by Mark Montieth
September 27, 2012
There's a million or so basketball fans out there wanting to be where Peter Dinwiddie is today, which happens to be smack-dab between the offices of Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Not so many are willing to follow the path he took to get there, however.
Dinwiddie, 35, made a daring leap from law school to an entry-level sales position for the Pacers and Fever six years ago. It was hardly a typical place for someone with a graduate degree, but Dinwiddie turned it into a launching pad toward becoming Vice-President of Basketball Operations, a role he officially assumed for the Pacers on Aug. 1.
The Cathedral High School and Indiana University graduate grew up a Pacers fan, and has autographs from the likes of Vern Fleming, Stuart Gray, Clark Kellogg and Kyle Macy to prove it. A wrestler, soccer and rugby player in high school, he knew he wanted to go to law school from an early age, and by his senior year in college had set a goal of landing a job in sports administration.
He attended the New England School of Law and had internships with the New England Patriots and the K Sports and Entertainment agency in Boston, but, unable to find a suitable job, returned to Indianapolis. He passed the state bar exam, then took a job in the legal department with Finish Line. When that proved to be a bad fit, his sense of urgency intensified.
A connection between a friend's father and former Pacers general manager David Morway helped him land a job in the Pacers' inside sales department on Jan. 2, 2006. The salary was minimal, the commissions elusive and the promises for advancement nonexistent.
"That's starting at the very bottom," Walsh said.
"A way for me to get my foot in the door," Dinwiddie said.
Such sales positions lack glamor, but they're absolutely essential for a professional sports franchise, being one of the primary factors that put butts in seats. Dinwiddie attacked it. Preposterously organized according to co-workers, he would show up at 7:45 a.m., prepare his schedule, begin making calls at 8:30, and stay with it all day except for a lunch break. The job was made even more difficult by the timing, coming in the wake of off-court incidents that had brought a landslide of negative publicity to the Pacers. Most of the public wasn't in a buying mood at the time.
"You could make a hundred calls a day and not get one yes," he said. "I became tougher during that period. I just tried to stay positive and outwork everybody. Just do whatever it takes."
Dinwiddie chatted up those willing to talk by breaking down the roster and finding the rays of sunlight within. Sometimes it took three, four, five calls to convince a business or resident to buy a ticket package, which hopefully would be upgraded to a half-season or full-season package the following year.
Dinwiddie also tended bar two nights per week, Thursday and Saturday, at the Mouse Trap to help pay off his law school debts. Fridays were his toughest day, because on Thursday he would work at the Fieldhouse until 6:30 or 7, eat dinner, work the bar from 9 until 2:30 a.m., help clean up, get home at 4, go to bed an hour or so later and get up at 7 to go back to selling tickets.
Dinwiddie drove himself because he had a self-assigned two-year deadline to break into an administrative position. If it didn't happen, he had resigned himself to somehow making use of his law degree. The only way to make himself known to the higher-ups was to produce eye-catching revenue.
He led the department in ticket sales during his first six months, earning the traditional honor of having his tie cut and hung on the wall by making a ticket sale that brought in more than $10,000. (He was prepared for that as well, wearing a Pillsbury Doughboy tie that had been given to him as a gag gift on the day of the ceremonial snipping.)
He went on to lead the group sales department in the 2007-08 season, then became group sales manager for a few months. By then, Brenda Smith, veteran of the ticket sales and services department, had become aware of his basketball operations ambitions and arranged a meeting with Walsh through Walsh's assistant, Susy Fischer.
Walsh has had dozens of people stream into his office and tell him they want to be a general manager someday, but Dinwiddie stood out. He had a law degree, proven performance in the sales department and a respectable degree of insight into the nuances of NBA transactions. After the third meeting, Walsh began giving Dinwiddie projects to simulate the real world of basketball operations. He provided him access to the league's Player Contract Management System, which includes the messy details of all player contracts, and asked him to propose hypothetical trades—one that might land a marquee player, for example, or reduce payroll. Walsh then offered critiques.
"It was an unbelievable experience for me," Dinwiddie said.
When Walsh left the Pacers in 2008 to resurrect the Knicks' basketball fortunes, he recommended Dinwiddie to Larry Bird, who was assuming the team presidency. Walsh figured the kid from the sales department would appeal to Bird.
"Larry goes for that, a guy coming out of nowhere," Walsh said.
And he did. After a couple of months, Bird called Walsh in New York.
"You were right about him," Bird said.
Dinwiddie worked two jobs within the Fieldhouse for about nine months, running the group sales department during the day and assisting Bird and Morway with basketball operations at night. He later moved fulltime into operations.
There's far more to the job than running potential deals through the ESPN Trade Machine. You have to possess a landscape knowledge of the league, knowing for example what other teams are looking for, who has room under their salary cap, who has contract exceptions, who wants to shed payroll, how to get a third team involved to make a deal work. It's a grind, but the fun comes from finding loopholes that might allow a deal to work and having a meaningful role in the team-building process.
Dinwiddie will continue crunching numbers for Walsh and Pritchard. When trades or acquisitions are being discussed, he'll be in the room to provide details of contracts and determine whether a trade will work under the CBA. He's also free to form his own opinions by communicating with the scouting staff and traveling to get first-hand impressions of players.
"He's very creative," Pritchard said. "He can look at a bunch of things and bring it into one and say, 'You know, if we do this, this and this, there will be a different outcome.' You've got to keep doing that, because as the cap gets more complex, you have to figure out the ways to give your team the best advantage. He thinks about it every single day, all day."
It's more complicated, but not necessarily more grueling, than selling tickets. Looking back on it, those days in the boiler room served Dinwiddie well.
"That was an unbelievable experience for me," Dinwiddie said of his sales experience. "I wouldn't have that understanding if not for ticket sales. I've got so much of an appreciation for how hard everyone works trying to generate the revenue. Picking up the phone, making a hundred cold calls a day, just the daily grind of what it takes. I've lived through it, so I can appreciate it."
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