One on one with Billy King

The former Blue Devil talks about his career at Duke and how it lead him to be a NBA general manager - currently with the Brooklyn Nets.

To start I wanted to ask…did you ever expect you’d end up being an NBA General Manager…was it a defined goal?

Billy King: Not when I was at Duke no. When I was there my thought process was to be a coach or to do television. I never even thought about being a general manager at that time.

What changed and lead you to pursue being a GM?

When I was at Indiana with Donnie Walsh, I was an assistant there and in meetings with him and the coaching staff and just seeing how he operated, it made me say to myself that that is something I want to do. 

What would you say have been your guiding philosophies throughout your career?

A lot of it has been what I watched from Donnie Walsh and learning from watching him and thinking, “what would Donnie do in this situation?” Then another large part of it was Coach K in seeing how he chose to build a team and build a family where you care about them as people first.

I think Donnie played a role in my development as a GM but also I think Larry Brown helped a lot in developing my pro basketball philosophy with players but definitely Donnie I learned how do you manage administratively and how do you manage someone else as the general manager. I also think Rod Thorn was important too, he’s been a great friend who is now in the League Office. I was fortunate when I came in that I had some great people that I could pick their brains on. I remember Wes Unseld at the time, Jerry West when he was with the Lakers, Rod Thorn was at the League Office, Donnie Walsh, I just tried to be a sponge around all those guys. 

The philosophies you’ve learned from watching Donnie Walsh and Coach K—is there an example you can point to of how you implemented what you learned from them philosophically in a practical way in your role as GM?

I think they both, Donnie came from the Carolina system but its similar with him and with Coach K in that you really try to bring good people into your organization. So like when you do your draft it’s important you do your homework and know who the people are, try to find out their lifestyle and then when you get them on your roster, you try to spend time getting to know them as people and get them to understand that you are a part of something that is bigger than them.

What have you learned about yourself personally and professionally having been the GM of the Sixers and now with the Brooklyn Nets?

I guess probably personally it’s just a very hard job. When I started my first GM job I wasn’t married but by the end I was and when I took the job here in Brooklyn I had a family, so I had to learn to balance the family life and the job as well. 

I know most fans probably have no idea on what the week to week, day to day life entails for NBA GM’s. Any insight you can share into the daily realities of doing this kind of work?

It goes in phases. The beginning of the season is preparing the roster and working with the coaches to try and prepare the roster for them and you are constantly looking at trades. Once you get past the Trade Deadline, then you are focusing more on the Draft and free agency for the next season. Once the season is over you really are diving into that more and building the roster for the next season. So it’s always like a two phase in a way, you are always I look at it as I am constantly managing the coaches and the players, spending time with them and talking with them. I probably spend more time talking with them than I do on the road scouting because I think it’s that’s important to spend time in talking with and managing the coaches and the players. Like I always try to spend time with the guys and I always try to get to know each person so a guy knows who I am and I know him so that I can get to the point where I can tell something’s wrong with a coach or player and I can go up and ask, “what’s wrong ?” So you try to head off problems a lot or if a player gets into a car accident or a player gets hurt, you make sure that #1 they are ok and then make sure they know what they need for rehab. You also offer anything you can to help them succeed with their home life or their injury rehab process, so it’s just a lot of different things that you do to make sure that you have a pulse on what’s going on with your team, both with individuals and with the coaches.

Speaking of players you have a former Duke player Mason Plumlee on your roster. What can you recall about the scouting process you and the Nets had with Mason while he was at Duke and what’s it been like for you seeing his development since he got to the Nets ?

Well I spent a lot of time watching a lot of Duke games and seeing Mason progress from a freshman all the way through. He grew every year and he matured. Coming in for his rookie year I really didn’t expect him to contribute much because we had so much depth at his position and on the team but to his credit, he worked hard from the Summer League on to earn his minutes and now he’s been doing a good job and being successful for us. 

