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The “Sixth Man”

August 27, 2013

By Jay Nachman

From the Penn Law Journal Summer 2013 issue. 

Prior to the start of the 1991-1992 National Basketball Association season, one of the most memorable and tragic moments in league history occurred when Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive.

Suddenly, the league had to adopt policies on how to treat bleeding players, procedures for dealing with blood-borne pathogens, and regulations for the locker room.

Bill Koenig L’87, who had joined the league in 1990 as a staff attorney and was named assistant general counsel in 1992, drew the assignment. “I had no background in this,” he recalls, but “because lawyers at the NBA are entrusted with coming up with and enforcing policies—and, since no one else here had any experience in this area, I was asked by the Commissioner David Stern and then-General Counsel Gary Bettman to roll up my sleeves, consult with medical experts and come up with something.

“I did realize that a lot of attention would be paid on how the NBA handled this issue – from a social, medical and legal perspective. And, in retrospect, I’m very proud of the measured and thorough way in which we responded,” he says.

His work became a model for changes that were instituted in other sports as well.  

Koenig, now executive vice president for business affairs and general counsel for a number of the NBA’s domestic and international entities, said that what he enjoys most about the job and what keeps it interesting is that he gets to do new things all the time, which requires what he called an amalgam of different aspects of law and business.  He credits Penn Law with providing the background that keeps him prepared for whatever his days bring, whether corporate, ownership, labor, media or international issues.

“The most important characteristic for a lawyer in the sports business, especially one at the NBA, is to be an issue spotter— and then be a creative problem-solver once the issues are identified,” says Koenig. “I do that on a daily basis.”

Koenig played sports as a child growing up in Florida, but he knew from a young age he wanted to work for a sports league and pursued it with a laser focus. “As a kid, I was just as fascinated with player signings, new big television deals and labor disputes as I was with what was going on the field or court. Maybe because my father was a lawyer - or maybe because I was a little different.”

While a senior at Harvard University he worked for the Boston Celtics doing public relations, writing the media guide and doing whatever else he was asked, including getting lunch for legendary Celtics general manager, president and coach Red Auerbach.  At the London School of Economics his dissertation was on collective bargaining in U.S. sports. During his third year at Penn Law, Koenig worked for noted sports law attorney Kenneth L. Shropshire, now the David W. Hauck Professor at the Wharton School. For one credit, Koenig helped develop Shropshire’s syllabus and exams and graded papers. He also took an independent study course in sports law with Penn Law professor Frank Goodman.

As might be expected, Koenig managed to see some games at the Palestra, as well as a lot of Philadelphia 76ers’ games.

Following graduation from Penn Law, where Koenig served as an editor of the Law Review, he turned his summer associate position at Proskauer Rose Goetz and Mendelsohn, the primary law firm for the NBA, into a full-time job. He litigated sports and antitrust cases.

After making the leap to the NBA, he spent six years on litigation involving the Chicago Bulls’ agreement with superstation WGN. The NBA believed the agreement infringed on the league’s role as the national distributor of games.

Koenig continues to oversee the league’s national and local television agreements as part of a three-pronged portfolio. He is responsible for all legal work for business units from NBA properties to media ventures to the league’s many international entities. He is also the head of business affairs, which includes handling special projects and major sponsorship and licensing deals all over the globe. And as part of his domestic media business responsibilities, he not only plays a leading role in negotiations with national networks like ESPN and TNT, but also helps set the course for the league’s digital and social media policies and strategies.

As for the league’s future, Koenig says, “We’re very, very optimistic. Our international growth is faster than any other sports league. In China, for example, the NBA is extraordinarily strong and in many places we’re neck and neck with soccer for preeminence.”

On a personal level, experiencing basketball at its highest level, from 23 consecutive All-Star games to classic league championship games, has been, as sports fans can only imagine, “a terrific ride.”

His position means, however, that he can no longer root for individual teams or players. Instead, he says, “I root for the referees; I root for good calls.”