By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Oct. 2, 2014) — Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and David Stern are all names synonymous with the NBA’s rise in popularity during the 1980s. But there were, of course, key personnel in the league office building the foundation for success in the decades to come.
Terry Lyons was one of those individuals. In fact, he filled some of the most important roles behind the scenes.
“Terry Lyons’ enormous contributions to our media relations efforts for almost three decades have been a key driver to our growth, domestically and internationally,” Stern was quoted as saying in a statement posted on Lyons’ website. ” He has grown up with the NBA and the NBA has grown up with him. Terry has traveled the world on behalf of the NBA and Team USA, spreading the basketball gospel. He has worked arduously to enhance international media coverage of our teams and our games and he has made the NBA office a welcoming center for the global basketball community and international media. We will miss him greatly, and wish him continued professional success and much personal happiness.”
So how does a man summarize his life’s work? That was a task Terry Lyons handled with precision this week, writing in the third person.
“Terry Lyons was best known to the NBA basketball fans of Japan when he ran the NBA’s international communications department and frequently worked with the many Japanese reporters who covered the league,” he wrote. “Lyons made over a dozen trips to Japan, many to help organize and stage the NBA Japan Games, the series of regular season games the league staged in Tokyo, Yokohama and Saitama. Lyons also work with USA Basketball for the men’s and women’s Olympic teams and that included the 2006 FIBA World Championship when the USA played its games in Sapporo and Saitama.
“Lyons’ career with the NBA spanned from 1981 to 2008. He worked at a record 135 consecutive NBA Finals games dating from 1983 until 2007. Since stepping down from his executive post, Lyons relocated to New England with his family and is enjoying his entrepreneurial projects of launching a sports news site – http://www.DigitalSportsDesk.com – voted by the WGBH “Boston A-List” as a Top 5 sports site. Lyons spends the majority of his time working as Chief Marketing Officer for a technology-based Fantasy Sports company, Hotbox Sports Ventures (http://www,hotboxsports.com). Lyons is also an investor in a popular, casual restaurant and lounge, West End Johnnie’s which is located a block from the TD Garden in Boston.”
The following interview was conducted by email.
Can you give a general overview of your current work projects at Hotbox Sports, Terry Lyons Sports Marketing LLC, Digital Sports Desk and other ventures you are involved in and some short-term and long-term goals? And what’s a typical week for you like – can you provide a basic rundown?
One of the things I enjoy most about my work and the way I can live now, is that there is no such thing as a typical week. I dedicate a significant amount of time as we continue to build Hotbox Sports Ventures, which is a very interesting company that is coming of age in front of my eyes after years of hard work. Hotbox Sports is more of a Business-to-Business technology company than a “typical” Fantasy sports company. We work with sports teams, sports leagues, State and Govt. lotteries, media companies and others to build custom sports fantasy games. We’re doing a lot with the international fubol space and, of course, have great offerings for basketball, baseball and ice hockey – more so that the space everyone else seems to be working in and that being NFL American football. Aside from Hotbox Sports, where I’ve been overseeing Business Development and now some Marketing efforts, I work with some select and very highly regarded clients with Communications plans and projects. In the past few years, I’ve enjoyed working with the AND1 Basketball company, Runner’s World – mainly surrounding the Boston Marathon – the Basketball Hall of Fame (for Michael Jordan’s induction and that of the USA Basketball Dream Team). And, when I can find some time, I love to write and create content for my sports site, DigitalSportsDesk – which is a one-man creation with the help from video provider, CineSport, sports images from Getty Images and my good friends at SportsDirect Inc to keep all the scores and stats up-to-the-minute. It keeps me busy seven days a week which is good, but I can keep pretty flexible hours and can work from anywhere. And, I get to see my kids continue to grow and learn. I see them so much more than when I was at the NBA.
Who are in your view, a few unsung heroes at the NBA league office(s), who have been an integral part of the league’s rise in popularity and global prominence? Can you sum up how they’ve been instrumental in key ways that don’t grab the headlines on a regular basis?
That’s a great question and one I’ve never been asked before. I could name 20 or 30 people for sure, but I’ll pick two. Ski Austin, the head of the NBA Events & Attractions department is retiring this week and he might be one of the league’s all-time most unsung heroes. Like me, he sort of “grew up” at the NBA over the past 25 years or so. He is in charge of every event the NBA conducts, and that includes organizing the NBA All-Star Game, the many preseason international events around the world, the International series of regular season games, this year in Mexico and Britain, all WNBA events, D-League, USA Basketball and the many league functions, like Board of Governors meetings. You name it, Ski’s done it. His staff are all a bunch of hard-working miracle workers with an amazing scope of talent and an equally amazing ability to pay attention to details. He is very well liked and very, very well respected by everyone he’s ever come in contact with via the NBA. The league will miss him a lot.
