How Pacers executive Peter Dinwiddie rose from ticket office to front office

by Scott Agness

His story is legendary around Bankers Life Fieldhouse. A hometown kid returning to work for his professional basketball team even though he was overqualified for an entry-level ticket sales job. But that didn’t bother him.

So passionate to find an opportunity in the sports industry, he left an unfulfilling job as a contract attorney for Finish Line with the understanding that it would require hard work, sacrifice and perseverance to get there.

His title is senior vice president of basketball operations, but you wouldn’t know based on his LinkedIn profile. He hasn’t updated it in over a decade. That’s because he isn’t concerned about his title or the notoriety that may come with it. In fact, those around him push him to do more interviews.

Now more than 13 years since taking a leap to the Pacers, Peter Dinwiddie is still on his phone daily. But instead of trying to sell tickets, he’s communicating with decision-makers and gathering intel that will be beneficial months down the road and in upcoming years. Dinwiddie, 41, is a rising star inside the Pacers front office and an architect for one of the most consistent franchises in the NBA.

Dinwiddie didn’t want to work in ticket sales, of course, but it was a rare job opening with a sports organization he had always followed, so he embraced it and went all in. He arrived early each morning and figured out how to sell tickets for a team that didn’t have a winning record at the time.

Brenda (Smith) Freeland knew she had someone special in sales but felt like he was in the wrong area. Dinwiddie held a law degree from New England Law, had interned for the Patriots and a sports agency, K Sports & Entertainment.

She alerted Donnie Walsh, the president of the time, that she had an individual who was thriving. So a meeting was set up and Dinwiddie told Walsh he aspired to be a general manager one day.

“If I didn’t have my law degree, Donnie Walsh wouldn’t have noticed me,” Dinwiddie said of his mentor.

While continuing his role in ticket sales, Dinwiddie was assigned tasks, or tests really, to evaluate his mind for the business side of basketball. He first focused on the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, which is now a dense 633 pages long. But the only way to really know the cap is to work with that cap, so that’s what he did.

“It’s like reading the constitution and saying, ‘I know the constitution,’ ” said Walsh, who is not surprised by Dinwiddie’s ascension. “You have to work with it to know it. He does now, he knows it cold.”

Peter Dinwiddie at his desk in 2006, his first year with the Pacers. (Courtesy of Peter Dinwiddie)

On top of his role in ticket sales and tasks assigned by Walsh, Dinwiddie was a bartender at the Mousetrap and Connor’s Pub in Broad Ripple to supplement his income. Remember, he has a law degree.

“I was immediately impressed with his approach,” Walsh said. “He may know things, but he’s not going to ever think he knows more than everybody else or that he’s right all the time. In law school they teach you that both of you are right, it’s who can argue the best.

“He definitely has what it would take to become a general manager.”

Walsh, who has a practice court named after him, knows firsthand what it takes to build a franchise and maintain consistency in a small market. Now in a consultant role, he still works at the facility each day and is a valuable resource because he’s dealt with every issue.

“Donnie is like a crystal ball because you can go to him and he can tell you how it is or isn’t going to work out,” Dinwiddie said. “It is so valuable to have Donnie there. He’s a rare individual who has a basketball mindset and then also an administrative mindset. Donnie had the opportunity to go work for Richard Nixon’s law firm in New York, but turned it down to go coach (North) Carolina’s freshman team.”

Before Walsh left to run the New York Knicks in 2008, he recommended that Larry Bird move Dinwiddie into a full-time role with the basketball department. Right away, Bird was “blown away” by Dinwiddie’s intellect and energy, and he went to Pacers Sports & Entertainment President Rick Fuson to discuss a promotion for Dinwiddie.

“There was a little bit of conflict there because they didn’t want to lose him on the ticket side because he was doing such a great job,” Bird joked via phone from his Naples, Fla., residence. “We finally got him in there and just over time, he was involved in everything.

“He was in every meeting; he talked to the league on a weekly basis; he did trade calls; he talked to agents; he did most of the contracts at the time and now he’s probably doing them all. To see his growth over the years has been pretty impressive.”

For those on the outside, Dinwiddie often gets pigeonholed as the team’s salary-cap guru — and he is — but he’s much more than that.

