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The NBA’s GM Kingmaker

Owners looking to change the fates of their billion-dollar basketball franchises are increasingly turning to one former English Premier League executive who lives in the Connecticut suburbs for help

Jonas Kalmbach

In mid-August of last year, Vivek Ranadivé recognized that his Sacramento Kings were once again at a crossroads. A few days earlier, the team had returned home from the NBA bubble, where a poor showing had derailed its playoff hopes, leaving it out of the postseason for a league-worst 14th straight season. Soon after, Ranadivé reorganized his front office. He told Vlade Divac, who had been the team’s general manager and vice president of basketball operations since 2015, that he was considering handing the reins over to Joe Dumars, the former Detroit Pistons player and executive who since June 2019 had been serving as a “special adviser.” Divac’s response was to resign.

Ranadivé, a wealthy tech executive, had previously been a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors, but in the seven years since he purchased the Kings (with a group of minority investors) he’d failed to match the Warriors’ success. His teams had won just 39 percent of their games, and even worse, he’d cycled through five head coaches and nearly as many senior basketball executives and advisers. He’d become the latest NBA owner to learn just how difficult assembling a front office can be and was now eager to change his franchise’s course. So he asked for help.

“We went to the NBA and to the other owners and said that we’re looking to create the front office of the future,” Ranadivé said recently in a phone interview. “We asked, ‘Who is the smartest guy in the business, who is the best at doing this?’ And there was just one name that came up.”

Mike Forde.

Ranadivé had never heard of Forde, a 45-year-old Manchester, England, native. He reached out. Forde told him about his previous career as an executive for some of Europe’s premier soccer clubs, including Chelsea. He told him about Sportsology, the consulting firm he founded and runs. He explained that his job is to help professional sports organizations—in all sorts of leagues, all over the world—perform internal analysis and assessments but that sometimes he also helps fill GM vacancies. He explained, with the kind of detail typically reserved for tedious management workshops, how the searches in those situations worked. They talked about what Ranadivé hoped to achieve, identified strengths, and diagnosed weakness. Ranadivé relished it all.

“Mike understood the pressures, challenges, and complexities that one faces when owning a sports team,” he said. “But he’s also an entrepreneur, and because of that knows how to relate to other entrepreneurs.”

Forde’s search for Divac’s replacement lasted around a month. He gave Ranadivé an initial list of about 10 candidates, then whittled that group down to five, all of whom were invited to interview in Sacramento. On September 16, the Kings announced that they would hire Monte McNair, then an assistant general manager for the Houston Rockets. The move surprised many around the NBA. McNair was just 36 years old and kept a low profile. Many executives from other teams didn’t know who he was. Ranadivé, however, was thrilled—with the decision and the entire process. Afterward, he asked Forde to help with McNair’s onboarding. He now describes Forde as a “confidant.” Among his fellow owners, he’s far from alone.

“When you’re in a position like mine, there are very few people you share your personal cell number with,” Ranadivé said. “Mike’s the kind of guy where you do so very quickly.” It’s one of Forde’s many skills. It’s what has made him the most powerful person in the NBA that you don’t know.

Post NBA Draft Press Conference
Sean Marks, now in his fifth season as general manager of the Nets, was one of the first NBA executives Mike Forde helped place.
Photo by Michelle Farsi/NBAE via Getty Images

The job of an NBA general manager used to be relatively simple. You scouted and drafted kids out of college, traded and signed players, hired and fired coaches. Organizations were small—a few scouts, a trainer, some assistant coaches. Most of the job revolved around the action on the court. You dealt with a few reporters, most of whom were local and you knew personally.

The influx of money—from billion-dollar TV deals to billion-dollar team sales—has transformed everything. Constructing a roster that wins games is still the primary job. But how teams go about doing that has completely changed. Staffs have ballooned: Today’s teams have analytics departments, coaches who deal strictly with player development, training staffs full of experts in specific fields like nutrition, and scouts devoted to scouring the college ranks while others focus on the pros. There are G League teams to manage, and even business operations to interact with and sometimes oversee, and multiple 24/7 sports networks covering it all, not to mention digital and social media. It’s no coincidence that most of today’s top executives aren’t even called general managers; instead, they carry titles like “president,” with teams of “executive vice presidents” reporting to them.

