drills. The weight training sessions alternate from high-rep to maximum-lift; in the latter Kobe now squats 400 and bench-presses 300. His shoulders and arms thickened so much over the summer that his head looks smaller.

"Whoa," said the Clippers' guard Corey Maggette after brushing against him in an exhibition. The bigger whoa: It's an eight-year program. And Kobe is only in Year Two. (R.B.)


Phil Anschutz's vision, short form: pro soccer over here, NBA hoops over there. Owner of six Major League Soccer teams, a national soccer training site and 30% of the Lakers, Anschutz has become a billionaire tapping hidden potential, whether it be oil or gas or fiber-optic cable. Now he's turning to the import/export business, sports division. AEG, builders of L.A.'s Staples Center, is constructing similar arenas in London and Berlin. The first tenants will be his Euro hockey teams. But the big fish: Anschutz wants to be ready when the next round of expansion puts NBA teams on European soil. (R.B.)


NBA player agent Bill Duffy has an array of achievements to dazzle his prospective clients. His five-year-old agency is top five (and growing) among those in NBA sports management. He represented three of this year's top four picks, rewrote second-round salary expectations with center Zeljko Rebraca and maintains unparalleled contacts in Asia and Europe. The former college star can also bust them in a shooting contest. But the most impressive item on Duffy's résumé? He's the father of five kids under age 10. "That," the 42-year-old Duffy says, "never fails to blow them away."

To compensate for logging 500,000 miles and 200 travel days a year, Duffy tries to stay close to home. He has adopted a crack-of-dawn schedule so he can take the kids to school and pick them up. He recently handled the entire brood while his wife, Jamese, made a 19-day trip to Europe -- a reward for all her days of single-parent duties. His custom-built, 7,000-square-foot home east of Oakland has just about everything: office, game room, fitness center -- and six satellite dishes so he can watch games or highlights on the 20 TVs scattered throughout.

Catch Duffy at a game and you might find him with any combination of these: Treaven, 9; Geneva, 7; Christian, 4; Ranada, 2. Jayden, just 7 months old, arrived in the midst of BDA Sports Management's biggest year, when its combined negotiated salaries skyrocketed from $49.6 million to $72.4 million. SFX, the alliance that includes Arn Tellem and David Falk, rules the roost with $291.1 million, but it doesn't have BDA's international connections.

The 6'4" Duffy played for the U. of Minnesota, where he roomed with Kevin McHale, then transferred to Santa Clara U., where he roomed with Kurt Rambis. Boyhood friend and 49ers legend Ronnie Lott helped him land his first client, Browns receiver Webster Slaughter, in 1985. Since then, Duffy has mined his extensive hoops background. Bay Area native Antonio Davis was BDA's first basketball client. Terrell Brandon, whose mother, Charlotte, was impressed by Duffy's family orientation, came along next. The Santa Clara connection helped him hook up with Steve Nash and 1998 No. 1 pick Michael Olowokandi, who was an incomplete project at Pacific when Duffy saw him play against Nash's Broncos. After coming up empty in the first round of the 2001 draft -- when he landed Yugoslavia's Rebraca a three-year, $12 million deal with the Pistons -- Duffy vowed to make up for it. The result: Yao Ming, Jay Williams, Drew Gooden, Fred Jones, Kareem Rush and Tayshaun Prince, all 2002 first-rounders, all BDA clients.

While his agency is poised to grow, Duffy swears that his own clan will hold at seven. Says Jamese, "I watched my mom raise five kids, so this is enough. Besides, we already have a basketball team now." (Ric Bucher)


Jim O'Brien
O'Brien is winning with players Pitino couldn't handle.
Jim O'Brien makes his point through understatement. He knows that the players -- not the coach -- are the show, so he doesn't rant and rave on the sideline, tear down players at practice or rip them to the media. Instead, he turns the spotlight on them and challenges them to shine.

