Len Elmore: A force inside
More than two hours before Duke was going to tip off in a home game against Toledo on Dec. 29, Len Elmore stretched his 6-foot-9 frame into a courtside seat to watch the Blue Devils’ shootaround.
Elmore, who called the game that night as an analyst for ESPN, sat courtside and talked with a reporter about the areas he expected to cover on the telecast: Duke’s lack of depth and Toledo’s experienced senior guards.
It didn’t take long for him to shift the conversation from game strategy to social commentary. He was outraged that just two days earlier a high school basketball tournament in Northern California had disinvited a team that wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts in support of a man who died after New York police officers placed him in a chokehold.
The courtside conversation presented a microcosm of Elmore’s career, one that has combined his deep knowledge and passion for the game with an outspokenness and advocacy around how to make the sport better.
Elmore’s basketball career is notable for his decision to abandon his playing career early to enroll at Harvard Law School. His professional career is as richly defined by his work as a prosecutor and an executive as it is by his standout playing and television announcing careers.
“He’s thought deeply about the issues facing college athletics and the business of college sports,” said ESPN announcer Jay Bilas, another outspoken advocate for college sports reform. “He can operate just as effectively and gracefully in a courtroom, a boardroom or a classroom, you name it. There’s no room that he doesn’t have a commanding presence.”
Sitting on the Cameron Indoor Stadium sidelines, Elmore interacted with players and coaches. At one point, he spoke with Quinn Cook about
Writer John Ourand and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour discuss Len Elmore's career and impact within sports and outside of sports.
A minute later, he mused to a reporter whether Duke players such as Cook would make a social statement by wearing shirts like the “I can’t breathe” ones. Elmore thought they wouldn’t, due mainly to the college’s culture.
“I’m just hopeful that the Duke kids maybe are discussing it among each other, if nothing else,” he said.
Elmore’s parents instilled a social awareness and an appreciation for education in their son from an early age. Elmore’s father drove trucks for a living, and his mother cleaned office buildings in New York. She opted out of attending college to work and support her extended family, Elmore said.
He recalled his mother’s reaction when his fourth-grade teacher asked the class what they wanted to do when they grew up. Elmore said he wanted to be a lawyer, but the teacher suggested that he should focus more on a job where he would work with his hands.
“I went back home and told my mother, and my mother grabbed me, walked back up to school and just laid the teacher out for trying to destroy my dreams,” Elmore said. “That opened my eyes. My parents were always focused on education.”
Elmore maintained those career goals beyond the playing court, even as he was becoming a prodigious basketball talent. He starred at Power Memorial Academy in New York, graduating from the prep school five years after Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
|Elmore was an All-American center at the University of Maryland.
“He was a very intelligent young man,” Driesell said. “He told me that he wanted to be a politician. So we decided to take him to the club where many presidents had eaten.”
The recruiting pitch worked. Elmore chose Maryland, where he starred for three seasons from 1971-74, including being named a second-team All-American during his senior year and making the list as one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 50 greatest players in 2002. During his time in College Park, he developed close bonds with his teammates.
One of those teammates, former U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen (D-Md.), said he saw glimpses early on of the outspokenness that would define Elmore’s career. He referred to Elmore’s decision to live in a co-ed dorm on campus rather than in a dorm with other athletes.
“He always had an individual streak,” McMillen said. “He was a great team player, of course. But he always carried his own personality and assertiveness off the court.”
Elmore was smart and had lofty career goals, but Driesell noted that he wasn’t always a serious student. The coach recalls pressuring his star athlete to take his studies more seriously. “He didn’t study as much as he should have,” Driesell said. “He did well academically. But I was always on him about making better grades because he could do it.”
When Elmore left Maryland, he did not have enough credits to graduate. His mother and girlfriend (who later became his wife) pressured him to complete his undergraduate degree, which he did in 1978.
