Emergency Preparedness

Voices in the Field: Tommy Sheppard

Dr. James ReeseFaculty Member, Practicum Coordinator & Community Relations,  Sports Management & Esports and
Tommy Sheppard, former NBA executive

With a career spanning more than three decades, former NBA executive, Tommy Sheppard, shares his wisdom with APU’s Dr. James Reese. Learn insights on NBA scouting, athlete recruitment and the downside of legalized betting. Also, hear his advice for students eager to break into the world of professional sports—and what he has to say about the biggest challenges facing athletes today.

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Read the Transcript:

Jim Reese: Hello, and welcome to the latest edition of our Voices in the Field podcast series, brought to you by the APU Sports Management Program. My name is Jim Reese, and our special guest, one of the biggest supporters of our program, Mr. Thomas Sheppard. Tommy, thanks for being here today.

Tom Sheppard: Well, it’s an honor. Thank you very much for having me.

Jim Reese: Most of these questions, this entire podcast, actually, is mainly to gather information to help our students with their careers and those kinds of things. So, would you be kind enough to share a little bit about your history as far as background and how you broke into sports and so forth?

Tom Sheppard: Sure. I look at my path as being about as non-traditional as you could possibly get. I’m very, very fortunate. But, I graduated school in 1991. I went to New Mexico State University. I was studying epidemiology, community science, thinking I wanted to get to medical school one day, but my last year of college, I actually got a job working in the athletic department in sports information. That was a fun job. I didn’t realize there was such a field, didn’t know it existed, honestly. I was very fortunate. I graduated and got a job as a graduate assistant at Northeast Louisiana University, thinking I was going to get my master’s degree in communications and make a go at that. And as fate would have it, I was there for about seven weeks, and I got a phone call from UNLV. What they had was a need, an emergency hire. Somebody had just left the athletic department in sports information and they needed somebody to be the assistant SID.

Keep in mind, this is a 1991; UNLV basketball was about as big as it got. That was a tremendously amazing time for college athletics. UNLV was also the most litigated university in history. So, I left Northeast Louisiana on a Thursday. I got to Vegas on Saturday; started my job Monday morning. For me, that was a really critical time of my life, because I was kind of launched into crisis management. I worked in the athletic department there for three years. The most litigated university in history, at that time, against the NCAA for things now that are completely legal, but that’s beside the point. When I was at UNLV – for the three years I was there – we were in under constant scrutiny. So, I was constantly in crisis management mode at the age of 22.

I met my wife there. She swam at UNLV. So UNLV was great to us. But in 1994, I got a call from a headhunter, I had an opportunity to interview for a job, not knowing what the job was, just they wanted to get a feel for me. And then one day I got a call back and they said, “Hey, we want you to fly from Las Vegas to Denver. You’re going to interview with Tim Leiweke and Bernie Bickerstaff with the Denver Nuggets. They need a media relations director.” So I did that, and the turnaround was pretty quick. I was offered the job, not knowing anything about headhunters or what the odds were that I would ever get that job. But I was there for nine years. I started out in media relations.

I think the biggest path for me forward, Jim, was I kind of looked around and I loved the job. I really did. I was grateful for that job, but I said, “You know what? My bigger goal is I’d love to run an NBA franchise.” Growing up as a kid, I always wanted to play in the NBA, and that dream kind of left me in high school when I didn’t get over 5’11”. But I really enjoyed basketball. I really thought the NBA was the greatest basketball league in the world, the greatest players in the world, and I still believe that to this day. So, I got an opportunity to work for the Nuggets, and like I said, I started out in media relations, but I kind of gravitated more and more towards scouting. I went to Bernie and I asked him, “Hey boss, what jobs do you need to get done that nobody wants to do and that nobody can do?” And at that time, staffs were so small.

So, I got an opportunity to get a lot more responsibility than just media relations, if it was scouting, inputting reports, bringing back intel. I’m going to say it 10 times in this call, I’m sure, but information is the biggest commodity in any business really, but truly in basketball. So, a big pivot point for me was in 1996, I was working the Atlanta Olympics for the United States Olympic Committee. We made a trade during that summer, the Denver Nuggets traded Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to Sacramento for Sarunas Marciulionis, who is now in the Hall of Fame. Two great players; hurt my heart to see Mahmoud go, but we brought in Sarunas. That was kind of my first big expose to international basketball. And to this day, that’s kind of been one of my special places that I thrive in.

But, I was turning in scouting reports from the Olympics and working with Lithuania’s basketball team at that time. They finished up with the bronze medal. I was working with the USA Basketball at those Olympics. I ended up working two more Olympic Games and five, six international events with USA Basketball, so the FIBA game became really big. So, I was in Denver for nine years, and that was a pretty amazing time for me. But, in 2003, I got a call from Ernie Grunfeld, who just taken the job with the Washington Wizards, and he basically offered me the job as assistant general manager. And that was a ride of a lifetime. I couldn’t be more grateful. I was there for 20 years: 16 years as the assistant GM, and the last four, I was the president and general manager of the franchise.

