Perhaps you’ve never heard of Ray LeBov, but you might be aware of what he’s done in the basketball universe, without knowing his name.
If you subscribe to Basketball Intelligence, he set that up. If you’re aware of APBR, you might know he’s the executive director of it. And if you don’t know of the Association for Professional Basketball Research (APBR), you probably know many of the members who have helped revolutionize basketball. Guys like Dean Oliver and John Hollinger had their roots there, and it’s extensive history covers things you can’t even find on Basketball-Reference.com.
I was intrigued by the fact that while Ray has a tremendous grasp of the history of the game and had been around it for more than 50 years, he still had a keen appreciation of the newer analytical side of things too. So, I asked him for an interview, and he graciously obliged.
This is—more or less—what we discussed.
Kelly: While this is a basketball-related interview, your career isn’t really basketball related. Can you tell us about what you did for a living? I understand you’re semi-retired right now.
Right after law school, I went to work in the state legislature as a committee counsel. And I worked in the legislature for 17 years, the last 12 of which were as counsel to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. And then, when I left there, it was because the State Chief Justice asked me to the Director of the Office of Governmental Affairs for the State Judicial Council. The Judicial Council is the constitutional body chaired by the Chief Justice that administers the state courts, so I was the chief lobbyist on behalf of the court system with the governor and the legislature.
So, I did that for 13 years, which gave me 30 years of state service, and we have a retirement system here that’s age and service years credit based, and at some point you get to the point where you’re getting close to donating your services because you’re going to make as much in retirement as you would if you continued to work your job because of the formula that they use.
And so I retired from state service, but I was far too young to retire, so I started my own lobbying and consulting firm, and because of my state pension, it gave me the luxury of picking and choosing among clients to the point where I’m only going to represent people when I strongly believe in what they want to accomplish.
I still do that, and in addition, two years after that, I started a company called Capital Seminars through which I teach the legislative process and how to lobby.
Kelly: So, I imagine that as someone involved in such things your whole life, it’s hard for you to be entirely apolitical. Do you have anything thoughts on NBA players being told to “stick to sports?”
Ray: I think that’s absurd. I can see how in certain contexts if there’s public events where they’re actually representing someone, and it’s known by everyone to be a non-political forum or context or venue, fine. But people in those positions should be able—I would even say encouraged—to express their viewpoints on things. People listen to them, whether that’s the appropriate or best thing or not.
They certainly have the freedom to express what they believe in and what their observations are, and people can choose for themselves how much weight to give it. There’s no to say that because Athlete X has said something that any particular fan base or anyone else has to be moved by it or believe it or be influenced by it, but I think they have a—I wouldn’t go so far as to say a duty—but arguably a responsibility and certainly the freedom to share their views. And you know, I’m so happy we’ve come so far from when Michael Jordan refused to endorse Harvey Gantt in the North Carolina senatorial election back in the 90s by saying “Republicans buy shoes too.”
Kelly: So how did you go from this whole legal thing into basketball? Were you just a basketball fan as a kid?
Ray: Actually no, I’ve been involved in basketball my whole life. When I was in college (in the late 1960s), I was a volunteer assistant coach at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven Connecticut. We were a national power. In fact, we won the mythical national championship one year. Our megastar was Super John Williamson who went on to star in the ABA and NBA.
At that time, I also started a high school scouting service. It wasn’t intended to be money-making or profit-making thing. I just had a number of who were college coaches who I wanted to help.
I made it available to all six or seven of them who had Division 1 coaching jobs for free.
The first thing I did was to start going around the country to high school all-star games, and back then there was really just one national one, which was the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh, but most states had their own high school all-star game, and of course, there were a several regional games like Indiana vs. Kentucky. One of the games I saw was the one in which George McGinnis scored 53 points and got 31 rebounds for Indiana against Kentucky.
I also put together a network of friends across the country who I trusted to scout the games I couldn’t get to.
One of the real benefits of doing that scouting; all the big recruiters for all the DI teams would go to these all-star games at the end of the high school season. And I always made it a point to sit next to them if two of them were sitting next to each other discussing the game, I’d sit next to them.
