SALT LAKE CITY — Linda Luchetti is one of only a handful of female executives in an NBA front office, but it isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. She describes herself as team mom and shares a tiny office with three other staffers. The office borders the team’s practice court, and its floor-to-ceiling window is sometimes tattooed with sweaty handprints and even face prints.
“The players like to stretch against it,” she says, laughing. “Some of them like to make faces at me.”
She climbed on a chair to clean them off.
Luchetti’s official title is vice president of basketball operations for the Utah Jazz, a title held by only one other woman in the league. The title connotes that she is evaluating and sorting through basketball talent. Not so.
“I honestly don’t know a lot about basketball,” she says. “And I was not a good athlete. I won Most Inspirational. Consistently.”
Her job description is not easy to define, even for Luchetti. Before this interview, she called Jazz General Manager Dennis Lindsey to ask him exactly how she could describe her job.
“We’re still trying to define it,” she says. “It was really broad and vague when I took the job. Not many teams are doing this around the league.”
So what does she do? “I’m a high-level concierge for our players and their families,” she says. “That’s a pretty good way to put it.”
Instead of doing public relations for the team with the outside world, she performs PR with the players.
“It’s about player retention and recruitment,” she explains. “What can we do to be the best in the league at creating an atmosphere that our players want to be in and stay in?”
Luchetti’s job is to make life easier for players and their families. She is the team’s can-do facilitator.
If players need help finding a school or child care or a real estate agent or English lessons, they call Luchetti. Who does she know? Who does she trust?
“It’s what I do; why not call me?” she says.
Finding a plumber or even, say, a mattress, is not as simple as it sounds, given the players’ visibility. In 2012, 6-foot-10 center Al Jefferson ordered a giant 10-by-12-foot (120-square-foot) mattress. According to Luchetti, during the delivery process someone took a photo of the mattress and invoice, which of course revealed the price: $23,287. You know what happened next. It was posted on the Internet.
“I make sure that (companies) don’t send anyone to a player’s home who will tweet information like that,” says Luchetti.
She receives calls 24/7 from players or members of their families. She has been called in the middle of the night when a family member couldn’t reach a player on the road. She helps when a child or a player becomes ill (she says the Jazz have “a relationship” with University Medical Center and Primary Children’s Hospital — and Luchetti meets them at the hospital). She's been called upon when someone tried to break into a player's house (the player called Luchetti and the police, and Luchetti sent a security expert to the house to check the locks), when someone sent his children to the door of a players’ house for an autograph and when someone else showed up at a player’s door late at night.
“I’m the players’ connection to the team,” says Luchetti.
During games, you will rarely find Luchetti watching the action. She’s mingling with the players’ wives and children in the family room, a place under the arena seats where the families can socialize, play and find baby sitters if wanted.
If a player agrees to make an appearance somewhere in the community, Luchetti ensures that his wife or girlfriend is invited and that they have a baby sitter if needed.
“They’re gone a lot already during the season, so if they’re using their free time to make an appearance for us we want to make it a date night for them,” she says.
Before Valentine’s Day, the Jazz spent several days on the road. Luchetti arranged to have a half-dozen vendors set up a temporary shop outside the player lounge at the practice facility the day before the team left town, offering chocolates, flowers and so forth. The players got their shopping done on the spot without having to go to the mall.
It’s not a thankless job. She receives notes, Christmas cards and photos from current and former players and their wives. Derrick Favors named her godmother to his twins. She has photos of the players’ children on the wall of her office.
“I can’t say I miss (former Jazz) players because technically that is tampering (according to league rules),” she says, laughing at the absurdity. “So I have to be careful.”
It goes unspoken that she misses those who have moved elsewhere and continues to communicate with them occasionally.
The vision for Luchetti’s job came from coach Quin Snyder, team president Randy Rigby and Lindsey. When the Miller Group — the parent company of the Utah Jazz — reorganized leadership last year and made Clark Whitworth the new CEO, it was decided they should utilize Luchetti’s considerable experience, people skills and problem-solving savvy. They moved her from executive vice president of communications for the Miller Group to the Jazz.
“Dennis wanted to make a statement,” says Luchetti. “If we’re going to compete for free agents and keep the players we want to re-sign and have rookies want to come here, we have to create a place they want to be.”
The job marked a return to her roots in sports. Growing up in San Rafael, California, she and a friend started their own soccer team because their high school didn’t have one. She recruited players and publicized the team with fliers and news stories — her first taste of marketing. She also was general manager of a local radio station — one of her teachers owned the station — and wrote for the school newspapers.
“Those things led me to where I am,” she says. “I decided I liked the media and sports.”
After graduating with a communications degree from University of California, Berkeley, she was hired first by a radio station and then by a TV station, working in public relations. The TV station sponsored the famed Bay to Breakers road race. She worked part time on the production of the race and eventually became associate producer of the race. She left the TV station to take a job with the owner of Bay to Breakers, the San Francisco Chronicle, which hired her to be assistant race director and to assist with other promotional arrangements with the 49ers, Warriors and Giants. Eventually, she became race director for Bay to Breakers, overseeing an event that drew 80,000 runners.