Going back to your comment about managing your roster constantly. Obviously the Trade Deadline just passed before our interview, what’s this latest installment of Trade Deadline week been like for you and how have you seen your approach to Trade Deadline Week change if at all?

It depends on where you are. I think at this point people were asking about guys and what players are out there, so you have to weigh your options. Maybe you are trying to find the right pieces that fit your team and you are trying to negotiate things along the way. 

How much does your relationships with other teams’ GM’s inform how you approach trade negotiations—is that as big a factor as some would think?

Well you do have relationships with some of them but at the end of the day, you are trying to work out the deal that works best for you. So you do have relationships but ultimately all of us are trying to figure out deals that works best for us. You are cordial and some guys you have better relationships with than others but each one is trying to win the deal so to speak.

Have there been any deadline trades that have been particularly tough to navigate?

No because they are all different as you go along. Because some of them are bigger versus some are pretty small, its really dependent on where your roster is at that time. 

You also mentioned building your roster through the Draft. How much do you prefer traveling and scouting players in person versus leaning on the input of your Scouting Director and his staff?

I have a very good staff and I put a lot on them. That’s something I learned in Philadelphia, you have to trust your scouts because that’s what they do. I do go out but obviously not as much as they do and I trust them because that’s what they do. As we get closer to the Draft I get more involved and focus in more but it’s really I leave the Draft to them to manage because it’s really my job is to try and acquire the picks so we can have good picks to make.

Is there a Nets philosophy as it relates to scouting players for your organization?

They’ve been with me for awhile now so they know what we are looking for. So when they are out scouting, we meet periodically and we discuss things but they know what we are trying to accomplish. It’s not something I have to remind them of every year, it doesn’t change year to year.

You also hear about the draft process with prospective top players where they meet with their college coaches and discuss what is know about potential draft slotting for them. From an administrative standpoint, how much dialogue do NBA front offices actually get to have with coaches who are seeking that kind of feedback for their players?

They can reach out to us and get information but they can also reach out to the League and get information there. If coaches ask I will give feedback and a lot of times we’ll talk with coaches to get background on players as well. 

Thanks for the insight into the NBA side of things for you, lets switch gears to your Duke career if I may. What do you remember about your recruiting process that led you to Duke?

It was Tommy Amaker who him and I were real good friends with since I was like 12 years old, he chose Duke the year before and so immediately I looked at Duke. Coach K started recruiting me as he was recruiting Tommy and I chose Duke because of him. I would have loved to say it was because of the academics or the beautiful campus but it was for one person, it was for Coach K and I believed in him. At that time he had had back to back losing seasons when I chose Duke but I just had unbelievable belief and trust in him that has grown over the years to be stronger.

What was his recruiting approach towards you?

I spoke to him all the time, he wrote letters, he came to see me play and that’s where I think the relationship really started to develop and the trust started to build because he was in constant contact and was actively recruiting me. He wouldn’t just tell me I had a good game, he would discuss the game in detail with me and he would tell me things that I did well and things I could have done better, he was coaching me when he was recruiting me. I never felt the pressure that I had to go to Duke, it was just sorta it happened because of the relationship I built with him. 

When you took your visit to Duke—did that seal the deal for you or did you go in already having a sense you were likely going to go to Duke?

I pretty much knew that that was where I wanted to go even though Kansas tried to come in late. When I got on my visit it just kinda reaffirmed that this is the place. I had been on campus unofficially before, but when I got there for my official visit, it just solidified it.

You got there when Amaker and his group were juniors and you also played alongside Danny Ferry and Quin Snyder, what was it like for you playing on those teams with that overall level of talent?

I didn’t even look at it as talent, I looked at those guys as brothers. With Johnny and Tommy, Johnny, David and Mark, they were the juniors and they taught us everything. Jay Bilas taught me the ropes about what Duke Basketball was all about and how should we conduct ourselves. Along with Tommy as a sophomore, when Danny and those guys, I had known Danny before, so when he got there that was another friend that I knew. When Quin came in, we were there to win and support each other which I think we do now, it was a special bond that we had that year, it was just a special group.