I can’t say enough how grateful I am along the way, how many people helped me. The way I got to this place in my life was really thriving, working with people. Problem-solving, crisis management, scouting around the world, connecting people together, and, really, just so blessed to have wonderful mentors all along the way.

Jim Reese: I think all of us have had those, those handful, and it’s usually not more than one hand the number of people, but that helped guide us along the way. You never know when they’re going to jump in or how influential they’re going to be, but Rick Nichols was one of those for me at the Broncos. We were there at the same time. I had no idea that we were there at the same time. I got there ’96, so that was ’96 to ’99, and obviously we won back to back Super Bowls. I was over in your building all the time, because we used to trade tickets with the guys from Che and all those guys from the Nuggets and Avalanche.

So there’s a couple things that you said about your career path that really jumped out at me that we try to tell students all the time. They’re probably tired of hearing me say this in classes, but sometimes they think I’m just saying it for the sake of saying it. When someone like you says it, they say, “Oh, you know what? Maybe I should think about doing that.” One of them is that you never know when opportunities would come along. Mine was that I was a doc student at Northern Colorado, and I had worked at Georgia Southern and Northern Colorado and basically did the same thing. I love what you said about, “What do you need done? I’ll do anything.” The people that come up to you and say, “I’m finished with my task, what else do you have for me?” not the ones that prolong a task until they can get out at five o’clock, those people don’t make it. The people like you and the people that come in and ask for more responsibility are the ones that become successful in sports, because it’s so hard to get – and stay – in the industry.

For me, though, I sent something to the Broncos for game day, and they called and saw I was a GA teaching tennis and a bunch of other things. And I’m the master of overcommitting to things, right? So, I initially said no, but my advisor said, “Just give it a shot. It’s only one day a week.” So, one day a week, Tuesday led to Tuesday/Thursday. Then, it was Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then Jim Westerbrook left. It opened up a full-time job, and within three months I was full-time with the Broncos. So, you have to be prepared to take advantage of those opportunities when they come along, and you do that by building your resume.

Tom Sheppard: Absolutely. I think that’s it, almost in a nutshell. I think people will give you an opportunity. You might not know it’s an opportunity. You may think, “Hey, this is really a menial task,” or, “This is beneath me,” or whatever. When you think that way, you’re really lost. Really, what they’re trying to do is see, “hey, what is their work ethic, attention to detail, reliability, accountability?” And if you check those boxes, hey, you can grow. If you have big bandwidth and you care a great deal about people, in sports, that’s the problem. I think people approach sports as, “Hey, what can it do for me?” I think if you’ll just pour your heart into it and what you could do for other people, all that shine comes back on you. People start to recognize, “Hey, you’re someone that’s capable of doing a variety of things.”

I do think these are not tried and true, but these are my pieces of advice, is that there is an S on the end of dues. You can’t just get in the first year and, “Okay, I want to be the president.” Okay, how are you going to get there? People always tell me, “I want to do what you do.” I say, “If you want to do what I do, you got to do what I did.” I mean, that was a long time and a lot of hidden hours, unfortunately, away from my family, a lot of time that you are just spending more and more time working for the franchise than you are at home. Frankly, that’s probably, if I could do anything in reverse, I’d get more balance in my life back then. But it led to where I got to a goal that I wanted since I was a kid. As I mentioned, I wanted to play in the league. Well, now I was running a franchise, and that was fantastic. I think that it’s really important that you know what it is that you want and work towards that.

But opportunity, you mentioned volunteering, doing these things along the way, those will get you a quicker leg up because people are observing you. I worked three Olympic Games for the USOC. I’d done nine tours of duty with USA Basketball. They’re not paying you for those things. I should have paid them. It was a fantastic opportunity. When I was at the Olympics, in ’96 especially, I was the media relations director of the Denver Nuggets. Well, at the Olympics, that’s where every newspaper in the country, every major outlet sent their very best reporters and columnists. Every day I was sitting nose to nose with these people, elbow to elbow, helping them out.

I ran special ticketing with Bill Hancock who just retired. Bill ran the college football championship for years and the Final Four before that, one of the most decorated people in college athletics. He’s like my partner in arms. We put this whole system together of special ticketing. Every day we met the top columnists, journalists in the United States. They would come to our door for the gold medal events, all the top events that you couldn’t get into otherwise. So it’s great exposure for me, a great opportunity to make relationships. You go back to what I said earlier, that this business is funny, but man, it’s so connection-oriented. It’s not that someone’s just going to hand you a job, but the more people you know, the more things that you hear, the more you can play it up and say, “Hey, check this out.”