The other is Matt Winick, the NBA’s Senior VP for Basketball Operations who oversees both the NBA schedule and the scheduling of the officials. Talk about a thankless job. But Matt gets it done, largely by himself. He needs a ton of input from the teams, of course and the team people, while they might like to complain about their game schedules, it’s usually Matt that saves them from themselves when they book other non-NBA events and then fall into the trap of placing their own tenant/team in a bad situation, especially at playoff time and when the building is booked with both NBA and NHL teams. Then, the refs’ schedule is equally important and just as hard to deal with, especially when a handful (or even 1 or 2) refs are injured. Matt is a wonderful colleague, as honest and sincere and hard working as they come. And, full disclosure — he gave me my start at the NBA when I interned for him when he was the Media Relations and Information director in 1980-81. I owe a lot to Matt and he’s now a dear friend and a true unsung hero at the NBA.
Looking back on your 25 years of work at the NBA, and related duties for USA Basketball, what do you consider a handful of top achievements you had an active role in successfully implementing? (Examples: media policies that increased public consumption of the sport, working with the teams’ PR guys in better, smarter ways, etc.)
That’s a tough one. In the 25+ years, we really worked hard to create the entire PR/Press/Media/TV operation at the NBA, from working with the teams and players on policies that guide game-related access and media operations to the digital stat system, to the modern-day analytics that are so prominent now. We were in the pioneering role for that. It really doesn’t seem all that long ago when they were doing it all by hand, hand writing the final boxscore and faxing the paper back to the news papers and to Elias to compile league stats. It was a very steadfast, gradual climb to get it all together as the technology changed for the better. One of the things I’m most proud of was the creation of NBA Photos. I pushed for it, framed it, planned it, staffed it and really enjoyed launching NBA Photos in about 1986. It was all on color slides back then, and the digital world was about to explode, making the vast infrastructure of the league’s images a vital cog for the league. After it launched and grew rapidly – from just two photographers (Andrew D. Bernstein in L.A. and Nat Butler in N.Y./N.J.) – we slid it to NBA Entertainment where the function was much better suited. I’m also proud of NBA.com and the fact the “Global Game” sections still play a vital role for the NBA today. That was my baby! It was great. Now, NBA Photos is part of Getty Images and its a million-dollar business. Sometimes, I think back and just say, “Another brick in the Wall!”
You cite the 1984 Finals, Game 7, Celtics-Lakers showdown on your website as a favorite game? Why did you chose that one?
That was just a very memorable night at the old Boston Garden and the decisive game in an amazing seven-game series. As much as I appreciated every game and what every team brought to the table, and that includes Michael Jordan’s run with the Chicago Bulls, of course. But, those LA Lakers vs Boston Celtics series were the best. Magic was the best player I’d ever, ever seen in person. James Worthy was a SUPERSTAR. Big Game JAMES. Kareem? Cooper. And, the Celtics – with Larry Bird-Robert Parish-Kevin McHale, then DJ, Walton (in ’86) – they were just a team for the ages. Those memories go very deep, the hot nights in the Garden, some 12:30 p.m. L.A. starts, the crowds packed in. Two great, great teams. I could go on and on!
What are the best nicknames bestowed upon NBA players? Teams? Coaches?
Wow. It’s fun to think about some of these and again, I’ve never been asked that question! I have to say the best nickname of all-time is bestowed upon Julius “Dr. J” Erving, also known as “The Doctor,” or my favorite was to just call him “Doc.” Think about it? Is there a better name in sports? Dr. J! He was a guy that was so media friendly and was held in such high esteem, but, forget all that – When he was on the court, he just dominated. His “In-Game” dunks were the best ever. He changed the game but he was always so courteous and gave the props to Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins and some others. I had the great fortune to watch Dr. J play in the old ABA when I was growing up, not far from where he grew up. I never saw him in high school, but I did see him play when he was at UMass and then with the Virginia Squires and NY Nets, before he went to the 76ers. — My No. 2 might go the the great Seattle Sonics guard “Slick Watts.”
Based on what you observed and heard about, which writer(s) and/or broadcasters asked the toughest questions and best questions after games to players and coaches?