In some cases, I would introduce myself, but in other cases, I just wanted to listen to what they said. And the one I always, always, always made a point to sit next to and who I got to know a little bit—but didn’t get to the point of becoming friends with or anything—was at that point the chief recruiter and assistant for Duke: Hubie Brown.
I learned more from him sitting next to him and just listening to him talk. Just going to games and being able to sit next to people like Hubie and others…
Kelly: You learned a lot through osmosis then?
Ray: Absolutely! It makes me laugh when I hear people who pretend to know a lot and know nothing. And they’re just going on and on. And I’m like, dude, this is basic stuff.
Kelly: I always like to say, there are the three stages to learning: I don’t know anything, I know everything, and I don’t know anything.
Ray: Somewhat later I joined APBR. It was started by Robert Bradley in Phoenix. It started off as purely a historians group. I didn’t join when it first started because I didn’t know about it, but after I learned of it, I joined right away. And Robert Bradley, after a few years, decided he had already given enough of his time, although he stayed active. He no longer wanted to continue being the executive director, which I still am today. Although, it’s an unpaid position which is fine.
Relatively early in APBR’s history the analytics/metrics people started joining. They became very active, and it became clear that it needed to be divided into two sections: the historians and the analytics/metrics people. While both groups are under the APBR umbrella, they are very distinct subsections.
And the interesting thing about the analytics/metrics side is that many, many, many of the first-generation people went on to become the analytics person for each of the NBA teams, led by Dean Oliver. Dean Oliver literally wrote the book, Basketball on Paper and became everyone’s guru.
And then he and all the rest of the major first-generation people are heads of analytics at the various NBA teams, which (no offense to the current group) was a hit to the analytics side. Because once you go to work for an NBA team, almost everything you did is proprietary, so you really can’t share it with the rest.
Kelly: This segues nicely into the next thing I wanted to ask you about. I notice on your Basketball-Intelligence email you send out, there’s a lot of things that are on the analytical side. A lot of the “old-school” voices tend to frown at that. Why do you think you’re more open to it?
Ray: The best I’ve ever heard someone comment on that is from Ben Alomar, the Director of Sports Analytics at ESPN. He’s close to Dean. He had this quote: “Not a fan of analytics? No thanks. Don’t want the extra information that my competitors are using.”
And then he went on to say, “Using analytics doesn’t mean using only analytics.” So, to me, that sums up in a great way.
Me: I think Matt Moore’s article on Kawhi Leonard is a great approach. You look at the numbers to see what they’re saying, but then you look at the film to see why they’re saying that.
Ray: I think Dean Oliver would say exactly that.
Me: If I’m agreeing with him, I must be onto something.
Ray: He’s really, really a good guy, and incredibly smart, knowledgeable and insightful.
Kelly: There’s one more thing I want to ask you about. How did you get going with Basketball-Intelligence?
Ray: When I started it, it wasn’t really intended to be as visible as it is now. I was more than a little frustrated with the quality of things that were being written. I was struggling so hard to just find a few things worth reading. So I thought, what if I spent some time on a daily basis and picked out the best stuff.
And I came up with what I call my “Four I Test.” And that’s if the story is intelligent, insightful, informative and interesting, I’ll link to it. For example, I’m very pleased with the growth and evolution of sites like FanRag. You may notice we’ve been linking to more and more of your stories lately.
And when I started, I felt that there were two sides to the Internet that I feel very positive and very negative about. The positive side: It’s democratizing function is fantastic. Anyone can do it, right? You don’t have to have money, you don’t have to have a position. Anyone can. That’s, to me, a great thing.
On the other hand, that also means we get a lot of crap as well, due to the fact that it’s democratized. So, I thought, there must be a way to get the good side of this and at the same time, get rid of the bad side.
So, that was my notion. And I started it as a hobby, but all of a sudden, it just took off, in terms of growth and the audience.
Kelly: How many subscribers do you have?
It’s hard to say because we have people who access it in different ways—email subscription, LinkedIn, Facebook, the website—but a squishy number would be that around 30,000 access it each day. That’s my best guess.
But our subscribers range from casual fans to team owners and everywhere in between; beat writers, coaches, fantasy players, active NBA players, retired players and team executives.
