Longtime trio closes ranks, stands strong
This is how Michael Born remembers Kevin Pritchard.
It is the summer of 1986. Born is young. Pritchard is younger. And Pritchard — who will one day become general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers — is loaded with the type of crazy, take-on-the-world basketball talent that sometimes shows up in official games on hardwood floors. But more often is only displayed on hardtop, beneath the summer sun, against players who truly want to make you pay.
So, Born — who will one day become director of NBA scouting for the Blazers — locks in with soft eyes and watches Pritchard. Then he sees the gutsy, lean Kansas point guard capture a loose ball, race up court and leap skyward for a breakaway dunk. Just before Pritchard completes the slam, a defender rushes in and attempts to block the shot. The disruption fails — the ball quickly glides downward for two points. But as Pritchard is hanging on the rim, the defender crashes into him. Before Born can begin to gasp, Pritchard is sent flying hard into a no-give, chain-link fence. Next, Pritchard smashes into asphalt. And then he just rises up and walks away like nothing ever happened.
Michael Born: meet Kevin Pritchard.
“I was like, ‘Holy smoke!’ ” Born said.
Looking back, Born sees Pritchard as a force. Strong, quick, aggressive. And wild.
Some things have changed. Most have not.
It has been nearly 24 years since Born met the man who would one day take him from the love-it-or-leave-it world of low-pay minor league basketball and show him the mega-millions allure of professional hoops.
It has been eight years since Born paid back the favor, connecting Pritchard with Chad Buchanan, Blazers director of college scouting.
Now, the trio form the core of a Portland scouting system that has seen the Blazers in recent years pull in big-name free agents such as Andre Miller and Marcus Camby, while acquiring Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Martell Webster and Rudy Fernandez through the draft.
With the 2010 NBA Draft less than 36 hours away, Pritchard said there is no one he believes in more than Born and Buchanan — evidenced by both recently signing two-year contract extensions with the organization. The duo are Pritchard’s eyes and ears, focusing on the minutiae while the single-minded GM attempts to complete his vision.
Blazer fans trust in KP. Pritchard trusts Born and Buchanan.
“I try to feel what they say in their voices,” Pritchard said. “Sometimes they’ll say yes, and yes is yes. Sometimes they say yes, exclamation point, and then I get in there and I listen a little more. … In any relationship, there’s ups and downs. I can tell you with them, there’s been no downs. I would not be surprised if Chad and Mike are Trail Blazers for the next 20 years.”
Like a brother
During a 90-minute lunch at a chain restaurant in Tualatin, Ore. — one that Born knows so well he does not have to pause before ordering — Portland’s direct link to every player currently in the NBA who could one day become a Blazer remembers every detail.
And it is not just the simple things that always get mentioned, such as the deep Midwest ties. Nor is it the pure, simple love of the game.
To Born, what truly connects him with Pritchard is the University of Kansas. And the American Basketball Association. And the Des Moines Dragons of the now-defunct International Basketball Association.
That is where Born and Pritchard learned their craft. It is what brought them together, and what made them who they are today.
While Pritchard’s basketball blood was infused with values such as family first and high culture before low character at Kansas under head coach Larry Brown and assistant Gregg Popovich, Born slowly learned how to trade a love for the round ball into a paying job.
For a time, Born ran basketball camps. Then he coached. Then he started an under-the-radar touring club that traveled throughout the Midwest, taking on Division I colleges as Born did everything from evaluating talent and roping in players to scheduling games.
“I survived and loved what I was doing,” Born said. “And I was making enough money to support myself.”
A reconnection with Pritchard soon offered more support.
It was 2001. Born was coaching the Dragons, but the team was about to fold. After running into Pritchard in Lawrence, Kan., Born learned that Pritchard was in need of an assistant coach to help handle the ABA’s Kansas City Knights. Pritchard — who Born described as being the Knights’ “head coach/director of player personnel/GM” — would control the offense. Born would take the defense. The game was on.
By the end of ‘01, the Knights had won 25 consecutive games, captured the ABA championship, and knocked off a Southern California team guided by current Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
“I’ve coached a lot of years, but that year was probably as fun as I’ve ever had coaching a team,” Born said. “It was awesome. Kevin and I just had a great chemistry.”
Born would then head to the NBA Development League, sharpening his eyes and clinging tightly to the words of a mentor who told him that the best scouts knew everything possible about a player before they ever saw them take the court in person.
