An excerpt from Court Vision: Unexpected Views on the Lure of Basketball (October 2004) by Ira Berkow.
Donald Trump’s office is on the twenty-sixth floor of Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan. The widely known real estate developer, he has also been involved in sports, owning a professional football team, the New Jersey Generals of the defunct United States Football League, and promoting professional prize-fighting bouts, including several involving heavyweight title fights with Mike Tyson in Atlantic City, where he owns three casino hotels.
Seated behind a desk in his large but rather understated office-one was inclined to expect a greater degree of ostentation from a man who rarely shuns the spotlight Trump wears his customary dark suit and red tie. Behind him, through the large window facing Fifth Avenue, is an impressive panorama of New York’s Plaza Hotel and the General Motors Building, both of which he owns, and Central Park, which he does not own, though, given his penchant for purchasing, he might like to bid on.
Among his holdings are Trump Tower, Trump Pare, Trump Palace, Trump Marina, Trump World’s Fair, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump International, Trump Pageants, which includes Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA, and the Empire State Building. He is a special adviser to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and has received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and was inducted into the Wharton Business School (he is an alumnus) Hall of Fame.
Donald John Trump was born on June 14, 1946, in Queens, New York.
This interview was conducted in December 1998, just a few weeks before the labor dispute between the National Basketball Association and its players’ union was settled.
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Q: When you go to a game, does Donald Trump look at the players as dollar signs, and do you project yourself on the court in some way?
A: I look at players as winners or losers. I watch players over the years, and I just see certain players as winning-type players or losing-type players. Give you an example. I watched Charles Oakley for the Knicks over a period of years—the Knicks traded him to Toronto after the 1998 season, which I think was a risky trade. What I liked about Oakley was his attitude. The guy was a work horse, getting rebounds, setting hard picks, diving into the stands for loose balls. Now, he’s not going to be Michael Jordan, but he was just a tremendous worker. I loved his work ethic.
You look for different things in different people. It’s sort of like prizefighters. There are certain types of fighters. There are rough guys, tough guys without huge talent, the finesse guys, but you have to look for the guys who have that special something.
And all the guys who make it to the NBA have something special, no doubt about it. They’ve gone from level to level and they’ve reached this pinnacle. And then there’s one level more the level of being a true winner or not. There was that famous triple pump-shot in the playoff game for the Knicks that didn’t go in. It was Charles Smith, who got three straight rebounds under the basket in the last seconds against the Bulls and couldn’t put one in, and the Knicks lost that game and the playoff round. Now Charles Smith is a very good guy, but at nearly seven feet tall it was disappointing for him not to put the ball in the basket. I was at that game, and it’s true that he was going up against three great defensive players at that moment—Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Bill Cartwright—but I don’t think Michael Jordan or Charles Oakley or Charles Barkley or some other players we know would have been triple-pumping under the basket at that point in the game. They would have sealed the deal.
On the other hand, I feel Patrick Ewing is a terrific winner, even though I know some others don’t share that feeling because the Knicks with him have never won a championship. But with out him they would have been nowhere over the past couple of years. I just never thought he quite had the team around him. It was always tough to win when you had Chicago and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen against you. Ewing got the Knicks 95 percent of the way there, but couldn’t get that last five percent.
There was one game that was a kind of microcosm of his career. It was the seventh game of the playoffs against Indiana at Madison Square Garden. I was at the game, and it was a game no Knick fan will ever forget. Patrick had been fabulous for the entire game—I think he had 36 points or something like that. In the last second of the game, with a chance to win it, he laid up a finger roll drive and the ball hit the rim and bounced away. I can’t blame him for that. He took the last shot under pressure—he assumed the responsibility of a champion, where a lot of guys are afraid to take that last, big shot—and even though he missed, I respect him for it. You couldn’t get angry at Ewing because he was so good in the game. I can’t blame him for missing that last shot.
But it’s funny about heart, you can never tell who has it until you see them under pressure.
But making it in the NBA is impressive, given the incredible competition for the relatively few spots in the league. It’s like supermodels or other successful people. Let’s say supermodels. People say, “Oh, they’re beautiful.” But they are very smart. You don’t just become a supermodel, or you don’t just make it because of your looks. There are a lot of beautiful people. You make it because you have something else. You have to have a head. Once you get to a certain level of talent, there is something just a little beyond that you need to succeed.