“I was playing for the Pacers my rookie year, and we were playing for the ABA championship,” Elmore said. “We lose to Kentucky. The day after, I’m on a plane back to Maryland to attend class in summer school. I might not have thought about attending that session of summer school the day after I lost in the championship. But I got pushed hard enough to do that. And I didn’t want to let them down.”
Elmore had a decade-long career in the ABA and NBA, playing for five teams. His career was winding down in 1984 when, with a year left on his contract with the New York Knicks, Elmore was accepted into Harvard Law School. Initially, he planned to defer for a year, giving him a final year of professional basketball.
|Elmore with the New Jersey Nets in 1981.
Elmore graduated from Harvard Law School in 1987 and worked as a prosecutor in Brooklyn for three years, eventually becoming part of a group that investigated police misconduct.
But he stayed involved in basketball, working as an on-air television analyst for CBS and ESPN. Eventually his passion for the game brought him back to the sport full time, as he decided to use his law degree to be a player agent.
“I tried to do something that I thought would be helpful,” he
Elmore’s vision of being a sports agent soon ran into the realities of the business. He signed seven first-round draft picks in four years, including USC’s Harold Miner and Maryland’s Walt Williams. It was when he signed another Maryland star, Joe Smith, that Elmore became disillusioned.
“Then big money started to come,” Elmore said. “All of a sudden the industry changed.”
Smith was the top pick in the 1995 NBA draft, and Elmore said that even after he was signed, people were courting Smith with promises of better deals.
“People were in Joe’s ear telling him that the deal we got for him from Nike was a terrible deal,” Elmore said. “Meanwhile, he was the fourth-highest-paid guy in the Nike stable, next to Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and David Robinson.”
Smith wound up signing with another agent, Eric Fleisher, and Elmore closed up shop shortly afterward.
“I lost Joe. It was fine. I understood. I just didn’t want him to get hurt,” Elmore said. “He’s a terrific young man. I felt bad for him.”
From his work as a television analyst — which he calls his “bully pulpit” — to his involvement with various boards such as the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, Elmore is not scared to ruffle feathers.
His platforms give him a megaphone to push for reform in college sports. Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission, said that Elmore started warning about the use of college athlete images and likenesses well before Ed O’Bannon filed his lawsuit.
“Len brings these issues to the discussion before they’re on the radar of national leaders,” Perko said. “Len sees these issues and approaches them in a principled way.”
|Before broadcasting a game on ESPN in 2003, Elmore talks with former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell.
“He is so passionate and knowledgeable about the game,” said Harold Bryant, CBS’s executive producer. “We want our analysts to have strong opinions, but we don’t want him to turn the broadcast into a forum for those opinions. Len does this very well.”
Jay Levy, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer, holds the same opinion.
“We don’t want our analysts to be wishy-washy,” Levy said. “But their opinion needs to be rooted in fact. We talk about informed perspective a lot with our announcers.”
Elmore’s comments during basketball telecasts show that he’s unafraid to question some of college sports’ sacred cows, such as North Carolina, which is embroiled in a cheating controversy.
“The NCAA is in a tough position because of who Carolina is,” Elmore said. “Nobody is going to tell me that a coach is not responsible, whether he knew or not. If he didn’t know, he should know. That’s his program. People say coaches have too much to do. That’s absolute nonsense. First and foremost, it should be the student athlete’s welfare. I’m not singling them out. They just got caught.”
Following the Duke-Toledo game, Elmore ate dinner at the nearby Washington Duke hotel.
Walking out of the restaurant, he glanced up at a television that was showing “SportsCenter.” It had highlights of the Washington Wizards’ one-point win over the Houston Rockets. Elmore stared intently at the screen, taking in the action and pumping his fist when he saw that the Wizards won. Following a dinner where he spoke passionately about ways to improve college sports, Elmore showed that at his core, he’s still a fan of the game.
“I don’t know how you can have a more distinguished career than he’s had,” said Mike Aresco, commissioner of the American Athletic Conference. “He’s a thoughtful advocate of different parts of the game.”