Three or four NBA coaches were yukking it up during a lull in their annual September meetings in Chicago, familiar rivals renewing old and building new friendships. At one point, a familiar figure -- tall, bespectacled, in an all-business suit -- headed their way on the hotel’s banquet-hall level.
The coach who spotted Kiki VanDeWeghe first quickly alerted his peers. “Shhh. Shhh! SHHH!” that fellow said in a stage whisper. “It’s the PO-lice!” The others turned, saw VanDeWeghe and laughed heartily, as the NBA’s executive vice president, basketball operations, smiled and joined them.
It would seem a tricky and potentially awkward thing, being the one who can suspend players and whack coaches’ wallets. But VanDeWeghe handles the duty without much stress on either side and has been doing so since 2013.
VanDeWeghe, 60, has worked as many jobs, at as many levels, as arguably anyone in NBA history. He logged 13 seasons with the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, New York Knicks and LA Clippers, averaging 19.7 points on 52.5 percent shooting while making two All-Star teams.
In the 25 years since he retired, VanDeWeghe has served as general manager with Denver and New Jersey, with one season as interim coach of the Nets. He worked as a broadcast analyst for two years with ESPN and spent two years with FOX Sports West covering the Clippers.
He joined the league office in April 2013 and was promoted into his current position later that year. Beyond meting out fines and suspensions, VanDeWeghe has responsibilities with the Competition Committee, game analytics and game operations, while serving as a liaison between the NBA and its teams.
He also holds the distinction of being the top scorer in the highest-scoring game in NBA history. Detroit beat Denver in triple-overtime, 186-184, at McNichols Sports Arena on Dec. 13, 1983 and VanDeWeghe finished with 51 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.
With the 35th anniversary of that milestone game fast approaching, VanDeWeghe spoke with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner about the game, the frantic scoring pace that the league seems to be embracing and more:
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Steve Aschburner: Three hundred seventy points -- and 80 of them came after the fourth quarter. What stands out for you from that crazy game?
Kiki VanDeWegheb At the time, it was kind of a surreal event. It felt like this game went on forever. The number of overtimes, lots of heroic plays, so there was just tons of drama throughout the game.
The Pistons were a tough team. On some level, it was the beginnings of the Bad Boys era. They hadn’t added everybody yet, but they had a core group there -- Isiah Thomas was so tough and [Bill] Laimbeer was Laimbeer, and Vinnie Johnson was the Microwave.
SA: Did you and the others realize you were making history?
KV: What I remember is how tired everybody was, and how after that game, it was like, “Oh man!” Even for a couple of games after that, our team felt it. It was one of those things where you know you’re going through something unique and that it probably won’t happen again, and you’re tired but you’re fired up to experience it. I don’t know if you think you’re making history, but in some small way you get that perspective. At least I did. And it’s sort of exciting – it’s what you play basketball for, that type of competition.
SA: The astounding thing to me is, four years into the 3-pointer’s NBA existence, each team was 1-of-2 from the arc. Makes me think Golden State and Houston conceivably could top 200 points each.
KV: The pace of that game was right at 112. Currently, we’re just north of 110. So we’re playing at that speed, and the thing we’ve added is 3-pointers. That’s what clearly stands out to me about the box score.
It was deflating, I’m not going to lie to you. That was a very tough loss. I thought we had it won in regulation, I thought we had it won a number of times."
SA: So maybe your two teams could have topped 200, with 63 minutes to work with.
KV: It did seem like that. Believe me.
SA: By all rights, a team that misses 23 free throws -- Detroit shot 37-of-60 from the foul line -- ought to lose the game. What was it like for your team to score 184 and lose?
KV: It was deflating, I’m not going to lie to you. That was a very tough loss. I thought we had it won in regulation, I thought we had it won a number of times. It’s just a truism of the NBA that if you let a team hang around long enough, they’re going to have a run and you run the risk of losing that game.
SA: Do you remember the points or basket that won it?
KV: What I remember is Isiah Thomas did a lot at the end to win. That didn’t surprise me. He was such a great competitor. If I recall, we were No. 1 in scoring [that season] and it really was a contrast in styles. Detroit was coached a certain way, we were coached a certain way. We scored 184 points and never ran a play. We played a passing game and the only rule [coach] Doug Moe had was, you couldn’t stand [still]. You had to go do something. Well, we did have two out-of-bounds plays, as I remember it. Alex English went 1-on-1 or I went 1-on-1. Those were our two out-of-bounds plays.