“The model of the job has changed drastically,” said one team’s president of business operations. “These are really tough, really complicated positions, with all sorts of financial and strategic components to them.” There is also a new crop of owners who made their fortunes in the world of finance—and find comfort in the language of corporatese. Put all of this together and it should come as no surprise that headhunters have managed to successfully embed themselves into the NBA.

For years, search firms like Turnkey Sports and Entertainment and Korn Ferry have been the most prominent players. The former has helped teams like the Atlanta Hawks, among others, beef up their executive ranks while the latter, led by Jed Hughes, a longtime NFL and NCAA power broker, has filled a number of high-profile gigs. Hughes helped land Masai Ujiri with the Toronto Raptors in 2013, Stan Van Gundy with the Detroit Pistons in 2014, Tom Thibodeau with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2016, and both John Hammond (as general manager) and Jeff Weltman (as president of basketball operations) with the Orlando Magic in 2017. (Hughes didn’t reply to multiple emails requesting an interview for this story. Len Perna, the CEO and chairman of Turnkey, declined to comment.)

Forde has carved out a different role. Most headhunters parachute into town, operate at the surface level, and deal almost solely with ownership. Their work with the NBA and its teams is limited to the couple of weeks they spend filling vacancies, with the jobs few and fast. Forde, on the other hand, is primarily a consultant—he said headhunting, or as he calls it, “search work,” makes up only 20 percent of Sportsology’s revenue—which means he has other ways of connecting with teams, giving him more opportunities to cultivate relationships. In other words: His phone is always ringing, whether GMs are being fired or not. This background also means that when he is hired to fill an open position, he approaches the job from a more holistic perspective, like a consultant, and works with the entire organization, further expanding his knowledge base and network.

The result is a virtual phone book full of cell numbers of many of the NBA’s most powerful people, and more influence than any predecessors. Nine NBA teams have either hired or promoted from within a new chief basketball executive in the past two seasons; three of those searches—those of the New Orleans Pelicans, Washington Wizards, and Sacramento Kings—were led by Forde. That might not sound like much until you consider that only 30 of these jobs exist and that there are hundreds of people within the basketball world clamoring for them.

Forde not only has the ear of multiple team owners, but he’s also got the backing of the NBA itself. Ranadivé said the recommendation to retain Forde came “from the highest level” of the league office. Multiple executives I spoke to for this story said they’ve been told in recent years that NBA commissioner Adam Silver has recommended Forde to owners. (“Mike Forde’s firm is one of the excellent organizations we’ve recommended to teams when asked for suggestions,” Mike Bass, an NBA spokesman, said in a statement.) Now, Forde is someone every GM hopeful feels they need in their corner. One assistant GM told me a story about when Forde came by his team’s facility to meet with the franchise’s higher-ups. Later, the team’s president pulled the assistant GM aside. “You should go introduce yourself,” he told him. “You’re going to want him to know who you are.”

In Forde’s telling, his meteoric rise to NBA kingmaker was more happenstance than plot. “It wasn’t that I aspired to do this,” he said in a December video interview from the kitchen table in his Westport, Connecticut, home. “I was more pushed into it.” He had just wrapped up one call with a soccer team in Mexico and had a little over an hour until his next call, with a client from the NFL. Even with the pandemic raging, he looked put together, with a fitted button-down hugging his slim frame and his graying hair neat and short.

Forde’s transition into this role, and migration into the United States’ sports scene, began around 2002. He’d spent 16 years working in front office positions for various European soccer clubs, but had long been fascinated by North American sports. He started blindly reaching out to executives from that world. Bobby Marks, a former assistant general manager for the then–New Jersey Nets, recalled receiving an email from Forde around 2010. At the time, Forde was the director of football operations for Chelsea Football Club. “He was clearly credible because of his background,” said Marks, now an ESPN analyst. “And I was curious about what his goals were.” The two chatted over the phone. Marks invited Forde to audit some practices and chat with team executives. “My impression was that he was really there to ask a lot of questions and pick up good habits,” Marks said.

