Alum reflects on long NBA career
During his long career as communication director for the NBA, Brian McIntyre met many stars, including Bill Russell and Michael Jordan.
|July 8, 2020|
|By Genevieve Buthod
Loyola alum Brian McIntyre accomplished a great deal over more than three decades as an NBA executive. But he has received some renewed notoriety of late for his appearances in the ESPN documentary, The Last Dance, which chronicles Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls run of six championships.
In The Last Dance, McIntyre delivers some deep insights and pithy quotes, including a particularly colorful rebuttal of rumors surrounding Jordan’s first retirement from the NBA to pursue a baseball career.
McIntyre graduated from Loyola in 1972 and worked in communications for the Chicago Bulls. He was vice president and then promoted to senior vice president of communications for the NBA from 1981-2010 when he was promoted to and retired as the senior communications advisor for the NBA in 2014.
In 2011, he received the 2011 John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In addition to managing public relations activities for every major NBA event from 1982 through 2010 and the emergence of the WNBA and NBA Developmental League, he also created numerous NBA awards, including the Defensive Player of the Year award, the Sixth Man Award, and the Most Improved Player. He was responsible for initiating White House visits by NBA Championship teams, creating a media training program for players, instituting the use of satellite postgame feeds at major NBA events, and a host of other initiatives. In conjunction with USA Basketball, McIntyre has been actively involved in public relations planning, activities, and onsite execution of the Men’s National team at the 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008 Olympics and the 1994, 2002, and 2006 World Championship of Basketball.
McIntyre, a member of the School of Communication’s Advisory Board, recently sat for an interview. What follows is an interview comprised almost entirely of his own words, edited for length and clarity.
I understand you grew up Catholic in Chicago. Can you tell me about your history in Jesuit education?
I graduated from Loyola Academy in 1966. The thing that really had a lasting impact on my life was the athletic director Gene Sullivan. He was really active in Chicago. Loyola Academy was a great place to go to school, it was challenging.
Of course, it was an all-boys Jesuit school back then. My father went to Loyola University Chicago. He thought the Jesuits were great. I’ve learned over my 10 years of Jesuit education that they are serious educators. I really like their philosophy. I like their approach to teaching. Loyola Academy was a great place to go to school.
What was your time at Loyola University Chicago like?
The city of Chicago can provide a lot more than a small town in terms of education if you keep your eyes open. I knew I wanted to become a newspaper writer, a columnist. I spent a lot of time in my college years reading newspapers from around the country. Ed Rooney taught at a night school called back then at Lewis Towers at the Water Tower Campus. I took courses in journalism with him, fascinating classes. Mike Royko came into class back then, he was a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. I still believe that a liberal arts education is the best way to get a variety of things and then you can choose what’s really important to you.
Looking at what’s offered at the School of Communication now, the variety of courses that are offered, it’s mind-boggling. I’ve been very fortunate to work with Deans Don Heider and now Hong Cheng, they’ve done wonderful things for the school. The SOC is so much more expansive than it was 45 years ago.
How did you fill your time at LUC when you weren’t in class?
I was the editor in the sports section at the Loyola News. I was the last editor of the Loyola News before it disbanded, and the first sports editor of the Loyola Phoenix when it began. I still pick up a copy of the Phoenix every time I’m there. They do a lot in the community. I’m proud of them for fighting for something more. Go after it, keep us honest.
A semester later I was offered a position as a basketball manager which came with a full tuition scholarship. I was also in the Alpha Delta Gamma fraternity.
I’ve heard you got your start in the business by selling programs outside of Chicago Stadium during Bulls and Blackhawks games. Tell me more about that.
When I graduated from Loyola, I was an editor and a writer for a small advertising agency as a full time gig. I was learning more technical things on writing and editing but it wasn’t stirring my soul, and sports always did. I got tired of reading the program that the bulls and Blackhawks put out. They only changed the editorial every six or seven games. It was all old editorial, old statistics. So I started my own and called it THE PROGRAM. I got my peddler’s license and then I sold it outside the Chicago Stadium for four years, in all kinds of really bad weather. For the first year, I got two of my tires punctured every game for 20 games, probably by someone on the inside. The one night it didn’t happen was when I sat in my car the whole game with a friend.
Years three and four, I would sit inside in the balcony, and see 3-, 4-, 5,000 people with my program, that’s pretty incredible. I would do a piece on the visiting team, because the papers didn’t cover them. I included up-to-date stats and rosters on the opposing teams, and then I started selling ads in the programs too. I made more money at that than I did at my other job.
