A lot of folks probably thought when somebody came up with the name “Nuggets” for Denver’s NBA franchise, it was for reasons linked to the geological history of the region.
Actually, they were just foreseeing a fiscal gold mine.
And now, former Idaho athletic director Gary Hunter, as general counsel and vice president in charge of business operations for the franchise, is the guy responsible for shoveling in the gold and exploring new ways to tap the mother lode.
For our purposes, Hunter is valuable as a supplier of perspective in several areas:
How the NBA has been able to head-fake the labor strife pervasive in other leagues despite its own soaring salaries, costs and egos.
And also the manner in which Idaho’s attempts to reclassify and upgrade to the Big West Conference not only carry risk, but were likely motivated by concerns far more political than athletic.
“It’s amazing the magnitude of the money involved,” Hunter said of the NBA. “Not just salaries, but figures for television rights, merchandising, retail …
“One of my areas of responsibilities, for instance, is new business development and we have just opened our fourth retail store.”
With players’ salaries at $20 million and mounting, the Nuggets are “putting the finishing touches on an agreement with the city to allow us to privately fund a new $130 million arena,” Hunter said. “And we’re negotiating quietly for the purchase of a National Hockey League franchise to help us be a co-tenant in that new arena.”
The 17,000 seats at McNichols Sports Arena might appear sufficient, except that “we have only 18 suites that generate $750,000 in revenue,” Hunter said. “I just got back from visiting the new United Center in Chicago and it has 216 suites generating $24 million. Now, who’s going to sign the new free agent, the Chicago Bulls or the Denver Nuggets?”
And while owners and players have mutually strangled the life from baseball and hockey, the NBA rides escalating popularity.
“We have some tremendous leadership in our commissioner,” Hunter explained. “David Stern is an exceptional businessman and very visionary in his approach. But that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods. He has sat down with the director of the players’ association and worked to make sure that lockouts or strikes are our very last resort.”
At Idaho from 1988 to 1992, Hunter made nearly 40 hires in an ever-shifting cast, and was probably most inspired in his hiring of football coach John L. Smith, one of the rare sojourners who actually unpacked for a while and didn’t keep the number of Atlas Van Lines conveniently taped to his refrigerator.
Lanky, thickly bearded and ever articulate, the 50-year-old Hunter could pass as Abe Lincoln’s more handsome younger brother.
His emotional attachment to Moscow remains strong, he said, and he continues to contribute to Idaho athletics as a Vandal Booster. But he had “apprehension and anxiety” when the school announced its effort to move from Division I-AA to I-A in football and join the Big West.
“When that all came up, there were parts of it that concerned me,” he said. “I understand why all constituent groups wanted to do it, but we’re going to have to be very creative in funding it.”
The motivation for the move, from Hunter’s perspective, goes far deeper than just keeping up with Boise State in conference standings.
“Frankly, people don’t like to talk about it, but I think it’s much more than just athletics,” he said. “I think there is an image of the institution as a whole that transcends athletics, and it has to do with things all the way up to appropriations at the state level.
“Never would a legislator ever admit that athletic success or parity would influence a decision, but I think it does; I think it does affect them.”
Which, if true, accounts for some of that inexplicable fervor we’ve seen, and proves that sports in the Big Sky, the Big West or the NBA, are tied to the quest for those golden nuggets.