The best questions always came from the crew of team beat writers who traveled with the clubs and saw all 82 games. They knew the teams they covered and had to be critical when needed. For the most part, the NBA had a legion of very good reporters and broadcasters covering the sport in those key years – call it 1970-2000 or so. Then, the budgets crushed the newspapers, so many folded, fewer were assigned to travel the beat and it all went downhill fast.It is too hard to name just a few, but, I’ll try: Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated comes right to mind. Peter Vecsey of the NY Post really created a niche as the NBA league-wide notes columnist and he wrote massive columns three or for times per week. All good stuff, unless he ripped you! David Aldridge did (and still does) a great job, Ron Thomas, Greg Boeck and David Dupree at Washington, then the USA Today paper, Ian Thomsen of the Boston Globe, then the International Herald Tribune, then SI.com was brilliant. Philly’s Phil Jasner, Dallas Ed Sefko, Denver/SA reporter Mike Monroe, Boston’s Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullen and Leigh Montville all deserve mention. Montville is the best writer in the land. Nowadays it’s so different and harder, as everything is condensed and it’s a 24/7 news cycle. Adrian Woj (Wojnarowski) of Yahoo just kicks ass now. He’s alone as the top guy.
People saw David Stern on TV for years, doing the NBA Draft presentation with the lottery picks, for instance. What’s similar, and different, about his personality in the big boardroom with the league’s head honchos compared to, say, when he’s at a local diner at 9:30 a.m. on a weekday in Anytown USA?
David’s persona and ever-lasting image and legacy of being the hard-charging Commissioner/CEO of the NBA will live on forever. I think he’s the same in the board room as he is if he’s ordering breakfast. He expects and demands competency. Period. That’s all. He prefers perfection, but simply demands getting the best from a person, whether they be an NBA employee who was cashing a check with his name at the bottom, or from anyone. He has tremendous compassion and he’ll – LITERALLY – drop everything to help someone in need. That’s the stuff no one ever hears about, but that’s the way he wants it, and I respect that. I was able to, errr, SURVIVE, or make it THRIVE, really, because of that high expectation. And, what do I say to my kids? We have one golden rule… “Try your very best.” – Thankfully, they abide by that rule. And, it works. On everything.
If you were stranded on a deserted island with only three books about the NBA (such as biographies, history, etc.), which three would you want to have close by?
I’ve been asked the Desert Island Albums/Discs but never NBA books! You’d have to have the NBA Encyclopedia, although its getting a little dated. It’s a great resource. I’d cheat and get an official NBA Guide and Register delivered every year! That’s three. For fun? “Breaks of the Game” by (David) Halberstam.
What do you miss most about the demanding workload of the NBA? What do you miss least about the job?
I think I miss the work with USA Basketball the most. It was an amazing ride. I worked on the NBA’s interaction with the ’84 and ’88 teams when the NBA threw together some summer-time all-star teams to scrimmage the Olympic team as they prepped for L.A. and Seoul. Then, of course, I was intimately involved in the ’89-92 formation of the Dream Team, then every event from ’92 to the 2008 Olympics. Wow, it was an amazing ride. Best memory? Antonio McDyess’ put-back at Sydney 2000 when we were in that tough game against Lithuania. That locker room celebration was unreal. What passion. Vince Carter was the man! KG (Kevin Garnett), Ray Allen might’ve been one of the best USA international players ever, together with Jason Kidd and David Robinson. Of course the 1956 team had Bill Russell who was THE BEST player ever, NBA and Globally.
Miss least? The travel and the LONG travel, not in distance but the sheer number of days away from home. Sometimes 30+ days away from the wife and kids. In Sydney 2000, that was tough, as my youngest was 1 or so … But then we did it again to Brisbane for the Goodwill Games in 2001. Then, you’d barely get home and head out for another month on the NBA’s busy October preseason tilt. It was just too much and it was magnified when I had the kids at home. I think the USA and NBA PR guys were gone for about 45-50 days this summer.
Can you cite five players and five coaches who would immediately come to mind as top candidates for the NBA’s all-time all-interview team? And what makes each of them a worthy part of the list?
1-through-5 – All Charles Barkley! He’s the best – All time.
Seriously, I’ll list them.
2. Julius Erving
3. David Robinson
4. Magic Johnson
5. Yao Ming (he was unreal and I name him to represent another 50-75 international greats)
1. Jerry Sloan
2. Rudy Tomjanovich
3. Pat Riley
4. Hubie Brown
5. Jack Ramsay
The late Dr. Jack Ramsay had an infectious love for the game and a gift for sharing it with others in so many ways — through broadcasts, through books, through clinics, through conversations, for instance. The same could be said for Sixers stat man and info guru Harvey Pollack, who in his own right is an institution within the NBA. In a nutshell, what have guys like these two done to put their stamp on the sport within the larger framework of American society?