After 15 years with the Chronicle, she planned to take a six-month leave of absence, hoping to work at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, but Olympic officials told her she needed more experience with other sports. She used vacation time to work at the 1994 and ’95 Olympic Sports Festival in Colorado Springs and was rewarded with a big job with the Atlanta Olympics: press chief for the Atlanta Olympic Stadium, which meant overseeing 500 reporters and 400 photographers for the opening and closing ceremonies, track and field and the marathon.
After the Atlanta Games, she elected to remain in the business of the Olympics and moved to Salt Lake City to work for the 2002 Winter Games. This time she handled public relations for all Olympic properties, in charge of sponsors, suppliers, donors and licensees.
When the Winter Games ended, she assumed she would return to San Francisco. It never happened.
“Like many others I worked with, I wanted to stay here,” she says.
She met her husband in Salt Lake City — Dave Cleveland, a pilot for Delta Air Lines. His job allowed him to live anywhere. They chose Salt Lake. For the next couple of years she did freelance work, took classes on grant writing and performed volunteer work, waiting for the right something to come along. In 2005, she was hired as vice president of communications for LHM Sports and Entertainment. She was just what the company was looking for — someone whose background went beyond sports to include sponsorship, marketing, PR and philanthropy.
When the company restructured after the death of Larry H. Miller in 2009, there was no corporatewide public relations department and Luchetti was called on occasionally to help elsewhere in the company. After researching other companies of similar size around the nation, she proposed a plan to management to create a corporate communications department for LHM. The plan was adopted and she was made executive VP of communications for the 2011. When Whitworth became CEO last year, she was recalled by the Jazz.
Jazz management had seen her initiative pay off even before she nudged the company to create a corporate communications department. In 2006, the Jazz were using a family room near the locker room of the arena, but no one oversaw it during the games. Luchetti heard rumblings from players and wives about improvements they wanted. She went to then-general manager Kevin O’Connor and volunteered to work in the room during games and asked for a budget to make improvements and manage it.
“I had an ulterior motive,” she says. “If I can get the wives what they want, the players will do what I ask in terms of appearances and interviews and so forth.”
Meanwhile, management realized it needed to enhance the experience of playing for the Jazz to improve retention and acquisition of players. Steve Starks, president of LHM Sports and Entertainment, asked the corporate office if the Jazz could have Luchetti full time.
“It’s all about what we can do to make the players’ lives better so they can focus on basketball,” says Luchetti. “I found out a lot of this information in the family room.”
In the family room, Luchetti developed genuine relationships with the players’ families. Naturally personable and gregarious, she watched, listened and learned as she visited with the wives and children.
“I want everyone to be happy,” she says.
In the NBA, of course, she is a woman in a man’s world, but this is nothing new for her. She was the youngest of seven children, five of them brothers. “I enjoy working with people, and the male-female thing doesn’t come into play,” she says. “I’ve never once felt that I’ve been treated differently or held back by being a woman. It’s 'What is my skill set and what can I do?'”
At 54, she notes that she is old enough to be the grandmother of the players. “I’m the team mom,” she says. “One, as a player, you’re going to get a hug, and, two, you better get back to me or do what I ask or I’ll call your mom, and they know I will.” She laughs as she says this. “I’m friends with the mom and wife. I can get what I need. I don’t interact with the players as much as the families. The players have so many people making demands on them. They know I’m just interested in their kids and family.”
With 15 families to watch over — 20 counting those belonging to the coaches — she says her schedule has been harried and slammed since taking the job in October. It began with the draft and free-agent signings. She helps players move to and settle in Salt Lake City and then begins her inquiries. What help do they need? Do they need media training? What’s their family situation? Will they be comfortable here?
“As soon as a player is drafted I meet the dad, mom and siblings and ask, 'What can I do for you?'” she says. “Parents are a source of information.”
If you’re wondering why the Jazz players need some of the attention and help she provides, she has a ready answer.
“You’ve got to remember, these players are young,” she says. “They haven’t been to college. I remember all the mistakes I made in college and no one cared. These kids don’t get the opportunity to make mistakes like that. The NBA tries to prepare them and we back it up on a local level. You remember what it was like when you left home for the first time. What do they do with their free time? Have they lived alone in an apartment? We help them get settled — here’s the grocery store. Do they know how to set up a checking account? Pay bills? People don’t want to give them a break because they’re famous and make a lot of money, but they’re no different than your own children. Throw in the fact that they have a lot of free time and a lot of money and not the structure they would have in college or high school, they’ve got to grow up fast.”
After thinking about this, Luchetti concludes: “I love my job. I can make a difference in people’s lives. Something is always happening and it’s fast-paced. I get to work on a team toward a team goal, and I feel my work is appreciated. And I am a problem solver — and there is always some sort of problem to solve.”