Scheduling mastermind for the NBA

Matthew Winick.

Matthew Winick ’60 remembers how he landed what some might consider a supremely unenviable job: devising the annual schedule for the National Basketball Association.

Winick, who graduated from UB with an accounting degree in 1960, says his employment conversation went something like this: "Someone came up to me and said, 'You're going to do the schedule.' 'Why would I want to do that?' I replied. 'Because you'll have a lifetime job.' 'What do you mean?' 'You'll have a job nobody else wants.'"

"I wondered if that was good or bad," Winick says, recalling that he'd had some doubts about the job. But it turned out well. "I'm still here and still doing it, so I guess that must mean it was good."

Winick, 59, has been working for the NBA full time since 1976. He is currently vice president of scheduling and game operations for the NBA, a billion-dollar enterprise with 29 teams and worldwide interest.

Each year, all those teams in all those cities have to schedule games with each other, and it's up to Winick, with the help of one main assistant and a computer program, to plan about 1,200 games over six months.

"It's like a big puzzle," Winick says. "And if one piece doesn't fit, you can't finish the puzzle."

Winick has much more to consider than just pitting one team against another: "There's arena availability, television requirements and other special needs for different teams.

"This year, for example, we have two teams-the L.A. Lakers and the L.A. Clippers-playing in the same building. Compounding that is the fact that the L.A. Kings hockey team also plays in that building. It's not easy to avoid conflicts and be fair to all the teams."

That challenge is nothing compared to what Winick faced last season, at the end of the NBA lockout. He had to somehow compress a 50-game season for each team into only 89 days, from February 5 to May 5. NBA vice president Rod Thorn, in an exquisite understatement, told the Associated Press at the time, "Matt Winick is going to be very busy over the next several days."

"That was difficult," Winick concedes, "but you have to remember, in this business there are no easy schedules." Winick also has to arrange the travel plans and work assignments for the referees for each game.

Owners and fans often bemoan the scheduling complexities that can condemn their teams to travel coast-to-coast with little rest between games, or to play three games in four nights.

"Some teams complain, some don't," Winick says. "I don't take it as a compliment if they don't complain; maybe they realize they'd just be wasting their time.

"In the NBA," he continues, "the schedule is just a fact of life. We try to satisfy all the teams' needs, but you do what you have to do. Some teams' schedules may be better than others in any given season, but I'm not sure there are things that could make it better that I have any control over."

The NBA's Thorn agrees. "Matt's always very busy making the schedule," he has said. "We do everything we can to make it as fair as possible."

The biggest challenge of the 1999-2000 season may be the now infamous Y2K computer worries.

"Fear of the unknown is a big thing, but we're not expecting any major problems," Winick has said, referring to an array of potential Y2K problems that could affect major-league sports teams, including possible disruptions in air travel and other transportation arrangements, payroll systems, score- and record-keeping, power in arenas and, of course, scheduling.

Nevertheless, Winick approaches his job with humor and confidence. "This job is like putting out fires-you have to expect the unexpected," he says. "You try to plan ahead, but you just can't."

A passionate sports fan since his university days, Winick says he chose to attend UB because some friends of his went there and raved about it. He recalls his first trip to Buffalo, back in 1956, from his home in New York City:

"I got on a New York Central train in Grand Central Station on a Friday morning. I was 16 years old and carried two suitcases on the eight-hour train ride. I got to downtown Buffalo and stayed at the YMCA. The next day, I took my two suitcases and caught a city bus down Main Street to the campus. That's how I arrived at school."

Winick settled comfortably in his accounting classes, but before long he was captivated by the UB sports scene. As a first-year student, he covered sports for the student newspaper Spectrum. During his junior year, he was manager of both the basketball and baseball teams.

Winick wrote about and traveled with the teams. "I spent more time on non-academic issues than academic ones, but I did get a degree," he says with pride.

After graduation, Winick landed a job as a sportswriter for a newspaper in Evansville, Indiana (he covered famed quarterback Bob Griese, who, at the time, was a senior in high school there).

Eventually, Winick went into the U.S. Army, and then back to New York, where he landed a job with the Mets as a public relations assistant with the National League baseball team. During that period in the mid-1960s, Winick traveled with fabled manager Casey Stengel, renowned for his double talk, malapropisms, and fractured grammar. He also knew Yogi Berra during his days with the Mets, and remains friends with him.

"The scary part is, I was around Casey so much I began to understand him!" Winick laughs. Winick's 13 years with the Mets included the team's pennant-winning years of 1969 and 1973.

During the same period, Winick also worked part time for the New York Knicks in the NBA and at their home base of Madison Square Garden. Eventually he joined the NBA full time.

"There were 17 employees when I started; now we have about 800," Winick says. "The growth has been tremendous, and so has the recognition of the league and its players around the world."

In recent years, Winick's job has taken him to NBA games in Paris, London and Tokyo. "It's a global game now," he says. "Fans all over the world know the players."

Winick believes the NBA has rebounded from the backlash of last year's lockout, when some fans-for a while, at least-turned hostile. "For the most part, things are back to normal. I think our players have done a great job in reacquainting themselves with the fans."

The man known in NBA circles as "the scheduler" lives with his wife, Ilene, in New York City; their daughter, Stacy, is 23. Despite all the changes in his life, Winick has fond remembrances and still feels a strong bond with UB.

"Those were four of the greatest years in my life, and I loved every minute of it," he says. "I made a lot of friends up there, and I still follow the school's teams. I like what they're doing by upgrading athletics; I think if everybody has patience, things will work out."

Winick has always believed in the power of sports.

"Even though I was a lousy athlete, athletics has always been an important part of my life. None of this would have happened without my education at UB."

Written by Anthony Violanti