But I would say, you mentioned something earlier, it is a hard field to get into. It’s always been hard, but there’s more opportunities now than ever. When I was with the Denver Nuggets, we’d have a staff meeting, everybody fit in a room that fit about 40 people. When I left the Wizards, I had over 120 people under my responsibility that I was accountable to. And that’s just a staggering amount of people that have been added to this business. Every area of basketball operations has a subset of people, from medical to analytics, to coaching, to development, to career development. There are so many opportunities that exist now that didn’t exist before. So, sometimes I encourage people: “Man, what’s the optimal job you think you could have with a team or with a college, whatever it is, what would that look like?” Take that idea forward. How can I present this to somebody and say, “Hey, this is really good for you”?

Because I think people that are hiring positions, they get tired a little bit of people coming in and wanting something from them. So, if you kind of flip the script a little bit and you approach somebody, “Hey, you know what? I have this great idea. This is for you. I think this could really benefit your organization.” They’re going to take notice, because they don’t get that every day. The only other thing you don’t get like that would be a handwritten note. Nobody does those anymore, but you want to impress somebody, do something that nobody else does. So, I think that’s a really valid piece of advice I would pass along.

Jim Reese: It’s funny that you say that because one of my colleagues, Bill Sutton, did that with David Stern, sent him a letter, a couple things he recommended how the league could improve and he ended up working for David Stern, so you’re right on the money.

I’ve been very, very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time numerous times. Our industry is so small. It’s big, but it’s small, compared to others. The whole seven degrees of Kevin Bacon, we’re about three degrees. If you don’t know someone, you’re pretty close to getting to just about anyone.

The good side of that is, if you’re doing a great job, people will know you. And the opposite too, if you’re not doing a great job. Rick Nichols used to send us down so we would unload the tractor trailer full of Weldon, Williams and Lick tickets for 22,000 season ticket holders, and he would see who complained and who embraced the responsibility. And that was exactly what you said is what Rick did.

Tom Sheppard: I think especially with professional sports, these are really, the teams belong to the community. You’re the caretaker of it. You really are. They’re all shareholders. People go to games, and hey, not everybody’s going to win the championship. You were blessed to see two Bronco championships that generations of people would’ve died for, and did die, before they won a championship. But that was something that they shared with their family. It was appointment television every Sunday. I go back to the Orange Crush days where that was just the biggest thing in town. You got to understand that people may, at the end of the day, they look back on all the games they went to with their family, they don’t even remember the score. They just remember at the time that they had and how people treated them.

Especially in professional sports, you think of a family of four going to the game. You have to have something for everybody. But you got to have clean restrooms, you got to have great parking experience. Hopefully, the food at the snack bar is good, and hopefully, the game’s good. But, really, so much of people’s memories are locked into their sports teams, and you cannot take that for granted. It’s a huge responsibility and you really owe it to your fans to give your very best in everything. And that was brilliant by your mentor there to see how people react to the crap jobs. It’s the same now, when you’re laying out T-shirts for games and all the different things that you’re doing for your fans, is who recognizes, “Hey, this really needs to look sharp. We don’t need to just dump stuff off and throw it up there.”

Because what you say is really, certainly, I think that’s some of the most valid advice you could give people, is that people are looking to see how you treat the most menial task when they’re making a decision. Because, I’ll tell you what, there’s a lot of menial tasks. There’s a lot of team-building that goes into this business every day, and you want team players. One person can ruin 12 other people’s attitude. You start doing that exponentially and you realize that three or four people can bring down 100, 200 people’s attitude. But conversely, if you had the right person, they could sway the room in a great positive way too.

Jim Reese: It’s no different than putting a team together as far as chemistry. Chemistry is important in not just on the basketball court, but in the workplace as well.

Tom Sheppard: I think one mentor I was really blessed with, Jim, was Martin Dempsey. Dempsey was, he was the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a four-star general in the army. We talked a great deal at length for years about putting teams together, and we started to realize: in sports, the best qualities that we have in sports are the best qualities that he’s looking for with his soldiers. If it’s teamwork, hard work, if it’s going the extra mile, if it’s making sure that you take care of others over yourself, taking care of your body physically, spiritually, mentally, all the things that we look for in athletes, they’re looking for in the military. That’s why I think it’s such a fantastic crossover when people want to join sports teams from the military. I think it’s a seamless integration in so many ways. You’re looking around and saying, “Hey, this makes sense.” Certainly, it’s not life or death, never, I wouldn’t compare those two. But the qualities that it takes to be great at your field in the military really do translate straight to sports.

Jim Reese: That’s where we’re really fortunate as a university, because, I mean, you know these stats because we share them in the IAC meetings, but 80% of our undergrad students in sport management are military and 60% of the grad students. So, we can see that respect and the discipline and turning things in on time. So, we’re really fortunate to work with that group of military folks. It really is very different than the norm.

Okay, now I’ve got a question from one of our students, and this is someone that wants to work in player personnel. You mentioned a little bit about how you did some scouting, and that’s how you learned to evaluate talent. What would be your recommendation for … I know breaking down film is a big area that people can get into to help. Are there any other ways you think people can break into that area?

Tom Sheppard: I really think it requires so much of just watching games and seeing a player’s potential for that game, certainly. If they get minutes, what did they do with their minutes? But it all starts really with a baseline of, okay, what are their physical gifts? What would translate to the next level? Because I’m assuming you’re talking about maybe guys scouting high school for college, scouting college for the pros. I always tell people, first thing you got to evaluate is where they are physically and try to project that forward, and that’s just going to take time. Really, it’s a gift that you have to give yourself, but be patient and really look the long term. There’s so many players that are fantastic today that if you saw them 5, 10 years ago, you would shake your head.

The best players on the planet, Nikola Jokić, if you saw him when he was 17, you’d say, “This guy looks like a bouncer in a bar. He’s a kid that really didn’t move very well.” If you saw Giannis Antetokounmpo when he was 17, he weighed about 160 pounds. Now I saw Victor Wembanyama when he was 15 years old, and I’m telling you, he turned sideways, he disappeared. He probably weighed 140 pounds. So, you have to be patient and know these guys grow up. And I think a lot of times, I would really caution people, if you’re getting into personnel, we kind of understand what a player is not capable of, but tell me what he is capable of. What is the superpower? What is going to put him in the NBA? Where is that? Sometimes it’s just that the ability to outwork the opponent, to not stop, to not quit, to be a great teammate, those things, because a lot of times shots don’t fall, especially when you see someone only one time.

So first thing I said when you asked me that question, is you’re going to have to pour a lot of yourself into watching this player over time. You’re going to have to see how he plays on the road. I don’t really like to watch the Kansas Jayhawks when they play at home, because they win 99% of the time, but how do they play on the road? What happens to a player when he goes to a hostile environment? What happens to a player when his time gets split? What happens to a player when the coach takes him out of the game? Is he salty? How do they act towards their teammates?

Personnel, again, this is a series of me repeating myself, but information’s the biggest commodity. We can all kind of tell who’s a good player. So it’s everything else that goes into it. Are they good off the floor? What are their habits? What’s their ethic? What’s their relationship with other people that aren’t in basketball? How do they treat their teachers? How do they treat the trainer, the equipment person, the person that cleans the locker room? One question I always like to ask guys, especially someone that’s been in school for a couple of years, I say, “Well, tell me the name of the person that cleans your locker room.” Because they see that person every day. If they don’t know that person’s name, I’m sorry, I got a little bit of a problem with you, because you’re not curious enough, you don’t care enough about everybody that’s there to make you look good. They’re just little qualifying things for your character. They’re little snapshots.

We’d bring people to Washington when I was working with the Wizards. We had, I called them “POCs,” point of contacts, but I expect those people that we bring in to work out and interview for us to be on their best behavior when I’m in the room, when my staff was in the room, and the coach is in the room. So, I’d always have the driver, the hotel people, at restaurant, I would go back and interview all those people who interacted with this player, with this draft prospect, and ask them, “How did they act?”

Sometimes, I would take someone to dinner, and I would call ahead to the restaurant. I said, “I don’t care what this person orders, screw the order up,” because I want to see how they’re going to respond when they don’t get what they want, how they’re going to treat somebody in the service industry. Just little snapshots.

But I think little things become big things later in life. Sometimes this wasn’t just to set them up, I wanted to see what we’re dealing with and how can we help coach them through this. We do a lot of cognitive testing, and that helps us reveal your character and how you best receive coaching. Some people love the arm around their back. Some people love kicking the butt. Other people want to be left alone. Some people just need visualization. Some people need you to draw it up. All those things kind of come together when you’re evaluating talent. There’s so many things that go into it, just not turning on the TV and saying, “Oh, that guy’s good. That guy sucks.” That’s not scouting, that’s opinion.

Jim Reese: You may have seen this. Dak Prescott was sitting on the bench and he threw a cup. He crinkled a cup up and he threw it at the trash can and he missed. He got up and picked it up and put it in the trash can. When I saw that, I was like, there’s the guy you want in the locker room, right there, because that told me everything.

Tom Sheppard: I think it’s definitely, I think as a leader, you know you’re going to have a tough moment, but then as a leader you got to know all eyes are on you and people look. He probably didn’t want to go pick it up, right? You’re still mad in the moment, but you know, “I better pick that up because the next person’s going to see that I did that.” That’s a big responsibility that you have in every day. Eyes are on you all the time, and they’re going to model your example.

Jim Reese: We say to students that you’re always on stage, someone is always watching, even if you do not realize, you’re being evaluated, and so we try to share that with them.

Tom Sheppard: I think in pro sports, people often understand, too, that the eyes of the media have changed. Anyone with a cell phone is media now. Anyone can break a story, they can just post it and it goes viral. So, that’s kind of to the point I was making earlier, how you act in public. Are you aware? You trade your privacy the moment you get into professional sports. It’s definitely worth the exchange, monetarily, for these athletes and for people that are in sports. But down the road, I think it wears you out. You have no privacy. But I will tell you this: One bad day goes around the world, and you really need to understand that.

Jim Reese: That’s really powerful. I learned some things today. I appreciate you sharing those little tricks that you used to use, because students need to understand that, especially with Facebook and putting pictures online, they need to be careful what they’re doing. Things that are cool with their friends aren’t necessarily good with the director of HR who’s trying to figure out your character and those kinds of things. What the follow-up is, how do you measure that heart? How do you measure those intangibles? It sounds like you did a number of things asking about them and giving them tests to try to figure that out.

Tom Sheppard: Well, certainly. Like I said, a lot of that stuff’s character-based, but now you’ve got to remember this sport’s about getting talent. So, when we set up workouts and you’re between the lines and we start competitive situations, I want to see how you compete. I think that’s one of the number one things that we evaluate a player for: how bad do they want to be good? How much are you willing to put into this craft? Because you might be used to being the best player in your town, in your city, on your college team, in your conference. You get to the NBA, it’s a very, very humbling experience. Very difficult league to come in and be successful early. So, how is your confidence level? What happens to you when you don’t get what you want instantly?

We bring in draft prospects or free agents: We put them in a lot of stressful situations. We would have them run, we call them “grit tests.” I don’t know that you can totally measure grit, but what we would look for is people that said, “Okay, I know everything I want is on the other side of hard. I know that, and I’m not going to stop no matter what the circumstance.” Sometimes I’d like to try to get to see how much they’re paying attention, but we’d get to a running drill and I’d stop. I’d bring the garbage can over to the baseline. Player sees the garbage can on the baseline and you’re about to run, alarm bells go off. You say, “Okay, we’re going to put two minutes on the clock. You’re going to go baseline to baseline. And we’re going to count.” We keep track of who has the most, and we’d always put a number up. We keep track of this stuff, say, “Here’s the number.”

So, you start running and we say, “Okay, there’s two minutes on the clock.” And that would go off. Some guys just stopped running immediately. A lot of people stopped before the buzzer. I always look for those players that kept running because they thought they had to reach that number. It’s an innate, competitive gene that some people have, that they say, “Hey, no matter what, I’m not stopping. No matter what, I want to get to that number. No matter what, I want to leave here leaving a great impression.” And the garbage cans were used, I’m not lying. Those weren’t props. But at the same time, I’d think, “How are you going to be in front of a potential employer?”

Would drive me crazy, and I’m going to say this: Physical appearance does matter in athletics. When you walk in the door, we’re going to look and see. You’re coming for a job and you haven’t worked out, or you can’t get through a simple 35-minute workout, I’m sorry, that’s a bad impression. It doesn’t discount if you’re an amazingly talented person and you still check a lot of the boxes, we’ll probably go a little further. But a lot of people, we just left right there. We’d say, “They’re not a Wizard. They’re not what we want to bring into this organization.” The last thing you want to do is bring somebody in that’s going to take energy away from everybody else. We have to all focus on this one person to get them where they need to be. You’re there to develop a hundred percent. You have to develop the people that are self-starters, highly motivated, highly competitive. Wasting your time with people that just really don’t care, you’re just taking energy away from everybody else.

Jim Reese: Absolutely. I wouldn’t want to be one of the players that threw up in that trash can. I don’t want to be that person.

Tom Sheppard: Yeah. A couple of guys, sometimes when I was … Especially, we did some of this stuff in Denver, and the altitude would play into it. I won’t drop names, but there’s a guy who played the league for a long time. We brought him into Denver, and we always feed these guys breakfast, and this guy chose to have a stack of blueberry pancakes. And then he wanted to show us that he had blueberry pancakes later. So, every time I’d see him, I’d always sing Blueberry Hill to him. We’d joke about it because he’d say, “Oh yeah, I remember I yacked in your workout.” It’s a way of connecting with guys later, too. But I think when you come in for a job, you’re not there to get an NBA job as a player, but everything that you are presenting yourself, the way you’re presenting yourself, is being taken notice of.

We’re all in the talent acquisition business. So, if it’s in corporate sales, if it’s in ticket sales, wherever it’s at, you’re interviewing for a job: From head to toe, you’ve got to really put some thought into, “How might I want to present myself, and what is it that’s important to me?” You would be surprised what people really zero in on. And I assume when you go for your first job in professional sports, you’re going to worry about your résumé, “I don’t have all this experience.” Well, no, you actually have a ton of experience that’s very applicable. If you worked at Dairy Queen and you were their very best salesperson, or you sold the most Blizzards, whatever it is; to brag about yourself, to show anything that’s a differentiator, I think it’s very important.

So many of your students, Jim, especially with the military background, there’s so many things that are transferable. I don’t want anybody to be discouraged like, “I’ll never be able to break into this industry.” There’s people who understand. We found players that have been in favelas. Nenê, who played in Denver, came from one of the worst areas of his town in Brazil and made it to the NBA and stayed over 10 years. You can find talent anywhere.

Jim Reese: Thanks for staying with us. We’re back with today’s guest, Mr. Tommy Sheppard. Let’s get back to the conversation.

I love hearing this stuff because these are the things that we try, and to hear you say them is just, it’s fantastic, because I know that we’re doing the right thing.

Tom Sheppard: No, you’re on the right. It’s a great path. It is. It’s hard. You don’t get the instant feedback and people get their chin down, but, you know how many jobs you have to interview for before you get one? And how many interviews you have to go through before you can be promoted and all these things? You’re not counting the time if you love what you do, but you have to really evaluate: Why do I do this? What was my purpose for doing this job? And if it’s not, “Because I love it and I can’t wait to get there every day,” you’ve got to question yourself, because the love of money runs out. The love of fame runs out. The love of all … For me, it was always people. I was motivated to work with great people and be a team, have an opportunity to help impact lives. That was my “why,” and it continues to be to this day.

Jim Reese: It’s funny, because, when people that I meet ask me what I do, a lot of times, they don’t know what sport management is. They think it’s sports medicine or something like that. And then I explain it to them: “Here’s my job. I get the best job in the world. I get paid to talk about sports. Can you believe someone will actually pay me to do that? That’s my job.” So, the heart’s there, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than what I’m doing right now. I’m with you. I’m with you a hundred percent.

All right, let’s shift gears a little bit, because this is another question from one of our students. It’s about putting a team together. As the general manager, you’re in this tough spot, because you’ve got the coach, and then you’ve got the owner. They’re both looking for different things. Sometimes it’s the same, but a lot of times, you’ve got the financial, you’ve got a salary cap. So, what are the dynamics? What’s the ideal setup for you, as the GM, to put a team together?

Tom Sheppard: There’s the team on the floor, the players, and then there’s everybody else. And everybody else is just as important as those players if you’re going to be successful. So, I think you really need to lay out your expectations of what the vision is. Certainly, from an ownership standpoint, I believe in their investment in the team. It doesn’t just come from the salaries; it comes from their expectations and being real crystal clear: What’s the expectation of this team? Again, there’s only one champion every year, and knowing where your team is in their path to be successful… Well, young teams are fun. Everybody cheers for young teams, until about February, when young teams have won about 10 games, because it’s hard to win in the NBA with a young team. So then, do you want to have a blend of veteran players? Certainly, that’s probably the ideal, is to have a couple of young guys you’re developing with players that are very competitive.

Injuries can decimate you. That’s something we bumped up against. But when we put a team together, I think managing the expectations is very important, but actually stating to them, “This is what we believe the way is. This is our standard.” Now, let’s go around the room, everybody. Get a chance to say, “Well, what do you think the standard should be?” So, let’s take an input from everybody and let’s really grade it out. You don’t want to get an inch deep and a mile wide, but at the same time, you want everybody to have a bit of an investment in this.

If it’s your team rule, your team pillars, whatever you want to call it, everybody has to understand what they’re in this for. I bring people in – our staff, the players, everybody – I say, “You know what our job is? To sell tickets, at the end of the day. We’re going to sell tickets, because we’re going to be a team that people want to come see, that people know what they’re going to get: the consistency of performance and character every night.” They want to know, “Hey, when we won, did we handle ourselves properly? When we lose, are we trying to get better?” But are we invested with the fans emotionally?

So many of the best players, I think, get a short stick because they don’t know how to express themselves to fans. Social media took a lot of that and ran with it. Some people present well on social media that you would never want to hang out with, and there’s other people that have no footprint whatsoever in social media. So, people just think they’re distant or not available; couldn’t be further from the truth. But do something in the community, help make the organization better, help make the community better. That’s the athlete’s responsibility, and that’s all the coaches, everybody’s responsibility. Don’t get it twisted. The hardest job in the organization is the head coach. Of an NBA team, of any franchise, the head coach: that’s the hardest job. I’ve always believed the job that I was in is to bribe the best support for the coach for his staff, to get the players every day the best chance to win a game.

I think when I’m putting a staff together, front-office people, basketball operations, you want great players. I liked a lot of guys that were former NBA players, former college players, former coaches. I like some people that never played the game at all, but were great in analytics. I kind of like a lot of different eyes on stuff. So, when we would do scouting reports or have scouting meetings, you don’t want everybody to have the same opinion, but you want everybody to speak the same language. So, going back to when you’re laying out kind of expectations, I said, “Okay, what’s our language? Let’s define what ‘athletic’ is. Let’s define what a good shooter is. Let’s just define what ‘tall’ is.” In the NBA, the average height of a player is 6’8″. So, if you’re going to tell me, “Well, he’s a tall guard.” Okay, how tall is that? “Well, he’s 6’3″.” It’s not tall anymore.

Height and length are two things that really are going to vault someone forward, if they can play. Or even if they can’t, can we develop that? Not a lot of people are tall – “super tall,” I should say – and not a lot of people have plus five, plus six arm length. The arm span is very big in this business. But, all these little differentiators to start with, and then you got to keep coming back to their character. The only thing harder than to get to the NBA is to stay in the NBA, as a player and as a coach. You saw some coaches already were fired before the midway point of the NBA season. There’ll be more coaches, unfortunately, at the end of the season. I don’t know, a lot of the times, I think it’s the talent that the GM put out on the floor for the coaches; probably made their job that much harder.

So, we’ve got to all be congruent in what we want, but you have to be honest: What the team is going to look like at the beginning of the season. Measure it throughout the year. I like to do 10-game increments and measure performance. The KPIs that we really measure were offense, defensive efficiency, rebounds, pace. Those things were very, very important. And, in there, somewhere, you have to say, “Okay, would we be better if we didn’t have these three players? If we’d be better, if we could get one more shooter? Would we be better if these guys were healthy?” All those questions have to come up. It’s a constant measuring, modeling, and deciding: Are we on course or not?

Jim Reese: That’s fantastic. Our students are going to love this feedback. So, what’s next for Tommy Sheppard? I know you’re taking a break, we talked about that the other day, and enjoying some family time. But what are you going to do?

Tom Sheppard: Since I was fired back in April of last year, at the end of the season, it was a tough year. We didn’t get enough wins, and really, I’m just grateful. The scoreboard doesn’t lie, and it doesn’t care. So, I can’t say, “Oh, it was his injuries, or it was this or that.” We didn’t get it done. So, I decided I was going to take this year to really use it to gather information, to get better, to update my software, to go out and really try to connect and reconnect with people around the world. I spent some time in Australia with their national team and their basketball, but I also went to their Sports Institute and watched how they train. Some of their volleyball players and sports where everybody has to move different parts of their body.

What really was intriguing to me though, Jim – and I think this is a big part that is going to create opportunities for people getting into this field – is mental performance and mental wellness. Because I think now more than ever, there’s so much more stress put on sports, particularly professional sports. With the onset of legalized gambling, people can gamble on their phones. There’s still fans, there’s tons of fans of the Broncos, but there’s also people sitting next to those fans that are fans of the parlay that they had. They’re fans of the over-under, and their response to a win or a loss because of money that goes to them or that they lose is a lot different than the diehard Bronco fan who just feels happiness or misery when you win or lose. It’s a totally different vibe, but it’s really, we’re going to have to plow through these things, kind of for the first time.

After Australia, I went to Europe, and I spent time with some big-time basketball clubs: Barcelona, Madrid, Bologna. But, I also spent time with their football teams, because professional gambling has been around forever in Europe. And sports betting, it was so much bigger and more available all throughout Europe than it ever was in the United States until pretty much recently, less than 10 years ago when every state started. I think there’s 38 states now that have legal gambling of some sort. Before, you’d either go to Vegas or Atlantic City, or you’d go offshore, or you’d go to a bookie. But now, it’s totally changed. So, I spent this year trying to really get better information about how to help athletes and how to help staffs deal with crisis, especially in that mental space. I think you’re going to see a lot more athletes retire early, especially if they managed to get to a point, financially, where they’re pretty solvent.

It’s hard, and I don’t ask anybody here to feel sorry for athletes, not at all, but just to understand how much they put into their craft. Literally, one injury can ruin your career. But the mental toll it takes every night to go to a place and realize that a lot of people that are attending, not the fans, but a lot of other people, gamblers or whatnot, they’re attending these games and they start to make players feel like props. They really do. They make players really feel less than human, like, “Hey, I’m only as valuable if you guys make money off of me.” And that really starts to take its toll. If you can imagine, you’re working every day, you go to work, and your boss is outside the door, and they’re betting on which one of you is going to get this job done. You’re 0 and 10 against the spread, you can feel that stress.

I mean, it’s really difficult to entertain those things. Initially, I think it’s your fight or flight response. But over time, I think we can help players get to a happy median or a neutral spot or a place of physical wellness that you can continue to do your job. But I really do worry. I think there’s a lot of examples where the prevalence of sports gambling is not going away. Once people start to worry, when you’re tying with the Broncos, if you found out, “Hey, what if John had bet on this game or whatever?” you would be crushed. The integrity of the game is questioned. You don’t want to have that happen in professional sports. I think that’s an area we need to educate on, between sports gambling and mental wellness, and how much you need to take advantage of mental wellness resources. I think that’s something I’ve really focused on in this gap year.

Jim Reese: Those things are all issues, especially the wellness one. The gambling is a huge issue, but the wellness one, the stress, because that is really not good for you. So, Tommy, I hope the students pick up on something in summary that you just said, and that was: you’re not sitting on your butt. You’re out there using the time to get better. That’s very important. I hope they picked up on that. If they didn’t, then I just told them.

Tom Sheppard: Yeah, no, I’ve been around. I charted a ton of miles. I’m well over the 20, 30,000 miles, and it’ll be more than that before I start working again. I’ve had opportunities to do some stuff, but it didn’t really harmonize with what I want to do right now. I’ll be working again when it’s the right situation and the right time. I’m blessed to have some time to do these things. Again, I couldn’t say enough what a great experience I had in the NBA with the Washington Wizards. Were fantastic. The ownership there are fantastic people. I wish them nothing but the best, but looking forward, where I want to go: I just know I want to impact lives. We need to shift. You’re still a young man, Jim. I’m getting older, and I think you shift from knowledge to wisdom in trying to generate knowledge every single day.

We can get knowledge from so many things but the wisdom only comes from going through it, and all the years that you put in, and all the different situations. But just sharing wisdom of what goes into every single circumstance and using some precedent, using some reference points, using some history. I think the best person used to be the guy that solved problems. I think the best person really is the one that helps you avoid adversity, if possible. And then when the adversity does come, to embrace it as the opportunity that it really is to get better or to learn. That’s kind of where I’m leaning towards, so I’ll be in that field somewhere someday.

Jim Reese: That’s fantastic. I love that. One of the things that is special about our program is that we have faculty with industry experience. So, you’re not just teaching from a book, you’re sharing those stories of things that you did well and mistakes that you made also that you learned from, and you hope that they learn from that. Some things you got to learn on your own, but you hope that people will take that information and avoid some of those issues.

Tom Sheppard: We went through my first year as being the GM. Real quick. Go find a textbook that says what to do when there’s a world pandemic and the whole sports league that you’re in shuts down. I challenge you to find that. It didn’t exist. We had to create every single day what we were going to do. And you do that collectively. You don’t just say, “Okay, I’m the president. This is what we’re going to do.” No way. You bring all everyone together. What’s the challenge? Certainly working with the league at that time. But to say that all that will never happen again. Well, we didn’t think it would ever happen, so you have to learn from that and be ready for whatever the next big world event’s going to be. I think that was some of the best experience I ever had, honestly, and it was in some of the worst times, but that’s kind of what gives you scars. Scars give you wisdom. Wisdom propels you forward.

I think if I could leave with one piece of advice for people, if you’re going to work, and especially in a professional sports team, but just showing up, making that commitment to show up a half hour early, making that commitment to stay after work for another extra half hour. Most crises happen first thing in the morning or the last thing of the day, and if you just happen to be there during the day, during a crisis in the morning or at night, I tell you what, battlefield promotions are real. I mean, there’s something where, “Hey, you’re just here. I need you to answer the phone. I need you to call this person. I need you to pick this person up.” That’s where you get automatic, I hate to say it, but your value rises to people, because you were available. We gave you something that wouldn’t have otherwise come your way, and you were there.

There is such thing as a ministry of presence, just being present during those times. That’s something that, I think everything else you’ll find in the textbook or you’ll hear, but maybe not that: showing up early and staying a little bit late. It’s a little bit of an investment of time, but if you want to move forward, you have to be present and you have to be seen in those adverse circumstances.

Jim Reese: I can’t think of a better way to wrap up than that great piece of advice right there. Tommy, thank you so much for being here, for sharing your wisdom with our students.

Tom Sheppard: Thank you for having me.

Jim Reese: For our audience, thank you for your continued support of our Voices in the Field podcast series. Our next guest will be Mr. Billy Beane from the Oakland A’s and the movie, “Moneyball,” if you’ve seen that. This is Jim Reese from the APU Sports Management Program saying so long.

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