And did that lead to another step in your career?
Eventually I got the attention of the Bulls and the Blackhawks and they offered me a job as director of marketing and media information. First thing I did was look at how many programs they were selling. I was outselling them three to one.
I got a call one day as I was writing an issue of my program, from Jon Kovler, who was a Managing Partner of the Bulls. I didn’t believe it was really him, I thought it was one of my friends playing a joke on me. He asked if I was the guy who did the programs, and then he asked if I’d like a job, and I said yes. It was a hell of a lot warmer inside the Chicago Stadium than it was outside.
What advice would you give to students with a big idea, like selling their own programs?
I would tell students, if you want to do something, just go for it! You never can tell where it will lead. It got me a job with the Bulls, then a job with the NBA. My family says, you’re no better than anybody else, but nobody’s better than you. That gave me the right mindset to deal with people. That, and you’ve got to just do it sometimes. You can’t have “paralysis by analysis.” At a certain point you’ve got to stop studying and just do it if you have an idea.
What was it like marketing a team, and then a league, that wasn’t nearly as popular as it is today?
You have to understand, in those days, NBA front offices were quite small. We had 7 or 8 people in their front office. Today they probably have 2-300. But back then, with the Bulls, sports wasn’t marketed that much. We kind of opened the doors and hoped people would come. It wasn’t our best seasons.
I did that for three and a half years, and then the NBA had an opening, and I applied and got it. The NBA was a Ma and Pa league in the 1980s when I started out there. We were probably fourth in the four major sports leagues.
How did you manage to put your own spin on the job?
I faked it. I was learning the business. What I did was access, I provided access for the legitimate media. When I started with the Bulls, we weren’t drawing that big of a crowd. The NBA wasn’t that big. But when the players were there, and the distractions were gone, they sold themselves. I was out there as a salesman, trying to find media who cared about it. The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times started covering it more thoroughly. It was a tough sell before you can establish yourself. We turned the challenges into opportunities.
How did things start to change?
David Stern came in and accomplished so many things while he was the deputy commissioner. He brought in a collective bargaining agreement which still stands. He was the first in professional sports to make players labor, and make owners partners. It was considered a model for all industries. If the players, as employees, were all partners, everyone has a stake in making sure it does well.
And as we got better players, it drew more interest. You’ve got to have the talent. When [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] came into the league in the late 1970s, it brought a renewal of interest to the NBA. We had that anti-drug program, and David said, let your imagination go. He was great at inspiring us and bouncing around ideas. He was ahead of everybody else and he worked harder than everybody else. It was so much fun to work there, it was all happening so fast, and there were so many opportunities.
He was the first to start an anti-drug program in sports, it was model for all sports. It was totally different then, it wasn’t juicing, it was coke, heroin. It was a different thing, it was a scourge in the 1970s, in the inner cities and in the suburbs as well. There were a lot of stories about athletes, about how the NBA had all these black, drugged-out athletes were not setting a good example. We took it on the chin more than other sports, because we had more black players than other sports at the time.
The players were actually the ones saying, if someone’s on drugs, kick him out forever. But David said, there has to be a second chance, this is an addiction. It was easier to pass the anti-drug deal than people thought. The deal was, if you’re using, here’s what’s going to happen, and we’re going to test you certain number of times a year. And that had a lot to do with cleaning up our image. Because the players embraced it. That’s one thing I think our league might do better than any other league, working with our players. And it’s gone to the next level under Adam Silver today. We (upper management) listen to our players.
None of that “shut up and dribble” rhetoric then?
Hearing “shut up and dribble” really pisses me off. It offends my sense of what this country’s all about. In this country, you’re entitled to your opinion. And you ought to be allowed to share it.
What was it like when you brought the NBA into the Olympics in the early ’90s?
Until 1992, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) wouldn’t let NBA pro players play in the Olympics. Any other country in the world’s pro players could, but not U.S. They finally changed it. The guy’s name was Boris Stanković was a visionary leader of FIBA, he was a pretty good player himself and then coached and then became the executive director of FIBA. He pushed for the NBA players to be admitted in the Olympics. That was a legendary Dream Team. I was with that team all the way through. Eleven legendary players, a legendary coach. The greatest team every put together. It was like traveling with the Beatles.
The Beatles? Really?
