PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The NBA scouts arrived one by one in their rental cars and quickly filled the vacant parking lots of Churchland High, the most unlikely of places to find some of the league’s best talent evaluators on a Friday afternoon in April. The school sits just down the road from a 7-Eleven, behind an outdated apartment complex and next to a quiet park. This is where college basketball’s top seniors come each spring to play in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a high-stakes job fair that overruns the school while its students are on spring break.
Only 12 of the 64 players auditioning are taller than Bob Ferry, who squeezed his 6-foot-8 frame through the back door of the dimly lit gym and towered above the rest of his fellow scouts, both in size and in the sheer amount of basketball he has watched over the years. The 79-year-old Brooklyn Nets scout had a seat reserved among four rows of tables on one of the baselines, but he didn’t sit there.
Ferry instead settled into a chair assigned to a New Orleans Pelicans scout in the front row. Nobody was going to bother him anyway, not a man who has been coming to this event for nearly 50 years. As tip-off approached, he put on his glasses, unzipped his black scouting binder and folded a piece of spiral notebook paper in half. A scout to his left was talking on his phone as the game got underway. A couple scouts on his right were checking their phones, too, and another was working on a laptop.
They looked the part in a professional basketball world that thrives in the information age. The NBA has become one of the most forward-thinking sports leagues on the planet, driven in part by an analytics boom that allows teams to dissect and share metrics on players in an instant. Ferry remains one of the last true old-school scouts in the business.
He has influenced generations of scouts — as the Washington Bullets’ general manager for 17 years; as the father of Danny Ferry, now a consultant for the Pelicans; and as the grandfatherly mentor to several younger scouts with the Nets — but he has also found his own place in an adapt-or-die landscape.
He embraces analytics and his old-fashioned eye test to form opinions on players. If a cultural divide between statisticians and basketball lifers in the NBA truly does exist, then Ferry straddles that line, proving that teams can still leverage numbers and unquantifiable experience to their advantage. Ferry just doesn’t know how much longer he can do it. Decades of traveling and sitting in gyms has worn out his body, and the NBA’s big-data era has only made his job more mentally demanding.
“It’s just getting too hard,” he said. “I have so many people that take care of me. That’s the toughest thing about leaving.”
As the third day of the Portsmouth Invitational got underway at Churchland, Ferry was comfortable in his uniform, wearing khakis with brown loafers and a thin black jacket to keep him warm.
He listed the players’ names on his sheet with a pencil and began to jot down notes on each in illegible cursive. He didn’t want other scouts to potentially read his thoughts.
Most of the senior players are long shots for being selected in the NBA draft on June 22. “But they have a chance,” Ferry said, and he was determined to find out who really did.
“I really like this kid here,” Ferry said, pointing to 6-3, 205-pound Northeastern guard T.J. Williams. “You could write a paragraph about his body. Look at how high his shoulders are. Look at where his legs are. He hustles.”
He marked his dossier.
A few minutes later, Ferry fixated on Michigan’s Zak Irvin after he drilled a jumper. “Everybody is trying to figure out if he’s a big guard or a small forward,” he said.
Florida’s Canyon Barry was there, too, and Ferry quickly remembered his NBA lineage. “This is Rick Barry’s son. He’s pretty good.”
Connecticut center Amida Brimah went to the free throw line at one point, which gave Ferry a closer look at just how massive the 7-footer’s hands are. “I kind of like large hands. So many of the great players have large hands,” he said, “and that’s going back to Dr. J.”
Ferry made the statement with conviction, because he was already scouting when Julius Erving emerged as a star in the old American Basketball Association in the 1970s. When Ferry first came to this tournament back then, he didn’t tell anyone about it because of all the undiscovered talent he was finding. He watched it grow into one of the premier pre-draft events in the country, though nowadays surefire first-round picks no longer attend. The NBA draft today is dominated by college underclassmen and international prospects, and the Portsmouth Invitational has struggled in recent years to attract seniors, many of whom believe they’ll hurt their draft chances by playing in the event.
Earlier that afternoon, Ferry had stepped inside a swanky hotel ballroom for the tournament’s annual luncheon and remembered everything that hadn’t changed about the event. “They even have the same menu every year,” he told the caterer as he stacked his plate with chicken and greens. “I’ve been coming here longer than anybody, I guess.”
He sat down to listen to a keynote speech by Minnesota Timberwolves General Manager Scott Layden, who opened by telling a story about how John Stockton was first discovered in Portsmouth before being drafted in 1984. “Now, pro ball was different at that time. Attendance was down. We didn’t have social media. There wasn’t as big a deal,” Layden told the crowd.
Ferry used to identify players by buying a Street & Smith’s basketball magazine for a couple of dollars. Now he has the advanced statistics for every player in the country at his fingertips with a membership to an analytics site, Synergy Sports, that can cost upward of $10,000 a year. Before he heads out to watch college games in person, he fixes his television in his Annapolis home to record every game being played that evening. When he gets home, he checks Synergy to see which players are worth re-watching.
