Spoon Feed the Beast

Figuring Out the Falcons

My Trip to NBA Scout School

A writer enrolls in a two-day seminar during NBA summer league and learns you have to be absolutely, insanely in love with basketball to survive the rigors of life as a professional scout

I spent five days in Las Vegas by myself earlier this month. If that sounds like your idea of paradise, let me stop you right there, because you’re wrong. Even though I know nothing about you, I’m fairly certain that five days alone in Vegas is enough to make anybody rethink their life. Five days in Vegas with friends or family is still probably four days too many, but being alone in Vegas is like finding out halfway through a party that you were invited by mistake. Everyone is having the time of their lives around you, and even though you were excited when you arrived, you’re just off to the side wondering what you’re doing there. I’ve sat in countless putrid porta potties, I once shaved all my body hair just to see what it felt like, and I’ve watched more than 150 Chicago Cubs games in a single summer. Put all that together and you’re about halfway to understanding just how miserable five days alone in Vegas feels.

What makes it so bad is that after 10 minutes at a casino vacuums up most of your gambling fund, you’re left with nothing but time to kill and the paralyzing sense that you’re wasting way too much money. This is a problem, because anything that could be described as “fun” in Vegas likely costs buttloads of money. And because the average temperature in the desert in mid-July is hot enough to melt your skin, doing something outside is not an option.

So unless you’re a gambling addict or super rich, you likely end up sitting around and people-watching. Or you end up playing the penny slots at the Hooters Casino at noon on a Wednesday with chain-smoking 80-year-olds who look like they’re seconds away from leaning over and offering you all the cash they have if you’ll “please just help put me out of my misery.” Or you end up at a dive karaoke bar a few blocks off the Strip, where you spend the night trying to figure out what annoys you most: the warm beer, the standard-definition TV showing the History Channel, or the group of divorcées who have sung “Trashy Women” by Confederate Railroad four times in the last hour.

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.

International Scouts

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.”

Ronzone, who has experience as an international scout, provided my favorite moment of the entire two days when he recalled how he scouted a 7-foot-9 North Korean player named Michael Ri. Ronzone met face-to-face with Kim Jong-il and negotiated a “wheat deal” to bring Ri to the NBA. Apparently, the Dear Leader told Ronzone he would allow Ri to leave North Korea and play professional basketball if the team paid Kim’s regime in wheat. Ronzone added that he’s missed a lot of flights in his life, but made absolutely certain he didn’t miss the one out of North Korea because “there are only two flights out of the country — Tuesday and Friday.”

One last note about international scouting: Basketball has certainly become a global game, and several international players have been huge NBA successes. But the league is still dominated by Americans. Only two foreign players made All-Star teams this year — Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki — and both of them are closer to the end of their careers than to the beginning. With that in mind, don’t international scouts have to wonder, from time to time, if their work is worth all the hassle and turmoil it creates in their personal lives? I mean, do people really need to be traveling all over the world just to find the next Kyrylo Fesenko? And even if a scout does find an international player with star potential, there’s no guarantee that scout’s team will get to draft him. Hell, there’s not even a guarantee the player will come to the NBA after he gets drafted. He might choose to remain overseas. The work that goes into international scouting seems so much greater than the reward that comes out of it.

Then again, the Spurs’ five titles in the past 15 years might argue otherwise.

College Scouts

This job is probably what most people think of when they think of NBA scouts. Nearly every basketball fan in America does this exact job on an amateur level. (Case in point: Google “wiggins parker embiid,” read the comment section of every article you find, and resist the urge to put your head through a wall.) But the speakers at scout school touched on a few aspects of their work that you might not have considered.

For example, New York Knicks director of pro personnel Mark Hughes admitted that he has fallen victim to herd mentality before and that resisting the urge to do it again is the most difficult part of his job. This was particularly fascinating to hear. Herd mentality is prominent in every sports discussion, especially on the Internet, but I always assumed that scouts lived in their own world, where whatever other people think, say, and write doesn’t affect their opinions. Hughes suggested the opposite, however. He said his daily schedule consists of reading as many articles as he can find on players he’s scouting, just so he can have as much information as possible. He explained that his job requires him to form his own opinions and have unwavering confidence in them, but how is that even possible when he goes out of his way to absorb so many viewpoints?

