Global basketball is a far-flung enterprise with 213 national federations and complexities that don’t easily mesh into a single entity. Successful leaders, especially at the top, are vital to create meaningful bonds, improve governance and deal with problems.
And some leaders are irreplaceable. That much is certain.
Patrick Baumann knew how to get things done. With distinction and determination, he guided FIBA, basketball’s world governing body, as its secretary general from 2002 until his death on Oct. 13 in Buenos Aires while attending the Youth Olympics. A heart attack ended Baumann’s life at age 51, and the world of basketball is mourning his passing.
A public memorial service will be held on Nov. 2 at Lausanne Cathedral in his native Switzerland.
But Baumann’s legacy will be on display for decades to come. Anytime a basketball bounces can be a reminder of his love for the game and its endless potential.
A lawyer by trade who possessed an MBA and a master’s degree in sports administration, he brought intellect (famously speaking five languages) and a tireless work ethic to FIBA, and also broadened his influence in sports as an IOC member, president of the GAISF (General Association of International Sports Federations) and World Anti-Doping Agency executive committee member. He served as FIBA’s deputy secretary general before assuming the top post.
Baumann overhauled the administrative machinations at FIBA, demanded that various national and continental associations and pro circuits work together for the greater good and pushed for greater opportunities for the game to be played — anywhere, everywhere. Which is why the 3-on-3 version of the game will make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games. He also helped direct FIBA to mirror soccer’s World Cup qualifying with home-and-away contests. It added more relevance and excitement to recent and ongoing tourney qualifying.
In other words, Baumann, who succeeded Boris Stankovic as secretary general, led the world’s second-most popular team sport to new heights in the 21st century.
Former NBA commissioner David Stern, who steered the league and the sport to global prominence during his reign (1984-2014), remembered Baumann as a visionary leader with guts.
“Patrick Baumann was devoted to the growth of basketball around the world,” Stern told Hoop Scoop this week. “He saw 3-on-3 as a way to encourage more countries to field teams and he worked tirelessly to make it an Olympic sport — and succeeded. He proudly built on the legacy of Boris Stankovic by introducing business reforms and governance procedures that placed FIBA in the first rank of sports federations.
“He had a keen sense of humor, a self-deprecating wit and a love for our sport that was surpassed only by his love for his family and pride in their achievements. Our sport and the Olympics will miss him greatly but are so much the better for having benefited from his service and dedication.”
Ex-NBA coach Don Casey succinctly echoed Stern’s sentiments.
“FIBA is thriving. Case closed,” Casey wrote of Baumann’s legacy in an email.
Alexander Wolff, a prominent Sports Illustrated basketball scribe, crossed paths with Baumann many times over the years and delivered a heartfelt tribute to him.
“I’ll always remember Patrick for his youthfulness, painful as that is to consider when someone has just died so young,” Wolf commented. “But he had that impish manner and a background not so long ago as a ballplayer himself. And his great passion and legacy to basketball — 3-on-3 and its enshrinement as an Olympic sport — is literally a case of him taking a kids’ game seriously.
“Speaking with him in Istanbul on the eve of the first FIBA 3×3 World Championship (in 2012), I remember his giddiness about FIBA’s engagement with the version of the sport closest to the grass roots. In a world full of fuddy-duddies, that was one of his great gifts to the Olympics — an ability to see how the Games could better connect with youth. Basketball will miss him, but I wonder if the Olympics will miss him even more.
“There was no more appropriate place for (IOC president) Thomas Bach to deliver his eulogy to Patrick than literally on the 3-on-3 court at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. It will be impossible not to think of him before the first Olympic 3×3 game takes place in Tokyo two years from now.”
Reacting to Baumann’s death Kyoto Hannaryz guard Yusuke Okada expressed on Twitter the viewpoints of many within the Japanese basketball community.
Okada tweeted, “So sad…he contributed so much to the Japanese basketball. He also came to players union conference and brought our opinions to the B. League. B. League wasn’t born without him. RIP.”
Alvark Tokyo coach Luka Pavicevic, who had a long history of coaching and playing in the pro ranks in Europe, described Baumann as a proponent of progress. He insisted that FIBA had become “big, but sleepy” as an organization before Baumann began calling the shots. “That was his mission and he was successful,” the Alvark coach added, noting Baumann was a “pro-active” leader, and “I really appreciate the passion that he was working with, the dedication that he showed for all the aspects of the game and “all the regions of the game…”
“He has done a lot to improve FIBA as an organization … from being conservative and backwards into a really modern type of organization that moves forward,” added Pavicevic, who recalled Baumann as “a person with a high level of energy and an ability to scan the full situation, not just for one point of view, but he had the ability to include the interests of all the people in the room, and in that sense to lead the conversation. It’s not on a good side of just one or two, but of all parties involved. This is something that is very rare to see and that was his ability, and also a really high-spirited person who generated a lot of humor, like with interesting conversations.”
Toyama Grouses bench boss Don Beck, who has also led clubs in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands and gained a broad perspective on international hoops, considered Baumann an effective top figure for the sport.
