UC Irvine IT director Larry Coon, whose 40,000-word FAQ on the previous… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
A financial riddle stumped officials in one NBA team's front office. It concerned the league's byzantine legalese regarding the salary cap. They needed help, fast.
One official phoned the league office, seeking clarity. Another inspected the text of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, a canon of lawyerly jargon as comprehensible as Sanskrit.
Then, another official surfed to an exhaustively detailed online FAQ about the NBA labor deal authored by Larry Coon, a 49-year-old information technology director at UC Irvine.
Coon laughed as he shared this anecdote. His list of NBA sources spans across the league's 30 teams, all because he explains something most deem unexplainable: the NBA salary cap.
"You're the reason I have a job," one NBA general manager told him.
Teams consult with him, and at least one has flown in Coon and his wife so officials could pick his brain. Agents chat him up. Reporters have him on speed dial. At UC Irvine, more than one student has told him that it's an honor just to shake his hand. And on Twitter, Coon has more than 20,000 followers, many of whom bombard him with questions daily.
The question he hears the most: When will his new FAQ be done?
Coon wrote a 40,000-word FAQ on the previous NBA labor contract and his work has been called the "CBA Bible." The NBA and its players agreed to a new labor deal in December; Coon received a copy on the same day as NBA teams. And he's been trying to finish a new FAQ to cover the latest CBA, which is more than 500 pages. Coon expects to write more than 50,000 words, by the time he's finished. He just doesn't know when — he does have a day job, after all.
Though not a lawyer, Coon has been told by attorneys that he thinks like one, which helps him break down a complex labor contract into layman's terms for his 100-plus-question FAQ.
Some examples from his table of contents show the breadth of his analysis:
•When do free agents stop counting against the team's [salary] cap?
•How do players who die count against the cap?
•How much are players fined for technical fouls and ejections? Where does the money go?
Earlier this month, at the Sports Analytic Conference at MIT, many students asked Coon, a part-time ESPN.com and Hoopsworld.com writer, how to break into the sports business. His background is far from ordinary.
Coon's father, Jack, moved from Oklahoma to Santa Ana in 1960, the same year the Lakers moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. And Larry Coon learned the game from listening to legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn.
He didn't play basketball, but he was curious about the chess match that takes place in NBA front offices every year. That game has rules just like the game on the court, and Coon wondered what they were.
Digging around, though, he found information scarce. What did exist was vague, contradictory or wrong. "It's time to do this right," he said.
His mind was suited to the task, says Eric Taggart, a fellow IT director at UC Irvine who has known Coon since 1986. Taggart says when his colleague eyes any problem, he "digs deep, really deep" to understand it from every angle.
With help from a few people, and from the NBA, which supplied Coon with a copy of the CBA, the first version of his FAQ went live in 1999. He'd then contact NBA reporters whose stories carried inaccuracies and point them to his FAQ. "He's a savior," says ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
Eventually, his media contacts led to a request for him to write for, first, the New York Times and, now, ESPN.com. Coon has season-pass credentials to the Lakers and Clippers — and the access helps him absorb all he can about the league. Last Sunday he sat through a pair of games: Detroit vs. Clippers, then Utah at Lakers.
Within the NBA, his work is appreciated. "It helps us because the more educated the fans are on the vehicles that you need to get things accomplished, the more they have realistic expectations," said Neil Olshey, the Clippers' vice president of basketball operations.
For all the time he puts into his FAQ, Coon neither wants nor expects a dime in return; he doesn't even have advertisements on his simply designed site. It's a hobby to him, an entity free of commercial interest, and he wants to keep it like that.
If an NBA team offered a job, Coon says it would need to be a rich offer for him to leave his IT job or Rancho Santa Margarita, where he lives with his wife of 20 years, Margo, and his 13-year-old daughter, Megan.
But if an offer did arise, you can bet he wouldn't need any help deciphering the fine print.