Nuggets reap benefits of homegrown talent
Coaching, PR staff have distinct Denver roots
As part of a ritual they had repeated in dozens of cities across the country, the guys wearing Denver Nuggets gear tapped the picture of the original Chipotle restaurant as they walked out the door 15 miles north of Oklahoma City.
They did so after exchanging lighthearted trash talk with some local teenagers who likely were oblivious to the irony that they were dining in a distinctly Denver establishment.
When you’re on the road for nearly 10 weeks a year, it’s nice to have a small reminder of home.
Nobody working for the Nuggets appreciates the comforts of Denver better than assistant coach Chad Iske, media relations director Tim Gelt and media relations manager Nick O’Hayre.
Iske is a Regis Jesuit High School alumnus who walked Dan Issel’s dog and helped move fitness equipment from McNichols Arena to the Pepsi Center when he started as a scouting department intern in 1999.
Gelt graduated from J. K. Mullen High School – which, incidentally, happens to be Regis’ chief rival – and remembers organizing storage closets and serving as an airport shuttle driver for players, coaches and executives.
O’Hayre led the state of Colorado in assists as a senior at Chatfield High School in 2002-03, interned with the Nuggets after college and worked for three NBA franchises before accepting an offer to return to Denver midway through the 2010-11 season.
Operating in an economy where a job in the upper reaches of Antarctica would be attractive, Iske, Gelt and O’Hayre consider themselves fortunate to be making an impact for their hometown NBA team.
“I’m not the best contract negotiator because all the (front office executives) upstairs know that I’d rather be here than anywhere else,” Iske said. “It’s not like I sat there every day and dreamed of one day working for the Nuggets, but it’s kind of a dream come true to work for a professional team where you grew up.”
The dog’s name was Molly, a friendly yellow lab in her golden years.
As a 23-year-old intern working in the Nuggets scouting department, Iske had no idea he would spend nearly as much time with Molly as he did with Chauncey Billups, Ryan Bowen and James Posey.
But when Dan Issel – the team’s vice president/general manager/head coach – asked him to look after the dog while he and his wife Cheri were on road trips with the team, there wasn’t much Iske could say other than, “Where do you keep the Milk Bones?”
“They had moved to a nice penthouse apartment off Downing and Speer,” Iske said. “Whenever the team would go on the road, I had to go over three or four times a day and feed Molly, take her for walks, get her out.”
Iske’s internship was only supposed to run through December 1999, but his dedication and willingness to perform any task paid off when the Nuggets kept him on for the remainder of the season. Issel then hired him as a video coordinator the following year.
“I was pretty excited about that,” Iske said.
And why not? Having majored in sports management at the University of Kansas and coached high school basketball in Lawrence, Iske was a textbook hoops junkie who suddenly had access to amenities he never imagined possible.
Full-size practice court. Fully equipped weight room. Projection-screen theater. Rec room equipped with pool tables and arcade games.
“I was definitely here more than anybody else in the building,” Iske said. “I was an intern living at home with my parents. Why would I hang at home when I have a basketball court to myself, a weight room to myself, a video game room to myself and a place to watch games?”
As the team’s video coordinator, Iske watched and edited countless hours of game film and eventually began taking on more responsibility, particularly after George Karl was hired as head coach midway through the 2004-05 season.
Some things never change; as he did for Issel, Iske occassionally watches Karl’s labradors. But Karl has seen Iske, 35, blossom from a quiet young scout into a confident assistant and loyal confidante.
“When I was around him early, he was somewhat introverted,” Karl said. “He did his job well, but we kind of had to break him out of his shell a little bit. Chad has a great basketball mind. He’s in a great place right now. Every year there’s more responsibility. Good head coaches feel the game before it happens. I think Chad’s fallen into that category.”
Iske could follow the career path of newly hired Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown, who worked as video coordinator for the Nuggets before rising through coaching ranks and taking the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007.
“I hope to have that opportunity someday,” Iske said. “I want to stay (in Denver) and learn from (Karl) as long as I can. Hopefully, under his guidance, it will help put me in position to have the opportunity to follow in his footsteps and be a head coach in the league.”
When Iske lands a head-coaching job, he has standing offer from Gelt to be his media relations director.
Considering the history of the Mullen-Regis rivalry in Colorado, the pairing would be akin to a Montague endorsing a Capulet, a Hatfield joining forces with a McCoy or a Duke grad working in tandem with a North Carolina alum.
Gelt, 34, and Iske attended the Mullen-Regis state championship football game together last fall. Surrounded by Regis fans, Gelt sat in satisfied silence as Mullen cruised to a 37-6 victory for its third straight 5A title.
Whenever Gelt does feel the temptation to gloat, Iske is quick to remind him that Regis is in the midst of a three-year title run in basketball.
