Opinion: On the heels of the Damian Lillard trade, Trader Bob looks back to when he traded another Blazers’ icon

Former Trail Blazers General Manager Bob Whitsitt (left) is shown here at a recent meeting with Clark County Today Editor Ken Vance (center) and former Blazers Strength and Conditioning Coach Bobby Medina (right). Photo courtesy Bobby Medina

Bob Whitsitt authored a book that includes stories of his days as an executive with the Trail Blazers, SuperSonics and Seahawks

Ken Vance, editor
Clark County Today

For much of the past three months, fans of the Portland Trail Blazers were on the edge of their seats as the Damian Lillard trade saga unfolded at a snail’s pace. Former Blazers President and General Manager Bob Whitsitt also followed the process, albeit with a much different perspective than the team’s fans.

Whitsitt, whose tenure with the Blazers spanned from 1994 to 2003, watched current Portland General Manager Joe Cronin’s navigation of the delicate situation with interest because the Lillard trade had parallels to Whitsitt’s own career as a National Basketball Association executive. 

Whitsitt and Cronin orchestrated the trades of, arguably, the two most productive players ever to wear a Blazers’ uniform. Just two weeks ago, Cronin dealt Lillard, a seven-time NBA all-star, to Milwaukee in a three-team trade that reset the foundation of the Portland franchise. In 1995, Whitsitt traded Clyde Drexler, who had been an NBA all-star eight times while a member of the Blazers, to the Houston Rockets. Drexler and Lillard are both members of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, representing the top 75 players to ever play in the league.

“There are obviously parallels,’’ Whitsitt said in a phone interview late last week. “They are two iconic, franchise players who were in a very similar situation. Most GMs are never faced with having to trade the franchise player.’’ 

Whitsitt recently authored a book entitled, “Game Changer, An Insider’s Story of the Sonics’ Resurgence, the Trail Blazers’ Turnaround, and the Deal that Saved the Seahawks.” It is available for purchase beginning Tuesday (Oct. 10). The book covers many topics and experiences from his celebrated career, including tales from his time with the Seattle SuperSonics, Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Seahawks.

Among the stories in the book are Whitsitt’s account of the Drexler trade. In addition to that deal, Whitsitt also recounts how he engineered the trade of iconic Sonics’ center Jack Sikma in his early days as Seattle’s GM.

Whitsitt’s extensive experience as a dealmaker in the NBA earned him the moniker “Trader Bob.’’ It also gave him a unique perspective of the Lillard trade. In fact, in a radio interview in July soon after Lillard issued his trade request, Whitsitt painted an accurate picture of how the Lillard saga would play out. He correctly predicted the trade wouldn’t happen quickly and he also was spot on when he said Lillard would not get his wish to be traded to the Miami Heat. After the Lillard trade was finalized, Whitsitt was asked back on the same radio show where the host jokingly asked him if he was a psychic.

“I just said that it wasn’t going to be done today and looking forward, it would probably be done right before training camp,’’ said Whitsitt, who was right on both statements. “I also said I didn’t expect him to go to Miami. There’s always another team.’’

Whitsitt credits Cronin for his patience and refusal to allow Lillard to dictate the terms of his own departure, which came at a time when the point guard was still under contract for four more years.

“Dame didn’t have a no-trade clause, so I didn’t think he was running the show,’’ Whitsitt said.

Cronin had faced scrutiny from Blazers’ fans during the three months that spanned Lillard’s trade request and the actual deal. After the three-team trade that sent the standout sharpshooter to Milwaukee, and a subsequent trade after the fact, the Blazers have four new players and a great deal of draft capital, including three future first-round picks. It’s safe to say the majority of the Cronin critics have been silenced.

“I think Joe Cronin did a really good job,’’ Whitsitt said. “I think he got a really good deal. Dame might have had his best season last year and they didn’t even make the playoffs. Now, they have a direction and a foundation.

