NBA's Brian McIntyre brilliant at walking the line
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(Photo courtesy of the NBA)
There are all sorts of difficult tricks in sports, like the Moto X at the X-Games, the back 1½-½ twist dive, and, of course, jumping the Snake River Canyon.
Brian McIntyre, who is now Senior Communications Advisor to NBA Commissioner David Stern, successfully performed perhaps the greatest feat of them all. NBA media was confident Brian was the advocate for them, while the NBA was satisfied Brian was the advocate for the league.
There is perhaps no greater balancing act in the world of communications. Sure, Brian is credited with numerous innovations in his media relations career, which began as Bulls media and marketing director in 1978.
There was creating numerous league awards, including Defensive Player, Sixth Man and Most Improved, as well as initiating visits to the White House for league champions and developing the guidelines that made the NBA perhaps the most accessible sports league to the public and contributed to its unprecedented growth through the 1980s and 1990s.
But what's always been most truly remarkable to me is the way McIntyre walked that oh so thin and difficult line in pubic relations of faithfully serving his employer while maintaining the credibility and support of the journalists covering the NBA.
(Photo courtesy of the NBA)
He did it so much so that the Professional Basketball Writers Association named its annual team media relations tribute for McIntyre and National Association of Black Journalists honored him with a Merit Award in 2009.
"Brian understood the essence of sports league communication and he has lived it for more than 30 years: Make the media's job easier to cover a sport and treat journalists with respect," said NBA Commissioner Stern. "Brian worked tirelessly to make our game, our coaches and our players more accessible and developed personal relationships with every member of the media who covered our sport, giving them all confidence that there was an advocate who tried to make them successful, as well as making life easier.
"He also made sure that there was always enough to eat and drink!" Stern added with a laugh.
"I think, really, Brian was less about getting our message out and more about the people receiving the message, making it as easy as possible to make us accessible and treat them with respect," said Stern. "He's a loyal soldier. When there was something he didn't agree with, he'd express his view and then go on. Even though he thought every member of the print media should be sitting center court, he didn't spend a lot of time telling everyone. He just tried to work out the fairest position for everyone."
It's a rare ability and in the many innovations and coordinating NBA media operations in 30 NBA Finals and All-Star games plus five Olympics, the North Side kid from Loyola Academy who broke into sports by hawking his own competing, 25-cent game program at Bulls and Blackhawks games in the 1970s will be awarded the 2011 John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award Aug. 11, by the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts during 2011 enshrinement weekend. The Bunn award, which went to Johnny Kerr in 2009, is the Hall of Fame's highest honor outside enshrinement and was named for the first chairman of the Hall of Fame.
"I learned loyalty trumps news," said McIntyre. "That's what I strived for and most P.R. people do. Being a P.R. person can be a tough job because you are trying to satisfy so many different constituencies. So you cannot make everyone happy. But you try to respect what everyone is trying to do and what everyone needs. I grew up wanting to be a writer, so I've always had a lot of respect for the profession. I enjoyed the give and take. Hey, you learn growing up in Chicago, 'You don't back no losers; you don't make no waves.'
"You learn to work with everyone and it's win-win. Life is about working together," said McIntyre. "I've worked with the best writers, broadcasters and athletes. You try to take each side's position to the other. Keep the lines of communication open. Be honest and show your people here's what they need and the media here's what we need. It's about compromise.
"Everyone wants to come out a winner, but it doesn't always happen," said McIntyre. "But if people realize you are trying to get results people will believe in you. It's about having credibility and trying to reach a common good. I'm thankful to have grown up in a family where you were taught to stand up for what you believe, don't be afraid to speak your mind and dare to be different. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do when I was growing up. But I've lived the dream job."
You'd wish your elected representatives in Congress had that same attitude and philosophy.
Brian's honor is personal for me, since I've worked with him for almost 30 years. The honor is for those who have impacted and influenced the game of basketball. Sometimes one can ask how someone in media relations can do so. But if you know the job you also know the impact someone can have. Obviously, there are the innovations, like creation of the various awards. But it is the rare media liaison who is able to straddle the hazy line between corporate endeavor and journalistic responsibility and gain credibility in both worlds.
The greatest attribute for someone in the media business is to be considered a professional. The notion of someone in public or media relations is they will do their best to spin a story or issue to make their organization look better right or wrong. Brian always was dedicated to the NBA and a great advocate for the league. At the same time, his concern always was for the greater good, the bigger picture, the notion that good journalism would be good for everyone, including the NBA. Journalism never has had a better advocate than Brian, who always protected and endorsed the integrity of the profession. As a result of his work and commitment, the league was better and the journalists were better."
That's quite the balancing act.
And there's more to innovation than official occurrences. There's a humanity involved, and that's also where McIntyre excelled.
One reason for the success of the NBA has been the intimacy of its players with the public. Sure, they are more visible given they are not wearing armor like football players or full uniforms like baseball players. But the access to NBA players by media, and thus the public, long has transcended those in any major team sport.
It's hardly always been unanimous or voluntary. Coaches have needed urging as well as players, a delicate role for media staffers. Brian always walked that tight rope brilliantly.
The NBA requires its top players in the playoffs to comment after games. So there was the time the always recalcitrant Rasheed Wallace was refusing. He'd get his share of fines, and I recall one time as president of the Basketball Writers Association I made a private plea and explanation to Wallace. He stared at me for a few minutes and then offered: "I don't give a (crap) about anyone but me and my family."
(Photo courtesy of the NBA)
So after one big Portland playoff game Wallace was having to address reporters' questions. So he figured he'd beat the system. He answered every question the same: "Both teams played hard." Seven straight questions, and then the league yanked him.