One highlight of the event was listening to the pros describe how they do their jobs — the mechanics of scouting. What exactly do they look for in players? Where do they sit? Do they take notes as the game unfolds, or do they just sit back, absorb, and write a report later? Most of the speakers at scout school described a similar approach. They like to get to the gym early to see who’s putting in pregame work, they try to sit as close as possible to the court, and then they soak it all in and write a report after the game. Some scouts also said it’s not uncommon to put prospects on “iso cam,” which means they’ll watch one player for an entire night, even if he rarely leaves the bench.

“Everyone puts forth their best effort when they have the ball or when they’re guarding the ball,” Hughes explained, “because that’s when the spotlight is on. But I’m just as interested in what they do when the spotlight isn’t on them.”

College scouting has become much more difficult over the past decade because of one-and-done players. That much I already knew. What I hadn’t realized, though, was that NBA scouts have been banned from attending high school events, including summer camps and AAU games, since 2005. That gives them an eight-to-nine-month window to help make multimillion-dollar decisions that could affect their respective teams for the next 10 to 20 years. No wonder they do things like read every article that ever mentions a certain player and keep their eyes locked on one prospect at all times during a game.

Pro Personnel

Before the TPG seminar I didn’t even know this job existed. Pro personnel scouts are tasked with evaluating every player in the NBA and D-League for trade or free-agency purposes. Three weeks ago, I might have assumed that GMs just figure out who they want to trade for or which free agents they want to sign by watching their own team play throughout the season. And that does happen, but pro personnel scouts are there to add to and challenge their GMs’ views of players.

Vance Catlin, director of pro personnel for the Indiana Pacers, discussed how difficult it can be to establish credibility, since his bosses already have strong opinions on many players in the league. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it. If you call your front office and tell them there’s a Lithuanian bruiser who averaged 15 rebounds per game en route to the U-17 European championship, or that there’s a point guard from Towson University who could be a solid backup in the league, they’ll probably just say, “Um, sure. Whatever you say.” But if you offer up a thought on J.R. Smith or Matt Barnes, chances are good the response would be, “Tell me something I don’t already know.” Or, if your advice differs from the GM’s thinking on a player, would it make him question whether you’re the right man for the job? These interactions are never quite that dramatic, but it’s easy to see why pro personnel scouts might worry about having an unpopular opinion about this or that player.

Advance Scouts

I’ve held just about every kind of job you can have in basketball, and advance scout is without question the hardest of them all. You have to be a little crazy to do this.

So said Fran Fraschilla, who hosted the event, reflecting the unanimous sentiment of the experts at Pro Scout School. That’s because advance scouts — who get their name from scouting upcoming opponents — focus exclusively on X’s and O’s. This basically means that “being a scout” is to advance scouting as “going to school” is to working on a PhD in mathematics. The job requires hours and hours of dissecting actions, understanding tendencies, and basically stripping away everything that makes basketball so much fun. When normal people see an insane alley-oop, they drop their jaws, cover their mouths, and tweet in all-caps. When personnel scouts see the same play, they say, “We could use that athleticism on our team. I like that guy’s energy.” And when advance scouts see it, they write onto a notepad with a straight face: “A weakside flare screen occupied the help-side defense. As this happened, Player A came off middle flat screen and dribbled toward Player B, who back cut, caught a bounce pass from Player A, and scored a 2-point basket.”

I’m still not entirely sure why advance scouts exist. I mean, I get the concept of being prepared for an opponent, and I recognize that it’s a necessary process. But don’t most teams know each other pretty well already? Do the Thunder really need to send a guy all over the country to figure out what the Spurs and Grizzlies like to run? And if they don’t know, why isn’t it the coaching staff’s responsibility to figure it out? Why are they letting some guy off the street handle this?

Oh, yes, that’s apparently a thing, by the way. According to Pat Zipfel, advance scout for the Minnesota Timberwolves, a handful of NBA teams hire guys to scout for them on a per-game basis. The idea is that instead of sending one employee to more than 150 NBA games per season (which is what Zipfel said he attended this past year), they hire a bunch of guys and assign them to different parts of the country. But it’s my understanding that they really don’t hire these guys so much as pay them for one night of service, as if they’re substitute teachers or something. Speaking of which, Zipfel actually said with a straight face something along the lines of, “So if you want to get into scouting but don’t want a full-time commitment, you can be a teacher or something during the day and then make a few bucks on the side by being an advance regional scout a couple of nights a week.”