The great side of it is all the connections I’ve made.
Feedspot.com rated our blog as top-25 NBA blog and our news aggregator function as No. 1.
Kelly: How many articles a day do you read for this?
Ray: So, I’m going to give you a number that’s going to shock you, but it doesn’t mean that I actually read that many. It means that I browse it, and some instances browse can be two seconds, so about 1,500.
Ray: But remember, some of those are browsing. I look at 1,500 a day.
Kelly: Going back to the kid in college that would sit there and eavesdrop on Hubie Brown so you could learn, I imagine that you’ve compiled a lot of knowledge doing this.
Ray: I think the smartest thing I’ve done is what you were hinting at earlier, to know what I know and know what I don’t know and be open to learning. Look at our sources. Some are team owned, some are beat writers, some are bloggers. Some are stats or metrics people. I don’t care. If it meets our test, it seems that the stories pick themselves. If they meet the Four I test, they’re going on.
Kelly: Do you ever do any writing yourself?
I’ve had to cut back just because of time demands. I am starting to do more again, but every once in a while, I have to tell myself to get a life. I have a daughter I enjoy spending time with. I’m an actor, and the rehearsals take a lot of time. And I’ve got my businesses. When I write something, I want it to be good.
We are going to start a podcast, and I found the person I want to work with, and we’re going to start that very soon.
Kelly: To finish up, let me give you some rapid-fire questions?
Kelly: Wilt or Russell?
Ray: I love them both. I’m taking Wilt. He’s the greatest basketball player I ever saw. He did some things I still can’t come to grips with, so Wilt’s my choice.
Kelly: Jordan or LeBron?
Ray: As of now, I’ll take Jordan, but, LeBron has amazed me more and more throughout his career, so ask me again at the end of his career, but right now, I’ll take M.J.
Kelly: Who is your MVP?
Ray: As of now, I find it impossible to choose between Kawhi & Harden. Thankfully, there is still time left to decide. But if Russ or LeBron wins, you’d have a hard time arguing with that. I’m not going to be unhappy, whoever gets it.
Kelly: Thoughts on the DeMarcus Cousins trade (since Ray is in Sacramento and covers the Kings)?
Ray: It’s one they should have made a long time ago because I couldn’t see a way to build a winner around him. Let’s think of the three ways you build a team: free agents, draft and trades.
I don’t see how they could have done any one of those. They decimated their draft. Once Rudy Gay got hurt, they had no one with much trade value other than DeMarcus. As for free agency, no one seemed to want to come here to play with him.
So last year agents wouldn’t let their players come workout in Sacramento in advance of the draft. So were they going to let their free agents come here?
So, of those three ways, I couldn’t figure out a way to build a winner around him.
Which is not to say he’s not a great player and a great talent. Everybody knows that. So I was thinking, you know what, while you can get value for him, make that trade. And one of the reasons that his value would be diminishing is due to the fact that he only has one year left on his contract.
So, if someone was going to want to trade for him, they wanted to have some assurance he is going to re-sign. Teams didn’t want to good value for a rental player. By waiting this long, the Kings did not get anywhere near his value.
No. 1, his rep’s not great. He’s got 16 technical fouls, or 17 now. And 2, this issue of re-signing.
All of that diminished his value.
Then, these offers start coming in, and they’re lowball, but not as lowball as the one they ultimately agreed to. And his agent then puts out the word to all the teams who are trying to trade for him, don’t trade for him, he’s not going to re-sign with you. And we know at least one offer that squelched. That’s what Vlade was referring to when he said, “We had a better offer two days ago.” People thought he meant that he turned down a better offer. But what he meant is the other team pulled their offer when his agent said, “He’s not going to re-sign with you.
So that, I think, gave him a little incentive to move more quickly than he ordinarily might have at that point.
Now that they’ve done it, if they’re smart about a rebuild from the bottom up. They need two things. One is patience. Don’t get impatient and nip the rebuild in the bud by going after something that is big, but ill-fitting. And the other thing is some degree of unity about direction. You can’t have a general manager and head of basketball operations and owner and whoever else pushing or pulling in different directions.
If they have unity and patience, they will be a lot better off.