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Jesse Lichtenstein


Hank Aaron: 44 at 80

When the (first) Great Two-Inch Snowstorm of 2014 shut down Atlanta, I was waiting for my chance to meet Hank Aaron, who’d set aside an hour on a Wednesday morning in January. The meeting was canceled. Aaron was leaving for Washington, D.C., the next week to celebrate his birthday at a gala near the White House and to attend the unveiling of his likeness at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. His assistant offered to fit me in on the Monday before he left. For Aaron, this is a season of big, round numbers: eighty years on earth, forty years since breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record. Big, round numbers tend to send reporters and fans scurrying to revisit legends and milestones to remind themselves that a figure of such Rushmorean proportions in American sports is still a flesh-and-blood man among us, and to beg a moment of his time. I was one such beggar.

You can’t enter Turner Field without encountering Hammerin’ Hank. Two bronze sculptures—a bust of Aaron and a statue of him frozen in the follow-through of his swing—greet you as you pass through the ballpark’s gates. Behind them is a 100-foot-wide image of the ball Aaron hit over the left field wall of the old Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974, to become the new home run king. As senior vice president of the Braves, a position he’s held since 1989, Aaron still keeps an office at Turner Field; unlike other commuters, he must pass heroic versions of himself and his great deeds on the way to his desk.

His office is lightly decorated with lesser memorabilia (the good stuff is presumably in Cooperstown), with a window and a view from beyond the left field bleachers. Aaron didn’t get up from behind the desk as I entered but leaned forward for a handshake. A TV was tuned to SportsCenter; he fiddled with the remote control and muted the sound. He looked vibrant, though perhaps not at his most mobile, in a sweater vest and a blue button-down shirt, his gray hair close-cropped but still full—a rounder and older version of the lithe young man in a Braves uniform I knew from the page and the screen.

You bring your own acquired history to a meeting with a historical figure. As a child in rural Oregon, I think I’d read every single book on baseball in the local libraries by the sixth grade, and that was where I encountered Aaron—biographies aimed at ten-year-olds, profiles of all-time sluggers, legends of the boys of summer, portraits in courage. I memorized numbers—for Aaron it was 44 (his uniform), 1957 (the year he won the MVP), 1974 (the year he hit home run number 715 to break Babe Ruth’s record), and 755 (his staggering home run total; I knew, my friends knew, we all knew—no one could beat this). I internalized simple narratives of character, too—the prickly precision of Williams, the flash and brilliance of Mays, the tragic dignity of Gehrig, the golden aura of Mantle, the fire of Gibson, the viciousness of Cobb, the larger-than-life-ness of Ruth. And then the hero: Jackie Robinson.

And what about Hank Aaron? His name loomed as large as any of them, but it was a quieter presence, a steady rise to immortality from the sandlots of Mobile, Alabama (and that legendary cross-handed batting style he supposedly learned there), through twenty-three years of stardom in the smaller markets of Milwaukee and Atlanta, with it all culminating in The Chase to catch Ruth, to hit more home runs than anyone, to play through the storm of ignorance and hate mail and death threats and the weight of expectations to surpass the greatest figure the game had known. That was the simple narrative of Aaron.

But this was the man, days before his eightieth birthday. Before my visit I’d spoken with Andrew Young, a friend of Aaron and his wife, Billye, who gave his own version of the legend of how Aaron’s wrists became such powerful weapons in the batter’s box: It was all those years chopping firewood to heat the family’s house that enabled him to whip the bat through the strike zone at the last possible instant, to adjust to pitches and still generate such power. Aaron himself at one point claimed his strong wrists came from delivering ice as a boy. Yet what I noticed was his hand—it still felt rough in mine, as if the nearly four decades sitting behind a desk like this in the Braves’ front office, running his car dealerships, his restaurant franchises, or his Chasing the Dream Foundation, couldn’t soften the effects of all those years gripping a thirty-five-inch, thirty-three-ounce Louisville Slugger.

What do you ask a man who’s been asked the same set of questions about the same set of events hundreds—if not thousands—of times before? We spoke of the storm—“it was a mess,” he said in his deep, calm baritone, “and it’s going to be a mess next time” (and of course it was)—and then I bounced around a few questions, looking for footing in the conversation. Who was his favorite hitter? “I always admired Stan Musial,” he said. “When I got my 3,000th base hit, he was the one that showed up in Cincinnati. Wasn’t nobody else there. It meant an awful lot—I just respected him so much.”

What did he find himself teaching young players over and over again? Prospects now come out of college, with good college coaching. “I was signed from the sandlot,” he said. “I was ready to be taught everything, everything, everything. These kids have to fail first and then you can teach them. You have to wait till they fail and then they come to you.”

That sandlot was Carver Park—now Hank Aaron Park, in the Toulminville neighborhood of Mobile—near where his parents bought a plot of land and built a house mostly from salvaged wood. His father had left a sharecropping life in central Alabama and found work as a riveter in Mobile. Both parents were illiterate. The family—three brothers and two sisters, with two siblings yet to come—moved into the house when Aaron was eight. “Toulminville was strictly nothing,” Aaron told me. “Outdoor toilets. It was country. Six o’clock it was dark. We didn’t have electric. It was strictly dirt street and that was it.” Aaron and other kids drifted over to Carver Park and played baseball until sundown, using whatever makeshift equipment they could muster. “There was nothing else to do,” he said.

By the time he was fifteen he was playing on semipro teams, many sponsored by the factories in town. A local man who scouted for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League took Aaron under his wing and got him a tryout, and at age eighteen Aaron was a full-time professional ballplayer. After just twenty-six games, the then-Boston Braves paid the Clowns $10,000 for his rights, and Aaron was on a plane for the first time in his life, headed to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and the Braves farm system.