So far, so good. Since taking over for Rick Pitino, O'Brien's Celtics have won 82 of 146 games and reached their first conference final since Larry Bird wore the green. "He's the best at getting across fundamentals of anyone I've ever coached with," says assistant coach Dick Harter, who has sat alongside Pat Riley, Chuck Daly and O'Brien's father-in-law, Jack Ramsay. O'Brien has made believers out of Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, which is no small feat. This season's challenge: Vin Baker. Don't bet against him. (Peter May)


Argentina's 6'6" Manu Ginobili once shot 10-for-10 on three-pointers in the presence of Spurs GM R.C. Buford. But that's not why San Antonio drafted him. What makes Ginobili special is his attacking style, an explosive first step that keeps a defender on his heels. Throw in his freakish strength around the rim ... and his athleticism ... and a work ethic that turned Ginobili's defense from liability to strength, and you'll know why South America is now on the map of every team's scouting department. And why Tim Duncan feels even better about staying a Spur. (Marc Stein)


Fabrico Oberto
Argentina showed the world that fundamentals still wins games.
Sometimes there is power in simplicity. That was definitely the case at the World Championships, where the simplest of baskets made Argentina look like an NHL team on a perpetual power play. That's the beauty of the layup … after layup ... after layup ... all courtesy of Argentina's Flex Cut. It's not something the South Americans invented, but their Flex was lethal to the point that NBA teams are wondering if they should be using it more.

Flex action benefits smart players who can read defenses and unselfish players willing to pass and cut. Of course, it helps greatly to run it against a lazy defense that is gambling, switching late, getting lost in cross screens and generally communicating poorly -- otherwise known as a North American defense. (M.S.)


When's the last time you saw a Yugoslav player dunk over someone or swat a shot into the fifth row? That's not their game. Yugoslavs grow up in a culture that values basketball as a skill game rather than as a power game, and Peja Stojakovic is a perfect example. He's worked to be everything he is, which is simply the best shooter in basketball. I get to the arena early sometimes just to watch him warm up, and his smooth setup and effortless release remind me of Larry Bird's. And like Bird, he doesn't have to wait to get hot. He creates his own zone. Sure, he's not a player who mixes it up and invites contact. But he's a beautifully classic basketball player, a pure shooter. Why would you try to change that? You don't ask Mozart to play a Fender bass. (B.W.)


Jay Williams
There's nothing to fear when Jay has the ball.
Jay Williams. The kid has no fear: First he slides into the slot Kobe vacated at adidas, then he asks for MJ's locker.


Baron Davis. Most explosive first step in the game: No one plays up on Baron. Part point guard, part fullback.


Reggie Miller. Accepts a reduced role, tutors the Pacers kids and still hits when it counts: 23.6 ppg vs. the Nets last spring.


Shaquille O'Neal. He's why Mutombo is in Jersey and Sabonis is back in Portland. Doesn't matter. No one stops The Diesel.


Richard Jefferson. Keith Van Who? The Nets knew they had something special last season. Now, so will we.


Pistons. The "Alternatorz" -- NBA's top-scoring bench, including Jon Barry's team-record three-point shooting (46.9%) -- are why Joe Dumars could trade Stack.


Geoff Petrie. Stared down CWebb, wrapped up Mike Bibby and solidified his rep as the next Jerry West. Also has a degree in foreign relations.


Leah Wilcox is the hookup, NBA style. Her BlackBerry buzzes with questions from ballers like Robert Horry and Jason Collins about everything from broadcasting careers to charitable foundations. "I want to bring out their nonbasketball side," says Wilcox, 43, the league's VP/player-talent relations. "I always ask, 'If you weren't playing ball, what would you be doing?' "

For 17 years, the six-foot Wilcox has been the players' Big Sis, dishing out familial and financial advice while sharing her A-list of All-Stars and movie stars. (At last year's All-Star Game, she arranged for Britney to meet Shane Battier -- and his fiancée.) She even worked with Charlotte Brandon to establish the Mothers of Professional Basketball Players. Says Jamal Mashburn, who started a car dealership with Wilcox's help: "She's great at opening up other angles for us, because she knows everyone." (Anne Marie Cruz)


