By John Denton
May 26, 2017
ORLANDO – Jeff Weltman’s appointment this week as the Orlando Magic’s President of Basketball Operations is the culmination of a life’s work devoted to the NBA game.
Quite possibly, the only thing that could have made Weltman’s accomplishment and Wednesday’s introductory news conference sweeter would have been the presence of the man who first ignited the basketball lifer’s passion for the sport.
That man, of course, was Harry Weltman, Jeff’s father and someone who could have truly understood the pressures and difficulties that go along with running a professional basketball team. Harry was the GM of the St. Louis Spirits of the ABA and later GM of the Cleveland Cavaliers and New Jersey Nets of the NBA.
Jeff, 52, followed in the footsteps of his famous father and his mother, Rosemary, who once worked in the NBA League Office. A basketball in his hands not long after he could stand, Jeff played the sport in high school and college before being hired as a video coordinator for the Los Angeles Clippers in 1988. That started a 28-year journey throughout professional basketball where Weltman served in just about every role in basketball administration.
It all culminated this week with Weltman’s hiring by the Magic to run their basketball operations department. A valued member of the decision-making teams with the Clippers, Nuggets, Pistons, Bucks and Raptors before, Weltman’s Magic gig will be the first time that he is responsible for the final say on all personnel matters. It’s certainly a moment that Harry Weltman, who died in May of 2014 from complications from Alzheimer’s four days after his 81st birthday, would have appreciated.
“Obviously, I wish he was around to see this day and I know he would be very proud. But I just hope to be the guy that he was,’’ Weltman said in his introductory news conference earlier in the week.
“On an emotional level, it hits home because this is kind of the dream job that you work your whole career to land,’’ Weltman added. “As I said, I’ve been very selective and I wasn’t looking to leave Toronto (previously as the Raptors’ GM), but this is such a unique opportunity with all the potential and the people who are here behind this job. So, yeah, this digs deep.’’
Weltman didn’t have to dig too deep into his career to know who he wanted at his side as he tries to rebuild a Magic organization that has missed the playoffs each of the past five years. John Hammond, who worked previously with Weltman with the Clippers, Pistons and Bucks, will serve as Orlando’s GM. The two have been turnaround specialists before and they hope to pull off the same feat in Orlando – something Hammond thinks is possible because someone as bright as Weltman is running the show for the Magic.
“I’ve always felt that Jeff has a very keen eye for talent. That’s obviously so important in what we do. He’s always been creative in his evaluating,’’ Hammond said. “I can tell you that from working with him, when he goes out and watches a player play – we never get them all right – but, boy, Jeff gets most of them right.’’
Weltman most likely got his ability to evaluate talent from dad Harry, a man who gave George Karl – one of only nine coaches in NBA history with 1,000 victories – his first job in the profession at the pro level. And Harry’s finds didn’t stop there as he once gave legendary announcer Bob Costas his first play-by-play gig at the pro level and he got the dreadfully bad Cavaliers into the playoffs in 1985 – just three seasons after taking over following a NBA-worst 15-67 record. That work earned Harry a place in the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.
More than the victories, the stories or the heated debates over players, Jeff remembers most his dad’s demeanor as a basketball executive. Those memories provide a roadmap for how he wants to be inclusive and welcoming with all the staffers around him.
“It was just the way that he treated people. He was firm, but fair and he was exceptionally caring and he had a great sense of humor,’’ Jeff remembered. “Honestly, from a basketball perspective, we’d argue all the time. I didn’t agree with him (on his basketball personnel moves) and even some of the things now, as I look back at how he set his teams up, (he didn’t agree). I wish he was around now for me to argue with him about still.’’
Harry was the first to teach Jeff about the cold-hearted nature of pro sports when the son interviewed for that first NBA job with the Clippers in 1988. Jeff ended up landing that video coordinator/scouting job – one where he first met and shared a cramped office with Hammond – but not before his father taught him a valuable lesson.
“The interview went well and I called him that night and said, `I thought it went well and I might have a shot at this,’’’ Jeff recalled. “He said, `Well, what did they say?’ I said, `They said it’s between me and one other guy.’
“My dad was quiet for quite a while and I said, `What? What?’’’ said Jeff, candidly retelling the story nearly three decades later. “He said, `When someone tells you it’s between you and another guy, you’re the other guy.’ That was my dad – little lessons like that along the way.’’
It’s those kinds of lessons that Weltman will use daily while running the Magic’s front office – something that he’s worked nearly decades to accomplish. No, his father wasn’t around this week to see it happen, but from the sound of things, he will be there with his son in a variety of ways as he works at the job of calling the shots for the Magic.
“The thing that I take from my dad, more than anything, was that he really cared about people,’’ Jeff said. “I hope that I can be the same guy that he was in that respect.’’
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