Funny, as I named Dr Jack and then saw the next question right as I did it! Let me say this, In all of the years at all of the events, the NBA Finals were always the best, the most competitive, the best basketball in the world. After a Finals game, even though the game ended at Midnight and we worked until 2 a.m. or later, there was NOTHING better than to go back to the hotel to unwind a bit, and sit and listen to Jack Ramsay holding court at a small table, usually with his ESPN crew or the NBA/ESPN Radio guys and gals. It was heaven. Jack and Hubie taught me a lot about the game and I was a sponge for that insight. Thankfully, I grew up in a “basketball family” so I had a pretty good foundation and a real appreciation of the game.
Harvey is one of a kind. Super Stats. I always enjoyed his company in Philly and he is a good friend. He belongs in the Hall, right where he is as a Bunn Award honoree, just like my old boss, Brian McIntyre.
Based on your experiences, what’s the most important advice you could dish out to any pro team’s or pro league’s PR department to build a foundation for success?
Build relationships. Period. Honor those relationships with credibility. Do what you say you are going to do. Be reliable. Case closed.
To the PRs, all of the above, but to add advice to not be afraid to say, I don’t know but I can try to find out for you.
Return calls and messages promptly. Pick up the phone and don’t rely on email.
From your point of view, are players too media savvy these days, what with the ability to deliver their own message in so many ways via Facebook, Twiter, YouTube, Instagram, social media and other means? Does that take away from some of the spontaneity of interviews that help generate good stories?
No. I think the players are evolving alongside of the media. That’s fine. And face it, the leagues, teams and players can take an unfiltered message right to the masses. That’s the way it is. The “traditional” media have to “get over it” and move on, build a new model, It’s a whole new world and it starts tomorrow.
Similarly, what are the biggest changes and job demands that team and league PR staff face nowadays compared to when you joined the league office in the early 1980s?
The massive changes in technology are a blessing and a curse. We were typing the news on IBM selectric typewriters with broken ribbons. The amount of time saved by better tech is mind-boggling. The Internet changed EVERYTHING for PR, especially when you think that I had to budget and spend a fortune to fax stuff around on long distance phone lines to put a piece of paper in a broadcasters or newspaper reporters hands. The challenges are all still time management, managing up and down and sideways, when it comes to your bosses, staffs, players, coaches, fans, media, wanna-be-media, so on and so on. 24 hours a day is simply not enough for a good PR guy, but you’ve got to manage the time and your life, too.
Of your favorite league stories – quirky, funny, candid tales — beyond the headlines and/or games, which ones bring you the most amusement when something reminds you of them?
Walking the Barcelona Ramblas with Charles and somehow, finding a quiet place to enjoy a few cold refreshments stands out as a pretty good story. And, I always say, when the game was done, the last writer finished and the game was in the books, so to say, Brian McIntyre would ALWAYS hand me a cold beer and say, “T, We Fooled Them Again! – Good job” – Til this day, just typing that phrase brings tears to my eyes – Laughter, and joy!
Can you pinpoint a childhood memory or influential figure that sparked your desire to pursue a career in sports and specifically NBA PR? Can it be narrowed down to one thing or a confluence of events and mentors?
From childhood, I can vividly remember watching the NBA on ABC and the parquet floor of the Boston Garden – on a BLACK and WHITE TV. When I saw it in color when we finally got a color TV, it was amazing. Then, in ’81 to be working there and being ALLOWED to actually step on that floor pregame? To be in RED AUERBACH’s office? It was a dream come true.
An influential person was certainly Matt Winick, noted above. But, thinking back, I’d also add Lou Carnesecca of St. John’s and his longtime asst coach John Kresse – who went on to a fantastic career at College of Charleston – they named the building after him! Coach Kresse gave me a tour of St. John’s and told me about a “new” major “Sports/Athletic Administration” – a business in sports degree. That was a key moment! Another, was Bob McKillop of Davidson. He was the coach at Trinity and he helped me a lot and we’ve kept in touch all of these years, ’77 on. He is the best coach in the NCAAs. No doubt.
Which compliments you received from your time at the NBA bring you the most satisfaction? (And if you recall who said or wrote them, that’s good info.)
It’s a funny question, when the game was done and you were monitoring the post game and the writers were all tapping/typing away. That clatter was like fine music to my ears. They had enough info, good service, accurate stats, working electricity, decent light, access, access to the players and coaches.I think I was my toughest judge and critic, so, I looked for those moments. And yes, when I decided to step down, the compliments were plenty. The best? All the writers chipped in and bought me every single Rolling Stones CD ever made. All of them. I was speechless. Seriously, I opened that present and was in a daze for about 10-15 minutes.