“I think FIBA basketball under his guidance has done really well, and obviously if the two leagues had not merged we wouldn’t be playing right now, so I think he had a big impact,” he said last week, noting the previous impasse between the JBA-backed NBL and the bj-league. “Definitely a big impact on where Japanese basketball is and which direction it’s going, and it’s going up.”
Yokohama B-Corsairs coach Tom Wisman, who has coached in several countries in Europe, Asia and Oceania during a long, distinguished career, mourned Baumann’s death after his team’s Oct. 17 home game.
“He’d really been great for the game of basketball,” Wisman said, “and particularly the stance that he took in Japan to help get this B. League started. We owe him a debt of gratitude. … It was really sad to hear of him passing. He was a too young man to go.
“He was good for the game of basketball worldwide. He was a very highly educated man and you couldn’t get a better head of basketball than him. He’s going to be hard to replace.”
A man with convictions
Quite frankly, Baumann created the climate that was necessary for the rebirth of Japan men’s pro basketball.
It took patience, but also determination and a firm conviction that the bj-league and the JBL (and the NBL, its successor) could not operate on parallel tracks for the long haul. That was bad for the game here — and Baumann knew it.
In February 2009, after flying here from half a world way, Baumann urged Japan Basketball Association leaders to restore order to their operations, including their dealings — lack thereof — with the “renegade” bj-league. Speaking to reporters that day, he urged the two sides to solve their differences. “You cannot grow basketball if each of whatever party is playing his game in his own garden, and not looking at what’s happening in the next or the other way around,” Baumann said. “If there is a league in the country, it has to be with the JBA, under the JBA.”
Even then-Prime Minister Taro Aso, also serving as JBA chief at the time, attended the news conference. It was an opportunity for him to hear Baumann speak out about difficult issues.
“When you have this two-headed top competition, and half of the players of one (league) cannot participate on the national team, that is a problem for the Japan Basketball Association to resolve, and I think if they can resolve this that it will be very beneficial for the national team,” Baumann said. “What is the end solution? I think it’s up to the Japan Basketball Association, (but) for us, the key solution is that there is a clear pyramid with one league at the top under the Japan Basketball Association.”
On that day, he was blunt, but fair and sensible in his critique of the problem. It was a master class in diplomacy and intelligence.
But five years later, he had lost his patience with the mind-numbing impasse in Japan. Therefore, it was appropriate for Baumann to crack down on the JBA in November 2014 for failing to merge the bj-league and NBL.
Baumann suspended the JBA.
The global ban sent shock waves through Japan’s basketball community, embarrassing its inner circle.
The ban was necessary; it created the conditions needed for the rebirth of Japan hoops.
Baumann and other FIBA officials made many return visits here from Europe in the months that followed, helping plant the seeds for the establishment of the B. League. It was one of his most important accomplishments in the Asian region, and relied greatly on Baumann and former J. League founder Saburo Kawabuchi to put the right people in place to hammer out the new framework.
Which is how the B. League came into existence in 2016. But don’t forget this: Baumann commanded attention. He had gravitas. He was a visionary leader.
Baumann also showed respect for reporters and the role of the media in chronicling basketball. He was attuned to problems near and far from FIBA’s posh Switzerland headquarters, including the media ban that the bj-league issued to The Japan Times in October 2013. This act of intimidation arrived after the Kyoto Hannaryz didn’t welcome the truth being reported about the team’s planned defection to the NBL, but this paper stood by its story. Subsequent talks failed to produce a resolution, and more than 15 months of no official access to teams followed.
But after FIBA banned the JBA, I had an unexpected chance to discuss the matter with Baumann at a Tokyo hotel in January 2015, when meetings were held to deal with the JBA crisis. Baumann displayed genuine concern and disgust about the situation. Moments later, a bj-league executive, Tatsuya Abe, a principal catalyst for the league’s media ban of myself and my colleagues, walked in front of us in the hotel ballroom.
I’ll never forget that Baumann calmly signaled for Abe to come over to where we were standing. He interrogated Abe about the crux of the problem with The Japan Times. He spoke about the role of the press to educate the public about the game, to document its history and to highlight accomplishments and problems wherever the game is played. He said that even if a league doesn’t like the content or a particular aspect of a company’s news coverage that FIBA supports free press for all news organizations and all media — stressing, even in Japan, that extends to English-language media.
For me, that encounter highlighted Baumann’s passion for the game and for anyone involved in it.
That impromptu face-to-face meeting was a catalyst for subsequent talks between Japan Times management and bj-league officials, and the ban that drove me nuts was lifted in March 2015.
For days, I’ve been thinking about Baumann’s important role in redirecting the path of Japanese basketball and how his legacy could be honored here.
How about an annual event in Japan called the Patrick Baumann Cup, a preseason rematch of the previous season’s B. League finalists?
Proceeds from the event could fund scholarships for promising Japanese student-athletes, who are identified by the JBA, to pursue overseas opportunities to play basketball and study English in the United States.