Oh yes. Crowds everywhere, rocking the bus, we thought we were going to get turned over! There were crowds on all sides in Barcelona, people went nuts for it. I recommend picking up Jack McCallum’s book about the Dream Team. Raising the flag after we won, it gives you a lot of pride, being with a team like that. It was a fun experience. There was more media. There were just four of us doing PR. I had Michael Jordan and Karl Malone at the time. We had so many requests for interviews, I learned to say no in about 20 different languages. If we had tried to accommodate everybody we’d have been there until about 2004.
How did you determine who you’d say yes to?
I just used common sense to decide who to give those ten or so interview slots to. We went with people like Sports Illustrated, major newspapers. We took care of people who covered the NBA year round. We had to work around the parameters of the Olympic committee. We believed in open practices, having a lot of time for them media to mingle with the players and be there for everything.
Is that openness something you feel is unique to the NBA?
The NBA is known more for our media access than anyone else. We treated the media with respect. We gave them access, and Stern backed me up. We got a lot of mileage out of it, until we got so big that we had to put more formal restrictions in place. We’re a victim of our own success in that regard. It’s all based on access and working together.
Were there any moments that connected your Jesuit education with your career at the NBA?
Jerry Lyne was an assistant basketball coach at Loyola who helped bring me back to earth when I got a little messed up and gave me some good guidance when I needed. He was always in my corner. I will never forget him, ever. The guy at Loyola Academy, Gene Sullivan, who I bugged for three years to start a hockey team there. These are two men who went out of their way as teachers to help me grow. All you can do is try and pass it along. I’m sorry, I’m getting a little emotional, but those two guys have meant more to me than anyone else, outside of my family.
And it’s all part of the Jesuit education. People who care about other people. So what you can do to honor them by doing that same thing for others. You can appreciate it, but it doesn’t mean it much if you just take it for yourself. I got a 2-year-old grandson who when he knows he does something nice for someone else, he puffs up his chest, and it’s a good feeling. I know just how he feels. To this day it’s a great feeling.
And how did that sense of doing the right thing come through in your time with the NBA?
The day that Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive, I was in Salt Lake City, preparing for a press conference. I was sound asleep the morning when David Stern called from LaGuardia airport in New York, said there was a change of plans, we’re going to cancel the press conference that day, and we’re going to L.A. We’re going to support Magic in his announcement that he is HIV positive. David said Magic had been there to support us all along, so we had to be there for him. We had to show our support and our love for him.
And that’s another thing, the world learned a lot about HIV when that happened. It was a death sentence back then, people were shunned. And they learned through Magic. His teammates, people on other teams, didn’t want to play with him. A lot of stupid misinformation out there. Social causes and stuff got more attention because it went through the NBA, we helped make it more well-known. Some leagues might have tried to hide a guy who had HIV back then. We wouldn’t do that. We wanted to get the right word out, get the education out. We talked to various health experts at the time to make sure we got it right. In 1992 Magic came out of self-imposed HIV retirement for the all-star game and David went out and hugged him after that game. He wanted to show the world that he could hug a big sweaty guy with HIV because that’s not how it’s passed. He wanted to show people that. We could either be part of the solution or part of the problem.
There are certainly examples of poor journalism out there. But what do you think makes a really good writer?
Curiosity. Ask yourself: what does it mean? How does it work? And if you’re doing it, make sure you’re not doing it half-assed. The curious ones are the ones who can ask the good questions. Players loved journalists who could ask the interesting questions. They both had fun in those interviews. There are so many good reporters I worked with who cared. I was kindred spirits with a lot of them. I’m still romantic enough to believe that truth will “out.”
How did you maintain professionalism when dealing with the media, even when you were so close and on such good terms most of the time?
You’re on the road with somebody for a long time. I spent some years spending more time with members of the media than I did with my own family. You have to give the information as factually as they could. It’s not looks, it’s not money; it’s all about your credibility. As a PR person, all you have is accurate information (or not). You can say no, you’re not going to share those particular details. But you can’t make things up. I was lucky to work with commissioners, athletes, PR people, who cared, about what they did, who took pride in it. It’s a fun place to work! You better be on your toes and you better know what you’re doing. It’s just easier to tell the truth, I’m not smart enough to lie.
I’d love to hear more about some of the awards you created while at the NBA, particularly the Sixth Man Award and the Most Improved Player Award. How did you decide to create those?