Photograph by AP Images

With forty years of perspective, I wondered if there was anything new he could say about that home run, number 715. If you poke around the Internet for video of Aaron, this is mostly what you’ll find: a man already forty, playing against younger men, his figure beginning to round out, making quick work of a fastball from Dodgers pitcher Al Downing. And then Aaron rounding the bases and—if you know the history of the death threats—the frisson of danger you still sense when two young white men somehow appear on the field, approaching Aaron and flanking him as he trots between second and third, and reach out to touch him—until the moment passes. They’re just fans, high school seniors from Waycross joyriding the moment. The mob of teammates wait at home plate, and somewhere among them, his mother is wrapping him in an embrace.

It was such a relief. It wasn’t just the pressure and discomfort and maybe even fear he endured as he chased down the Babe. This is the climax of every account of Aaron’s greatness, even the young-adult biographies where I first encountered the legend of Hank: the “Dear Nigger” letters, the threats of snipers. His children had to be sent to a different school, the FBI opened his mail, he stayed in different hotels from his teammates, left through the back door, was accompanied everywhere by a bodyguard. “The only thing that bothered me about the chase,” he told me, as he has told others, “was the fact that it deprived me of a whole lot of things I could have enjoyed, I should have enjoyed, but I didn’t. I had a rough time. I think it was a year and a half or two years—it deprived me of being who I could have been. I was so isolated from my teammates.”

Looking back on that day itself, Aaron is still proud of the milestone. But in other ways, the years have shifted his perspective. It wasn’t just his own rough time. There was something about the record itself—a melancholy note about the Jim Crow world into which he was born that will never detach from his accomplishments. His attitude now he describes as “wavering.” I asked him to explain.

“Back then,” he said, “when you started talking about records of that magnitude, you’d start saying, Oh my God, this is great, because they just let us start playing this game—they just accepted us in baseball a few years ago—and here I am challenging one of the most prestigious records in all of sports. It makes you feel good. And now, after forty years have gone by, you start thinking, do you still feel the same way? And you say, That shouldn’t have happened. Nothing like that should have happened. Some other players who probably had as much ability as I had were not able to play.” The record he broke forty years ago was itself tainted by the segregated baseball Babe Ruth played, facing not the best pitchers in America, but just the best white pitchers in America. “Things shouldn’t have happened that way.”

I asked him about his sense of racial prejudice in sports today, forty years after his own ordeal. “You don’t see it as much as you saw it a few years ago, but there’s still some there,” he said, and volunteered the recent case of Richard Sherman, the talented and outspoken cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks. Sherman’s on-camera remarks after a game-saving play in the NFC championship game brought a sharp condemnation in the press and across social media. “People who should be worried about something else, they worried about him and what he said,” Aaron said. “Somebody called him a thug. I mean, the man just finished Stanford with a 3-point something—I don’t think he’s a thug. You have a black player do that and right away you can find out what people really think about what he is.” Aaron was so frustrated at the vilification of Sherman that he did something unusual for him: He tweeted. It was the first tweet he’d composed in six months, one of the few he’s ever posted, and he directed it to Sherman: “Hang in there & keep playing as well as you did Sunday. Excellent job—you have my support.” Sherman replied with gratitude—coming from Aaron, this was “greatly appreciated and very humbling.”

“I remember so well, as a little boy growing up,” Aaron continued, “doing nothing, saying nothing, and six or seven o’clock come around, it was getting dark, and my mother would tell me to come on in the house and get under the bed.” It’s a story he has told often, one he made sure to share with his kids and grandkids, too—he’d tell it again at his birthday gala a few days later in Washington. “I’d say, ‘Get under the bed—for what?’ A little later on I found out what it was about. The Ku Klux Klan would be marching through the area.” This was in dirt-road Toulminville. “Ain’t nobody there but just two houses—my mother’s house and another lady’s house. But they did come through there and burn a cross and keep going.”

Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues in 1947, but major league teams didn’t play in the South (not regularly, anyway—there was still spring training in segregated Florida and a few barnstorming games heading north before opening day). After half a season in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Aaron and two teammates were assigned to Jacksonville in 1953 and tasked with integrating the South Atlantic (or “Sally”) League, made up of single-A ball clubs in towns across the Deep South. Aaron demolished the league’s pitching but endured, on and off the field, all the racist indignities you can imagine. By the end of the season—the first Sally League pennant Jacksonville had won in forty years—the home team fans had mostly stopped screaming at him and his black teammates to “go back to the cotton fields”; one fan even found Aaron after a tough win to offer that “you niggers played a hell of a game.” Thanks to Robinson, the major leagues had changed forever when Aaron entered as a rookie in 1954. But it was not hyperbole when, at Aaron’s birthday celebration in Washington, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gestured toward the White House and to Aaron and said, “The young man who lives right over there—his path was made easier by this man.”

Part of the Hank Aaron story, during his playing days, was that he was both underrated as a superior talent and somewhat unknown—even unknowable—as a person. He was wary of the press, unwelcoming and mistrustful of the beat writers, who in those days had an outsize power to shape the images of the men they covered. Howard Bryant, in his 2010 biography of Aaron, The Last Hero, attributes this to the scars Aaron bore from early depictions of him—sportswriters portrayed him as a natural athlete who coasted, as opposed to an intelligent athlete who worked hard and knew his craft. Even the way his Alabama accent and diction were rendered phonetically on the page betrayed a host of demeaning assumptions about the man. Aaron didn’t see an accurate version of himself in the press, so he stopped trying to help people understand him.

While Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were the toast of New York or San Francisco, Aaron spent years in the relative obscurity of Milwaukee. But there were ways this worked to his advantage. “I was not an outgoing kind of a person in my younger years,” he told me. “I was very reserved. And I don’t know whether that would have gone over well in New York, really—I didn’t care too much for that. Milwaukee was the right city for me. It was laid-back like I was. They didn’t expect too much and they appreciated me more. I think it was great for me.” Yet as time went by and the civil rights movement gained steam, Aaron became more outspoken: “I think I grew up,” he said, “grew wiser, knew a few more things, could carry on a conversation about different things.”

The Braves’ move to Fulton County in 1966 was a major piece of Atlanta leaders’ plans to emerge from the decade as a regional capital with a national presence, and with the Braves came Hank Aaron, their star. “It launched Atlanta as a big league city,” Andrew Young told me. The city threw the team a welcome parade, and Young remembers standing on Spring Street as Aaron passed by. “I heard some good ol’ boys say, ‘If we’re gonna be a big league town, that fella is gonna have to live anywhere he wants to live.’ I was shocked, because these were two middle-aged, white Southerners realizing that an integrated baseball team had a significant impact on everything in the city.” The team made a long-awaited return to the playoffs in 1969, and Aaron’s 3,000th hit and his 600th home run came as an Atlanta Brave, but it was the growing awareness that Aaron was on pace to surpass Babe Ruth in home runs—that a black man playing for the first major league team in the South could dethrone the greatest (white) slugger in the history of the national game—that was perhaps the first Atlanta sports story to capture the nation’s attention. And it was exactly the kind of story Georgia’s business and civic leaders wanted. Governor Jimmy Carter, in the stands for number 715, would say that Aaron “did as much to legitimize the South as any of us.”

The Braves and Aaron parted awkwardly after the 1974 season when the Braves traded him to the Brewers, the American League team that had replaced the Braves in Milwaukee. He lumbered through two seasons, and when he retired in 1976, the Braves’ new owner, Ted Turner, insisted that Aaron’s permanent place was in Atlanta. “The greatest thing that ever happened to me was when Ted offered me a job,” he told me. “If I had been like any other ballplayer, just retired right after the season, after my career was over, I don’t know what I would have done, because I didn’t know anything else to do.” He started as the Braves’ farm director and has remained in the team’s front office ever since, vocal in his desire to see more African Americans in positions of management. Yet while one foot always remained in the baseball world, his career outside of baseball was also important to him—finding success as a businessman and establishing a charity, the Chasing the Dream Foundation, with the goal of financially helping 755 young people develop their talents (a goal that it has far surpassed), and eventually endowing four-year scholarships at twelve different colleges.

Aaron has spoken out about the dwindling number of African American players in the game, and Major League Baseball has made some effort to address this. Yet just one African American was on the roster of either team in the 2013 World Series. “It’s not a very popular game in black areas,” Aaron said. “For some reason, you talk to parents now about baseball, they don’t have the enthusiasm that they had a few years ago.” Still, he and his wife are helping a fundraising effort to bring a new, multimillion-dollar baseball facility to the Morehouse campus.

I wondered if, looking back on his own difficult time in the national spotlight, he thought any group of people today might face vitriolic prejudice in the major leagues, if not from fellow players then from the public. I was thinking of the still-mythical gay baseball player—this was a week before a college football star preparing for the NFL draft came out. Baseball has 750 active roster slots at any point in the season—and considerably more players if you count injury lists—and as far as anyone in the public knows, not one of these men is gay. Would an openly gay ballplayer face a backlash? “I would hope not, but I don’t know,” Aaron said. “It bothers me. Because I look at my life—I have enough to worry about without worrying about who you are and what you’re doing—as long as you don’t bother me, I don’t have to bother you. I respect you. I don’t lose no sleep at all.”

When in 1999 the Braves pitcher and Macon product John Rocker made his notorious remarks about “foreigners” and “queers with AIDS” in Sports Illustrated, Aaron was quick and unsparing in his criticism of the team’s reliever. “I have no place in my heart for people who feel that way,” Aaron said at the time, and suggested that the league step in. In the fallout, the mayor of Macon called Andrew Young and asked him to broker a sit-down between Rocker and Aaron. “It was an anger management issue,” Young recalled, “and I said, ‘There’s nobody any better at managing anger than Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson.’”

“It went well, as far as the talk,” Aaron told me. “I don’t know how much impact we had on him.” (A few years later, Rocker told a reporter, “I’ve taken a lot of crap from a lot of people—probably more than anybody in the history of the sport. I know Hank and Jackie took a great deal of crap, but I guarantee it wasn’t for six years.”)

Records fall, but the question that cuts to the heart of baseball over the past fifteen years is how much it matters how a record is broken. In a game so obsessed with numbers—with 150 years of statistics—it takes extraordinary circumstances to render numbers meaningless in the eyes of fans. The steroid era has had any number of effects on baseball, but one thing it has done is shine new light on Aaron’s career. In the lead-up to Barry Bonds surpassing Aaron’s record, the world wanted to know what Aaron thought—did he bless his heir apparent? Did he condemn what everyone supposed but no one could quite prove in court—that Bonds was the greatest juicer of them all? Aaron did his best to avoid talking about the whole thing, at times verbally contorting himself in interviews and more often than not simply making himself unavailable. He was not present in San Francisco the day that Bonds, just a few months away from indictment for lying to a federal grand jury about using steroids, hit number 756, but Aaron did agree to record a congratulatory message that played on the scoreboard.

He let something of his ambivalence about the Hall of Fame worthiness of players from the steroid era be known when he spoke to reporters at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in 2009. “Do you put these guys in, or do you put an asterisk beside their names and say, ‘Hey, they did it, but here’s why’?” I brought up the steroid era—how could I not? Aaron is still the home run king in the eyes of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, the voters for the Hall of Fame, who gave Bonds only 36.2 percent of the vote his first year of eligibility and 34.7 percent his second (it takes 75 percent of the vote to be inducted; Aaron received 97.8 percent his first year of eligibility). I wondered if, as the older baseball writers aged out of the voting pool, younger writers would succeed in voting in the steroid-era players who were—however they did it—the greatest players of the younger writers’ generation. Aaron had his doubts.

