Bob Ferry could spend his days on the deck of his Annapolis home that looks out onto the Chesapeake Bay, but he's not big on sitting still. He gave up boating when his three kids left the house and stopped playing basketball more than five years ago, at age 69, after he tore his rotator cuff. He and his wife of nearly 52 years, Rita, dote on their eight grandchildren, but on many of their visits, Ferry finds himself watching a basketball game on television.
So why not continue doing what he has been paid to do for most of the past 45 years, which is evaluate NBA prospects?
Ferry, a two-time NBA executive of the year during his 18-year tenure as general manager of the Baltimore and Washington Bullets, is in his second year as a scout for the New Jersey Nets. He spent the recently completed college season going to games around the country — including many at Maryland's Comcast Center — and is still busy preparing for the upcoming June draft.
"The one thing I've always respected was his judgment of talent," said Nets general manager Billy King, who has known Ferry since his high school days in Northern Virginia when he and Ferry's son, Danny, were being recruited at Duke. "I've relied on him not only for that, but for his experience in this job [as an NBA general manager]."
This week, Ferry will be at the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational, where more than 60 prospects will be going through three days of games and drills beginning Wednesday. Among the former college players in attendance looking to catch Ferry's eye will be two with local ties: Kim English (Randallstown) of Missouri and Henry Sims (Mount St. Joseph) of Georgetown.
Considering how much the game has changed since Ferry played 10 seasons for the Detroit Pistons, St. Louis Hawks and Baltimore Bullets, where he started his scouting career as an assistant coach, can he still relate to the skills of those he is judging? Ferry, who will turn 75 next month, said that evaluating talent hasn't changed much.
"The whole secret to me is trying to get a good feeling about players. It's something that you really don't think about, it just happens," said Ferry, sitting in the kitchen of his Annapolis home. "When I'm at a college game, I'm just hoping that I will see someone who I will get a really good feel — in the stomach. Most of the time you don't. When you do, it's an exciting night."
A lot depends on the night Ferry is watching a player. Ferry saw MarShon Brooks go for 50 points or more twice in the same season playing for Providence during the 2010-2011 season. Ultimately, Brooks became the Nets' first-round pick last year. Ferry saw Jordan Williams play a great deal at Maryland, and New Jersey wound up drafting the sophomore forward in the second round.
"We don't see a player a whole lot. You might see a player once or twice in person," Ferry said. "It doesn't always work out. There's a good percentage of the time it does. [After they are drafted], you then watch them play and you root for him as if he was one of your own sons. Some of them are a lot better than you thought and some of them are a bust."
Brooks, a 6-5 shooting guard, has been a great addition to the Nets this season, averaging 12.3 points and starting 40 of the team's 59 games to date. Williams, a 6-10 forward whom Ferry said was drafted on "potential," got off to a slow start after suffering from dehydration during training camp, but has recently begun to show flashes of what Ferry saw during the former Terp's two years in College Park.
Another player that got Ferry excited was Jeremy Lin. The night Ferry watched Lin play for Harvard two years ago, he scored 30 points and grabbed nine rebounds against Connecticut. Ferry wrote up a preliminary report that also included words of praise from Harvard coach Tommy Amaker, who had played with Danny Ferry at Duke. Lin was not drafted.
"He wouldn't have been a consensus first-round pick for anybody," said Ferry, who was working for the Cleveland Cavaliers, where his son had been the general manager from 2005 to 2010. "It's catching players on the right night and figuring out how often they can do it."
Ferry's first foray into college scouting came after he retired as a player, at age 30. An assistant to then-Baltimore Bullets coach Gene Shue, Ferry also was in charge of scouting college talent. One of the first players he went to see was a Philadelphia playground legend that was lighting it up at little Winston-Salem State College.
"Gene and I went and saw Earl Monroe play in the Pan Am Games tryouts. We just fell in love with him," Ferry recalled. "We really loved the player who went before him, a guy by the name of [Jimmy] Walker. The next year, we really liked Elvin Hayes a lot, and he was taken before us and we took Wes Unseld. If somebody else had taken those players, our whole destiny would have changed. That's where luck is involved."
Ferry was the general manager when the Bullets won the franchise's only NBA title in 1978-79, when he was named the league's top executive for the first time.
"Organizations, especially general managers, are judged by the successes of their first-round picks," said Ferry, who was criticized for some of his picks, most notably after taking Kenny Green of Wake Forest right before Hall of Famer Karl Malone was selected by the Utah Jazz in 1985. "The scout is judged by what that player did. You can be right about 198 of the 200 you've scouted, but if you're wrong about the two you drafted, you've done a bad job."
Ferry was retired for about eight years when his son Danny became general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005. After his son resigned in 2010, the older Ferry went to work for the Nets. Asked if he had any concerns hiring a then 73-year old Ferry to scout, King said, "I didn't know he was that old until after I hired him. The great thing about Bob is that he's always watching games. He's a basketball lifer."
Said Danny Ferry, now the vice president of basketball operations for the San Antonio Spurs: "He understands the layers of the decision-making process at the highest levels of an NBA team. It's not just a matter of who's good, it's a matter of who fits. Not only did he help me, he mentored a lot of the younger guys learning the [scouting] business."
The eight years he spent away from the NBA were not that fullfilling for Ferry.
"When Danny took the job in Cleveland, he asked me if I wanted to do some scouting for him. I hadn't thought about that at all. I was retired, but I was bored," Ferry said. "It evolved from me doing it part time to full time. I'm at a stage where I enjoy what I'm doing because it gives me something to do with my time. It's something I feel I'm still pretty good at. People will listen to me. And it gets me out of the house."