In 2004, Pritchard became Portland’s director of player personnel. On Sept. 23, 2004, he made Born a Blazer.
Nearly six years later, Pritchard said Born has not changed. Born is still ultra competitive — he hates losing at pick-up games so much that Pritchard recalls the duo almost coming to blows when they were younger.
And Pritchard joked that Born is long winded and detail obsessed. He passionately believes in players who prove out, but will just as quickly shoot down any proposed acquisition that fails his test. It was Born who pushed hard for veteran center Marcus Camby. And Born who sold Portland on veteran point guard Andre Miller, — while also asking the Blazers to stand strong when Miller initially fell flat.
“Once Andre got comfortable and became a starter, he was terrific,” Pritchard said. “And I give a lot of credit to Mike on that.”
But Born’s ability to dissect those who play the game is just one part of the bond. To Pritchard, Born is like a brother.
“One day we might come in here and get after it a little bit,” Pritchard said. “But I always know where Mike stands. He’s going to tell you how he feels. There’s not going to be any fluff to it. And I always appreciate that.”
All grown up
Buchanan still remembers when he got the call.
It was just another summer night. Buchanan and his wife were going out for ice cream. Then the phone rang. Pritchard was on the other line.
Portland’s just-named director of player personnel wanted to know how happy Buchanan was as an assistant coach at Drake University.
Buchanan said he liked the job.
Well, what about instead working for the Blazers?, Pritchard asked.
Under who?, Buchanan replied.
Me, Pritchard said.
Buchanan’s response: “Wow. Seriously?!”
“I never should have doubted that he’d get to the NBA,” Buchanan said. “But, man, it happened so quickly for him.”
It has also happened quickly for Buchanan. After teaming up with Born and joining the Blazers as a scout in 2004, Buchanan was promoted to director of college scouting in 2007 once Pritchard was named GM.
Three seasons later, Buchanan has become the key to Portland’s annual draft-day success. Possessing an encyclopedia-like knowledge of prospects, the man who once was known as the little brother that Born called “pee wee” is now as essential to the Blazers’ loaded roster as Born.
“The draft is as important as anything in this league,” Pritchard said. “If you draft well, you’ve got a chance to manage your budget. But it’s also your opportunity to get really good players.”
It was Born who first gave Buchanan a chance, allowing him to fill in as a coach/counselor during summer basketball camps in Iowa.
Buchanan later met Pritchard in Kansas City, turning Born’s recommendation into the chance to help the Knights run summer youth clinics.
“Kevin and I spent a lot of time talking basketball,” Buchanan said. “I think there were a lot of similar beliefs.”
When Buchanan late became a Blazer, Born remembers receiving thanks for the initial opportunity. But Born told Buchanan to look straight in the mirror.
“I remember telling him, ‘Buck, man. You were the one that made this happen. Because you took the chance on accepting something that was so minimal in Kansas City,’ ” Born said. “As soon as the door was open for him, he took full advantage of it. Because that’s just sort of who he is.”
Now, Born and Buchanan have become Pritchard’s main outlet as the embattled GM has dealt with three months of turmoil that have centered upon his uncertain future with the organization. As the outside world has pushed and pulled, the longtime friends have closed ranks and focused inward. Pritchard has preached the draft and spoke of black and red loyalty. Born and Buchanan have followed stride.
“We know how fortunate we are,” Born said. “Not only to work in the NBA, but to work with Kevin … and the Blazers and (owner) Paul Allen. It’s been unbelievable.”
And in many ways, the trio are still in the same position they have always been.
Born and Buchanan are working their basketball magic, evaluating talent and ranking prospects from top to bottom. And while Born and Buchanan focus on the details, Pritchard is thinking big.
“For me, it’s invaluable,” Pritchard said. “Some things that go on outside, you can’t control. What I always tell them is, ‘Let’s control what we can control. And let’s look to hunker down and make sure we’re all in this thing together.’ And never in my life have I doubted that. And then you get back to that common denominator: trust. You’ve got to trust. They’re unbelievable to be in the bunker with.”
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What: 2010 NBA Draft
When: 4 p.m., Thursday
Where: Madison Square Garden in New York
TV: ESPN, cable Ch. 35
Blazers: Portland holds the No. 22 overall selection in the first round and the No. 34 overall pick in the second round.
Coming Thursday: A look at 2010 NBA Draft, and what the Blazers might do.