“If you look at the United States,” he said, “this is the most forgiving country in the world. If somebody catches you doing something, just say, ‘Yes, I did it—I ask for forgiveness.’” He brought up Andy Pettitte, the former Yankees pitcher who admitted to using human growth hormone. “He said, ‘I did something wrong.’ And now they don’t say one word about it. I saw him just the other day, and he is living his life. But you take Roger Clemens. He’s living in a shell. He won’t come out. Barry Bonds, all these guys. Something’s wrong somewhere. But if you just come clean . . . this country would just overwhelmingly say, ‘Oh, he’s already accepted—nothing else to say about it.’”

It’s not so clear this is true, not among those who saw the likes of Aaron and Mays and later sluggers—Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson—play. Look at Mark McGwire, hero of the summer of 1998, first to break Roger Maris’s single-season home run record, disgraced when he refused to “talk about the past” at the 2005 congressional hearings on steroid use. He came clean in 2010, apologized, and has still seen his Hall of Fame vote drop steadily each year.

The phone interrupted us once—another former teammate calling to say he was in town. A friend dropped in for a visit, hung around long enough to talk a little politics (Aaron asked me to turn off the tape recorder), and left with two signed baseballs. The hour somehow turned into two and a half. Aaron’s assistant brought in chicken chili in two to-go cups, and Aaron encouraged me to use his desk as a table. I asked him about the Braves leaving the city for the suburbs in 2017. “I hate that it’s going to happen,” he said. “You know, you grow with a ballpark. I look out this window and I see those signs out there: Jackie Robinson on that wall, and my name, all those guys—all except Dale Murphy—they’re all in the Hall of Fame. In two years that is no longer going to be there. And this is going to be a deserted area, no matter how you say it.”

The morning of the snowstorm, Aaron had gone out in his truck for a bite to eat, then returned home and watched the snow fall. He turned on a replay of an old World Series game on TV, admired a player’s RBI sacrifice fly on a 3–0 count, and later marveled at two unusual animals he saw loping through the snow outside his house. A fox and . . . a wolf? He thought it was a wolf—it looked like one. Speaking with his wife over the weekend, they discussed the possibility of retirement—a second retirement, a real retirement. “I don’t walk as well,” he said. “I can’t throw the ball probably to that window.” Thinking back to the day of the home run, he said, “I could run twelve laps around the ballpark. Now I couldn’t do one.” (The week following our conversation, during Atlanta’s second debilitating snowstorm of the winter, Aaron slipped on the ice and broke his hip; the surgeon who performed the partial hip replacement said Aaron would make a full recovery.)

The first time he retired he had a job waiting for him. “It wasn’t hard for me,” he recalled. “I went right out of baseball and stepped right into being farm director. I kept my hand in a mix of things.” Now he and his wife were getting ready to visit their house in West Palm Beach, not long after the festivities in Washington. They like to travel, to go on long-distance cruises. When he feels like it, Aaron will explore whatever exotic port they’ve reached, and when he doesn’t, his wife will head out on her own, and he’s content to just stay in his cabin and watch TV, “and nobody bothers me—I lock my door.” So many young athletes impress him now—he still loves to watch tennis, football, golf, the Olympics, and baseball; his favorite Braves are Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, and “that kid at shortstop.” But he could watch them from anywhere—he doesn’t need a desk at the ballpark to do that. “I think that I could move away from it now and not miss it as much,” he said, and then said it again. “I could probably move away from baseball now.”

It’s taken almost forty years for Aaron to feel comfortable with the thought of leaving the sport for good. And so I had to ask: Who would Henry Aaron have been if he hadn’t found baseball? If, back in Mobile, there hadn’t been nothing else to do? He didn’t know. “Whatever I would have done,” he said, “I know that I would have done well. I would have done very well, because I was determined to do well.”

This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue.

Magnifying glass

magnifying glass

On a chilly morning in early January, I joined a hundred students in a lecture hall on the Georgia Tech campus for a class called Mobile and Ubiquitous Computing. The professor, Thad Starner, looked up at his audience of aspiring programmers, industrial designers, roboticists, and user-interface specialists. He is forty-four, with a boyish face and sideburns that yearn for the 1990s. He wore, as he often does, a black T-shirt and black jeans. “In this class we’re going to talk about four main things,” he said. “Privacy, power and heat, networking on- and off-body, and interface. Every time you make any decision on any four of these dimensions, it’s going to affect the others. It’s always a balancing act.”

This wasn’t my first visit to his class. The previous week, a guest lecturer named Gregory Abowd had led the students through an article by the late Mark Weiser, a researcher often considered the father of ubiquitous computing. “The most profound technologies are those that disappear,” Weiser wrote in 1991. “They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” Weiser was envisioning a world in which computers no longer took the form of desktops and mainframes, monitors and keyboards. Instead, they would be seamlessly integrated into everything around us, every man-made object, from vacuum to refrigerator to streetlight to chair. Starner was offering his students a message in tune with Weiser’s, but with a twist. “A lot of time, technology gets in your way because it’s not close enough to you,” Starner said. His audience had every reason to believe him: He was wearing a computer on his face.

“The guy with the computer on his face.” This would have been a fair description of Starner at almost any time over the past twenty years. He first built his own wearable computer with a head-mounted display in 1993, and has donned some version or another of the computer-eyepiece-Internet system most days since then. But over the previous year, something changed.

As well as being a Georgia Tech professor, Starner is also a technical lead/manager for Google’s Project Glass, and as such he was able to replace the many generations of his own system with a Google Glass prototype. Last year, just ten thousand carefully selected “explorers” were allowed to buy the first-generation Glass models for $1,500, but tens of millions of people watched the YouTube videos showing the world through the tiny computer’s glass display, mounted on a frame and positioned a little above the wearer’s right eye. At last, strangers got a sense of what Starner has been living for decades.

And they had reactions: Yes, Glass is an object of intense curiosity, but also, depending on your perspective, one of desire, fear, disdain, or even hope. Long before you can buy one yourself (which could be as soon as this year), Glass has been declared both the greatest invention of the year and doomed to failure. A computer on your face? This was just too much. And for a few—a tiny screen that didn’t even cover one eye and offered fewer functions than a smartphone?—this wasn’t enough.

Around Georgia Tech, though, Starner’s Glass was a familiar sight. “This allows me to take a quick look at what I need,” he told the class, “and then ignore it. Get the information you need, and then it gets out of your way.” A bicycle in the moment of braking, he said by way of analogy, ceases to feel like a complex machine. “If you can actually make technology so that it’s not about the interface, so it’s just an extension of your body,” he said, that was when mobile computing got interesting. “That’s one of the most powerful things I can teach you.”

Another day, after class, I walked with him to his BMW convertible and he expounded on this thought. “Can we make a computer where it’s so facile to interact with that you’ll react through it? That you act with it? That’s so seamless to work with while you’re doing the things in your normal life that it’s just an augmentation of you, just like the bike is the augmentation of your speed? Can you actually make the wearable computer an augmentation of your intellect?”

Starner is a prolific and broad-ranging researcher, with more than 150 peer-reviewed papers across the fields of artificial intelligence, pattern discovery and recognition, and mobile human-computer interactions. Practically, that means he works on everything from fundamental problems of building intelligence in computers to bridging communication gaps with the deaf community, with dogs, and even with dolphins. He holds twelve patents, with seventy others pending. When you search for something on your mobile phone and it uses your location to personalize the search—he has a patent for that.

But even though Google Glass is the biggest thing he’s worked on, no one knows if Glass will be a commercial success, a groundbreaking technology, or a permanent punch line. In the first year of its carefully managed rollout, the buzz has been loud, but so has the criticism. There was the restaurant in Seattle, the coffee shop in Durham, and the bar in Colorado whose owners banned Glass wearers—some before they’d met any Glass wearers to ban. There was the letter from Congress to Google outlining concerns about privacy; ditto the letter from the privacy commissioners of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Mexico. There were the labels from the press and from advocacy groups—“privacy-eroding,” “privacy invasive”—and the grassroots campaign called “Stop the Cyborgs,” with its anti-Glass logo.

And then there was the dork factor, the inevitable avalanche of nerd jokes. Was Glass “Segway for your face”? In the few parts of the country home to a critical mass of early Glass wearers, the terms “Glasshole” and “Glass-kicking” entered the lexicon. One user who happened to work for Wired magazine summed up his experience this way: “It is pretty great when you are on the road—as long as you are not around other people, or do not care when they think you’re a knob.”

If a computer on your face—even one so carefully engineered and designed by the talent and resources at Google’s disposal—made you look like a “knob,” was this barrier too high for wearable computing to overcome? Or was it more akin to the way people used to make fun of anyone on a cellphone—Look at that jackass; he’s so important he needs to carry his phone with him.

It’s safe to say that the criticism was anticipated by Google. Certainly it is nothing new to Starner. If he’d worried about looking cool, he never would have built his own wearable computer from parts and donned evolving versions of it almost constantly for two decades. And if there weren’t something that seemed odd or off-putting or fundamentally unnecessary about having a computer on your head, it wouldn’t have taken Starner two decades to arrive at this moment of mass attention (if not yet mass adoption).

The privacy questions were also nothing new—they were just newly on everyone’s lips. Somehow, with the slow rollout of Glass, broad concerns about the social and legal implications of ubiquitous and mobile computing that had been lurking in the background for years were rushing to the fore. If you believed in the future of wearables, these were billion-dollar questions. The students around me in Starner’s class, and thousands like them around the world, would be designing the next generations of computers on the body (if not in the body). This was why Gregory Abowd, the guest lecturer, urged them to consider carefully the ubiquitous and mobile computing question of our time: What is a computer and what is human?

He then strode over to where Starner sat—the nearest embodiment of that question. “Listen to this man,” Abowd told the students. “He’s a prophet.”

Growing up an only child in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, near Amish country and the Hershey factory, Starner spent a lot of time visiting patients with his mother, a geriatric nurse. “My best friends were sixty or seventy years older than I was,” he recalled. One of his mother’s closest friends—and so also one of his friends—had cerebral palsy and limited muscle control. She could communicate directly with Starner and his mother, who were used to her manner of speaking, but with others she relied on a laborious process of indicating symbols on a keyboard with a pointer attached to headgear. It was a challenge that stuck with him.

When Starner showed up as a freshman at MIT in 1987, he already had decent hacker chops and an impressive drive to work. Irfan Essa—now a colleague of Starner’s at Georgia Tech and a frequent collaborator, and in 1988 a grad student at MIT’s Media Lab—was Starner’s first research mentor, and remembers occasionally having to rein in Starner’s excitement. “If anything, I had to make sure he wasn’t going to do too much,” Essa told me. “I had to focus him a little bit, but he had loads of ideas.”

Starner stayed on for a master’s degree, but after his first year he took a break from school and got a job at a nearby tech company. He’d been thinking about making a wearable computer for a couple of years, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1993 that he was able to scrape together enough money (and free time) to build his first system from hobbyist-level parts: a CPU from here, an eyepiece from there, a motorcycle battery to run the thing. For input he trained himself to type on a one-handed keyboard called a Twiddler. It strapped onto his hand and he typed using “chords” of key combinations. The heavier stuff he wore in a satchel around his waist, from which cords spewed out to the head-mounted display and the Twiddler. (Fashion was not his god.) He went back to school in the fall. Recalled Essa, “One day he came in wearing a computer.”