The idea with the Sixth Man Award was to give it to a player that was not a starter. Everyone looked at me and said all they do is rule the ball out and score points, there’s no defense. There’s always a difference between college fans and NBA fans. People said our guys don’t play defense. Well, there’s more defense played in an NBA game than in a week of college games. We wanted to highlight the defense played in NBA games. Frank Ramsey was the very first Sixth Man. These are guys who give up part of their ego for the betterment of their team. That’s what a team sport is all about. It’s the WE ahead of the ME. Life is a team. You do it together, you win together and you lose together. It took off, because people could associate with that. It’s for the guy who doesn’t get the glory but still does it for the good of the game.
The Most Improved Player Award was for somebody who overcame some serious issues, like a knee injury, who came back into the game. But it became for somebody who came back from being clean on drugs for a year. But two of three we had went back to the drugs after a year. But I told them it’s not about the drugs, it’s about the guy who busted his tail off recovering from an injury. It’s for an up and coming player who’s not a top ten draft player but who worked their butt off.
What was it like being interviewed for The Last Dance?
It was fun. I was around all the players. Every conference finals game, every Olympic team, I was always there. That footage is all years and years old, and it was all unused footage that had never been seen up until that point. I worked with the Bulls and Jordan, all six of their Championships. It was a great stroll down memory lane for me personally. I saw so many old faces in the background that I recognized.
There’s an old saying, as a writer, you just roll up a sleeve, take a knife out, and watch yourself slowly bleed. Now, realize that you have to take this poetically. That’s what writers do, they reveal themselves. They show themselves. That’s what Michael Jordan did here, he revealed a side of himself that he didn’t normally reveal, other than to a small group of close friends. He really “bled.” He said he thinks a lot of people may hate him, because he was too tough.
I had a grandmother who just pushed me, my dad pushed me. David Stern could be incredibly tough to work for. It wasn’t personal. If someone’s trying to make me as good as I can be, I accept it, and I run with it. I think that’s what you saw with Jordan. He was letting a side of himself be revealed.
Throughout your career, you’ve worked with some incredible players. What do you think is the difference between the very good players and the true greats?
You may think you’re competitive, but you don’t know anything about being competitive. The top athletes are pretty close to each other physically. It’s all about how tough they are mentally. The ones who are the kings of the hill, they dominate you. Michael could be as charming and loving off the court as he could be demanding and demeaning on the court. He’s a human being. People look at him as if he’s a god. But he’s a guy who worked his tail off. To watch these guys year after year, and see how they improve, is just incredible. To see a [Larry] Bird, a LeBron [James], after they put the work in over the summer on something they’re not as good at, you can see the difference. The great ones work on stuff they’re not good at. It’s all mental. That’s what makes the difference.
You’ve made a career doing PR and media relations for a league that has the highest percentage of Black players of any professional sport in the country. Did you ever witness racism from the press or others towards your colleagues or towards the players?
I learned so much that I thought I knew but I didn’t know, over the years. I used to go out and hail cabs for some of my friends of color because cabs wouldn’t stop for them in Manhattan. When I first started out in this business, I would hear things. I heard a lot of stupid things, and I think people said them in my presence because I was white and they thought they could get away with it. You’d hear stuff from people in the game, and you’d just go, “Whoa!”
How would you respond?
Anger, curse words. Depending on what was said, I’d yell at somebody. People either stopped talking about it, or stopped talking about it around me. Back in the 1970s, I’d like to think there were more stupid people then, but I’m not sure. There were certain things when I was starting out, that I wouldn’t hear 5, 8 years later.
It’s a damn good question. I remember being at an Indiana/New York game. I don’t remember the year, it had to be in the 1990s, and Patrick Ewing was playing for the Knicks. I was sitting with the media, and I heard a fan calling Patrick every name in the book. I half expected him to throw a banana out on the court. I talked to a uniformed policeman standing nearby, told him I was from the league office, and asked him to take the guy out of there, or at least ask him to stop. And the cop didn’t do a damn thing. He just looked at me and laughed. It wasn’t prevalent, but it was enough where you were aware of it. I’m sorry, I just get so agitated. I look at things today, and I think, well, we’re no better off than we were in 1956.
Let’s bring it back to Loyola Chicago. Can you tell me more about the award you received from Loyola Athletics two years ago?
I won the Father William Finnegan Award from the Loyola Athletics Department in 2018. It was on their hall of fame night, they inducted two or three athletes to the hall of fame and they have the Finnegan Award they give to non-athletes. They had something at the last home game of the year. The players present us with the award and you walk out to mid court and receive the award. There was five people who got awards, and it was also senior day, so they honored all the senior players. It was a nice time.