The Washington Post
The team behind the team
A skilled and experienced group works outside the spotlight to keep the Wizards engaged, happy and safe
In his first appearance in front of reporters in Washington last month, recently acquired Wizards guard Kendrick Nunn was asked who was helping him acclimate to his new team the most. He didn’t name a player or a coach.
Nunn named Greg Kershaw, the Wizards’ senior director of basketball operations. Kershaw can’t help Nunn learn the playbook or find his place in the locker room, but he did help the 27-year-old navigate a cross-country move with a young family and no advance notice.
Kershaw is part of a constellation of behindthe-scenes Wizards employees who help the players manage the off-court realities of daily life in the NBA. Kershaw’s title could be logistician in chief — he coordinates personal travel, schedules MRI exams, hands out W-2 forms during tax season and is often a new player’s first point of contact with the team outside of General Manager Tommy Sheppard.
“He was there for pretty much any questions I had,” Nunn said.
Sashia Jones is the organization’s vice president of player engagement — corporate claptrap that she translates with a chuckle: “I am the NBA’S all-time assist leader.”
The bulk of Jones’s job is figuring out what players are interested in and helping them funnel their passions into charity work and community engagement. She also helps pair the right player with the business and marketing department’s needs.
She is deeply integrated in the locker room: If a player wants to host a team movie night, she probably plans it. If a player’s family or friends need tickets to a game, he goes to her. When Bradley Beal learned his grandmother died the morning before a game last season, it was Jones who held him as he sobbed.
“I call her the big sister, the mama of the organization because she’s someone that everyone organically went to,” said Caron Butler, who played in Washington during Jones’s early days in her role. “Whatever your wildest dreams were, from being an entrepreneur or being someone to
bridge the gap between the organization and the community, she was there to help us.”
As the senior director of security, Brian Thompson seems to have the most cut-and-dried role: He prepares the team and traveling party for any potential threats and keeps the players and coaches safe.
But Thompson’s job, too, is about relationships. Keeping any group of 15 people out of harm’s way as they traverse the country is a challenge. Keeping 15 millionaires safe in an era when fans are more aggressive than ever requires nonstop work.
Thompson doesn’t just take care of the big stuff. He handles the little stuff, too.
“A player will call and ask if I know a good gas station near where he is, and he might be in a rougher neighborhood, so I just say, ‘I’ ll take care of it for you.’ Or I’ ll get a call, and it’s a player asking, ‘ How long can I drive with a nail in my tire?’ ” Thompson said. “It’s a lot of work. But I’d always rather do that and have them trust me with things than get a call at 2 a.m. about an accident or saying someone got held up filling their tank.”
‘Other duties as assigned’
It was around 2 a.m. when Kershaw received a notification that the 8 a.m. flight for the Wizards’ contingent heading from D.C. to Las Vegas for 2021 summer league was canceled.
He spent the next few hours frantically checking on new bookings for medical staff members, security guards, coaches and players because the team flies commercial for the summer league rather than taking its usual charter. But this summer league, held in the thick of the pandemic, was special.
“The rule was, if you get to Vegas and test positive, it’s automatic quarantine,” Kershaw said.
PCR tests from the previous night started rolling in as Kershaw was confirming his new itinerary, which sent him, second-year forward Deni Avdija and guard Caleb Homesley to Las Vegas by connecting through Detroit. He saw a positive coronavirus test from guard Cassius Winston in time to cancel his flight — one crisis averted.
But they were in line to board after a quick layover in Detroit when Kershaw got more bad news. The league had ruled Avdija a close contact of Winston after the pair practiced together a few days earlier.
“I get off the phone, said, ‘Hey, Deni, let’s step out here for a minute,’ and told him he shouldn’t go to Vegas unless he wants to spend the whole time quarantining,” Kershaw said. “Got him a new flight home, had it confirmed by the time I was in my seat, and I sent him another new itinerary as we were taking off.
“Definitely during covid, the ‘other duties as assigned’ part of my job description was taken to the max.”
Kershaw’s purview extends far beyond emergency logistics.
The Massachusetts native thought he wanted to be a sports agent after working at Trader Joe’s to put himself through college but ended up as a basketball operations intern with the Wizards during the 2009-10 season. It was, to put it lightly, a doozy.
Owner Abe Pollin died in November; Washington disbanded its Big Three of Gilbert Arenas, Butler and Antawn Jamison after Arenas brought handguns into the locker room in December; and the league was girding itself for a lockout.
“It benefited me because it was so different and there was so much going on,” Kershaw said.
He started full time with the Wizards in the spring of 2011 and since then has become involved with nearly every facet of the front office, a dream job that requires an “OCD level of inbox organization,” he said.
At this point in his career, there are few questions Kershaw can’t answer. Rare is the task he can’t complete, but he has to be ready for anything.
“I remember before Deni came over [from Israel], he called and asked me what NBA players wear. I start saying he can dress casually on the plane, and he said, ‘ No, like, to the arena,’ so I had to explain we take arrival photos and everything,” Kershaw said. “I was struggling to describe that one. I finally just go, ‘Something ... swaggy?’ That was different.”
