Working in his varied front office positions in college and pro basketball, hockey and horse racing, John Nash has fulfilled a number of strange requests. None, however, quite matched the assignment he received in 1969 from then-Philadelphia 76ers’ business manager Pat Williams.
“I was Pat’s assistant,” said Nash, now the Washington Bullets’ general manager. “Between us, we handled everything concerning the business end of the team.
“Williams (now general manager of the Orlando Magic) had a creative mind like P.T. Barnum. The 76ers played back-to-back games with the Celtics. On Friday night, our big forward, Luke Jackson, shattered the Boston Garden backboard.
“Pat called me at home early the next morning and tells me to go to nearest junkyard and collect a bunch of broken windshields. When we played the Celtics that Sunday, we gave our fans souvenir pieces of glass from the broken backboard. I hope they believed us.”
Since 1986, when he succeeded Williams as the 76ers’ general manager, Nash has kept busy piecing things together with great success.
He engineered trades that brought Mike Gminski, Hersey Hawkins, Johnny Dawkins, Rick Mahorn and Ron Anderson to Philadelphia. Together, with Charles Barkley, they produced a surprising 53 victories and an NBA Atlantic Division title last season after having won only 36 games two seasons earlier.
Nash, 43, was on the job in Washington only a few weeks last summer before executing the three-team swap with the Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings that netted power forward Pervis Ellison in exchange for guard Jeff Malone. Ellison has played a major role in the Bullets’ recent surge that has made them serious playoff contenders.
“Nash has got a reputation for a lot of integrity,” Jazz President Frank Layden said. “He’s not flashy, just competent. If John says something, you can put it in the bank.”
Said Williams: “He’s just solid. He started working for me when he was still in college. But he was very mature and people-oriented. He already had skills in every phase of the game.”
You might say John Nash was born for the job of general manager. While most kids aspire to be pro athletes, astronauts or rock stars, Nash set his sights on being a sports executive.
“I thought I was a decent infielder in Legion ball, but knew I would never play professionally,” he said. “But the idea of managing a professional team always intrigued me.”
As a young Phillies fan, he took it a step further. He repeatedly wrote letters to then-Phillies General Manager John Quinn with suggestions for trades.
“I wanted the Phillies to get third baseman Don Hoak from the Pirates,” he said. “Quinn answered me politely and said he’d consider the deal. Well, I don’t know if I had anything to do with it, but in 1983, the Phillies got Hoak in a trade.”
Nash got his first taste of being a sports entrepreneur selling tickets for an uncle who ran suburban buses to Phillies games. In 1967, as a senior at then-St. Joseph’s College, he got an offer from Jerry Wolman to work in ticket sales at the Spectrum.
Nash would later serve as business manager for the Atlantic City Race Course, the Philadelphia Blazers of the World Hockey Association and ticket manager for the Philadelphia Flyers.
In 1975, he began a six-year stint as executive director of the Big Five in the Philadelphia area.
“It was a great experience for me,” Nash said. “I got an opportunity to apply some administrative skills and to associate with coaches like Jim Lynam, Chuck Daly, Paul Westhead and Don Casey, who are all now working in the NBA. I learned a lot from them about what it takes for a college player to make it in the pros.”
Nash rejoined the 76ers as assistant general manager in 1981 and inherited the general manager job five years later when Williams joined the Magic. But Nash also got the bulk of the blame for the June 1986 trade that sent Moses Malone and Terry Catledge to Washington for Jeff Ruland and forward Cliff Robinson.
“It was really Pat’s deal, but in Philadelphia, with (owner) Harold Katz, we did everything by committee,” Nash said. “At least five of us had a hand in the trade, and I supported it.
“I really thought Moses had run his course in Philadelphia, and besides, he was threatening a holdout unless he got a contract extension.
“I saw Ruland as being four years younger and tougher than Moses defensively. I loved Ruland, who had kept improving as a pro. We were also looking to change the focus of our offense from Moses to Charles Barkley, and Ruland would blend in better.
“It turned out to be a bad deal for both teams. Ruland ruined his knee right away. Robinson hurt his back and is also out of the league now. But the Bullets also found they couldn’t win with Moses, and now he’s not starting for Atlanta. And Catledge was lost to Orlando in the expansion draft.”
Nash, of course, is much more proud of his deals that netted Hawkins, Dawkins and Ron Anderson, a valuable sixth man obtained from Indiana in October 1989 for rookie guard Everette Stephens, who proved a bust.
“For me,” said Nash, “a much easier trade was swapping Cheeks to San Antonio for Dawkins. We were giving up a guard at the end of his career for a talented one just 25. But if Dawkins had been hurt last year instead of now, it would have been ruled a disaster. It’s all timing.”
The timing was perfect for Nash to leave Philadelphia last June for a new challenge.
“I believed we’d accomplished everything we could with the 76ers, surrounding Barkley with a whole new cast,” he said. “Besides, I was responsible for the basketball and business end and felt I was short-changing both sides. It was time to move on.”
He was close to joining Denver as its new general manager in June, but that same week got a more attractive offer from Bullets owner Abe Pollin.
“It’s easier working for one boss than three like they have in Denver. “That was one of my easier decisions,” he said with a laugh.