SA: You were putting up Hall of Fame scoring and shooting numbers in those days.
KV: Early in my career I was much more of a driver. But later in that year, I hurt my back for the first time. The next year, I hurt it twice, and after that, I couldn’t really jump well.
The medical side was so different. Now there is such a focus on health and wellness, and teams are so advanced on rest, rehab, how to get the body back in shape. Techniques are so much better. I think about it all the time – if we had had that type of focus and advances in treatment. Because I never really got [healthy]. I turned into a jump shooter. I played a long time after that but wasn’t quite the same player.
I’m going to say yes. For years I said “No, that’ll last forever.” But if you look at the average pace the NBA plays at today, if you look at 3-pointers, if you look at shooting at a high level, I do think one of these nights you’re going to see high two high-scoring teams go a couple of overtimes and do it."
SA: Four weeks after the 186-184 game, your Nuggets team beat San Antonio in regulation, 163-155. You scored 50 that night. Did that soothe some of the sting?
KV: No. I remember this game. Athletes, they remember the losses and the missed shots, the game-winners that could have been. Those are the things that still haunt you.
SA: So do you think we’ll see that record --370 points, two teams -- broken?
KV: I’m going to say yes. For years I said “No, that’ll last forever.” But if you look at the average pace the NBA plays at today, if you look at 3-pointers, if you look at shooting at a high level, I do think one of these nights you’re going to see high two high-scoring teams go a couple of overtimes and do it.
SA: No problem with losing a claim to fame?
KV: Look, we remember things fondly and tend to get better with age. But I can tell you honestly, the game has never been better. We’ve never had more stars. We’ve never had better talent. Skill sets. Shooters in our game. Just across the board, the creativity. Like you, I watch a lot of games. And I’m surprised, I’m stunned, I rewind wondering, “Did I see what I just saw?” In many ways, it’s more exciting today. You’ve got the tremendous pace, you’ve got 3-point shots, you’ve got incredible athleticism.
SA: So about your current gig – is it awkward for you being in charge of players’ and coaches’ discipline?
KV: Most of these guys are really good friends of mine for a very long time. The important thing is communication. Making sure coaches, teams, know what direction we’re headed. We’re very transparent in what we share with the referees. We keep in constant contact with the general managers and coaches.
It’s a real sharing of ideas. Obviously people want to win games and they fight for their teams, but when we get together as a group, it’s about the good of the game. These are basketball people, and they want to make the game better.
SA: Sounds like a legit two-way street, rather than top down.
KV: They’re on the front lines, and we tend to listen. Quite honestly, that’s where most of our rule changes come from. Let’s be honest, this is a little bit of a complaint department -- teams call me all the time -- and the most frequent complaint we got [last season] was away from the ball, freedom of movement, and how to keep the game moving.
And the post play, with all the switching that’s going on, that’s gotten a little rough. That’s typically how we get a Competition Committee agenda -- it comes from our teams.
SA: As far as discipline, it seems the league -- with the possible exception of visiting locker-room intrusions at Staples Center -- has built up enough precedent that the parties involved almost know what’s coming, in fines or suspensions. Does that make things go down more smoothly?
KV: We have a clear system for how we deal with things consistently, the same way every time. It helps to have people weigh in. We look at history. We look at comparables and context that matters. We spend a lot of time talking to everybody involved in incidents. We really try to get an idea of what truly happened.
I’m proud of where we end up in most cases. And the idea is, it’s much less about punishment than it is about deterring behavior, and making sure players can compete and show their natural abilities. And be safe on the court.
SA: Does the NBA keep an eye on the NFL, NHL or MLB when it comes to discipline and policies, or are things too cooked into the respective collective bargaining agreements to have much crossover value?
KV: We do look at them. It’s different for each league, different rules, and not all of it’s applicable. But we do try to incorporate many times “best practices” -- if there’s something we see another league doing, and we think “that’s a really good idea,” we’ll adopt it.
That’s one thing [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] has been so focused on -- keeping us improving. “Hey, don’t be satisfied that you’re doing a good job and everybody seems to be happy. Do better.” That’s a big mantra. And not only [borrowing] from the other leagues but from other businesses.
SA: Your predecessor in this job, Rod Thorn, went into the Hall of Fame this year. Did he give you any advice as you took the job?
KV: Rod was a great relationship guy and still I view him as somebody who’s a mentor and advisor. Rod said, “At the end, be tough. But make sure you leave ‘em laughing.”
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