A 38-foot jump shot and a wave goodbye to the Oklahoma City Thunder produced the first viral moment of the 2019 NBA playoffs. Damian Lillard’s shot went in, Portland was moving on, and a man at the Jersey Shore was off his couch screaming.
“You get so excited,’’ Steve Rosenberry said.
He’d earned the right.
Rosenberry lives around here, based in Media for years, mostly at a condo down the Shore now. He stayed around Philly even while he was a chief college scout for the Seattle SuperSonics and then the Atlanta Hawks and now as assistant general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers, his ninth season with the club.
If there are college and professional scouts who have been at it full-time longer than Rosenberry and his 35 years, they’re certainly not showing up in Philadelphia gyms all the time like he is.
Rosenberry’s own history with Lillard goes to a community college gym in Oakland, sitting at the baseline, remembering the whole thing as if it were the playoff game.
“I’ll tell you the story,’’ Rosenberry said.
Rosenberry remembers seeing the first reputable mock draft for 2012 a year out. A guard from Weber State was, like, 33rd, not a first-rounder. “Probably where he should have been,’’ Rosenberry said, remembering how Lillard then played against other top college guys at an Adidas summer camp, and played well.
“You put him on your checklist,’’ Rosenberry said. “The next mock, he’s 28. He moved into the first round. The season ends. Weber State doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament or the NIT. There are no more opportunities to see him.
"Maybe now he’s like 24 [in the mock drafts]. So the next event is the Chicago predraft camp. He doesn’t miss a shot. He measures at 6-feet-2, 6-3. Not 6 feet. That was helpful. He’s got huge hands.”
Suddenly, there were different cards to play.
“From September to May 1, he’s made $10 million,’’ Rosenberry said of the flight into the first round, explaining how Lillard’s agent shut things down. Teams could fly him in to interview him, but Lillard wouldn’t be working out against other prospective draftees.
“All he can do is go backward,’’ Rosenberry said, understanding that decision.
Portland had the sixth and 11th picks of that 2012 draft.
“He wasn’t even on our board at six,’’ Rosenberry said.
But he was for 11. Rosenberry asked if he could see Lillard work out in his hometown of Oakland. That, he could do. He flew to Oakland, got to a community-college gym around 9 on a Saturday morning.
It was just Lillard and another guy. That’s significant since as Lillard went through his reps, there was no chance to rest. Two other teams were there: Golden State, the local team, picking seventh, and Utah, which didn’t have a lottery pick.
“He was wearing a weight jacket. Think it was 15 pounds,’’ Rosenberry said. “A 65-minute workout. He’s doing everything, ballhandling, pick-and-rolls.”
He came over and thanked the scouts for coming, said he knows the NBA always talks about fatigue shooting.
“He took 50 NBA threes,’’ Rosenberry said. “He went 47-for-50.”
The scout got back on the plane. His report to the bosses: “He’ll never be there at 11. We better pray he’s there at 6.”
The only reason Lillard was there, Rosenberry believes, is that Sacramento, choosing fifth, already had its guard of the future from the year before, although Jimmer Fredette didn’t quite work out the same way.
Portland took Lillard sixth. He was rookie of the year, and he formed a top-line backcourt with another small-school guy, C.J. McCollum from Lehigh. He was picked 10th the following year, after the Blazers lost just enough games down the stretch to pick McCollum one spot ahead of the Sixers, who took Michael Carter-Williams.
Lillard was first-team all-NBA last season. It’s not as if that Oklahoma City shot came out of nowhere. But for the front-office crew that also endured ups and downs and temptations to blow the whole thing up and start over, the satisfactions are obvious.
Rosenberry said Portland’s front-office personnel operation is the smallest in the league, basically four guys, led by president of basketball operations Neil Olshey.
“One of Neil’s thoughts: ‘I don’t want 12 opinions on draft night. I can’t internalize that,’ " Rosenberry said.
Rosenberry is expected to have an opinion. As he says, that’s why they’re paying him. They’re always looking to draft on upside. He has put in the miles to back up his opinions.
His own path shows you can’t make assumptions based on labels. A Philly native, Rosenberry played high school ball in Harrisburg, then college ball at NAIA Guilford (N.C.), graduating in 1978. He did a stint as a graduate assistant at Shippensburg. “But I wanted a Division I path,’’ he said. “There wasn’t a path.”
Adidas offered him a job doing basketball promotions out of New York. A single guy in his 20s — “the greatest gig alive.”
His West Coast counterpart happened to be the brother of Seattle’s director of scouting, who decided he needed an East Coast guy to see guys. “Rosey” got the job. He’s never looked back. A Big 5 school called once about a job decades ago, but he was entrenched.
If life sounds like a dream, Rosenberry can set you straight. His wife, Kathi Tommasino, died last year from breast cancer. They’d sold their place in Media, to split time between the Shore and Manhattan. Now, he does it alone.
“It’s horrible,’’ he said.
There are times he can get lost in his work.
“That game, I was home,’’ Rosenberry said of the Oklahoma City clincher. He’d been at the previous four games but he was texting the whole time with director of player personnel Joe Cronin.
“We’re down 15,’’ Rosenberry said. “We both said the same thing. We have another run. Can we get enough stops?”
The late-night answer went viral.