Alex Kline made the Forbes 30 under 30 sports list when he was 19 years old -- for the second time. His Recruit Scoop, up and running, was an East Coast must-read when Kline was in high school in Pennington (Mercer County), N.J. By the time Kline got to Syracuse University, the scoops weren’t just about recruits.
True story: A friend in a class during his freshman year mentioned to Kline that UCLA coach Ben Howland had been let go.
“Yeah, I broke the news," Kline told him.
He’d gotten a tip from the coach of a UCLA committed recruit, checked it out, confirmed it to his own satisfaction … then held his breath until the official announcement soon came.
Fast forward ... Kline is 25 years old. For 3½ years, he’s been a full-time employee of the New Orleans Pelicans, officially a basketball operations assistant. His actual job? Scout.
“Just really college scouting, that’s the biggest thing," said Kline, who still lives in Mercer County and is a regular at area gyms. Get to a college game early enough and you’ll see this young guy talking to assistant coaches or others courtside.
“I like to be the first one there, the last one there," Kline said. “You never know who you’re going to meet.”
His job was kind of outlined to him when he first started.
“I really think it is our job to be completely prepared at any moment, for any situation, for anything that could come up," Kline said. “Once I asked my boss, ‘What do we look for when we make background calls?’ He said, ‘No surprises.’ "
This year, there was a bit of a surprise, when the Pelicans shot up to the top spot in the draft. Kline was in the war room in New Orleans when the Pelicans called in their selection, Zion Williamson.
“I certainly wasn’t the person who was against it," Kline said with a laugh, recalling the celebratory mood that night.
If a scout were to delve into Kline’s own background, what drove him to compete with adults when he was just in high school, they’d quickly find out Kline’s mother died of brain cancer when he was 10 years old. He was an only child, raised by his father. Fitting in always seemed to be an issue. He was a manager for the hoop team at the Pennington School, and started a website with a friend, focusing on pop culture. Eventually, that evolved more into hoops, and Kline said he found out that while it was tough to get access to NBA or even college players, high school was the opposite. You just showed up. Soon enough, he created a Twitter account, started posting news.
Did his father, an attorney, understand the whole thing?
“No, no,” Kline said. “He’s dropping me off in random parts of Philly, probably wondering what the hell I’m doing.”
Twitter meant he had to get thicker skin, since nobody really cared how old he was. If they disagreed with an assessment, they simply trashed him and hit the Tweet button.
Kline had bigger ambitions. He quickly had an idea, to put on an all-star game, proceeds going to brain cancer research. The Mary Kline Classic was born, run by a 16-year-old. The list of players who competed over the next five years included, well … everyone. Karl-Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell, Markelle Fultz, Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray, Derrick Jones. Villanova fans could have shown up for maybe a first glimpse of Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth. Future St. Joseph’s star De’Andre Bembry played.
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Kline only stopped the game when he got the job with the Pelicans right out of Syracuse -- he wasn’t allowed contact with high school players.
After a couple of years, he had a different idea -- what about a sports symposium? So July 31 was the second annual Mary Kline Classic Sports and Business Symposium, held at Thomas Jefferson University on Locust Street, benefiting the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center, where his mom was treated.
Kline had all sorts of panelists, from Phillies vice president of communications Bonnie Clark to Temple hoop coach Aaron McKie to Sixers vice president of player personnel Marc Eversley. David Levy, former president of Turner Broadcasting, delivered the keynote. Ian Eagle, from CBS, was the emcee.
Kline got things started with a little five-minute intro. He knew the audience was heavily people his age or younger, looking to break into the business. He talked about how the year before the theme was doing whatever it took to get the job done, to get where you need to go.
“This year, the theme is [about] the quote, ‘Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.’ “
Kline personalized it, explaining how his mother had been diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 5 years old, how those five years were really tough, seeing her break down. After she passed away, Kline said he struggled with self-esteem.
“I was somebody who didn’t really have an identity, was trying to figure out my identity," he said. "When you don’t have that, you’re not someone who is going to take risks.”
Then, Kline said, he fell in love with sports. Baseball cards, Phillies games. Making his father go to basketball games. For him, it was all about his facing his fears, going on the roller coaster, asking the cutest girl out to the dance, being an undersized offensive lineman in youth football -- “it was always about, how can I conquer my fears?”
He related how he has been with the Pelicans for 3 ½ years, how it began when he was offered a little consulting job while he was still at Syracuse, but it ended and he was unemployed. He went to Vegas for the NBA summer league, crashing on a friend’s couch, when he noticed the general manager of the Pelicans, Dell Demps, was scheduled to play in a ping-pong tournament.
“What I decided to do was set up a chair in front of the casino leading to the party," Kline said.
Sure enough, the GM walked by, they chatted. Kline was told he’d done a great job, but they didn’t have a job for him.
A month-and-a-half later, he got hired, been there ever since. He doesn’t know if that little chat had anything to do with it. He does know that his 10-year-old self never would have put himself out there in Vegas.
Among the symposium attendees was Ochefu, the former Villanova center, a star of the 2016 NCAA title team, a member of the Washington Wizards for a year, then two years in the G League, now off to Japan where the money is better than the G League.
Ochefu paid his fee, sat in the sixth row over to the side.
“I’ve known Alex since I came to Pennsylvania [for high school]," Ochefu said at the lunch break. “He’s always genuine. I played in the Mary Kline Classic. It’s funny, Alex, he’s kind of like me. He started out in high school, grinding it out. He made it to the NBA.”
Since McKie and a Temple sports business professor had spoken on morning panels, Ochefu said with a smile, “Hopefully, next year we’ll have more of a Villanova feel than Temple.”
Just before the symposium started, Kline had said this was his favorite day of the year. Better than the draft?
“Maybe tied," Kline said.
Now that’s it August, life calms down, but also provides an opportunity for a head start.
“I use it as a time to talk to high school coaches of players who we’re going to look at for the upcoming year, get a good understanding of the kid," Kline said.
Kline does not know his future. His 10-year-old self wouldn’t have believed the path of the last 15 years.
“I was just somebody trying to make friends ... trying to fit in," Kline said. “I was the nerdy kid with the glasses, the big hair, and high-waisted pants, because my dad dressed me like that, because he didn’t know any better.”
Now, his dad shows up at the symposium, gets to see a line forming at the line break, attendees waiting their turn to introduce themselves to a man who is still way under 30. They’re just looking to get a minute of advice, maybe how to keep doubt from killing their own dreams.