Steinberg Reflects on 30 Years with Atlanta Hawks

Steinberg Reflects on 30 Years with Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks’ veteran VP of public relations is the son of a reform rabbi.

As one of the longest-tenured employees in the Atlanta Hawks organization, Jon Steinberg has earned the respect of generations of players and countless media members // Photo Credit: Atlanta Hawks
As one of the longest-tenured employees in the Atlanta Hawks organization, Jon Steinberg has earned the respect of generations of players and countless media members // Photo Credit: Atlanta Hawks

The Atlanta Braves hadn’t yet won a World Series in Atlanta. Preparations were well underway for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Dominique Wilkins was still with the Atlanta Hawks.

It was January 1994 and Jon Steinberg, less than a year after graduating from Radford University, was joining the Hawks as their new assistant director of media relations. After landing an unpaid-turned-minimum wage paying internship with the Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) the prior summer, Steinberg, upon being hired by Arthur Triche, former VP of public relations for the Hawks, was eagerly awaiting his first full-time NBA gig. Did he ever think three decades later, he himself would be the Hawks’ VP of public relations and celebrating a 30-year anniversary with the franchise?

“I would have laughed,” responded Steinberg, the son of a Reform rabbi who was born in Miami but whose family later settled in Portsmouth, Va., when he was nine. “It wouldn’t have felt possible. I would not have thought that I would be with the same organization or maybe even in the same industry this many years later. I almost think if I look too far back or count the years, I’m going to start feeling old and I don’t want to do that.”

In his now three-decade NBA journey – as he’s had a front row seat to watch such megastars as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Steph Curry, and so many others through the years — Steinberg has cultivated a well-deserved league-wide reputation for being an extremely pleasant, affable, and unassuming PR guru. Unsurprisingly, when he’s asked to reflect on the 30-year milestone, there’s very little for which Steinberg personally takes credit.

A proud member of the Jewish Sports Heritage Association, Jon Steinberg is celebrating his 30th anniversary with the Hawks this month // Photo Credit: Atlanta Hawks

“I think to have any type of longevity in any job nowadays, certainly in the sports/entertainment industry, you have to have luck,” Steinberg, who also serves as the Hawks’ de facto team historian, added. “I’m also fortunate to work with an incredible ownership and senior leadership group and also just in general be surrounded by a group of very talented people who give me the freedom, the resources, the confidence, the autonomy to play my small role in the organization.”

The “small” role of being the Hawks’ vice president of PR requires a large time commitment, particularly this time of year. For home games, which Steinberg constantly works, he is typically in the office around 8 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 11:30 p.m. (Yes, this means the basketball game is but a sliver of the actual workday.) For the past decade, he has worked the overwhelming majority (as in 95 percent) of road games, which, for a husband and father of two children such as himself, continues to present significant challenges – ones that are intrinsic to many careers in pro sports.

“The most challenging part is far and away time spent away from family,” acknowledged Steinberg, who makes it a point to share such insight when he is speaking to students and young professionals aspiring to work in sports. “I have a very understanding family, but it’s still difficult. Maybe it helped a little bit that I was already working in this industry when I met my wife and when we had our children, but it doesn’t make it any easier. There’s no way to replace some of the time that you’re not at home. It’s extremely challenging. There’s no way around it — to work in this industry and not have to make some sacrifices.”

When Steinberg cut his teeth in the world of NBA public relations in the mid-’90s under the wing of Susan O’Malley (former president of the Washington Bullets/Wizards), the landscape of the league was vastly different from its current iteration. For one, there were seemingly only two teams – the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets – winning titles. Now, there is tremendous parity, not to mention dozens of new countries represented across franchises whose valuations have skyrocketed.

“It was definitely a popular league nationally and internationally when I started, but I think the growth of the game globally has been incredible and the most notable change from when I started,” added Steinberg, who accompanied the Hawks to Abu Dhabi for preseason games in fall 2022.

Undoubtedly, another gargantuan development that has impacted the life of an NBA PR staffer has, of course, been the technological innovations that have forever changed the world. While the changes have been profound (i.e., many players go on social media to express themselves, web-based news outlets populate the press box), the core function of Steinberg’s position – safeguarding the best interests and privacy of the players, coaches, and front office personnel while accommodating the local/regional/national/international media’s needs — has remained a constant.

“I think that is a fine line between promoting and protecting,” said the veteran Hawks employee. “I think managing that balance is my responsibility and the responsibility of my group. I think it’s why my job exists to be a check and a balance between what the organization wants and needs and what the media needs to do their job. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think about the importance of straddling that line. That is a daily part of the job and I think probably the most important part.”

There are many other parts, too, some of which may not necessarily fit the traditional definition of a PR professional. On road trips during the 2020-21 season, when the pandemic was still raging, Steinberg and his colleagues would unload luggage, tag bags, and deliver them to players’ rooms so the hotel staff wouldn’t have to touch the belongings. During away games, it’s also fairly common for Steinberg to handle player and staff ticket arrangements. Meanwhile, as the team historian, Steinberg produces a quarterly newsletter that goes out to Hawks alums, many of whom he has forged relationships with. And then there’s the games themselves, which, counting Summer League and preseason, have amounted to nearly 2,000 over the 30-year span.

“I have not forgotten any single playoff series,” said Steinberg. “I can confidently say that. There are probably some regular season games over the span that maybe I don’t remember. I need to look at a box score.”

One thing he hasn’t done is work the NBA Finals on behalf of the Hawks’ PR department, about which he remarks, “I hope I get the chance to find out. One of my sincerest hopes is that we get that opportunity sooner rather than later.”

read more: