Former CBA Commissioner Gary Hunter is familiar with the delicate balance of operating a league based on development, while also creating profitable franchises that cater to fans, as well as players and personnel.
Hunter spent six seasons as commissioner for the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). Hunter generated strong connections during his time, and the former Senior Executive Vice-President of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche maintains a great relationship with NBA Development League President Dan Reed, as well as International Basketball League Commissioner Sharleen Graf. Hunter spends his time now as Director of Athletics at Fort Lewis College, in beautiful Durango, Colorado.
As the NBA D-League enters the 2013-2014 season, the league is at a crucial point regarding it's own development. Never has there been more of a demand for affiliates to accompany interested NBA teams looking for some sort of "One-to-One" relationship. Due to Hunter's background and familiarity with this level of basketball, it seemed fitting to reach out to the former commissioner, to get his take on the current status, and future of the NBA D-League.
Hunter joined RidiculousUpside.com for an in-depth conversation regarding his time in the CBA, and his thoughts on the NBADL. The ability to understand what makes a league or franchise function properly, especially at a level similar to the NBADL, is something that Hunter can speak confidently about.
"Probably the one thing that stuck with me the most from my experience in minor league sports, and my time as commissioner in the CBA, is that you have to be comfortable in getting things done with very little. I've heard Phil Jackson (one of the many successful NBA coaches who had CBA experience) reflect on times where he literally drove the team bus to games. I think that is a great example. You have to learn how to get by, and do well, with nothing." Hunter said.
Getting by with very little has been an obstacle that numerous NBA D-League franchises have encountered at some point during their respective franchise histories. The amount of hard work that goes into basic gameday operations alone is something that typically goes unnoticed by casual fans. Obviously, the NBADL and the now defunct CBA, never claimed to provide similar amenities, or luxuries found in the NBA. However, players and coaches who have spent time in either league, gained valuable experience due to the level of survival that's needed in order to find success in both minor league systems.
How to expand?
In a culture that relies heavily on immediacy and instant gratification, expanding the NBA D-League is not like building a playlist for a road trip. NBA D-League President Dan Reed has made it clear that the expansion process will be addressed with thoughtful consideration in every aspect. Hunter believes in a similar strategy, "the most important thing to consider in order for the NBA D-League to become a 30-to-30 team league is to grow slowly, and make sure that you don't dilute the product in the process." Hunter added.
One of the faults in Isaiah Thomas' ownership of the CBA was trying to make the league "the Microsoft of basketball", envisioning 300 teams with multiple tiers. It was no secret that Thomas' ambitions were a bit lofty, and had a major impact in the CBA ultimately going out of business. Shooting for the moon has not proven to be a logical and successful strategy regarding league expansion, it takes time. Hunter explained what he looked for in terms of expansion.
"What we considered in the CBA were things like travel pods. Are there other teams in the region? Basically, what's the geographic location like? We also looked at the community and looked to see if it was a sports-minded demographic, or had that capability? Are there large corporations that can contribute with sponsorships? We used to look at population, but you can't base a decision on that, I mean look at the Green Bay Packers. Finally, there has to be solid ownership."
Location is a factor which the IBL (International Basketball League) considers as well. The spring/summer league has done a fantastic job growing itself over the years. In fact, a particularly unique angle that the IBL has implemented is a branding team concept, as demonstrated by the East Bay Pit Bulls this last season. Basically, the concept allows IBL brass to determine if a team can become a viable franchise by giving them five regular season games against top-caliber teams.
As the NBADL looks to expand and cater to a 30-to-30 model, a branding team concept is less likely to occur, but figuring out viable markets is certainly a major consideration.
How has the 'hybrid' model impacted the league?
The 'hybrid' model has been an appealing method for NBADL teams and their owners as NBA parent clubs control the basketball operations side of things, but day-to-day operations and ownership responsibilities remain with the NBADL franchise. This offseason the Sioux Falls Skyforce, a team which began in the CBA, agreed to a 'hybrid' affiliation with the Miami Heat. Sioux Falls is the sixth team in the NBA D-League to have a single affiliation through this model.
The advantage of having a single NBADL affiliate has NBA teams currently without a 'one-to-one' NBADL team, eager to create such a partnership. As the league looks to expand and create more affiliates, the 'hybrid' model remains as an advantageous relationship for both NBA teams, and locally owned and operated NBADL franchises. As Hunter explained, having a team operated from a person or group with local ties is important.
"Even when an NBA team owns a D-League franchise outright, there is value in having someone who is a local, or with local connections that knows the community. It's not mandatory, and the NBA team can certainly plug in their own person for the job, but having an understanding of the local community is important for success." Hunter said.
There can be complications regarding the 'hybrid' model, as ownership may desire transactions and roster changes to accumulate wins, not necessarily to develop players. It is a difficult blend of motivations, but will likely become less of an issue going forward as teams utilize player assignments more, and stack their roster with fringe and young NBA talent ultimately leading to a quality group of players for their affiliate.
The NBA D-League has achieved the CBA's goal
"Where the D-League is now, is exactly where we wanted to be as the CBA. Our ultimate goal was what David Stern and the NBADL have been able to create." Hunter concluded.
Resources have been a large part in determining the NBADL as the official minor league of the NBA. With story lines such as Jeremy Lin, Danny Green, Dave Joerger, and the limitless amount of assignments for players with three years experience or less, interest in the NBA D-League will continue to grow.
The CBA proved to be valuable in laying the groundwork necessary for a league such as the NBADL to flourish in today's basketball landscape. With influential minds such as Hunter, and also the previous conceptual thinkers and strategists before him, President Dan Reed and his current talented staff wouldn't be able to draw upon experiences both good and bad from the CBA, and similar leagues, had they not paved the way for their league.
The result will be a polished, practical, and results driven NBA Development League, that will provide the NBA with a minor league system unlike any other in major sports.