Wait, what?

You mean to tell me that Gregg Popovich is hiring junior high PE teachers to figure out which plays the Heat run? This is a real thing that happens in the NBA? Are you shitting me?

The culmination of scout school was a trip to the Thomas & Mack Center on UNLV’s campus to watch a night of NBA summer league games and apply what we’d learned about scouting. That’s when I saw that the work advance scouts do isn’t quite so terribly hard, once you know what you’re looking for. During his talk, Zipfel went over a few basic actions that every NBA team runs so we could try to spot them during the games. None of the actions was new to me, but that wasn’t the point. As Zipfel explained, once you train yourself to watch everything on the court instead of fixating on the ball, you can see the plays coming well before they even happen.

On one hand, this was pretty cool to experience. I’ve trained myself to not always follow the ball when watching basketball, but I’ve never been able to maintain that approach for more than a few possessions at a time. Watching entire games like a scout made for a completely different viewing experience.

On the other hand: As cool as it was to experience watching games this way, I got the feeling it might be the worst part of being a scout. Sometimes I like watching the ball — after all, the player with the ball is the only one who can score. Sometimes I like watching the cheerleaders. Sometimes I like watching the bench react to plays. Sometimes I like watching that miniature blimp fly around and drop T-shirts into the crowd. And sometimes I like watching myself push over a 6-year-old so I can catch one of those shirts. There are so many great things going on at basketball games that limiting yourself to watching solely how plays unfold or putting an iso cam on a single player is like saying you want a Bloody Mary but then only making a glass of vodka with a stick of celery in it.

To recap: Being an NBA scout means being on the road 250 days a year. It means that having a family, or really any sort of life outside of work, is all but impossible. It means watching more shitty basketball than you could ever imagine, all while hoping one of the turds you see will turn into a diamond. Or if you’re an advance scout, it means watching every second of Milwaukee Bucks basketball for a few weeks so you can know at exactly what angle Zaza Pachulia sets his ball screens, then writing a 10-page report about it during your prep period (since you’re apparently a schoolteacher), and then trying not to cry when Michael Beasley laughs and says “No thanks” as you hand it to him. It means doing demanding, underappreciated work that will probably cut years off your life, all so you can wear a shirt with an NBA logo on it when you go to high school reunions.

But, you’re probably thinking, at least these guys get paid really well. I mean, there were more people enrolled in Pro Scout School than there are existing scouting jobs in the NBA today. We’re talking about a job that’s supercompetitive, consists of a ton of work, and is part of a league that will make around $5 billion in revenue this year. They must be rolling in dough.

There’s a reason I’ve purposely avoided talking about salaries all this time: I wanted to save the worst for last. You ready for this? According to the experts at scout school, the average salary for an NBA scout is somewhere around $65,000 a year. I know, I know. That’s more than double the median individual income in America, which is another way of saying that most people would love to make that kind of money. But holy smokes — the work that goes into making that money suggests that that number should have at least one more zero on the end. I mean, after two days of listening to everything NBA scouts are responsible for and all the headaches they put up with, I legitimately wouldn’t accept any scouting job unless I was making around $300,000 a year.

The top-level scouts do bring home close to half a million a year, so it’s not all bad, right? As Catlin said while explaining how he got his start in the business, that $65,000 average salary is skewed significantly since “you have to be willing to work for free for a few years if you want to be a scout.” Yes, that was an actual quote that was said with a straight face.

So why do these guys do this? Are they just wannabe coaches who are on the way up or down the coaching roller coaster, so they’re desperate for any job they can get in basketball? Or do they genuinely derive pleasure or satisfaction from this? This can’t be the end goal of their careers, right? What could keep them in a job that pays too little and asks them to work way too hard?

In a word: passion. In five words: passion, passion, passion, passion, and passion. Every person that touched a microphone at Pro Scout School mentioned passion for basketball so much that I couldn’t help wondering if they were trying to convince themselves that the way they make a living isn’t making them miserable. But if what they said was true — if they’re really driven by genuine, nearly all-consuming passion to go through all the hardships that come with the different forms of NBA scouting — then I just hope to someday love something half as much as these guys love basketball.

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Summer League, TPG Sports Group, Basketball Scouting, NBA Front Offices, Fran Faschilla

mark-titus-dont-put-me-in-coach

Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is on sale now.

Archive @ clubtrillion

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