When you stand in the driving range and you watch the pros hitting balls, you can’t tell the difference between the best pros—I mean, we’re talking about a hundred guys—and the rest of them. You can’t tell the difference between the best guy and the hundredth guy on the range. It’s only when the flag goes up that you can tell.
Q: Is it the heart or the mind or both?
A: Both. I think it’s inbred. I think it’s a gene thing. There are a lot of people who have talent but don’t have the head, don’t have the drive, don’t have that something. Of the millions of kids who play basketball, only a handful make it to the NBA; it’s a huge achievement. And then you see these guys in college and they play great and all. But it’s a pyramid. Some of them step up to the next level and some don’t. It’s a very complicated thing.
Look at John Starks, at what he did. He banged around the Continental Basketball League and then suddenly became an all star in the NBA. He’s an interesting player because he wins games for the Knicks that they shouldn’t have won. But I also think he loses games for them that they should have won. Like the seventh game of the 1994 championship finals against Houston when he shot, what—one for eighteen? I think Pat Riley should have taken him out, but he felt Starks could shoot himself out of the slump. Some people don’t have hot games at all. And then he’s had his bad moments, but that’s not unlike a lot of people. That happens.
Q: What is it about basketball that you like?
A: My interest goes to basketball during the season, but I don’t confine my interest in sports to basketball. What I like about sports is the competitive nature. I like the fact that there is a final result in a short period of time, as opposed to a lifetime of work before you realize if you are really there. And a basketball game is a two hour version of life, and that’s the beauty of it. You have a start, you have a middle, and you have a finish. The nice part is that you don’t have to go eighty years. In two hours’ time you have a winner. There is something nice and satisfying about that.
Q: Fans often say that professional athletes in the major team sports make too much money. Do you agree?
A: The answer is, they probably do, but if the owners are willing to pay it, who is anybody to say they are getting paid too much? I think the one player who probably isn’t getting paid enough is Michael Jordan, and he gets paid more than anybody else. He just brings in so much money to the game, he’s such a spectacular performer—and you talk about a winner! Sometimes he just carries his entire team. I was at the playoff game in Utah in 1998—Karl Malone and I are friends and he had invited me to the game—and that was the game where Jordan had the flu. He went wild. He couldn’t miss a shot. He’s got a jump shot where he doesn’t jump straight up and down, but he’s jumping literally back-he’s ten feet off the ground, and he’s very tall to start with. He releases the shot almost like he’s lying in bed, and you’re way the hell back trying to guard him. So I see this guy—literally three feet in front of me—and in the first half Utah was winning a little bit, and then all of a sudden Jordan goes f**king wild. He could not miss. And he’s got like a 102-degree fever. He scored around forty points, most in the second half.
Another thing that really amazed me, sitting up so close under the basket, was how unbelievably rough it is under the basket. And here was Scottie Pippen, who, when you see him on television looks like a thin, frail guy. But he would go in for a layup and it was rough, you have no idea. He’d go in and these big guys are just whacking at each other—and I’m sitting right there and watching this. Holy sh*t! It’s really a much different game than you see on television. It was literally football. It wasn’t basketball, it was football.
And Pippen especially amazed me because they’re rapping and smacking him and he’s rapping and smacking them right back and he goes and gets his points.
But Pippen is not as frail as he might appear on television. He’s actually built quite well. But some of these guys are tremendous physical specimens. When you look at Karl—the Mailman—you see the immense size. He has arms like tree trunks. Forget about the legs, they’re bigger than tree trunks. Then you see him jumping and taking a jump shot and it’s like butter. It’s so soft and perfect to the touch. You really have to say this is an amazing athlete to have this sort of size and touch.
I met Karl in Atlantic City in 1997 when he attended the Miss Universe pageant, which I own. His wife works with and schools future beauty contestants, and she came up to me and introduced herself as Karl Malone’s wife. I said, “Karl Malone?” and she said, “Yes, the Mailman.” I liked him as a player but I had never met him. She said, “Mr. Trump, he’s your biggest fan. Could we call him” She got Karl on the phone and he came down. And we became friends. When he came to New York he called me and we talked about his contract. I think he’s totally underpaid. He was making like $3 or $4 million a year and there were guys making $20 million who couldn’t carry his jock.