“It obviously wasn’t an easy deal to do; I thought Joe was patient,’’ Whitsitt added. “You can’t take the first deal that comes along but you also can’t wait too long. The guy making and fielding the calls has to make that determination. There’s a lot of armchair quarterbacks looking at it from afar, but I honestly think Joe Cronin did a really good job.’’ 

After Whitsitt traded Drexler to Houston, the former Blazers’ great won an NBA championship with the Rockets. We’ll have to see if Lillard is as fortunate with the Bucks. Whitsitt agrees with most informed observers that Lillard being teamed with Bucks’ all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo certainly gives Milwaukee a fighting chance to win a title.

“Dame gets to play with Giannis,’’ Whitsitt said. “They’re going to be fun to watch, if nothing else, especially in the pick and roll. You have to double Dame, double and triple Giannis and you can’t double and triple them at the same time. I think it’s a really good trade for Milwaukee, who is obviously going for it.’’

The first-time author

Whitsitt’s life since his departure from professional sports has been far from uneventful. He had a successful, but serious battle with colon cancer. He also went back to school and earned his law degree. He and his wife Jan run a business consulting practice in the Seattle area.

Former sports executive Bob Whitsitt shares his perspective on the Damian Lillard trade and also looks ahead to the release of his first book.
Former sports executive Bob Whitsitt shares his perspective on the Damian Lillard trade and also looks ahead to the release of his first book.

“I’ve had the opportunity to give some speeches, taught some classes and lectured,’’ Whitsitt said. “Wherever I go, it gets into a Q and A and there are always lots of sports stories that come up. I was told many times, ‘you’ve got to write a book.’ Finishing law school took an enormous amount of time. Once I accomplished that, I knew I was freeing up some time.’’

Whitsitt chose to devote a lot of that free time to writing a book. He didn’t work on the project every day, but the writing part of the project took about two years. It then took another year to shop it to publishers.

“There are a lot of fun stories revolving around my time with the Sonics, the Trail Blazers and the Seahawks,’’ he said. “There’s some behind-the-scenes stuff about the job of a general manager. I spent a whole chapter on how to negotiate. Obviously, you could write a whole book on that. I provided a dozen techniques that I used and then I gave two or three mini stories on examples of how I used that technique. I also wrote some about how to get a job in pro sports and also provided some business lessons.’’

Whitsitt also provided lists of his top 25 all-time NBA players and top 10 all-time NBA coaches.

“That’s all subjective,’’ he said. “We could argue all day and neither of us would be right and neither of us would be wrong.

“It’s a very easy read, a fun read,’’ he said. “If you’re interested in a career in sports, or if you’re nostalgic, I think you will enjoy it. I didn’t do the giant kiss and tell. I like it. I think it turned out well. People in the industry have written me back to tell me they liked it a lot.’’

Whitsitt said he’s not looking to make writing books his career. “Maybe someday when my grandchildren are old, they can read about what grandpa did.’’

Whitsitt, now 67, still has a vision for returning to the NBA.

“I’m not telling you the NBA is going to expand,’’ he cautioned. “That’s a decision only the NBA owners are going to make. My opinion is somewhere in the near future they are going to consider expanding. I think Seattle should be the No. 1 market on the board. If that opportunity presents itself, I would love to be a part of that, ideally a part of the ownership group. If it makes more sense for me to be a part of the management group, or if it makes more sense for me to show up on game nights and sell popcorn, wherever my skills can be utilized, I just want it to happen. I think the market deserves it.

“Selfishly, I would like to be alive when the Blazers and Sonics are really good again, with a team back in Seattle and both teams playing in the conference finals for a chance to go to the NBA Finals,’’ Whitsitt said. “That would be great for the NBA and great for the fanbases of both teams.’’

The Blazers won their only NBA Championship in 1977 and the Sonics claimed their only title two years later in 1979.

Book available for sale

“Game Changer, An Insider’s Story of the Sonics’ Resurgence, the Trail Blazers’ Turnaround, and the Deal that Saved the Seahawks” is available in paperback wherever books are sold. It’s 256 pages with a 16-page color photo insert format. The retail price is $18.95 and the E-book price is $9.99

For more information, go to www.flashpointbooks.com.

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