The common denominator
Butler credits Jones with bringing the Big Three back together when the Wizards held a midgame reunion honoring him, Arenas and Jamison in November.
“When you think about the organization, Gilbert didn’t have a day-to-day or a weekly or month-to-month relationship with the organization, Antawn actually works in the organization, and I’m with a whole other organization [the Miami Heat],” Butler said. “But the common denominator that we all had was Sashia. She kept us connected via text, always kept us linked in and was eventually like, ‘Look, we want to bring all you guys back, and y’all going to do it this day.’ And it’s just like, all right, s---, that’s what we doing then. It wasn’t no debate.”
Jones’s greatest strength, players say, is her ability to forge genuine connections.
A Silver Spring native, she started as an intern with the Wizards in the mid-1990s, moved full time to customer service and then went to community relations for the Washington Capitals for three seasons. It was a new experience for a young Black woman who hadn’t previously followed hockey, and it was a crash course in learning — or pretending — to be comfortable in spaces she didn’t always feel she belonged.
“I learned a lot, a lot, a lot about being in hockey,” Jones said. “Hopefully hockey learned a little about me.”
By the time she moved over to the Wizards in the early 2000s, Jones was adept at navigating a locker room even at a time when women were often made to feel unwelcome.
Jones earned Butler’s respect because she never pitched him “fluff projects,” he said, but figured out how to marry his interests with the team’s emphasis on community work. It’s something Jones still tries to do.
“I would actually get really frustrated with how little downtime we have when I first got into the league, because I came here to play basketball,” Wizards center Daniel Gafford said. “We have very little time to ourselves, and Sash knows that. And she works hard to make sure our time isn’t wasted. So we work hard to make sure her time isn’t wasted, either.”
Jones has nurtured connections across decades, from Butler to Paul Pierce to John Wall. Moritz Wagner, who was with the Wizards for less than two seasons, said she still helps him with anything he needs when he’s in D.C.
“She sets a good example for everyone in that organization, which is impressive to do and I think, very, very unique,” Wagner said. “I love her. She’s a real one. She’ll invest in a relationship — it’s not just an ‘ as long as you’re here’ type deal. If you really care, she cares for you. Sash is one of those people who doesn’t really get recognition but who makes an organization special.”
First to arrive, last to depart
Thompson and Russell Westbrook can laugh about it now, but no one was smiling when a Philadelphia 76ers fan dumped a bucket of popcorn on the point guard’s head as he walked into the tunnel during Game 2 of a 2021 first-round playoff series.
“Fans have been — I don’t know what’s going on,” Thompson said. “I know you can say society is different right now, but as far as fans yelling, talking to players any kind of way, being very aggressive.”
Popcorn, while odd, barely registers on the list of things Thompson has seen in his time in security. The 54-year-old came to the Wizards in 2019 after spending more than two decades working security detail for three mayors beginning with Marion Barry. Before then, he was a D.C. police officer who joined the force after the Marines.
Asked how heading up security for the Wizards compares with working for Barry, Thompson takes a moment. The answer is that there’s nothing like trying to keep 15 NBA players with different personalities and instincts safe.
But his goal was to bring the same level of professionalism he had on the mayor’s detail to the Wizards.
On road trips, Thompson gets to the plane before everyone and is the last to depart. His success relies on heavy preparation: He collects threat assessments, weather reports and anything else that could disrupt the Wizards’ travel and makes contact with the team hotel’s manager and security guards, the closest police station and the closest trauma hospital.
When players hit the club after a game, Thompson and his team — longtime security director Jackie Miles and Tyrone Mcmillan — go with them. Thompson gets the managers’ phone numbers and makes sure players can skip right to the front and avoid having to wait in line.
“I want to have a relationship with all those folks — security guards, hotel managers, everything,” Thompson said. “Because then if there’s a problem, I want them to come to me first. Don’t call the police; don’t call the press. Call me.”
Thompson adds his own personal touches, such as detailed security reviews of players’ homes and monthly crime reports for their neighborhoods. He stands with his back to the players at every home game, surveying the crowd for anyone suspicious.
Threats of fans rushing the court have increased lately as groups such as Direct Action Everywhere have selected NBA arenas for their protests. Thompson knows how to spot them (buying courtside tickets with cash is a bit of a giveaway), has a list of members’ names and is always ready to intervene — but only if someone is heading for the team. If someone is just rushing the court, he lets Capital One Arena security or the D.C. police officers who help with home games handle it in case the sprinter is just a distraction. His task is to keep the players and coaches safe.
“Now if they’re coming toward us, all bets are off,” Thompson said with a smile. “I had that conversation with [ Wizards owner Ted Leonsis]. He said, ‘So I can tackle them?’ I said, ‘ Absolutely.’ He said, ‘ Will you tackle them?’ I said, ‘ Hopefully before you.’ He asked if we’ll get sued. I said, ‘ Oh, yeah, that comes with the territory.’ ”