He oversees the Fort Wayne Mad Ants on a daily basis, which gives him a taste of putting a team together. He’ll frequently make the two-hour drive to check on the franchise and the harmonious, integrated culture built around their G League affiliate. There’s a structured development plan in place for all players, and it’s something he meets with the Mad Ants’ coaching staff at least once a month to evaluate the plan and discuss how to sustain or improve upon it.

“Go to practices, go to home games,” he said. “(Evaluating) what issues we may have, how can I assist, and just making sure that everyone in the Mad Ants knows how important they are. It’s a huge opportunity for us.”

The G League is helping to develop rookie Alize Johnson and Edmond Sumner, who used it to get back to 100 percent following an ACL knee surgery and recently had his two-way contract converted to an NBA deal.

Dinwiddie also is evaluating the Pacers each day, in the present and in forecasting up to five years out. He’s talking with agents, executives, and NBA officials to stay abreast on all league matters.

“He’s an implementer,” said Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard. “He makes sure that things get done the right way and that’s critical for me.”

Despite losing All-Star Victor Oladipo for the season due to a leg injury, the Pacers have managed to remain third in the Eastern Conference standings. That speaks to the coaching, players’ talent, ability to compartmentalize and the team’s Three T philosophy: togetherness, toughness and trust.

“I love positive people,” Pritchard said. “I love people that come in every day and bring a sense of unselfishness and I think that’s one of the most important things.”

The Pacers aren’t going to be in play for an elite free agent like LeBron James or Kevin Durant, so they invest a great deal of time and resources in researching players, discovering what makes them tick, how much they love the game and seeking those that may be able to grow and blossom in a new environment. Like Domantas Sabonis, who was acquired from Oklahoma City with Oladipo after his rookie season.

Instead of going for the splash and the headlines, the Pacers value culture and fit more than anything. And this upcoming summer, they’ll have more than $40 million in cap space available.

“We have the mindset that we’re putting a team together to compete, to win, to reach the playoffs and then advance in the playoffs,” Dinwiddie said. “We don’t make excuses; we don’t try to hold those things against us. It’s not like we’re sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves.

“It’s just another obstacle, another challenge and we’re thinking about what we can do to overcome that challenge and continue to have success. That’s the way we go in and attack it each and every day.”

The Pacers have always been financially conservative. They want to compete and do so without exceeding the luxury tax threshold, an expensive penalty for teams whose salary exceeds a predetermined level.

Indy will soon qualify for the playoffs for the 24th time in 30 seasons, and it has finished .500 or better 22 times over that period. And for the 30th consecutive season, the longest active streak in the NBA, the Pacers have a winning record on their home floor.

The best players often come from the draft lottery, but the Pacers rarely are a participant because of their on-court success — which makes acquiring the best talent even more difficult. Internally, they created a wins-per-dollar formula. Essentially, are they maximizing their money?

“If you look at our wins per dollar, we’ve always been in the top three,” Dinwiddie shared. “We’ve always done a good job of managing the team and doing it in a way that is going to represent the community and franchise in a positive manner.

“We had a $40 million payroll when we went to the Eastern Conference finals. We’ve always been extremely strategic in how we build the team. … After we obtain our guys, we always want to make sure we are developing and growing them so they can be part of the Pacers organization for the long term.”

Since 2000, a Pacer has been voted the NBA’s Most Improved Player five times: Jalen Rose (2000), Jermaine O’Neal (2002), Danny Granger (2009), Paul George (2013) and Oladipo (2018). Myles Turner is the only lottery pick taken by the Pacers who is currently on the team.

About five years ago, Dinwiddie quietly began working on a project that would become a centerpiece for the team and a highlight for player recruitment: a $50 million privately-financed practice facility. Easily the best part was its location, conveniently situated across Delaware St. and connected to Bankers Life Fieldhouse via an underground tunnel.

“They trusted me to do all the logistics, all the details, all the planning for that facility,” Dinwiddie said. “That was an unbelievable opportunity.”

He visited a half-dozen other NBA practice facilities to get a good sense of what those teams were doing and what worked. The trips helped shape what he wanted in Indy.

“Our league is all about information,” said Bird, who now serves as an adviser. “Finding information, what are other teams doing, finding out about players we’re trading for, background checks — and Peter was very instrumental in getting the practice facility built. He was in every meeting and he’s a hands-on guy, he’s done everything and I think he’s known around the league.”