Traditional methods weren't going to work with this guy. The next game McIntyre came in with t-shirts reading "Both teams played hard." Even Wallace had to laugh and was a much more cooperative subject afterward.
When McIntyre became Bulls media and marketing director in 1978, one of his mentors was the first Bulls P.R. director, legendary Chicago impresario Ben Bentley, who happened to be the inspiration for Benny the Bull as well.
"Ben said, 'Kid, you've got to work the line. Go out and see where they work, drop off a few pizzas, a six pack. Let them know you care.' I did that for a long time," Brian recalls.
Look, basketball was no easy sell in Chicago in the 1970s. It wasn't always Jordan and dancing squirrels.
It's something McIntyre carried with him to the NBA in 1981. After all, when you break it down, people are people. The NBA generally hosts a hospitality room after All-Star and Finals games for media with snacks and drinks. So one night a particularly overzealous security guard came by around 1 a.m. (and many writers work until then or later) and wanted to close down the room. He said the room wasn't a guest room, so he had to close it down. Brian called a bellman and ordered a rollaway bed and propped it up in the corner of the room. Brian looked at the guard and said, "Looks like a guest room to me."
The security guard left shaking his head. A knowing smile as well. Can't beat a problem solver.
"Brian truly took it to another level that night," recalled longtime Milwaukee NBA writer Tom Enlund.
Of course, it always didn't work out perfectly. But it was about trying.
In the 1970s at the Chicago Stadium, the National Anthem was generally played on a recording or by legendary organist Nancy Faust. So one day Brian decided they'd try a live rendition. He arranged with Ferlin Husky, a popular country and western singer from the 1960s whose "Wings of a Dove" was a huge hit. He died earlier this year. He was a basketball fan and would be at the game, anyway.
Huskey starts and about 20 or 30 seconds in stops and admits after jumbling the always difficult lyrics that he had forgotten the words.
"If it were 'Wings of a Dove,' I wouldn't have forgotten the words," Huskey announced.
Fortunately, the Bulls games were lightly attended then.
"I could just feel (chief operating officer Jonathan) Kovler and (general manager) Rod Thorn's eyes on the back of my neck," McIntyre said with a laugh.
Brian grew up on the North Side of Chicago and attended Loyola Academy for high school. His father sold advertising space for the old Sunday supplements and his mother while raising four kids also did some writing for suburban newspapers. But you had to work then to help the family and from 10 or 11 Brian was shoveling snow in winter, mowing lawns in summer and faking his age so he could add some hours in a local grocery store. His game was hockey as pro basketball didn't even exist in Chicago with the short tenures of the Zephyrs and Packers before the Bulls began in 1966.
Brian tried Holy Cross in Worcester, but that didn't take and then went to Loyola Academy, where he was basketball manager, wrote for the school newspaper and helped start the hockey team with inspiration from long time mentor Gene Sullivan, the DePaul athletic director and later Loyola athletic director and basketball coach. Brian is in the Loyola Academy athletic hall of fame and still an advisor for the school of communications.
After graduation in 1972, McIntyre was writing and editing professional trade publications and avidly following his beloved Blackhawks.
Team programs were fairly primitive then with virtually nothing on the opponents. So McIntyre came up with the notion to publish a competing program about the opponents.
"Every program had the same features all season," recalled McIntyre. "And back then Chicago papers weren't advancing the games. I felt there was a need. I wanted to know. And I wanted to become a writer, anyway."
So McIntyre started his own program with updated rosters (not often in the team program), a feature on the opponent and some league stuff. It was called The Program.
He sold advertising and it became a hit at 25 cents a copy compared to $1 for the team program as he also was doing it for the Bulls. He would call team public relations directors around the NHL and NBA for information and buy up out of town Sunday newspapers in an era when such information was hard to find and the Chicago newspapers didn't have much expanse in sports.
He eventually had so much demand he hired kids at $10 per game to help him sell them and was making more than at his advertising job for four years into the 1977-78 season.
Then one day Kovler called and asked if he'd like to run the Bulls media operations. The competition was driving the Blackhawks and Bulls nuts. Media director Mike McClure left, so the Bulls figured to limit the competition as well.
McIntyre started with the Bulls in June 1978, and remembers going to the NBA draft, which was then a public daytime event, that year for fans at the Bismarck Hotel. McIntyre remembers the Bulls selecting New Mexico's Marvin Johnson with their second round pick and the father and brother of Maurice Cheeks leaping to their feet and shouting, "You'll be sorry."
The Bulls didn't get a better point guard for 30 years.
Then it was off to California for the annual league meetings.
"I get introduced to Al Attles," Brian recalled. "I'm three years removed from that Western Conference finals and the Warriors beating the Bulls. I'm on the East Coast during the seventh game and they're listening on the radio at home and I have them put the phone receiver up to the radio so I can listen to the game. And now Al Attles is introducing me around the room. I'm thinking, 'My god, this is Al Attles, the destroyer.' It was the first sense of the family feeling that permeates the NBA. There were the stories from the ABA guys and how much fun they had, everyone helping each other. It was such a magical time."
McIntyre left the Bulls to current media director Tim Hallam and moved to oversee the league's media operations in 1981, running the operations at 30 years of Finals, All-Star games and Olympics since the 1992 Dream Team.
"As a kid you want the chance to represent your country. I'd always dreamed it would be in hockey," said McIntyre. "Working those five Olympics you feel a part of the team and then bringing back (the gold medal) in 2008 was so satisfying and fulfilling. I'm a lucky guy. Basketball has been incredibly great for me."
And Brian has been incredibly great for basketball.