Before Masai Ujiri, Bryan Colangelo and Rob Babcock, there was Glen Grunwald. Taking over as Raptors general manager from Isiah Thomas in 1998, Grunwald oversaw the rise to what still remains the high-water mark of the franchise’s on-court success. Then, as it often does in the NBA, it all came apart. Grunwald eventually moved on to another well-known, much-maligned corporate sports entity: the New York Knicks.
Now, he’s back in southern Ontario as the athletic director at McMaster University. I recently had a chance to speak with Grunwald about his new gig and take a trip down memory lane to address a few Raptors questions, including a rumor that he rejected a trade that would have sent Vince Carter to the Dallas Mavericks for Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki.
Congratulations on the new job. After a significant career in NBA management, what is the appeal of running the athletic department of a Canadian university?
I’ve always had an interest in sports administration at the university level. And at different points in my career I looked at it pretty seriously. But this time I was open and there was a great opportunity, a great university, so it all worked out for me personally. McMaster University is rated as one of the top 100 universities in the world, and it also has some great facilities, a great stadium, and it has a great tradition of athletics. It’s invigorating to be around this youthful energy and it’s great to see, and be part of, getting these kids through their academic and athletic careers.
Clearly, sports programs at Canadian universities are not operated on the same scope as the NCAA – and there are positives and negatives to that fact. Yet there’s a view that schools like McMaster, Western and definitely Laval are the closest thing we have to big-time U.S. collegiate athletics. Is one of your goals to continue increasing the profile of Mac in sports like football and basketball?
It’s a great institution and it has got a lot going for it. It has a great medical school, it has a tremendous kinesiology department, combine that with the David Braley Athletic Centre. We should be one of the leaders in player care and player development in terms of making sure that our athletes reach their full potential. And as you said, it’s a different philosophy when it comes to sports when it comes to the CIS and the NCAA, but I think a lot of people would argue that the Canadian model is better balanced.
Canadians historically — even wealthy alumni — have never had the connection to collegiate sports seen in the U.S. Do you think that has been one of the under-reported challenges of the Raptors in terms of developing a truly national brand presence? Case in point: While obviously NBA players aren’t regularly being drafted out of the CIS, it’s only a recent development that many Canadians have been made aware of up-and-coming blue chip non-hockey athletes like Andrew Wiggins and others, and they had to go the U.S. to further their development. Even CFL fans that regularly see their teams draft from Canadian schools, are often not aware of these athletes — be they from the CIS or NCAA — until they become pro. Is making Canadians care about that "ladder" for lack of a better term part of the challenge of non-hockey sports here?
Certainly, the biggest difference between the NCAA and the CIS is the amount of revenue that comes from the product. The television contracts alone from the NCAA basketball tournament funds much of the basketball operations of the NCAA, as well as obviously the bowl system in football. So it’s really the media revenues in my opinion that is a key distinction between the NCAA and CIS. And from that flows everything else.
As an NBA general manager, you were known as a cap specialist. And as you can also attest, the margin of error for an NBA GM is very small. Especially under the old collective bargaining agreement, one bad contract could derail a franchise to some degree. Talk a little about the highs and lows of running the Raptors.
We (Raps) had a decent run with the three straight playoff appearances, but unfortunately we came across some injuries. I think the one thing about the Raptors is the fans. I think the fans in Canada finally got some recognition this year with what we saw in Maple Leaf Square during the playoffs. But Raptor fans have always been passionate and much more knowledgeable than people give them credit for. I think to experience the great crowd reaction we had during our playoff run in 2001 was really special. Certainly the highlight from a basketball perspective was beating the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs at Madison Square Garden.
A few years ago (former MLSE TV executive and current Rogers on-air hockey personality) John Shannon said on local radio that the Dallas Mavericks offered you Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki for Vince Carter and Antonio Davis. Is this true?
I don’t think that’s true, if my memory serves me correctly. One of my last obligations before I got the axe was to explore a Nash-for-Carter trade, but no, we were never, as far as I know, offered those guys. It was a difficult time for Vince Carter, obviously receiving criticism from the media in particular — because he did suffer from some real injuries, but he had some bad judgment in terms of attending concerts and such when he was on the injured list. It was time to look at exploring a trade, but the nearest I can recall, the Mavericks never offered Nowitzki and we never had any real conversations with them about Steve Nash. I don’t think (Shannon’s statement) is accurate, but maybe John has a better memory than I do.