Forde spent a decade networking. His surveying led him to believe that “a gap existed in the market.” In 2013, he left Chelsea to form Sportsology. “People were buying teams for $2 billion and they were looking for greater transparency and expecting more from their people,” he said. “We wanted to build a business to close that knowledge gap.”

Around that time, Forde met R.C. Buford, the widely respected general manager of the San Antonio Spurs. Buford, a longtime fan and admirer of European football, was scouting in Europe and attended a London-based sports leadership conference that Forde had cofounded. The two hit it off, even grabbing post-conference beers, and kept in touch. When Forde began kicking around ideas for how to grow his business and make further inroads in the world of North American sports, Buford asked him whether he’d help facilitate a project: He wanted to put the vaunted Spurs Way down on paper. He believed Forde, as an outsider, possessed the proper blend of expertise and perspective to help him do so.

“Mike made me think in ways that expanded my thought process and put me in a position to look at our systems through a new lens,” Buford said. “He was good at drawing out conversations across a group and encouraging critical thinking, and somebody that comes from an outsider perspective can ask different questions than we would internally.” I asked Buford whether he could share a specific example but he declined.

Forde built a software app for the Spurs; he refers to it as a “corporate knowledge platform.” Most of his ensuing projects fell along those same lines. “I was into the world of transformation. How can we help teams get better and better,” Forde said. The word “transformation” is a favorite of his, a catch-all phrase that summarizes his goals, lending a McKinsey-like air to his work. Consulting? That’s “process transformation.” Search work? “The transformation of human capital.” Later, he’d tell me: “People are a part of transformation.”

In 2015, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles brought Forde in to take a look at their organization; soon after, they decided to move on from head coach Chip Kelly. Forde said owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman approached him about helping find a replacement. “I don’t know whether we could help you,” he told Lurie, “but I can probably tell you the mistakes I’ve made when hiring coaches and that could be of some value to you,” a nod to Chelsea’s having run through nine managers in Forde’s seven years with the club. But first he called up around 15 friends from the sports industry to gauge their thoughts. “And to a person,” Forde said, “they all told me, ‘Absolutely, you should do it, you guys are perfect for this.’ And that kind of gave me the green light.”

Around that same time, Forde was hired to do some consulting for the Nets. The team, which had moved to Brooklyn in 2012, was struggling to both win games and build a fan base. Forde says he was connected to the Nets through Dmitry Razumov, the CEO of then-Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s ONEXIM Group, whom Forde had met at a European soccer game. Razumov connected Forde to Irina Pavlova, who was then the president of ONEXIM and a friend of Buford’s (both sit on the board of a basketball-focused nonprofit called PeacePlayers International). She hired Forde. (Asked whether he played a role in connecting Forde with the Nets, Buford said, “That would be something to ask the Nets.”)

Forde spent around half a year speaking with various executives and departments within the organization. Basketball operations, coaches, trainers. He ran some meetings and workshops. “You see how everything works, what the organization looks like and what its internal processes are, and how the pieces fit with each other,” said one Nets employee from that time. “But it’s also a lot of regurgitating of marketing buzzwords.” Forde then built a platform similar to the one he had constructed for the Spurs and met ownership to review what he believed to be the organization’s strengths and weaknesses.

In January 2016, the Nets fired head coach Lionel Hollins and general manager Billy King. (Officially, King would be “reassigned.”) Forde was with the Eagles’ brass in Kansas City to interview then-Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson when he read the news. The Nets hired Forde again to help find King’s replacement. In February, they hired Sean Marks, an assistant general manager for the Spurs. That it was a Buford deputy who received the gig did not come as much of a surprise to Nets employees. Three years later, in April 2019, the Wizards, who Forde had previously done consulting work for, gave Forde his first NBA headhunting gig. The Pelicans came calling soon after that, and then the Kings this past summer.

Mike Forde
Courtesy of Mike Forde

Many around the NBA view Forde’s rise to prominence as a positive.

“A lot of owners just have no idea how to hire for basketball positions,” said one longtime team executive. “It’s not their field, and they don’t really understand the position or what their needs are. So they’ll talk to the media, or the league, or to agents and ask who to hire, and everybody has bias and an angle. Unless you’re an incredibly curious owner, you might not get the right answer.”