Kevin Garnett
All those prep ballers looking to go pro? They look to Garnett.
When Kevin Garnett talks, every other player in the NBA listens. Why? Because he was the first of his era to prove you could skip college and become a superstar. Because he set the contract standard all others are measured against, and plays so hard that no one's ever said he wasn't worth all that loot. Because he's landed his share of endorsement deals, yet retained his chest-bumping, primal-screaming, playground aura. And because KG can even do the club scene without making a police blotter. No other player can make the same claims. Why do all the players listen to KG? To find out how it's done -- and how to do it all. (R.B.)


Sonny Vaccaro


I love that Ben Wallace plays in Detroit, a place where you work hard for a living. Unlike those pretty-boy big men who lounge by the arc, he knows his team needs him to fight for the ball in the paint. He's worked out tirelessly to build that magnificent body, and now he's got these shoulders that drive opponents out of the way -- and sometimes straight off the court. I've seen opponents flat-out quit on the offensive glass because they know Ben's got the board. His ability to dig the ball out on the offensive end changes the whole game. For such a lunch-pail guy in such a union town, Wallace is the chairman of the boards. (B.W.)


Pacers co-owner Herb Simon feigns bafflement at the props. Influential? Universally respected? Ideal NBA franchise architect? "I'm just a team player," says Simon, a 67-year-old shopping-mall developer. "I'm not a great interview, but I want to be cooperative." Which is why owners as disparate as the Spurs' Peter Holt and the Mavs' Mark Cuban listen to him. "He's very self-deprecating," says Holt. "Very influential behind the scenes."

Aside from building the league's best arena (Conseco Fieldhouse) and a Finals-worthy team (through GM Donnie Walsh), Simon orchestrated a sweet lease on the league's NYC offices and guided through last year's rule changes before ending his two-year stint as chairman of the NBA Board of Governors. The aforementioned "interview," by the way, took place as Herb rolled to his second home in posh Montecito, Calif., near Santa Barbara, to join his second wife, a former Miss Universe from Thailand. Feign all you want, Herb. (R.B.)


Yes, NBA players still listen to their moms. They also listen to other NBA players' moms -- and the NBA moms listen to one another -- thanks to the work of Charlotte Brandon, the mother of the Timberwolves' Terrell. Eight years ago, she started the Mothers of Professional Basketball Players. Today, the 90-mom-strong organization has its own mission statement and corporation papers. "We're not sitting around the pool talking on our cell phones," says Charlotte, who runs the show out of her Portland, Ore., home. "We're busy."

The mission: to reach out when one of their famous sons is in need. They accompany one another's sons to court, or to the hospital, or have them over for dinner. They do other things that -- surprise -- Brandon says she would prefer not to reveal. "Just because our sons make all this money, people think they don't need the other things that all of us need," she says. "Well, they do. We're a massive support group." (P.M.)


Remember when you used to pawn off your tickets when the Clips came to town? Not anymore. Speed? Their autobahn style makes the Kings look like morning commuters in rush-hour traffic. Athleticism? Watch how the ball never touches the floor on their fast break. Creativity? You have to see these guys go to the hoop. The Clippers have so much young talent that they could afford to lose Darius Miles -- voted most likely to register a breakout season by the league's 29 GMs -- to bring in the missing piece: assists king Andre Miller. But given owner Donald Sterling's peculiar nature, catch this show while you can. There's no telling how long it will last. (Chris Palmer)


Bill Russell brought science to shotblocking: tap the ball off course, grab it in the air, start the fast break. Kenyon Martin's kind of science is the Big Bang theory. When K-Mart blocks a shot, the only person grabbing it in midair is sitting in the mezzanine. If he's not the best shotblocker in the league, he's certainly the loudest. Martin brings such terror, such rage to his rejections, it's as if he looks at a shot in his zone as an affront to his manhood. No doubt, it damages his opponent's psyche -- and you're lucky if that's all he damages. (B.W.)

This article appears in the November 11 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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