Wizards interim President Tommy Sheppard steps out of Ernie Grunfeld's shadow
By Canace Buckner
The Washington Post|
Apr 04, 2019 | 3:00 PM
He studies body language to understand why a player might be in a shooting slump, teaches a sports industry management class at Georgetown and often calls Bradley Beal's father just to check up on him.
Tommy Sheppard has become the team's interim president of basketball operations, elevated to the top job after Ernie Grunfeld's dismissal Tuesday afternoon. Sheppard, 50, has held several titles in the NBA over the course of half of his life and long worked alongside Grunfeld, who the fan base grew to loathe for his personnel decisions over 16 years. But the man simply known around the league as Tommy has largely labored behind the scenes.
Wizards majority owner Ted Leonsis likened Sheppard to another onetime understudy, Brian MacLellan, who Leonsis promoted in 2014 to run the Washington Capitals.
"Tommy is the first person I met with [after Grunfeld's dismissal], and I reminded Tommy of what happened with the Capitals, that our number two to the GM that wasn't a known commodity, wasn't a front-runner, he had the best interview," Leonsis said of MacLellan, the architect behind last year's Stanley Cup champion. "And so I've told Tommy it's not lip service, you're highly regarded and there's other teams that want to talk to Tommy and when the time comes, we will interview [him] for the top job."
Those around the NBA describe Sheppard, a father of seven who played football at New Mexico State before working in professional sports, as a guy who builds and maintains relationships. Whether it's with players he daps up or team executives he chats with on the phone, he has long served as the first point of contact for the Wizards. Even before receiving the interim title, Sheppard ran the team's day-to-day basketball operations.
"Honest, transparent and genuine," were the words longtime NBA agent Bill Duffy used to describe Sheppard.
"Very capable," a rival NBA general manager said of Sheppard's abilities.
"Great guy and really well-respected," texted a Western Conference front office executive.
Still, for the last 16 years in Washington, the same amount of time Grunfeld was with the Wizards, Sheppard has been linked to the successes and failures of his former boss. Grunfeld may be gone, but his shadow lingers. As Sheppard emerges as an early contender to become the Wizards' full-time president, many privately believe his toughest obstacle is proving he was more than Grunfeld's gopher, or just another nice guy. That he is his own man.
"Tommy has a wonderful basketball mind," said the agent for a current Wizards player. "His greatest strength is understanding how a successful team is built on both talent and the strong character of its core. Unfortunately, he hasn't even really had the chance to implement his vision."
While Grunfeld served as the fans' pinata, Sheppard performed his job as the little-known senior vice president of basketball operations. He played a big role in many of the Wizards' recent innovations. This year, the team did a trial run with SyncThink, technology that identifies concussions as well as evaluates mental fatigue in players. Though the Wizards aren't completely sold on making it a part of their sports-science arsenal, the plan was to test it just in case it gave the team an edge.
Although sometimes criticized for old-school ways of thinking - the Wizards gave traditional big man Ian Mahinmi a hefty contract in 2016 when small-ball had already become the rage in the league - the organization has often been on the forefront of change. The Wizards were the fifth team in the NBA to install SportVU cameras to collect tracking data of players on the court. Now, all 30 teams have cameras attached to catwalks.
Inside the Wizards' practice facility is a sensory-deprivation tank, which looks like a futuristic bath tub straight out of a sci-fi novel, to help players recover and relax. Sheppard, who somehow also finds time to work as an adjunct professor at Georgetown, has been credited as the brains behind these ideas.
Though Sheppard has worked only in two spots during his career, Denver and Washington, he has worn many hats. He oversaw the Nuggets' publicity team, worked with community relations and ticket-sales departments and scouted prospects from high school to the Czech Republic. More than a decade ago, Sheppard flew to the Adidas Euro Camp in Treviso, Italy, where he first noticed a 16-year-old Tomas Satoransky. In 2012, the Wizards drafted Satoransky and stashed him overseas to develop.
For the past two seasons, Satoransky has filled in as the Wizards' starting point guard for the injured John Wall and will enter restricted free agency this summer following career-high averages of 8.8 points and 5.0 assists. With Satoransky as their success story, the Wizards have confidence in keeping recent draft picks Issuf Sanon (2018) and Aaron White (2015) in the European incubator before bringing them to Washington.
"[Sheppard] was the guy who was closest to me all the time," Satoransky said. "When I got drafted, when I was stashed back in Europe, he was always in touch. And he always came there."
After most home games, Sheppard goes around the locker room and makes sure he touches and speaks to every player. After losses, he passes along hushed messages of "keep your head up." After big-time performances, Sheppard glows.
When Chasson Randle, who was initially signed as a training camp invitee, scored a career-high in a February game against the Chicago Bulls in front of family and friends, Sheppard blew up his phone with congratulatory texts.
"He gave me some uplift," Randle said. "He's definitely been a positive influence for me this year."
Rookie Troy Brown Jr. remembers a team dinner at the Las Vegas Summer League tournament when Sheppard and players bonded while talking about "real stuff." Brown didn't realize Sheppard mourned the death of Nipsey Hussle, the transcendent rapper who was recently shot and killed in Los Angeles, but can picture him as a fan.
"Based on his swagger," Brown said of Sheppard, "I wouldn't be surprised if I got in his car and he played something like that."
After a game last year, Beal left the locker room early to check on his father, who was hospitalized. The all-star guard said Sheppard still calls St. Louis to see how Bobby Beal, who's better now, is holding up.
Players respect Sheppard for his personal touch. Even agents - who, by job definition have an adversarial relationship with front offices - think Sheppard's a swell guy. The counterargument, however, says personality doesn't necessarily equate to leadership.
"I think people really like him," another agent of a Wizards player said in a text. "But don't see him as someone who can lead an organization.
"No one has a bad thing to say," the agent continued. "Honestly. Doesn't mean he should be GM."
On his first day on the job as interim president, Sheppard got off at the usual Metro stop wearing a suit and button-downed shirt. No tie. He looked comfortable. After the Wizards' shoot-around, he formed a loose huddle with coach Scott Brooks, assistant Robert Pack and several other staffers. When something funny was said, Sheppard's laugh rang the loudest.
For now, the shadow is gone and it's Sheppard's presence that fills the room.