At the Media Lab, Starner’s office filled up with parts as he came up with a model he could show others how to assemble—but they had to learn to solder. This was the “Lizzy,” named after the Tin Lizzie Model T. “You had to know how to fieldstrip and put it back together,” he said, “and that meant that if it broke while you were in the field, you could fix it; if you wanted to do something funky with it, you could do it yourself.” A group of wearable enthusiasts emerged at the Media Lab, at first paying for all the equipment themselves until Starner’s faculty advisor, Alex Pentland, found them some funding.

Using amateur radio or slow-scan TV waves or a car phone, they were able to connect to the Internet—this was before there were any websites to speak of, let alone Wi-Fi—and communicate with each other and with anyone else online via MIT’s Internet messaging service. Once Josh Weaver, part of the wearables group, snuck up to the top of MIT’s Great Dome by riding on the top of an elevator. Someone brought the elevator down, stranding him, and he sent a distress call to one of MIT’s online user groups—Help, come send the elevator up! The responses he got were understandably dismissive: If you’re on top of the dome, how are you typing this message? Weaver responded, I’m one of the Borg. I really am—I’m doing this from our wireless modems. I really am stuck, please come save me. It took him half an hour to convince someone to rescue him.

That’s what they called themselves: the Borg. At one point there were twenty of them. “The Cyborgs Are Coming,” Starner titled an early paper about the group’s efforts. “The idea of creating a community to encourage this kind of work was always a big part of what he was working on,” Greg Priest-Dorman, another early wearable pioneer who now works on Google Glass, told me. Some were more interested in gesture recognition, or in “seeing” sound through computer vision, or in measuring skin conductivity and temperature as a way to read stress. The Canadian inventor Steve Mann, then a grad student at the Media Lab, had been experimenting for years with wearable computers as aids to photography, and continued to work on computer vision and augmented reality while streaming video of his experience to the web. Starner learned sign language and did his master’s research on using wearable computers to recognize hand gestures as an aid to learning ASL. Yet for many of the early wearers, a big part of the experiment was simply wearing their computers out in the world and interacting with people. “We were doing this stuff in society,” Priest-Dorman said. “It wasn’t just that you put it on and wore it alone in the lab.”

“We were always seen as complete weirdos,” Pentland said, “people running around with motorcycle batteries and antennas on their heads. But it sunk in. And one time in the faculty newsletter there was a long editorial about how one day MIT would all be wearables. That was the result of this Borg collective that Thad managed and kept supplied.”

“This is something you don’t put on and take off like a uniform,” Starner recalled of the group’s mentality. “This is something you put on and wear like your eyeglasses or wear like a shirt. This is part of your life.” In the lingo of the 1990s, the digital Holy Grail was the so-called killer app; Starner and his fellow Borgs had found what they called a “killer lifestyle.”

In the summer of 1996, the Department of Defense sponsored its first wearable workshop. The next year, Starner helped organize the first International Symposium on Wearable Computers at MIT, and the Media Lab put on a huge fashion show—Beauty and the Bits—working with major design schools in Tokyo, Paris, Milan, and New York; 1,400 people attended.

The press started to notice. Starner gave demonstrations for CNN and 60 Minutes. Articles appeared in Parade magazine and the New York Times. Once he left for a job at Georgia Tech, he launched a startup with Pentland called Charmed, which put out a wearable computer assemblage aimed at the hobbyist or the researcher. Charmed also helped stage hundreds of fashion shows with wearable computers at consumer electronics shows around the world.

But the killer lifestyle didn’t catch on, and Charmed never took off. Starner and Mann continued to wear their computers, continued to create new versions, but the few companies that tried to bring wearable computers to a mass market never got traction. People weren’t yet ready for it—not just the look or the encumbrance of it, but the functions. When strangers stopped Starner in the mid-nineties to ask about his device, the question they asked wasn’t “Why would you want a computer on your face?,” or even “Why would you want a mobile phone or mobile Internet?” Desktops were still the default personal computer. The question, Starner recalled, was more basic: “Why do you want a mobile computer?”

I first met Starner in Toronto last summer at a conference on augmented reality and surveillance. Steve Mann, one of the MIT cyborgs, was an organizer of the event. He’d continued to build and refine his own wearable computer system, which he called the EyeTap, and had become known for drawing attention to surveillance in public places by forcing companies and institutions to reckon with the camera he wore on his face—by watching the watchers. Here was a rare gathering of people, most with few qualms about the aesthetics of wearable computing or the potential obtrusiveness of Glass. Many of them advocated or actively wore far more cumbersome, immersive, or privacy-invading systems.

Starner showed the audience a Glass demo video: upbeat music and cool people doing cool things, all shot on Google Glass. One of the most remarkable things was a high school science teacher who traveled to the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland wearing Google Glass, beaming the whole thing back to his students in the States, who were able to watch and ask questions of the scientists in real time.

Later, Starner sat on a patio in a small courtyard as augmented reality researchers and aficionados hovered nearby. His was the first Google Glass many of them had seen in person.

Starner displayed the social cues built into the device. He had to tap the touch pad along the side of his head or say “Okay, Glass, record video,” to record. To someone nearby, the tiny glow of the screen inside the glass cube indicated that Glass was in use. The wearer had to look directly at whatever she was recording, so if you saw someone wearing Glass and the cube was glowing and the person was staring directly at you, then yes, maybe you were being recorded—but it was pretty obvious. “When you’re talking about principles of privacy, the first one is ‘notice,’” Starner said. “Are you giving notice to people around you of what you’re doing?”