A guy like Juwan Howard is making $20 million a year! Rookies coming into the league are making more than he is! Gimme a break! So I told Karl, you can play out your contract but when it’s terminated you’ll be thirty-eight years old. Not a great bargaining position. Or you could do the less honorable thing and say, “F**k you! I have a contract but I want more money.” So I know it’s not nice and he didn’t want to do it last year, but I see he’s sort of doing it this year. But he is a very honorable guy. A lot of guys would have done that much differently.
He’s got a five-year contract at a ridiculously low salary and he’s playing it out.
Another honorable guy is Larry Bird. After he hurt his back he had a contract which stipulated that if he decided to announce his retirement after a certain date, he’d get paid for the full year, some thing like $7 million. But a week before that date, he went to management and said he was retiring. They said, “But, Larry, you understand if you wait a week you’ll get $7 million. If you announce now, the contract says you won’t get the $7 million.” He said, “I know. I’m announcing the retirement now.”
When I heard he was going to be a coach, I didn’t see him as a coach. I thought of him only as a great player. But he’s turned out to be an incredible coach with the Indiana Pacers. One of the reasons he’s such a great coach is because the players have such respect for him. And he’s not a hands-on coach. He lets his players play, and they feel good about it. And I watched the game where Reggie Miller scored the three-point shot that won a big playoff game against the Knicks, and Bird had absolutely no emotion.
It showed me that he was a cool cat. A lot of people who do well under pressure as he did don’t have that much emotion. They don’t go crazy, they don’t go up and down. They don’t lose it. I deal with a lot of people and I think enthusiasm is good, but a lot of times I do see that the calmer people tend to do better under stress. And when I saw Larry Bird take that shot for granted, I thought that was cool. And obviously there was nobody better under pressure than Larry Bird as a player. He was a total winner.
Remember that game against the Pistons when the Celtics were losing and there were two seconds left in the game. I mean the game was O-V-E-R. And then Bird steals the inbound pass and whips a perfect pass to Dennis Johnson cutting under the basket for the winning score. I thought Larry Bird as a basketball player was 100 percent genius. I don’t know how he did on his SATs, perhaps not well, but as far as basketball brains is concerned, he’s Einstein.
I know David Simon, of the Simon family, who owns the Indiana Pacers. In fact, I bought the General Motors Building over there from them. I questioned him about why he had hired Bird as a coach, when a lot of people thought he was crazy for doing it. He told me, “Donald, Bird is a winner.” That was enough.
Q: How did you feel about the threat by Commissioner David Stern to use replacement players if the union’s players refused to agree to terms?
A: If the NBA would bring in replacement players, even though everybody knows they are not going to be as good, I think that will be the straw that would break the camel’s back. The union’s players would capitulate. You might have a far smaller audience, and they’d have lower ratings, but they’d be playing for far less money, so it all equates. They’d probably be making more money than they would after paying these guys all this money.
This is in the realm of fair negotiation. And David Stern understands this. He’s a smart guy. He’s got automatic business talent. He’s a very formidable foe.
Q: Have any players asked your advice on investments?
A: Some. I’ve seen a lot of them lose money because they’ve gone into these harebrained ventures with these fast talkers who just take their money away like taking candy from a baby. I’ve recommended that some of the players see various groups on Wall Street for investments. There was one player who made a lot of money who was going to invest a huge amount in a fast-food franchise thing. I told him, “Look, if you make that investment I will never speak to you again. You will lose all of your money. The chances of that business failing are much greater than of succeeding.” That was four years ago. Recently that company announced it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The investors lost every penny. So the player called me and said, “You saved me my money.” Some of these schemes don’t just stop with the initial investment. They want more and more. That’s what happens. They get you and then they say, “Put up a little more.” And before you know it your pockets are empty, and they aren’t filled again.
Q: Will the lockout have any lasting effect on interest in the game?
A: I think people got angry at the players, and to a lesser extent the owners. I think they feel the players are making so much money, why whine about it? But it’s a terrific game and it’ll bounce back. It’s like baseball. People were angry at the players and owners, and then along comes McGwire and Sosa and suddenly baseball’s back.
Q: Did you ever play basketball?
A: I played baseball. And I play golf—I’m a five handicap, even though I don’t have a lot of time to play. And I played football. I played a little basketball, but I never liked basketball as much as a player. It was not my best sport. I figured basketball is a jumping sport, and I didn’t like to jump.