“I scout more on TV and Synergy more than I do in person,” he said.
Ferry had once tried to retire to his home on the Chesapeake Bay after spending 17 years as the Bullets’ general manager, helping bring the franchise its only NBA title in 1978. He still wears the ring when he is on the road scouting, the crown jewel of a life spent in basketball; he played 10 years in the NBA before latching on as an assistant coach with the Bullets, where he supplemented his income with odd summer jobs, including at an Anheuser-Busch plant. He ascended to the general manager position with the Bullets at just 33, partly because of his tenacity in reviving the team’s program sales.
He thought he could replace basketball with woodcarving in his shop in Annapolis after he retired in the 1990s, but all that did was bore him and fill his lungs with sawdust. When Ferry’s son, Danny — who played 13 seasons in the NBA before following in his father’s footsteps into NBA management — became the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005, he eventually asked his father to join as a scout.
By that point, Ferry stepped into a scouting world that had rapidly changed. He needed to learn computer software and eventually the formulas for advanced statistics such as defensive efficiency rating and effective field goal percentage. He struggled with his typing, slowly pecking at the keys with two fingers. His wife, Rita, had computer training from a job in real estate and would often help him craft scouting reports on his computer. But Ferry also had something that couldn’t be quantified: nearly four decades of scouting experience and a warmness with people. He was authentic to college coaches and got along easily with agents. Even after his son left Cleveland, Ferry was highly employable. He landed with the Nets in 2010.
“A lot of the times, we said, ‘Bob, what’s your opinion on it?’” former Nets general manager Billy King said. “And Bob would just say, ‘Look, the numbers may say this, but I just know that a guy that can do this in college will be able to do it in the pros.’”
Instead of resisting the analytics movement, Ferry learned everything he could. He mostly tried to help encourage younger scouts on the staff, including 31-year-old Matt Riccardi, who accompanied Ferry to Portsmouth and later called him the “Godfather” as he approached during halftime of one of the games they were scouting.
“You gravitate toward Bob, because how easy he is to talk to, how friendly he is, how many stories he has of the basketball world,” Riccardi said.
Later that night, after a run to Chick-fil-A, Ferry fell back into his old rhythm during a second game. The orange bleachers filled up with more fans. The lines at the concession stand in the school’s foyer grew. The four rows of bleachers filled up with more scouts with phones, computers and laptops. Some scouts took notes with a standard pen and a pad, like Ferry, but not many. He moved to a back corner of the scouts’ seating section, and a Washington Wizards scout looked at Ferry as he began to take notes and said: “Old school. I love it.”
Southern Methodist guard Sterling Brown, perhaps the top prospect at this event, got hot. Ferry watched closely as Brown scored a few quick baskets in the first half, including one off a ball fake into the lane. Ferry had a gut feeling about Brown in that moment.
“That’s another pro move made there,” he said. “I call them pro moves. That means, the move will work in the pros.”
The Nets no longer send Ferry across the country to scout games. His body is too worn down from years of racing through airports and sitting in bleachers of small gyms. His doctors ordered him to quit playing basketball before his 70th birthday, but he can still manage to watch it. He travels to games within a two-hour radius of his home, always scouring the Washington area for that one player who might have an intangible the advanced statistics can’t fully interpret. When someone sits in his seat, at Maryland or Georgetown or wherever, they’re told to move.
“That’s Bob’s chair,” Dallas Mavericks scout Jim Kelly was told by an attendant when he mistakenly sat in Ferry’s seat during a game at Maryland earlier this year.
The only time Ferry took out his phone during his final night at the Portsmouth Invitational was to show off pictures of his college-aged grandchildren. Whenever he got a break, he would find an old friend to visit. He wandered over to the orange bleachers to talk with Frank Catapano, who served as Manute Bol’s agent when Ferry drafted Bol in 1985.
After he ducked into a teacher’s lounge to grab a hot dog before the last game of the night, a few old scouting friends at the event ribbed Ferry about attending his 80th birthday party in Annapolis later this month. Ferry told them he knew nothing about it, then went back to work.
“It’s just been his life. That’s who he is,” said his wife, who in the coming days would help Ferry type his scouting reports to send to the Nets. Sometimes he takes her on scouting trips with him, so they can spend as much time as possible together. “Most young scouts don’t do that,” he said.
His time in Portsmouth was his final chance to see prospects in this kind of setting before the draft, because he didn’t have the stamina to travel to Chicago for the pre-draft camp last weekend. Ferry often wonders how much longer he can stay in the business. There’s a good chance that this year’s Portsmouth Invitational would be his last, he said, so it was only appropriate that the final game of the night went to overtime.
Some scouts packed up their computers and left when the extra period began. Ferry settled into his seat and watched for five more minutes, looking for another pro move to add to his intelligence.
After the game was finally over, he folded up his binder and made his way to the back of the gymnasium. He laughed some more with a few other scouts before leaving through the back door at Churchland High, perhaps for the final time.