Someone pointed out that the mechanism could conceivably be hacked, so that the camera could record without the glass cube lighting up. The battery would still run down quickly in recording mode, Starner said. This was a design feature, he insisted, not a flaw.

“Glass is much more honest than what you’re wearing now,” he said to one onlooker. “I’m referring to your cell phone. You do not know if you’re recording me. Let me say that again: You do not know if you’re recording me. Your phone can be turned on remotely by your service provider. China has admitted to doing this. The FBI has admitted to doing this. It’s a service that’s been built into cell phones since the 1980s.”

I sat next to Starner for a presentation by the young founder of Meta View—a potential competitor. The system covered both of your eyes, and it seemed that it would rely on you moving your hands in space to control the computer, using the computer’s gesture recognition capabilities. In sci-fi terms, it sounded a little like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. In layman’s terms, it sounded pretty awesome. I asked Starner why Google didn’t use a similar system.

“Hold your arms out,” Starner said. I did for a moment, then started to lower them. “Keep them out,” he said. I obeyed. “They get tired, don’t they?” They did. “If you look at sign language, it’s all in the signing box,” he said, indicating an area slightly smaller than a baseball strike zone—from the belt to the chest. The movements are small and contained and close to the body, he explained, because it’s tiring to keep moving your arms and your hands out in front of you, above your shoulders, in your line of sight. “There’s even a term for it—gorilla arms.” They’d thought of this and rejected it for Glass. “Doing things much more subtly is where it’s at.”

To Starner, immersive computer vision—for all the sci-fi augmented reality it promised—was too great a leap, at least for now. Glass was trying to solve a smaller problem—creating smooth “microinteractions” with your computer—while leaving the door open for other things down the line. “With the cell phone,” Starner said, “it takes twenty seconds to get the thing out and get to the right spot. That’s untenable for many tasks in everyday life. People are starting to realize that. They’re realizing the services that a smartphone gives them and realizing its limitations. People have had a taste of what’s possible. That’s why I think the time is now.”

At a conference in the 1990s, Starner met two Stanford grad students who were working on a new kind of search engine. Their names were Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and they asked Starner for a demonstration of his wearable computer. Starner obliged, and didn’t give the meeting much thought until years later, when Google—the company Page and Brin founded—bought the Android operating system for mobile phones. In an email, Starner invited Brin to Atlanta. You haven’t seen my stuff in forever, he recalled writing. “I was hoping to convince them that this was an interesting idea to look at. I had no idea they’d already committed to it.”

Instead, Google brought Starner out to Silicon Valley for a visit that was really a job interview for a project they couldn’t quite describe to him until he said yes. “He really believes in wearables,” Pentland said of his former student, “and what happens is, people get drawn into this gravity well around him. He’s fun, he’s interesting, they begin playing with it—and Sergey got drawn in too. Lots of people get drawn in.” It was Starner’s experience with head-mounted displays that pushed Glass down the path of a single screen in front of a single eye. His role in Glass was about the project “staying on the right path,” he said. “This is what works, this is what doesn’t—here, let me show you so you can understand yourself what the issues are. It’s always about networking, power and heat, privacy, and interface. Those four dimensions. I basically am the voice of experience and try to say, ‘Hey, why don’t you try to look at it this way instead?’ Or ‘Why don’t you think about this problem?’ Or ‘Here’s an issue that you’re not hitting yet but you will next month. If you do this now it’ll make things easier.’”

Several other people from the MIT Borg years were brought in to work on Glass, too, including Josh Weaver and Priest-Dorman, who was at Vassar but hung out with the MIT crew. By wearing their computers out in the world, they’d learned little things, like the importance of the color of the eyepiece—if it was beige, people first assumed it was a medical device. When they tried black, people presumed it was consumer electronics, maybe some new Sony gadget. Purple? Something fun. Starner and his friends found that people were also sometimes unnerved by not knowing what the cyborg was doing. The Lizzy served the function of a watch, a cell phone, a fax machine, a laptop, a CD player, a camera, a camcorder, a health monitor. “Even when an onlooker properly identifies the wearable computer, he may still have no idea as to how the device is being used at the time and whether or not the user is interruptible,” they wrote in the 1990s.

For Priest-Dorman, “The attempt from the ground up to make Glass a device to be used in social context—I think that’s because of people like Thad making those arguments that the social aspect of doing this has to be there from the beginning. I see that as part of Thad’s work—the consideration for the other person in the room—that this is ultimately a communicative act between you and other human beings.” Starner himself put it this way: “You’re not just making it for the user, you’re making it for people around the user. This is a big deal. You want to encourage participation with other people around you. You want the other people around you to know what you’re doing with it.”

Starner took a leave of absence to work on Glass for fifteen months, and then returned to Georgia Tech part-time. It didn’t strike him that Glass itself might be a big deal until the 2013 Google developer conference. “There were literally a thousand people walking around with these devices on.” But it was also a moment for self-reflection. “Nobody was looking at me because I was wearing a device—because everyone else was wearing a device.”

“Going from a place where there are only a handful of us doing this kind of thing to a place where there’s people I don’t recognize with head-mounted displays in public,” Priest-Dorman said, “has caused me to question a certain amount of what I hang my sense of self on.”

In the past year the media reported new Glass hacks—now you could take a picture just by winking, for example. Although there were some obvious useful features of facial recognition software—for someone suffering from Alzheimer’s who had difficulty recognizing family members and friends—Google heeded the vocal privacy concerns of many and announced that facial recognition apps would not be allowed on the device. By December, someone had developed the application on their own and demonstrated it at a private event in Las Vegas.

When I spoke to Starner about the issue, he declared, “I am a privacy fundamentalist.” He mentioned that he grew up around religious people who believed in the “mark of the beast” and the evils of a unique identifying number—be it a credit card or social security number. “In my PhD qualifying exams, privacy and the social effects of technology was one of the main things that I specialized in.”