Your last two seasons as Raps GM were challenging. Was there anything you ever regretted?
I think the hiring of Kevin O’Neill was probably not the right call, you know we went from Lenny Wilkens to probably too far in the other direction in terms of a taskmaster. That’s one mistake I wish I could do over. It’s funny, I interviewed three other coaching candidates for that position after Lenny. Two of them, Sam Mitchell and Dwane Casey, ended up coaching the Raptors with some success, and the third one, Mike Woodson, I wound up working with in New York.
It is noteworthy that both you and your former coach Butch Carter both laid down roots here in Toronto while with the Raps. You and the organization dismissed Carter in 2000 as a result of some well-publicized boardroom stuff. Have you ever spoken to Butch since?
I haven’t seen Butch much. I saw him before I left New York, and I’m glad he’s doing a lot of radio stuff (in Toronto), so that’s good for him.
To touch on an earlier point, the fans’ view of a GM are strong, because they are the face of the decision-making. Yet those thoughts are also fickle and often frivolous. There was a time when you could do no wrong with Raps fans in that sense, but then things changed. Masai Ujiri has seen results so far, but as I said things can change quickly. What are your thoughts on how Masai has done so far as GM of the Raptors?
Masai is doing a tremendous job. Success speaks for itself, the franchise is back heading in the right direction. And that’s to his credit and Dwane Casey’s credit too. To your point about being a GM, in the 20-some years I was in the NBA, I think fans have become more sophisticated with the media coverage of the general managing part of it. It has evolved into an intense, more detailed part of the game. Prior to the last five or 10 years, it was more focused on the on-court play, but I think it’s almost more focused now on the GM’s role of team-building, player selection and negotiating contracts. I think it reflects more on the sophistication of new media and the growth of that. The amount of coverage has intensified, and I think that increased the focus on the general manager’s position.
The Knicks presented other challenges. Yet there’s a belief that the Toronto media is actually pretty tough on all teams in the city, not just the Leafs, based on numbers alone. Did running the Knicks have elements of the Gotham media nightmare some suggest? What was the difference between Toronto and New York, strictly in terms of media and fan restlessness?
It was two different philosophies from the organizations. The Knicks’ media policy was that we weren’t to talk to the media unless we had an announcement. I had almost a negligible relationship with the media in New York so I sort of referred to myself as the ‘invisible GM.’ In Toronto, the organization was obviously more open with the media. I didn’t have bad relationships with the media in New York, I just didn’t have relationships with the media in there. The point that New York City is tough media market is probably true, but Toronto is not far behind. I think, as you mentioned, that because of the numbers — four major daily newspapers in Toronto, two all-sports networks, radio and Internet, that there’s a presence and competition amongst media members that I wouldn’t say is harsh, but raises the criticism, let’s say, more than a one-newspaper town that many NBA markets are.
You were the guy who drafted Vince Carter. And regardless of how his Raptor career ended, to look at that now as a legacy, when young Canadian players like Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett basically credit his presence in Toronto at that time for their introduction to basketball, what are your thoughts on that?
Certainly I was a small part of that, and I think the Raptors have enhanced the (grassroots) level of play in Canada, specifically in the Toronto area. But you know, when I first came to Toronto in 1994 when the Raptors were getting ready to enter the league, there was good, grassroots basketball then. There were people who had worked in basketball, good coaches, high school, college and university talent and so on. So it was always there, but the Raptors and the NBA have grown it further. It’s not like we were starting from square one. I’ve always been glad we had a good base to build upon. I got involved in the HoopDome because I had worked a lot with the governing bodies like Canada Basketball and Ontario Basketball, and one of the big issues they always had was just a lack of gym time. There were a lot of gyms, but they had to share use at the school level with volleyball or other sports. I realized right away that there was a shortage of infrastructure for people who wanted to play. That’s why I think HoopDome has been a big success, because there’s an outlet there that people can go to all the time to play basketball.