Billy King Still Wears ‘The Trade’ Like a Scarlet Letter

The alarm rings at 5:45 each morning, the days often don’t end until after midnight, and for Billy King it’s all about finding as much as he can fit in between. It’s Morning Joe and the Today show, then off to drop his kids off at school. It’s phone calls and text messages with NBA team officials, agents and players in the hours after. A few times a month he hops a plane to Atlanta for a turn on NBATV. A few more times he’s on an Amtrak to New York for meetings for his latest gig. King has been an NBA assistant coach, general manager and president of basketball operations. Today he is the President of ReachMe Sports, a division of ReachMe TV, a fledgling network that targets hotels and airports.

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It’s a job. It’s a good job. He’s a content hunter. It’s his job to connect the team at ReachMe to the sports world. He has had meetings with powerful NBA officials like NBA commissioner Adam Silver, former commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum. He sits down with high-powered agencies and fast rising companies like Draft Kings.

He works hard at his new job.

He misses his old one.

King spent more than five years as the GM in Brooklyn. He made hundreds of transactions. He is remembered for one. In 2013, King shipped Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans Kris Joseph and first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018—as well as swap rights in 2017—to Boston for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry.

The trade—The Trade—was supposed to elevate the Nets to title contenders. It ultimately crippled the franchise.

- Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

King wears The Trade like a scarlet letter. It’s the first line of his resume. It’s in the first paragraph of his Wikipedia page. Others involved in The Trade have moved on. Bobby Marks—King’s assistant GM—is a respected insider at ESPN. Frank Zanin, then the Nets director of player procurement, was scooped up as a pro scout with Oklahoma City. King left the Nets after the 2015-16 season. He has had little more than a whiff of NBA interest since.

“I sensed that it was going to linger,” King told The Crossover. “It was going to be something that I have to overcome. I think a lot of people within the business that I talk to, they know what was going on. But the outside noise sometimes overshadows the inside noise.”

King owns The Trade. “I was the GM,” King said. “I’m responsible.” Certainly there was pressure. Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who installed King into the job, was hell bent on winning. He declared Knicks fans would soon be Nets fans. He said the Nets would be champions by 2015. He authorized King to spend gobs of money and demanded immediate returns.

“It was a big part but it wasn’t the only part,” King said. “I won’t say that they were sitting there hammering me, but it was a big part.” Asked if he would have made the trade if he were the GM of, say, Orlando, King says, “No.”

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It’s overstating it to say the deal haunts King. But it’s close. He admits he revisits it in his mind routinely. He thinks about the number of picks he included, and what would have happened if he fought to take one of them off the table. He thinks about the swap rights, and what might have been had he said no.

Said King, “I go back and forth all the time.”

The timing bothers him the most. Boston and Brooklyn agreed to the deal early on draft night, and King and his team spent the rest of the evening convincing Garnett to commit to playing for them. “I should have said, ‘Give me a day to think about it, let’s talk in the morning,” King told The Crossover. “I should have regrouped everyone, and gone through it again. I should have told Danny, ‘Give me a day.’ I probably would have revamped it. I should have said, ‘Look, Danny, everything looks good. Let’s finish the draft and let’s talk in the morning.’ That’s one thing I would have done differently, for sure.”

- Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

King knows he will be inextricably linked to The Trade. But he doesn’t believe it should define him. He’s proud of the decade-long run he had in Philadelphia. He drafted Thaddeus Young and Andre Iguodala. He hit on second-round picks Kyle Korver, Todd MacCulloch, Lou Williams and Willie Green. He managed a volatile relationship between Allen Iverson and Larry Brown, the player/coach duo that powered the Sixers to the 2001 Finals.

King smiles when he thinks about his Sixers days. “Looking back on that, they were the best years I have ever had,” King said. The Iverson-Brown dynamic was bonkers. “They were very similar in personality,” King said. “But they expressed themselves very differently. They both wanted to win. They never really knew how to express it to each other. When they went to the media, it made it more combustible. Whenever they sat down and talked it out, they were fine. When they didn’t talk face to face, it had to be dealt with. I’d read the newspaper in the morning, and if Allen said something, I knew I’d have to deal with Larry. If Larry said something, I knew I’d have to deal with Allen.”

Practices were … interesting. “Every day you would get there and wonder, ‘what kind of practice is this going to be,’” King said. Once, King watched as Brown rebuked Iverson for going for a steal.

That’s a bad gamble, Brown said.

What’s a good gamble, Iverson replied.

When you steal the ball, Brown said.

How can I steal the ball if I don’t gamble, Iverson countered, an Abbot & Costello-esque back-and-forth that continued for several minutes. It was the kind of incident that maddened King in the moment—but one he looks back fondly on now.

And yet, King’s days in Philly are barely remembered. His time as an assistant coach in Indiana is forgotten. His four years playing under Mike Krzyzewski are an afterthought. He’s known for Brooklyn, for The Trade, for submarining a franchise while simultaneously elevating a rival. 

“I don’t want that to define my overall basketball career,” King said. “A lot of good things happened during my time in the NBA. Things like [the trade] overshadow everything else. I know I have a lot more to give. People call to ask about players I have had on my teams. It does motivate me [to get back], not that I want to erase what happened in Brooklyn, but I want to help.”

King is clear—he isn’t focused on running a team.

“There is no ego here,” King said. “I’d just like to help. I look at a lot of teams, I think I could help just giving advice. About the lessons I’ve learned over the years, the mistakes that I have made. The GM role in the NBA changed drastically from when I came in. So many teams forget it’s about managing the personalities. Managing the locker room. Managing the coaching staff. If you don’t, it will fall apart.”

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Does he believe he will get a shot?

“I don’t know,” King said. “I would hope to believe yes, but you never know. People get back in. I know my passion is there, the work ethic is there, the knowledge is there. If an owner were to call [Nets executive] Dmitry [Razumov], Mikael, Pat Croce, anyone who has worked with me, they would tell you about me.

“Coaches get hired after unbelievably bad runs with a team, they bounce back and do a great job. Mike D’Antoni coached in Denver, was fired, went to Phoenix and was terrific. I think from a coaching standpoint, [owners] look at track record. They don’t look at GM’s draft record, what did the team do that they helped build.”

And if King did get another GM job—would he be any different?

“I’d be different in the sense that I would have a staff that’s more experienced,” King said. “When I came to Philly, it was me, Larry, Kevin O’Connor, Tony DiLeo, and we grew together. [In Brooklyn] we had a younger staff. It’s important to have more experienced people. The biggest thing in the NBA now is player development. You are not going to build a great team through free agency or trades. You have to develop in house.”

For now, King will continue helping build ReachMe TV into a power—while he waits for an opportunity to help mold an NBA team into one. He will add a new title in the coming weeks: Head coach—of his son’s fifth grade basketball team. A pair of Mom’s were co-coaching the team when an email went around to the parents asking for someone with more experience. King agreed to take over, on one condition. The team was named the Tar Heels; it had to be changed to the Blue Devils.

He will wait for a call—a call he doesn’t know will ever come.

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