It’s not just teams like the Knicks and Sixers, who have each churned through five different GMs over the past decade. According to Forde’s research, the average tenure for an NBA GM is just 30 months.

Forde, in the view of many, has the approach and background to remedy this problem. His proponents believe he can communicate with owners in a way that helps them properly diagnose their weaknesses, and that, unlike his competition in the headhunting field, he’s eager to do so. Forde, for example, boasts about the fact that his searches last twice as long as the average GM hunt. “Mike’s a lot more thorough and strategic,” said a second executive, who’s dealt with Forde and other headhunters. Another executive told me a story about how a few years ago, he interviewed for an open GM job through a prominent search firm, and, he said, “the entire thing consisted of nothing more than a 30-minute cold call with a stranger from that group.” That same executive, along with multiple others that I spoke with for this story, praised Forde for the amount of work he puts into building relationships and providing feedback—even with those who have not yet reached the point where they are interviewing for open jobs.

Forde’s process is fairly consistent. Someone reaches out and hires Sportsology (which has about 25 full-time employees) for a fee (Forde declined to disclose the amount). Pre-pandemic, Forde and his colleagues would spend around a week on-site, meeting with various individuals in and around the team, both at the ownership level but also lower down on the food chain. “People who have been in organizations and maybe not been heard,” Forde said. “When you open them up to discuss you get some great knowledge.”

Forde’s questions vary. Some examples, according to Pops Mensah-Bonsu, a former NBA player who is now the president of the New York Knicks’ G League team and held that same role for the Wizards when Forde was working to fill their open GM slot: What do you think about the way things run? How often are scouts meeting? What’s your background? Why do you want to be in a front office?

Forde said he stays away from X’s and O’s. “We’re more interested in the process of decision-making. How did you come to the outcome and if you properly used your organization’s resources.”

The goals for all the meetings and conversations are twofold. It’s about understanding the specific nuances of that organization—and more specifically its ownership group. Then, Forde essentially reverse engineers a list of candidates. “An ownership’s way of working is probably set,” he said. “The key is to find the people who are the best match.” But it’s also about building up his own knowledge base. “I think the biggest thing, where I think we’ve gained competitive advantage as a business, is just the daily access to multiple organizations and seeing the aggregate learning of them.

“It’s like I got an AI feature where you’re adding all these projects to it, and every time, if you’re correctly wired you’re learning from all them so that the next client should be buying a better product and a better service.”

As is the case with anyone who amasses some power, Forde has his fair share of detractors.

A common criticism is that his search pools are limited. “He has a pretty consistent base of who he goes to around the league for advice when hiring,” said one team executive. Of the 17 people who have interviewed for jobs filled by Forde, four (Gersson Rosas, Arturas Karnisovas, Sachin Gupta, and McNair) have Houston Rockets ties. Some wonder if Forde’s too cozy with the league office and if Silver’s preferences influence Forde’s decisions. Same goes with Buford. There’s also the question of how much canvassing Forde actually does. He may be more diligent than other headhunters, but Forde also appears to be leaving some gaps. One GM told me he’d never heard of Forde. Another told me the two have never spoken. So did a former team president, as well as about a half-dozen assistant GM types.

On the one hand, expecting Forde to know every high-ranking executive in and around the NBA might be asking too much. On the other hand, it’s reasonable to expect that a man positioning himself as a hiring guru would make a point of at least knowing every NBA GM, in order to cast a wider net. Want to know whether an executive is capable of taking on more responsibility? Who better to ask than their boss?

Forde said he’s met Silver and some of his staff, and has spent time with them “to understand what the drivers of the league are and what success looks like in a front office.” But he was adamant that he’s never spoken with Silver or the league office about any of the jobs he’s filled. Nor, he said, does he ask team owners where they received his name. He added that the only two candidates with Spurs ties that he’s brought in for interviews were Marks and Danny Ferry, and that Rosas and Tommy Sheppard are the only candidates who he’s brought in to interview for multiple jobs. (Sheppard spoke with the Pelicans before being promoted by the Wizards. Rosas talked to the Nets, Wizards, and Pelicans before taking a president of basketball operations role with the Minnesota Timberwolves, whose search Forde did not lead.)