“Being that we work in basketball, I like to say I have the upper hand,” Iske said. “Football? Who cares about football? We’re a basketball team.”
And that’s where Iske and Gelt find common ground. Both are passionate about their hometown hoops team.
Gelt often attended Nuggets games with his mom at McNichols Arena, but his first “insider” NBA experience came in 1994 when his dad won a charity auction to attend a road game with the team. They flew on the charter flight, rode the team bus and watched LaPhonso Ellis and Denver fall to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center.
Their liaison for the trip was current AEG executive Todd Goldstein, who would hire Gelt as an intern for corporate suite sales at the Pepsi Center five years later.
“Before that, I didn’t realize the opportunities to work with teams,” Gelt said. “When I met Todd, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Gelt enrolled in the sports industry operations program at Metro State and landed an internship with the Sacramento Kings media relations department in the summer of 1999 before returning to work at the Pepsi Center in the fall.
With a recommendation from his supervisor Allison Levy in corporate sales, he moved into the Nuggets media relations department in 2000-01. His duties included helping with game notes, picking up players at the airport and anything else media relations director Tommy Sheppard and his assistant Eric Sebastian asked him to do.
“Tim’s passion and enthusiasm for the Nuggets was evident from Day 1,” said Sebastian, who is now director of basketball operations for the University of Memphis. “He is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around.
“Some people start off in the business claiming they’ll do anything to get the job, but their work ethic changes after a few months when they find out how much work is involved. Tim’s work ethic has never changed. He still works as hard today as when he first got there.”
Sebastian took over as media relations director when Sheppard joined the Washington Wizards front office in 2003. Gelt then succeeded Sebastian in 2009 and credits both his predecessors for his “service-first” outlook to the media relations business.
He would try to accommodate a reporter from the Pueblo Chieftain or Greeley Tribune in the same manner as a national writer from ESPN or Sports Illustrated.
“PR people, you do what you need to do,” Gelt said. “You’re all about service.”
The same philosophy holds true when it comes to players.
“Tommy and Eric taught me a long time ago, you treat every player the exact same top to bottom,” Gelt said. “I’ve had great relationships with our biggest stars and our guys on the bench. They’re all part of this team and we’re all in it together.”
Like those who came before him, Gelt takes pride in paying it forward. That’s why he was thrilled to help bring O’Hayre home to Denver after the All-Star break.
Before attending Colorado State, O’Hayre played against Chauncey Billups’ younger brother Rodney in high school and then cheered for Chauncey while attending Nuggets games with his brothers and parents at McNichols Arena.
“I grew up playing basketball, loved basketball, watched as many games as I could, played as much as I could,” O’Hayre said. “Once I wasn’t able to play anymore, I wanted to do something where I could still be around the sport. It’s something I’m passionate about.”
O’Hayre, 26, got his foot in the door with the Nuggets as a media relations intern under Sebastian during the 2006-07 season. He later interned with the New Orleans Hornets and the Utah Jazz before being hired full-time with the Golden State Warriors in 2008-09.
“I hired Nick as an intern because he was very similar to Tim,” Sebastian said. “He did whatever was asked enthusiastically and got the job done.”
Like Iske, O’Hayre has done his share of dog-sitting for previous bosses. He also provided door-to-door airport shuttle service for respected Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer Phil Jasner when the 76ers visited New Orleans.
“That’s not really in your job description,” O’Hayre said, “but those type of things help build relationships.”
As he was developing new connections in different NBA cities, O’Hayre monitored the Nuggets on-line and on TV whenever possible. He didn’t hold his breath waiting for a homecoming.
“I didn’t think it would happen this soon,” he said. “There’s only 30 teams and these jobs are coveted. I had already moved and lived in four different states. I’m lucky it happened here. Not only is it my hometown team but it’s always been known as a great organization. Plus, it’s nice to have a vested interest in the team you’re working for.”
Appreciating the Opportunity
Like any other job, O’Hayre, Iske and Gelt have settled into a groove. They interact daily with elite athletes – many of whom become household names – but they are long past the point of being starstruck.
No time for that. There are games to scout, film to watch, practices to prepare for, game notes to be written, and interviews to be arranged.
It’s when someone posts a message on Facebook or sends a quick text saying they saw Gelt, Iske or O’Hayre on TV during a Nuggets game that the sense of pride kicks in.
“You don’t think you’re in the limelight – just the players,” Iske said. “It always puts things in perspective when people point out to their friends that they went to school with you. That’s always cool and makes you feel better about what you’re doing. It makes you realize what a lucky position you’re in.”
Lest they ever forget, the reminder will be on the wall when they walk out of a Chipotle in Atlanta, Portland and NBA destinations in between.