It is a February night in Normal, Ill., and Travis Schlenk is wrapping up a week of travel and basketball typical for his job with the Golden State Warriors.
He started with a trip to Seattle to see Oregon win at Washington. In Berkeley, he watched California beat UCLA by 13 points. He flew to Cincinnati for Georgetown’s win over the Bearcats and the next afternoon checked out Arkansas’ two-point win over Missouri in Fayetteville. Wichita State’s 68-67 win at Illinois State ended his week with the drama of an improbable comeback and Cleanthony Early’s game-winning basket.
He watches a lot of basketball. He also pays attention to what goes on when the basketball is quiet. His job is to build a team and sometimes that requires judging assets besides shooting and dribbling.
“You want to see how they react on bench, how they interact with teammates, coaches,” Schlenk said. “You get maybe a little truer sense of what kind of person they are. I like the idea of building a team. I like the process of trying to mesh personalities and find the right pieces to the puzzle.”
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Five games in five nights in five states and three time zones for Schlenk, who grew up in the northwest Kansas town of Selden, attended Bethel College and earned his graduate degree at Wichita State. He intended to coach college basketball.
Instead, he is charged with compiling talent for the Warriors, an improving franchise with a new ownership group that is in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Schlenk, Golden State’s assistant general manager and director of player personnel, is known around his team as a person with no desire to talk big, so others are willing to do it for him. Schlenk, they say, is as understated and quiet as his hometown, with 200 people located 30 miles northeast of Colby.
“He is one of those guys who flies under the radar,” said Jerry West, the Hall of Fame player who serves on Golden State’s executive board. “He’s not a self-promoter, as some people are in this league. I’ll certainly go to bat for him.”
Schlenk works with several scouts and front-office people, including general manager Bob Myers, to build Golden State’s roster. That staff rejuvenated a franchise, supported by one of the NBA’s most loyal fan bases, with a series of moves.
They do it with frequent-flyer miles, hours in the gym and film study. They also are part of the growing number of NBA teams relying on advanced statistics and analytics to judge players.
“He’s always married technology with the craft, a mixture of art and science,” said Mitch Germann, a former executive with the Sacramento Kings who met Schlenk at Wichita State. “Travis represents that new breed of NBA executive in basketball operations, using big data to make decisions.”
Second-year coach Mark Jackson possesses the right touch with this blend of youth and veterans, and Schlenk said his ability to coax effort out of everyone on the roster is critical.
Third-year guard Stephen Curry is the key piece. Golden State drafted guard Klay Thompson in 2011. Late last season, it traded popular shooter Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for center Andrew Bogut. In the off-season, the Warriors acquired Jarrett Jack (trade) to add experience in the backcourt and Carl Landry (free agent) for his rebounding and ability to draw fouls.
“Every guy we draft or bring in, we give a personality test,” Schlenk said. “When a team gets along and there’s camaraderie, you see it on the floor.”
The 2012 draft yielded scorer Harrison Barnes, center Festus Ezeli and defender Draymond Green.
“We lean on him heavily as to what he thinks of a player, how much the player will improve,” Myers said. “Usually, he’s the one on the staff that’s seen the player the most.”
Schlenk’s versatile background helps his evaluations. He joined the Warriors in 2004 and worked as a video scout and assistant coach before moving to the front office, where he found stability for his family that coaching sometimes lacks. Schlenk and his wife, Sarah, have two daughters.
“He’s arguably the hardest-working person in the organization,” Myers said. “He’s not afraid to travel. He’s up late. He’s on prop planes going to the middle of nowhere.”
Schlenk, as West’s endorsement shows, benefited from a strong group of mentors. He worked with Chuck Daly during his internship with the Orlando Magic in 1997-98. After a season as an assistant coach at Georgia, he returned to the NBA. Daly told him, “Welcome to the club. You’re not a coach until you’ve been fired.”
Schlenk hooked on with Miami as video coordinator, where he worked with Pat Riley, Stan Van Gundy, Erik Spoelstra and Jeff Bzdelik. At Golden State, he worked with Mike Montgomery and Don Nelson.
From Riley, he learned the importance of details and organization. Nelson eagerly tried innovative approaches on offense. Daly’s personality made everyone in the organization feel important.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Schlenk said. “They taught me there is more than one way to skin a cat.”
As there is more than one way to build an NBA career. Schlenk didn’t play in the Association. His last name didn’t open doors for him. He didn’t even grow up dreaming of the NBA.
Schlenk, 39, grew up in northwest Kansas wanting to coach in college. He rooted for the Denver Nuggets and watched Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls on WGN.
“I liked the NBA, but it never crossed my mind to work in it,” he said.
He worked at a gas station and on his grandfather’s farm. At Golden Plains High, he played football and basketball. He chose Bethel College over Bethany because the coach lured him with connections to prominent coaches. That coach lasted one season before the school fired him.
The new coach wanted to run and press, which didn’t fit Schlenk’s skills as shooting guard. He played one more season and graduated in three years.
He knew college coaches needed a graduate degree, so he enrolled at WSU for the sports administration program and earned a Masters of Education. He met Germann, who marveled at Schlenk’s ability to juggle graduate school’s demands without showing stress. They played intramural basketball together at the Heskett Center, where Schlenk handed out stress to defenders.
“He’s one of those guys you walk out there to face him and he’s not particularly tall and you’re not too worried,” said Germann, now senior vice president for Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm in San Francisco. “He beats you with his intelligence and his stroke. He knows exactly how to get around every screen.”
Along the way, Schlenk decided cold-calling recruits didn’t appeal to him. Dealing with NCAA rules and players who needed bed checks also soured him on college coaching.
“The NBA is a job, and if you don’t do your job, you lose your job,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that way in college.”
He made the right choice. West expects to see Schlenk continue to rise in the NBA.
“I think he’s ahead of the game at looking at a team and understanding its strengths and weaknesses,” West said. “Ultimately, one person is going to have to pick that one player. That person is responsible. He has the ability to do that. He’s not afraid.”