As for his apparent fondness for the Rockets? “They obviously had a sustainable platform of success and [former team president] Daryl [Morey] exposed people in his front office to a lot of different things,” Forde said. He also added that, “a lot of new owners have got a strong bias toward process and analytics,” which Morey’s front office was famous for embracing.

Another issue many have with Forde is his refusal to deal with agents. “From an access to market side we try to keep it as pure as possible,” he said. “But I always say to [agents] if they want to speak to the team then no problem.” The way Forde sees it, he can scan every team’s org charts and pinpoint all the executives worthy of consideration for an open GM job himself, without going through agents. “Finding the talent is easier than you think,” he said. “It’s not a massive market.” He doesn’t feel there’s anything to be gained by engaging with agents and opening himself up to their games. “But I always encourage the teams themselves to build those relationships,” he said. “From that standpoint, it’s important.”

Several Black executives also expressed a concern about Forde’s commitment to diversity—and whether hiring him (or any search firm) was a way for team owners to wipe their hands of any responsibility connected to that issue. Only five of the 30 NBA teams have a Black chief basketball executive, and Rosas is the only Latino. This would stand out in any business, but even more so in a league in which 74 percent of players are Black. Many people within and around the league believe that the influx of analytics—along with a new crop of finance-rich owners drawn to people who “speak their language”—has led to a whitewashing of front offices. Owners want executives with MBAs, not former players—or so the thinking goes. The league has acknowledged the issue, even creating a position of chief people and inclusion officer in July 2020. As for Forde, eight of the 13 candidates who interviewed for the Pelicans, Wizards, and Kings GM jobs are white, as are six of the seven who interviewed for the Nets. At one point in our interview, I asked Forde how he thinks about diversity in hiring. It was the one time he seemed thrown off.

“We’re very respectful of the quest for all professional sports leagues, in particular the NBA to, you know, to create equal opportunity for people,” he said. “I think, as we go through any transformation involving people, you know, you want to balance everything from the right talent to the right opportunity.” He then applauded the NBA for the job it’s done in “creating opportunities for everyone.” He mentioned Becky Hammon’s rise as Spurs assistant coach.

“We’re all trying to get better,” he added later.

Typically, Forde would be spending his winter flying all over the country, meeting all sorts of people, preparing for the next season’s job market. Instead, he’s been stuck inside like the rest of us, spending time running Zoom webinars for sports leaders and fielding phone calls. During our interview, he received a call every 20-or-so minutes, causing his phone’s Zoom screen to go black. Sometimes it’s an owner with a question. Sometimes it’s a team president with a colleague to recommend. Recently, a lot of assistant-GM types have reached out to “pick his brain.”

Those sorts of requests, Forde said, are new. “Obviously, after doing three of these [jobs], people are a little bit more aware of us and they find out the number. But I encourage it.” To Forde, these calls are not only helpful but serve as the foundation of what he does. They allow him to build what he believes to be organic relationships, to get to know candidates before they officially become candidates, to learn what their skills are and what their jobs actually entail.

“That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “Jobs titles in the NBA don’t usually match up against responsibilities. And from there you try to match them with the proper NBA team.”

For Forde, the Kings’ hiring of McNair was the perfect example, one he was proud of. “Some jobs, it’s going to be the obvious guy,” he said. “But with Monte, he was not a household name. But through the diagnosis and research around that opportunity, we realized his style and brand was a good fit for that opportunity.”

When we spoke in December, it was still early in McNair’s tenure, but the Kings were coming off a four-game losing streak and plunging down the Western Conference standings. Joining them toward the bottom were the Pelicans. Meanwhile, the Wizards were bringing up the rear in the East. I asked Forde if he finds himself constantly scanning the NBA standings, worrying about the performances of teams whose GMs he helped find. He laughed. “Yeah, you do look,” he said. “It’s instinct.” He then pointed to his data indicating that even after changing leadership, it usually takes NBA teams a few seasons to turn things around.

“It’s normal for issues to arise around six months in,” Forde said. “When I work with owners I always tell them that it will take two to three years to know if they made the right decision.”

His screen went black. More calls were coming in. Was it owners trying to reach him? GMs? Men and women hoping to climb the ranks? He preferred not to share. His phone rang again.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA reporter and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.

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