While deep into the process of resetting the culture and vision of the Washington Wizards, Ted Leonsis grew restless.
It wasn’t that the search for his next basketball executive had stalled into tedium — as many Wizards fans had suspected after one month passed into another without a hire. Leonsis came to the conclusion that he didn’t want to mirror the leadership format the Wizards had used for decades. Instead, Leonsis wanted to create a unique organizational structure without parallel in the NBA — and for 3½ months, he mined other industries to learn how to construct the model.
Leonsis, the chairman and chief executive of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, announced Monday the creation of Monumental Basketball, a division that will place the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the WNBA’s Mystics, the G League’s Capital City Go-Go and the NBA2K video game team District Gaming under the same banner and brain trust.
“If you’re going to make a big change, if you’re going to change the identity of a company and bring in new management, that process can take well over a year,” Leonsis said, speaking from his background as an entrepreneur. “But in sports it kind of was: ‘You met someone for two hours. What’s the problem? Give him the key.’ It just wasn’t sitting with me well. That’s why I asked for help and asked other enterprises and other teams how they do it.”
With the new construct, Leonsis has formed a basketball board in which multiple opinions will be welcome.
“Diversity isn’t just about skin color or gender,” Leonsis said. “It’s about different experiences and ideas, and that’s what I was craving.”
Sashi Brown, a former NFL executive, was hired as Monumental Basketball’s chief planning and operations officer. Daniel Medina, a medical professional with a background in European soccer, will be the chief of athlete care and performance. John Thompson III, former Georgetown men’s basketball coach, will head the athlete development and engagement department along with Sashia Jones, a longtime and respected employee for the Wizards whose previous official title was vice president of community relations.
While Tommy Sheppard will serve as general manager and have final say over basketball decisions related to three of the properties (the Wizards, the Go-Go and the esports team) and Mike Thibault will continue in his dual role as general manager and coach of the Mystics, Monumental Basketball will rely on the collaboration of all executives and staffers.
“We aren’t four separate entities. We’re Monumental Basketball,” Thompson said. “That’s a recurring theme that keeps coming up. We want to make sure there is one organization, one group.”
The new cooperative enterprise is the product of a nearly four-month period in which Leonsis completely remolded the Wizards as well as his entire basketball operations department after firing team president Ernie Grunfeld on April 2. Leonsis said he spoke with more than 50 people within the NBA and from other industries to help determine the direction of his basketball franchises.
"The most interesting conversations I was having was with people with the league. The leagues are now being filled with executives leading basketball operations that came from business. So I said, ‘Why can’t we do both?’ Why can’t we make big investments and go deep in basketball and then bring people in that tangential experience, but they’re really, really smart and they add a lot of value?”
In May, Leonsis reached out to Brown for one of the many conversations he had with people from other industries.
Brown, 43, has a Harvard law degree and an NFL background. He worked in the Washington office of the law firm WilmerHale in its business transactions division before focusing on football. Brown spent 12 years in the NFL in several executive and general counsel roles with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns. He was promoted to executive vice president of football operations for the Browns in 2016 but was fired less than two years later after a stretch in which the team went 1-27.
Though that initial meeting between Leonsis and Brown, who lives in the Washington area, was not a formal interview, the sit-down led to further conversations and eventually a leadership role for Brown in Monumental Basketball.
Brown will work closely with the ownership group and manage business matters related to technology, finance, communications, security, research and player engagement for all of the Monumental teams, players, general managers and coaches.
“[Leonsis’s] vision for what we want to create on the basketball operations with Tommy and [Wizards Coach] Scott [Brooks] and Mike is unique, but it’s also dynamic and something that I certainly buy in to,” Brown said. “My job is going to be to innovate and prepare and develop our people and to marshal our resources to find synergies across and opportunities across from the Mystics to the Go-Go to District Gaming to Wizards and bring a championship-caliber operation across all of our basketball properties."
Leonsis went another nontraditional route with Medina, who spent over a decade with Barcelona as team physician and later served as deputy director of the soccer club’s sports science and medical department. Medina moved across the Atlantic in 2017 and became the vice president of athletic care for the Philadelphia 76ers, where he directed the team’s medical and sports science departments.
Sheppard, however, is a familiar face within the organization, working with the Wizards for the past 16 seasons, mostly as executive vice president of basketball operations. As a newly promoted general manager, Sheppard, 50, will lead the day-to-day operations of the Wizards, Go-Go and District Gaming. Following the departure of Grunfeld, he was named interim president and guided the Wizards through the NBA draft and free agency. Under Sheppard’s supervision, the Wizards have added four rookies, re-signed free agent center Thomas Bryant, acquired point guards Isaiah Thomas and Ish Smith to replace the injured John Wall and traded veteran center Dwight Howard.
Leonsis emphasizes “big moments” that can define a team’s success and failure, and the first such moment of Sheppard’s tenure was the drafting of No. 9 pick Rui Hachimura. Leonsis has vowed that he and other members of the ownership group will be more involved with the Wizards, and Leonsis quizzed Sheppard before the draft about everything from the analytics to the medical information that led to Sheppard placing Hachimura high on the team’s draft board.
Fully empowered as general manager with no interim tag, Sheppard will have the final say on Wizards matters, but the “big moments” in Monumental Basketball will be a collaborative effort.
“When Ted and I sat down on the opportunity to discuss the future, his vision lined up exactly what I was looking for,” Sheppard said, sitting between Brown and Leonsis at the team’s news conference at Capital One Arena. “To bring in the staff up here and adding to our firepower, if you will, is tremendous.”