It started out as an attempt to research the emergence of “developmental” coaches in the NBA. You know those specialists who are charged with working tirelessly, one-on-one with players on their skills. I’ve been around the NBA since the early 1980s and don’t remember exactly when those guys started to appear.
To make a long story short, I’ve been kicking this idea around for months and started asking about a guy in a backward baseball cap I saw working Sonics players out in Seattle years ago. They called him “Hat Guy” and you can read a profile of him here, written in the Seattle Times in 1995. Gordon actually started his career in the NBA helping Paul Westphal rehab from an injury in the early 1980s.
It was a little bit difficult to get his phone number but eventually I did. And I finally spoke with him Monday afternoon. Turns out that I’ve suddenly got a story I didn’t expect, that of “Hat Guy” — Steve Gordon — and what he’s up to these days. Well, guess what?
The man quietly joined the staff of the Portland Trail Blazers a few years ago. Very quietly. I’ve not found any mention of him in a press guide or any stories associated with the team.
But in a matter of minutes, after a few phone calls to people within the league, I heard all sorts of opinions on what Gordon does for the Portland Trail Blazers. And they are stories tinged with mystery and a lot of speculation.
This was after Gordon, without any prompting from me, admitted that he works for the Blazers now.
“I’ve been with them for four and a half years,” Gordon told me. “I’m a consultant.”
I asked him what he consults about and he was a little vague but mentioned “development, scouting …”
A couple of NBA sources, though, have told me that Gordon — who used to help a lot of Microsoft bigwigs with their conditioning — has the ear of Paul Allen and Bert Kolde. And that he’s not shy about giving them advice. Gordon goes way back with Portland coach Nate McMillan, who worked with “Hat Guy” back in McMillan’s playing days with the Sonics. This from that 1995 story:
“He’s the kind of basketball junkie you meet in the park who knows everybody and everything about the game,” McMillan says. “He’s a guy who should be in a higher position, with some team, but isn’t.”
Now, it seems possible that Gordon IS in a higher position. Reached Monday afternoon, McMillan referred questions about Gordon higher up the corporate ladder.
“Well, I would like for Kevin (Pritchard) to address that,” McMillan said. “(Gordon)’s been doing some scouting over the years. That’s basically it.”
I mentioned to McMillan that Gordon told me he was a consultant for the team and the coach said, “With so much going on right now, I think we should limit our comments to what Kevin says.”
Pritchard said Gordon has input “at all levels” of the Blazer organization. “I’ve known him probably since 1990,” Pritchard said. “He knows Paul, Bert, Nate and me and we all talk to him.
“At his core, he’s a workout guy. He loves to work guys out. He helps us with that and around the draft with scouting and working guys out. He’s one of those guys who loves being in the gym.
However, Gordon’s role appears, at least according to NBA insiders, to be significant.
“He’s got a lot of input,” one league source told me. “Maybe more input than some of the people in Portland who are pretty well known.’”
Another source told me, “The guys in Seattle listen to him. But nobody knows quite how much.” Which was similar to another NBA person, who told me, “I hear that’s who they listen to up there. He’s their guy.”
Henry Abbott, who created ESPN’s “True Hoop” blog, is considered an expert on the league and a man who has followed the Trail Blazers since his childhood in Portland. He has spent a lot of time researching the inner workings of the team.
Here is what Abbott said Monday:
“When Tom Penn was first fired, it was hard to understand why. The more I dug in, the more I started hearing stories about an unfolding struggle for power over basketball decisions between the basketball operations staff in Portland and those closest to Paul Allen in Seattle. Hat Man came up as a part of that — one of several different lines the Vulcans cast from Seattle to Portland in an attempt to keep grips on basketball decisions. I’m not one of those who thinks the only good owners are the ones who do nothing but sign checks, but Hat Man is the latest of many examples that Paul Allen is a guy who likes to have a pretty serious degree of control, even though he’s seldom physically present. Who knows, maybe we’d all be like that if we spent all that money running a team. But it certainly is getting tougher and tougher to make the case that Allen is a delegator who trusts and empowers his guys.”
A lot of speculation has been made about who it is in Seattle prompting Allen’s Trail Blazer moves. “Vulcans” is the name they’re usually given — mysterious, faceless people named for Allen’s umbrella company. Usually, they have been perceived as buttoned-down, corporate types completely out of their element. But it never made a whole lot of sense that Allen, who does know basketball, would be listening to people like that. But a guy like “Hat Guy,” well …
When I tried to probe Gordon for more information about his role with the Trail Blazers he became anxious to end the call. Look, I’m not saying the guy is running the team or anything. Don’t overstate this. But at the same time, with all the scrutiny the front office gets in this town, it’s amazing there’s someone else involved, heretofore unknown, who is doing this stuff behind the scenes, free of criticism.
Not sure why Gordon bailed so quickly on the conversation if has just another mundane job with the team. And why has he not been listed on the roster of team employees?
But maybe I’m wrong about his haste to cut the conversation short. Perhaps that was just some sort of Vulcan mind-bend.