Advance scouts are the knights-errant of the NBA. They travel solo, visiting arenas around the league a week or so before the team for whom they work has to play one or the other participant. That means, if it’s Dallas at Golden State on a Wednesday in November, you’ll find at Oracle Arena advance scouts from both the Mavericks’ and the Warriors’ upcoming opponents tapping into laptops, working up reports.
The travel alone is a grind by NBA standards – commercial rather than charter, with all the indignities players and coaches largely avoid. Three games in three nights, rental car counters, meals wolfed down off $8 buffets in media workrooms.
Being on their own so much can get a little lonely, too, so scouts wind up bonding with those who do the same itinerant work for rival teams. Competitors, yet colleagues. And it’s from that group that former NBA forward, coach and advance scout Greg Ballard really is going to be missed.
"As big as Greg was, he was such a soft-natured guy, he always had a smile on his face." -- Former Wizards coach Randy Wittman
Ballard, 61, died Wednesday after an extended bout with prostate cancer. He had entered home hospice after undergoing his most recent round of chemotherapy treatment.
“I would say this about Greg Ballard – and you can ask any question you want but my opening statement would be – for a guy who played in the league for 10 years and was a good player, I found him to be one of the most humble people I have ever met in my life,” said Gary Schmidt, advance scout for the Boston Celtics.
“There was no agenda, there was no attitude, there was no hey-I-played-in-the-league,” Schmidt said. “He was so down to Earth and humble. Just a very good person. Always positive and upbeat.”
How humble? People around the NBA who had known Ballard for years might never have realized that the 6-foot-7, 215-pound product of Garey High in Pomona, Calif., played baseball, too, well enough to be drafted by the Montreal Expos as a right-handed pitcher in the 15th round of the June 1973 amateur draft.
Instead, Ballard accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of Oregon and, with Ronnie Lee, became a central part of coach Dick Harter’s “Kamikaze Kids” (nicknamed for their aggressiveness). After four years with the Ducks, battling future NBA bangers such as Lonnie Shelton, James Donaldson and James Edwards, Ballard was selected fourth in the 1977 NBA Draft by Washington.
In 11 seasons spend mostly with the Bullets, with stops in Golden State and Seattle, Ballard averaged 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds. He helped Washington win the 1978 NBA championship as a rookie, later played for one-and-a-half seasons in Italy and worked under George Karl as a player/assistant coach with the CBA Albany Patroons. Eventually Ballard logged 21 years as an NBA assistant and scout.
“As big as Greg was, he was such a soft-natured guy, he always had a smile on his face,” said former Wizards coach Randy Wittman, who worked with Ballard in Dallas, Minnesota and D.C. “Even at the end of August, he was sure he was gonna beat this.”
Wittman, who spoke with Ballard last week, added: “Nicest person I ever met. I’d never known if Greg was having a bad day. You could kick him in the [groin] and he’d be as happy as he could be.”
The pride Ballard took in his advance-scouting role came through in a Portland radio interview he did in June 2012 when asked about the satisfaction derived from a player who takes his scouting report to heart in preparing for an opponent.
“I love that a lot,” Ballard said. “That means he’s serious about his craft. Those guys who study those different plays and what’s coming at ’em down the court, it makes it easier for them to defend and hopefully win the ball game. That creates a lot of positive energy among the rest of the players on the team.”
Though he often rubbed elbows more with other scouts and sportswriters, Ballard said he stayed close to the NBA 27 years after his final game for “the camaraderie.” That longevity served him well.
“He just had so many connections,” Wittman said. “If something came up that he’d go, ‘What the hell? I’ve never seen that,’ he would have that figured out in a couple hours just by making phone calls to different teams. He was so diligent in what he did. … Every time he was available, I snatched him up. I never had to worry about that job being done in the right way.”
The Wizards released a statement Wednesday afternoon on Ballard’s passing:
“Greg forged deep ties to our organization and our community during his time as a player for the Bullets and later as a scout for the Wizards. He was a fierce competitor and loyal teammate over his eight seasons here, beginning as a rookie with the 1977-78 championship team. We are all deeply saddened by his passing and send our thoughts to his family, friends and fans as we celebrate the joyous memories he provided to us all.”
Ballard is survived by his wife of 40 years, Donna, and their children Lawrence, Gabrielle and Gregory Jr.
We are all deeply saddened by the passing of Greg Ballard and send our thoughts to his family, friends and fans. pic.twitter.com/e5LRnMAAb1— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) November 9, 2016
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