Is the NBA effectively using its Hall of Famers, top 50 players and past icons enough to promote the game, in the U.S. and abroad, and share its rich history with younger generations?
Yes. very effectively and ever-growing. Since the NBA at 50, the league has done a GREAT job on that.
Ask guys like Clyde Drexler, Darryl Dawkins, Doc, Dikembe (Mutombo), Bob Lanier to mention a few.
The NBA’s global growth is a fascinating thing to learn about. During your travels for Team USA exhibitions, Olympic games, promotional events, etc., which locales outside the U.S. made the biggest impression on you for the fans’ enthusiasm and love for the game?
In no particular order …
Japan, for sure. 34-35,000 in the Tokyo Dome was a pretty serious statement. And, we had great games there.
Mexico – Great, passionate NBA fans.
Lithuania – Small country – GREAT players. Medals to prove it.
Australia – A country where SPORTS matter.
Brazil – They gave us OSCAR!
Spain and Italy and France – The cornerstone of the NBA’s international footprint in 1980. Look how it’s grown.
For you, what was most memorable, most special, about the Atlanta Hawks’ 1988 journey to the Soviet Union? (And since I’m writing these questions … what’s most memorable and special about NBA games and events over the years in Japan and Asia?)
Yes, the trip to the (former) USSR was one for the books. (Recommended reading: http://www.nba.com/global/games2013/opening-the-curtain-hawks-1988-soviet-tour.html)
On Japan, I did a small variation of the story I mentioned about me and Brian sharing a beer. Most of the time, Brian was not on site for the NBA international games. I was running them, and Brian was dealing with the ring ceremony or whatever. I took it upon myself to take a first-time Japan Games staffer and to walk them back out to the empty court when the game was long over. I’d remind them that a few hours ago, there were 34,000 people in those seats and they all enjoyed their experience. Chances are they would tell the story about that game for the rest of their lives. I would remind each NBA employee that they had played a HUGE part in that experience. They made some fans in Japan happy that day and they probably helped create a ton of new fans. That was a pretty powerful message and it was never lost on anyone.
Yao Ming’s time in the NBA and the impact it had on building China’s fan base and Chinese media coverage of the game cannot be overstated. So would a breakout NBA star from India have the same impact there?
The Yao Ming story was unimaginable. I always admired the way he dealt with it all, and let me tell ya, we put him through the old NBA PR machine! His grace, humor, professionalism was second to none and he did it bi-lingual style! A great page in the NBA’s history and a sure Hall-of-Famer.
On India, I have to simply state – “I don’t know.” – I would love to assume the impact would be as big, but I’m just not sure if it is possible. The player would have to be as good as MJ or Yao or Dirk (Nowitzki) or Pau (Gasol) or Manu (Ginobili) or Tony Parker or Steve Nash! (many others could be added!)
From a PR standpoint and the public’s perception that goes with it, how have the NFL and Roger Goodell handled the Ray Rice case? Would David Stern have managed the situation in a much different way? And how would you have suggested the NFL respond to press inquiries and public scrutiny of the case in recent weeks?
Out of respect to my colleagues at the NFL, I’ll take a pass on this one. It’s a mess and we all know it. Let’s just leave it and hope something good comes in the future.
What are your regular must-read and must-listen sources of NBA news and commentary these days?
I like the NBA on TNT coverage the best. Ernie, Kenny (Smith) and Charles. Everyone else does a very good job, but Ernie Johnson is the MAN. Mike Breen does a great job on play-by-play for the big NBA games. I like him alot, as a broadcaster and as a person. He’s the real deal. Doug Collins does a great job, too. On ESPN, their best guy, Jay Bilas, does the NCAA games. The all-time best, Marv Albert, is just that – THE BEST! Up here in Boston, Mike Gorman does a very good job on the local Comcast SportsNet and his longtime sidekick, Tommy Heinsohn makes me laugh every night. If every single call went the Celtics’ way, Heinsohn would still be claiming the refs were against the Celtics. He sort of mocks the game but it’s pretty funny. The problem is the fans actually believe him and they don;t realize he’s a cartoon. I enjoy Tommy’s banter and he always has a smile and a story for us, and I admire him greatly. Same with Satch Sanders – who frequently does analysis and functions for the Celtics. Talk about class. That is Satch. He is what the NBA is all about.
Follow Terry Lyons online: http://terrylyons.com/