This extensive plan, like many of his tasks, required constant communication with the business side of the organization, from marketing to sponsorship to events and social media. Integration was paramount for such a large undertaking.

“He’s a smart guy, no question about that,” said Fuson, a lifelong resident of Indianapolis who has worked for the Pacers since 1984. “But over the years, we’ve counted on him a lot to have integration. We’ve always had great integration with the basketball folks, but he’s our daily contact.

“Herb Simon, our leader, demands of us to make sure that we’re all on the same team going forward for the same purpose. If we didn’t balance the right things between business and basketball, it would be chaotic. There’s evidence in other places that it’s not as coherent and not as positive as it is here. Dealing with Peter has been a positive thing.”

Dinwiddie, the one constant in the Pacers’ front office since 2008, added to his responsibilities in 2012 when Bird began to send him on the road to scout. That enables him to evaluate players and gather intel from those around them, plus have face-to-face interactions with executives from around the league.

“You can learn basketball a couple of different ways,” Pritchard said. “You can learn by being in it, or watching it and studying it every day. The thing I credit Peter for is when you talk about players, if I brought up who was the 20th pick from a mock draft, he would know exactly who he is, what he does, what position he is and how he would fit. I give him a ton of credit for working his way into understanding the true game.”

Dinwiddie talks with Larry Bird at the Orlando summer league in 2016. (Scott Agness / The Athletic)

Dinwiddie annually attends the draft combine in Chicago, summer league in Las Vegas and he pitched the idea to the league for two front-office members from each team to be present at league meetings, which would allow assistant GMs to grow. (Unfortunately, it didn’t come to fruition.)

His opinion is valued inside a front office that also includes Pritchard, GM Chad Buchanan and assistant GM Kelly Krauskopf, all of whom are in constant communication in a group text.

“He has a very good feel for the game and in particular, he has a good feel for what works in the NBA,” Walsh said. “And then he just has the personality and work ethic that will help him be successful.”

Each one of his co-workers made note of Dinwiddie’s work ethic and how he’s often the first one into the office. He doesn’t drink coffee, but he enjoys Kombucha at his desk while he makes phone calls, pours over spreadsheets or watches video on his monitors.

“He’s one of those guys who is hard to beat into work and he stays late, and he’s good because sometimes I struggle with the minutia,” Pritchard said. “The little stuff, dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. On almost every instance, he’s watching the minutia and he’s good at playing devil’s advocate.”

When they came to an agreement on a contract extension with Myles Turner last October, Dinwiddie handled the fine contract language or exhibits — what Pritchard considers minutia.

“He’s great at that and it’s one of those things that prevent a lot of bad things from happening,” Pritchard added. “He’s an implementor. He makes sure that things get done the right way and that’s critical for me.”

Dinwiddie is a goal-setter, both individually and professionally. He attends conferences such as the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and leadership events for self-improvement. And he’s an active reader, recently finishing Tom Coughlin’s “Earn the Right to Win” and Carol Dweck’s “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.”

Dinwiddie’s story is often repeated at job fairs and when Pacers employees field calls from students hoping to work in professional sports one day. He sacrificed to follow his passion, kept his head down and ego in check, and thoroughly handled every task in front of him. In 2017, he was named to the Indianapolis Business Journal’s annual Forty Under 40 list.

Almost five years ago, he was a finalist for the GM job with the Grizzlies. Dinwiddie, a father of four, ultimately decided to remain with the Pacers, but a larger opportunity is likely ahead for the Cathedral High School and Indiana University graduate, Pritchard believes.

“When I was with San Antonio, R.C. Buford, who was one of my mentors, looked forward for the opportunity for his group to grow and go out,” he said. “I’d like to see that more with our scouts and with Peter. And I think Peter will have opportunities.”

Bird agrees.

“It seems like to me, sooner or later, he’s got to get out there and get his own gig,” he said. “And then he’ll find out what it’s really all about. I always say it’s tough being an assistant coach but when you go one chair over, it’s a whole different ball game. Peter will handle that with ease.”

https://theathletic.com/846129/2019/03/04/how-pacers-executive-peter-dinwiddie-rose-from-ticket-office-to-front-office/