What he did: Pete Babcock was the general manager of the Hawks the last time the franchise came close to its current run. It was the 1993-94 season when the Hawks went 57-25 and had the best record in the East, along with the Knicks. That was also the season the Hawks set the franchise record with 14 straight wins.
Babcock’s arrival in Atlanta was an interesting time. Three years earlier, Ted Turner, who owned both the Hawks and Braves, had told Stan Kasten, then the GM and president of both teams, to hire GMs for both clubs. Babcock was brought from the Nuggets and John Schuerholz from the Royals.
After going 38-44 and 43-39 his first two seasons, the Hawks were able to exploit Michael Jordan’s decision to leave Chicago to play baseball during the 1993-94 season. Babcock put together a strong veteran lineup including Dominique Wilkins, Mookie Blaylock, Craig Ehlo and Kevin Willis. Under Hall of Fame coach coach Lenny Wilkens, they beat Miami three games to two in the opening round of the playoffs before falling to Indiana in the conference semifinals 4-2. By that time, Wilkins had been traded to the Clippers for Danny Manning in a trade deadline deal, whichwas unpopular and controversial at the time but eventually led to enough payroll room to acquire Dikembe Mutombo two years later.
Always well-liked by his peers and still attending Hawks games with his grandchildren, Babcock did not come through the ranks like many NBA executives who played in the league. He was a good high school basketball player in the Phoenix area and played two years of junior college basketball before going to Arizona State to finish his degree. He then spent a week Arizona’s law school but “after a few days I wondered what am I doing here,” said Babcock.
He became a high school substitute teacher and spent a few years coaching high school basketball. But at the same time, he became a volunteer scout for the Clippers and then a part-time scout for the Lakers. His first full-time job in the NBA came with the Clippers as a scout and assistant coach for head coach Paul Silas before becoming the GM in San Diego in 1983.
The Clippers were then moved by owner Donald Sterling to LA and Babcock, uninterested relocating his family there, took a job in Denver where he would eventually become the GM and team president. He had success with the Nuggets, going to the playoffs all six years he was there and making the Western Conference finals in 1985.
The Hawks then hired him to take Kasten’s job, building the club by focusing on trades and free agency. It worked. The team made the playoffs seven straight seasons. After the 1998-99 season, Babcock determined it was time to rebuild the roster again. However, this time it backfired. Steve Smith was traded for J.R. Rider and Mutombo for Theo Ratliff. Rider caused a lot of problems off the court and with team chemistry and the Hawks would only average 30 wins over the next five years before Babcock was fired in April 2003.
He then joined his brother Rob, the general manager in Toronto, as director of player personnel for two years. Beyond basketball, Babcock is a history buff and his interest in the President John F. Kennedy assassination is well-documented. He is known as an expert and an occasional lecturer on the subject and his home in Atlanta is filled information on the assassination, including all 26 volumes of the Warren Report.
Where he lives: Babcock, 65, lives in Newport, Calif., for eight months of the year and then in Atlanta during the winter. He has been married to wife Yolanda for 44 years and has two daughters, Amy and Katie, and three grandchildren.
What he does now: He scouts for the Cavaliers with a role in college draft preparation. He said he was ready to retire nine years ago when Danny Ferry, then general manager of the Cavs, called him about scouting. “It’s been a great situation,” said Babcock.
On working for the controversial Don Sterling: “That’s hard to answer. All the stories you hear, I witnessed a lot of them. The only time I really dealt with him was the one year I was the GM but I do remember the first home game under Don as the owner. There were about three minutes left in the game and it was apparent we were going to win and right during the game, Don ran across the court and jumped into the arms of Paul Silas. It was bizarre.’’
On coming to Atlanta: “I really enjoyed it but it was challenging as I was reporting to the person (Kasten) I had replaced. I walked on eggshells some. I decided we were going to build the team through trades and free agency. My experience had been it was much harder to build through the draft because you had to be lucky twice. You had to be lucky to win the lottery and then be lucky that it was a draft that had a franchise player in it.’’
On the trade of Wilkins: “First of all, it was one of the most painful trades I have ever had to make because he was the face of the franchise. There were a number of things behind it and first, he was going to be a free agent after the season and his agent wanted a long contract. But we couldn’t go that long. We had no problem keeping him as the highest-paid player on the team and while his passion for the game was still great, his physical ability was starting to slip some. He was getting older. I met with Dominique a number of times about it before he was traded, telling him what was going on. Then the day of trade deadline, which was about 9 p.m., we got a call from (Clippers GM) Elgin Baylor at 6. Elgin wanted to do the deal for Manning and Danny was also in the same situation as Dominique where he was a free agent after the season. Danny fit in well with the team and we actually had a better winning percentage the second half of the season. We offered Danny a five-year deal but he took a one-year deal with Phoenix. It worked out in the end because it left cap space and we were able to make the trade for Steve Smith and Grant Long and then get Mutombo and we had a nice run there.’’
On rebuilding the roster in ’99: “We tore the team apart, which was a disaster. I had marching orders to get rid of contracts. The Rider trade was the worst thing we could have possibly done. Up until then, we believed in bringing in guys with the highest character like Steve Smith and Dikembe. That was the biggest mistake we made as a franchise. We went from having a pro-Steve Smith to the anti-Steve Smith.”
On today’s Hawks: “They are fun to watch. My grandkids are huge Hawks fans and I take them downtown for the games. It reminds me of the group we had with Mookie and Steve and Dikembe. (Coach) Bud (Budenholzer) has done a really good job because it is not easy to get all your guys playing that way (sharing the basketball).’’