How to become an NBA executive, the hard way

  • Pacers
  • Just about every man who likes sports thinks he could be a front office executive. Peter Dinwiddie actually pulled it off, however, without a friend or family connection. Many times, a company's employees resent someone else in the office getting a great promotion. That wasn't the case around the Pacers office, however, because of Dinwiddie's humility and work ethic.

    This story was written in 2012. It tells how he made the climb from bartender and ticket salesman to executive. It's even more relevant now since he accepted a higher position with the Philadelphia 76ers in October of 2020 and seems poised to become an NBA team's general manager someday. 


    There's a million or so basketball fans out there wanting to be where Peter Dinwiddie is today, which happens to be smack-dab between the offices of Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Not so many are willing to follow the path he took to get there, however.

    Imagine being 35 years old, holding a law degree and being gainfully employed and then chucking it all for an entry-level sales position for an NBA team and its WNBA counterpart. Dinwiddie did just that in 2006 and it turned out to be the launching pad toward becoming Vice-President of Basketball Operations, a role he officially assumed for the Pacers on Aug. 1.

    The Cathedral High School and Indiana University graduate grew up a Pacers fan and has autographs from the likes of Vern Fleming, Stuart Gray, Clark Kellogg and Kyle Macy to prove it. A wrestler, soccer and rugby player in high school, he knew he wanted to go to law school from an early age, and by his senior year in college had set a goal of landing a job in sports administration.

    He attended the New England School of Law and had internships with the New England Patriots and the K Sports and Entertainment agency in Boston. Unable to find a suitable job, however, he returned to Indianapolis. He passed the state bar exam, then took a job in the legal department with Finish Line. When that proved to be a bad fit, his sense of urgency intensified.

    A connection between a friend's father and former Pacers general manager David Morway helped him land a job in the Pacers' inside sales department on Jan. 2, 2006. The salary was minimal, the commissions elusive and the promises for advancement nonexistent.

    “That's starting at the very bottom,” Walsh says.

    “A way for me to get my foot in the door,” Dinwiddie says.

    Such sales positions lack glamour, but they're the lifeblood of a professional sports franchise. The people who endure the grind of making endless phone calls and the rejection they bring help put butts in the seats. Overqualified but highly motivated, Dinwiddie attacked the job. Preposterously organized according to co-workers, he would show up at 7:45 a.m. each weekday, prepare his schedule, begin making calls at 8:30, and stay with it all day except for a lunch break.

    His timing couldn't have been worse, however, coming in the wake of off-court incidents that had brought a landslide of negative publicity to the Pacers. Most of the public wasn't in a buying mood at the time.

    “You could make a hundred calls a day and not get one yes,” he said. “I became tougher during that period. I just tried to stay positive and outwork everybody. Just do whatever it takes.”

    Every now and then, when the rejection seemed a bit too much, he took a break and went for a walk around the fieldhouse. But mostly he planted himself at his desk and reached out to anyone willing to talk. He kept them on the line by breaking down the roster and finding the rays of sunlight within a struggling team beset by negative publicity for off-court incidents. Sometimes it took three, four, five calls to convince a business or resident to buy a ticket package, which hopefully would be upgraded to a half-season or full-season package the following year.

    To supplement his income and help pay off law school debts, Dinwiddie also tended bar two nights per week, Thursdays and Saturdays, at the Mouse Trap. Fridays at the Fieldhouse were especially brutal. He would work in the Pacers' office until 6:30 or 7 on Thursday, eat dinner, work the bar from 9 until 2:30 a.m., help clean up, get home at 4, go to bed an hour or so later and get up at 7 to go back to selling tickets.

    Dinwiddie drove himself because he had a self-assigned two-year deadline to break into an administrative position. If it didn't happen, he had resigned himself to somehow making use of his law degree. The only way to make himself known to the higher-ups was to produce eye-catching revenue.

    He led the department in ticket sales during his first six months. Along the way he earned the traditional honor of having his tie cut and hung on the wall by making a ticket sale that brought in more than $10,000. He was prepared for that as well, wearing a tie he didn't want – a Pillsbury Doughboy tie that had been given to him as a gag gift – on the day of the ceremonial snipping.

    He went on to lead the group sales department in the 2007-08 season, then became group sales manager for a few months. By then, Brenda Smith, veteran of the ticket sales and services department, had become aware of his basketball operations ambitions and arranged a meeting with Walsh through Walsh's assistant, Susy Fischer.

    Walsh has had dozens of people stream into his office to tell him they want to be a general manager someday, but Dinwiddie stood out. He had a law degree, proven performance in the sales department and a respectable degree of insight into the nuances of NBA transactions. After the third meeting, Walsh began giving Dinwiddie projects to simulate the real world of basketball operations. He provided him access to the league's Player Contract Management System, which includes the messy details of all player contracts, and asked him to propose hypothetical trades – one that might land a marquee player, for example, and another that would reduce payroll. Walsh then offered critiques.

    “It was an unbelievable experience for me,” Dinwiddie said.

    When Walsh left the Pacers in 2008 to resurrect the Knicks' basketball fortunes, he recommended Dinwiddie to Larry Bird, who was assuming the team presidency. Walsh figured the kid from the sales department would appeal to Bird.

    “Larry goes for that, a guy coming out of nowhere,” Walsh said.

    After a couple of months, Bird called Walsh in New York.

    “You were right about him,” Bird said.

    Dinwiddie worked two jobs within the Fieldhouse for about nine months, running the group sales department during the day and assisting Bird and Morway with basketball operations at night. He later moved fulltime into operations.

    There's far more to the job than running potential deals through the ESPN Trade Machine. One must possess knowledge of the league that's both intimate and widespread -- knowing for example what other teams are looking for, who has room under their salary cap, who has contract exceptions, who wants to shed payroll, what loopholes might exist to enable a trade and how to get a third team involved to make one possible. It's a grind, but the fun comes from having a crucial role in the team-building process.

    Dinwiddie was a fan of Bird the player, evidenced by the framed Bird jersey on one office wall and a framed Boston Globe tribute page to Bird on another. He wasn't disappointed by Bird the front office executive, either.

    “Working with him, I realized I know nothing about the game,” Dinwiddie said. “I'd go in and talk with him and he'd say, 'Peter, this happened because three plays ago that happened.'

    “He's extremely intelligent. He gets numbers better than anyone I ever worked with. At the trade deadline, we'd be trying to put together a deal and he'd ask, 'How much compensation does this player have remaining.' It would be a complicated formula and I'd get the calculator and start going through everything and before I'd be done he'd have it figured in his head.”

    With Bird gone for now, Dinwiddie will continue crunching numbers for Walsh and Pritchard. When trades or acquisitions are being discussed, he'll be in the room to provide details of contracts and determine whether a trade will work under the CBA. He's also free to form his own opinions by communicating with the scouting staff and traveling to get first-hand impressions of players.

    “He's very creative,” Pritchard said. “He can look at a bunch of things and bring it into one and say, 'You know, if we do this, this and this, there will be a different outcome.' You've got to keep doing that, because as the cap gets more complex you have to figure out the ways to give your team the best advantage. He thinks about it every single day, all day.”

    It's more complicated than selling tickets, but not necessarily more grueling. Looking back on it, those days in the boiler room served Dinwiddie well.

    “That was an unbelievable experience for me,” he said. “I wouldn't have that understanding if not for ticket sales. I've got so much of an appreciation for how hard everyone works trying to generate the revenue. Picking up the phone, making a hundred cold calls a day, just the daily grind of what it takes. I've lived through it, so I can appreciate it.”

    (Hear Dinwiddie's One on One episode here.)

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