Professionals from across the National Basketball Association, in New Orleans for the All-Star Game, gave Tulane University students a behind-the-scenes view of the league Feb. 17. Team executives shared insights into a rapidly evolving business in which whirlwind technology quickly turns broadcast deals obsolete and the issues facing team lawyers and front offices run the gamut from morals clauses in contracts to lucrative new pots of sponsorship money.
But the most picture-perfect perspective came from Tulane Law alum Jon Phelps, a 2012 graduate who’s already risen to general manager of the Grand Rapids Drive, the NBA Development League team of the Detroit Pistons.
Phelps said he enrolled at Tulane for the Sports Law program and took the classes required for a Sports Law certificate, including antitrust, intellectual property and labor law. He also served as a research assistant for Professor Gabe Feldman, director of the program, and a nationally known authority on some of the high-profile issues in the industry.
When both the NBA and the National Football League had player lockouts during Phelps’ second year, he said, “my classmates and I were able to study many of the legal issues surrounding these professional sports leagues in real time,” he said.
During his third year, he was symposium editor for the Tulane Law Review’s symposium issue on the role of antitrust law and labor law in shaping the landscape of professional and intercollegiate sports.
His first job after graduation was a two-year stint at New Orleans civil litigation firm Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore, where he focused primarily on scientific expert witnesses in cases involving complex medical device claims. But in 2014, the Grand Rapids Drive was hiring in its basketball operations department, and Tulane graduate Andrew Loomis (TC ’02) encouraged Phelps to apply.
A Feb. 15 All-Star Game Weekend event at Tulane featured executives from across pro basketball: Back row: John Hareas, NBA vice president, editorial & content; Dion Cocoros, NBA senior vice president, production/content; Charlie Rosenzweig, NBA senior vice president, entertainment & player marketing; Arnie Fielkow, president and CEO of the National Basketball Retired Players Association; Eric DiMiceli, NBA associate director, social responsibility; David Fogel, associate general counsel, NBA Coaches Association; and Scott Rochelle, senior vice president/general counsel, National Basketball Retired Players Association. Front row: Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law program; Tulane University Provost Robin Forman; Bruce Bowen, ESPN analyst and former NBA player; and Ruth Riley, San Antonio Silver Stars general manager and former WNBA player.Photo courtesy of Andrew Sensi
As director of basketball operations for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, Phelps handled tasks from washing team uniforms, organizing team travel and driving players to and from practice in a 15-passenger van, to helping prepare for the draft and scouting opposing players for potential trades and NBA call-ups.
“Because the staffs in the D-League are smaller, everyone has to do a little bit of everything to help out, and so I got exposure to how a D-League team is organized and how it should be run,” he said.
Phelps was promoted to Drive general manager in summer of 2016 and now manages the staff, scouts, handles personnel work and generally oversees the operation, regularly updating the Pistons on the team’s progress.
“I absolutely love my job and am incredibly thankful for the opportunity that I have,” Phelps said. “The D-League is the best place for me to learn, grow and develop, and I’m hopeful that I continue to get the opportunity to help run our team in Grand Rapids.”
The Feb. 17 panels, sponsored by Tulane University, Tulane Law, the Sports Law program and the English Department, drew students from across campus. Phelps’ advice for breaking into the league was straightforward: “Position yourself.”
Get experience in the field you want to work in. Show potential employers the kind of work you’ve done. Demonstrate ways in which you can add value to a franchise.
“Teams are going to assume you are passionate, hard-working and very intelligent, as are the hundreds of other people applying for the same sports-related job,” he said. “Taking the time to try to answer a question facing the organization, or putting together a project that demonstrates your understanding of the league as a whole can give you an edge to stand out.”