Was Tommy who you grew closest with during your time at Duke?

Tommy and I were close for sure, but when Danny came in, Danny and I were really close as well. Tommy and I had known each other for a long time but I hung out a lot with Danny and I also spent a lot of time with David and others, Jay Bilas and Mark, we hung out on campus a lot and we had a great relationship.

In your four years at Duke you went to two Final 4s and had the opportunity to compete in a National Championship game. What was it like for you experiencing that level of success that many don’t get to in their time in college?

It was a great success but it was also a big disappointment because I really thought we had the best team in 86. To not win it was disappointing. 88 I think it was a great accomplishment to get there because we lost three in a row late in the season and then we got on a roll and then as a Senior to be able to get to the Final 4 when nobody really expected us to, that was pretty special.

During those Final 4s and the National Championship game, what do you remember about how the team was preparing on those days?

We just focused. I don’t even think I was thinking about going to the Final 4, I remember Coach K did a great job keeping us focused. In 86 we played Kansas and we were just focused on beating Kansas and I remember leading up to that, you gotta remember there wasn’t a lot of hype building up like there is now because there was no Twitter so for us we were in Durham in a bubble just focusing on how to beat Kansas. Then in 88 it was the same thing, we watched SportsCenter and got excited at watching the films that Coach K showed us.

Jay Bilas mentioned in this series how different it was for your era of teams because you kept getting better and better and people just kept growing in their interest for Duke outside of the Twitter age that we’re in now….what was it like for you with that?

It was fun, I think it was great to be a part of the growth of Duke Basketball at the beginning of it with Coach K. I could see the growth of it with the growth of it on campus. Duke Alumni, the student body, the faculty and the staff, the atmosphere, it was great to see it grow without the age of social media. 

You also had the opportunity to be a Senior captain your last year at Duke. What kind of approach did you take as a leader and captain on that team and what was it like for you being a Senior leader under Coach K?

I took the same approach that I learned from Johnny and David and Tommy, Mark, Jay, all of those guys I just did what they did and I just made sure that everybody, from the freshman on up to realize that there was a certain standard to being a Duke Basketball player that we had to live up to. That was my main job as captain. 

How different was Coach K as a person and coach back then when you played versus how he is now in your estimation?

I think he was still trying to establish the program, so he pushed us hard but I still think he does the same now. The passion he still shows on the sideline, he’s filled with that same passion. I think that’s why Duke Basketball has had so much success. There have been great players there but Coach K has had that same passion and that same drive since Day 1 to win.

Every player in this series has mentioned memorable things Coach K said to them over the years that has made an impact in their lives—do you have any examples of that for you personally?

I think the one thing that really helped me was he told me when he was recruiting me that I’m a people person and Duke’s a people school, so its a perfect match and I think he was absolutely right. Probably the one thing that he always talks about that every player knows is the idea of the FIST. That FIST you hear is when you have five guys that are together, their fist will break the hand of the 5 players whose hands are stretched out. That’s something I talk about with my staff and with the team is you have to become a FIST because the tighter your fist, the better your team will be. 

What did it mean to you to see Coach K win a 1000 this year and having been a part of a good amount of those wins?

You know you think about when I played, you weren’t thinking that this guy was going to win a 1000. He just does a great job at having us focus on that game and then the next game he does the same while challenging us to win a 3 game segment or something like that. He always sets goals, little goals and big goals and I was able to be there with guys like Danny Ferry and many others to see it come up. He has meant a lot to so many players who have played for him and to see him have that achievement is pretty special. 

My wife and I were actually able to be there after that game and it was great after he finished the press to able to give him a hug and to be able to be there with Danny was really nice and also to see other guys there was great. To see him there with his whole family was just great and it was moment, there’s moments in your life that you cherish and that’s one of them. 

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