His point was that he’d thought about this. Starner will eagerly recite the six principles of privacy-by-design laid out in Marc Langheinrich’s review of the field in 2001—notice, choice and consent, proximity and locality, anonymity and pseudonymity, security, access and recourse. Glass incorporates all of these. The fears of facial recognition on Glass, he thought, were overblown and misplaced. For starters, that kind of processing would quickly drain the battery. Plus, he’d done research on computer facial recognition; it was one thing to recognize a face in a photograph, but performing it successfully on a random population “in the wild” was still a ways away. Maybe so, but it struck me as just a matter of time until anonymity in public would be rendered almost impossible by wearable computers, whether you chose to use them or not. To Starner, fixating on the risk this one particular technology—Glass—posed to privacy and anonymity was to miss the larger point.

“There should be a serious conversation about the cell phone,” he said, “and there’s not.” At MIT, they knew how to tease identifying information out of cell phones—even phones with their batteries removed. “I can figure out who you are by your cell phone. Really easily. Even if you had the old one-way pager—there was still a two-way tracking system. It had a transmitter in it as well, so they knew where you were already back in the eighties. The conversation should have started with a pager. The horse left the barn a long time ago and people are still not having the right discussion about it.”

What is it about Google Glass that has pushed these concerns back to the fore? A digital voice recorder the size of a stick of gum, capable of recording hours of conversation, provokes no outcry. A small, traceable audio-video recorder with Internet capability is no longer new—we call it a smartphone, and with it we can instantly share private conversations with the world. Mitt Romney won 47 percent of the presidential votes in 2012, but his remarks about 47 percent of American voters, surreptitiously captured on a cell phone, likely cost him many more. Are wearable computers somehow different?

Perhaps so, if only because they finally throw the questions of attention and distraction and “privacy in public” right into our faces. Aren’t we distracted enough? Aren’t we mediated enough without actually looking at the world through a computer? The counterargument—one I’ve heard from several Glass wearers—is this: Go to a concert or an elementary school play. The stage is half-obscured by an army of hands holding up smartphones and tablets to record the event; these people are already watching a live event through the screens of their devices in order to preserve and share. With wearables, the camera can see what you see, giving you a chance to remain in the moment, trusting your own eyesight while your computer records. If you want to question the need for constant connectivity, that’s one thing. But if you want that connectivity and that ability to casually record moments in your day, is staring at a phone in your hand as you walk down a street, or glancing at it as you drive, or picking it up every ten minutes at dinner, or aiming it at a stage the best form this technology can take in your life?

For Priest-Dorman, seeing the early Glass “explorers” wearing the technology made him think that people finally “got it—the transformation that happens from sticking your phone on your face or sticking a laptop in front of your face versus the idea of having a device there all the time to intelligently help you parse the electronic side of your life.”

For Starner, these are arguments for putting Glass out in the world. “That’s why you actually have this deployed on a large enough scale so you can figure out both what the potential of the technology is, and what the issues are. This idea of a living laboratory—we started it twenty years ago in academia for the wearable computing stuff, and we knew, back then, that this was going to be part of the point of doing the lab. Having people wear these things in their daily lives, every day—figuring out privacy and security and social issues.”

In his lab at Georgia Tech, Starner has been thinking about his mother’s friend, the woman with cerebral palsy who communicated with a head-mounted pointer. He recently discovered that the magnetometer built into Glass is sensitive enough that if you attach a tiny magnet to a person’s tongue, Glass can track the tongue’s movement just by measuring magnetic flux. Two and a half million Americans use some form of “alternative and augmentative communication devices.” “That includes stroke, brain injury, Parkinson’s, ALS,” Starner said. “Some can type, but others have multiple injuries.” If he can train Glass to recognize tongue movements with its magnetometer, and then to call up likely phrases in the visual display, the person can select the right phrase using head movements, and a cell phone connected to Glass can speak the phrase. The technology could be useful for the deaf community, too, since many deaf people have perfectly good mouth and tongue articulation. Voice commands could work for them—silent voice commands, just the tongue moving in the mouth.

Silent voice commands, undetectable to those around you—doesn’t that undermine the privacy principle of “notice,” of letting others know when the computer is in use? It’s easy to imagine a trend toward more and more intimate connections to wearables—so that the interfaces and the wearables themselves become increasingly obscure, increasingly covert. It may be that the “Stop the Cyborgs” movement will grow—that, for enough people, face computers somehow mean that as a culture, as a species, we have strayed too far from “real” experience. But if history is any guide, we may simply get used to computers on our bodies, the way we grew accustomed to tiny clocks on our wrists, and to another technology on our face: eyeglasses. If that’s the case, wearable computers will, as Mark Weiser wrote of the most “profound technologies,” simply disappear—because we will cease to notice them. “For me,” Starner said, “the best way to understand the future is to live it.” He has a bigger platform than ever. Whether that wearable future is Glass or something we haven’t seen yet, we’re all part of the experiment now.

This article originally appeared in our March 2014 issue.

Pero Antić, the Big Man from Macedonia

When Pero Antić steps onto the court on October 30 for the Hawks’ season opener, he’ll become the first Macedonian to play in the NBA. It’s an overdue feat, both for Antić and hoops-mad Macedonia, but sooner or later a big man from this tiny Balkan country was destined to make the leap. Macedonian, after all, comes from the ancient Greek word Makedones—“the tall ones.”

At six feet eleven, 260 pounds, with a shaved head and a riot of tattoos, Antić passes the dark-alley test of an NBA enforcer. His power forward game, however, is more finesse than brute force.

Antić’s professional career began at seventeen in Macedonia. He hopped around Europe playing for teams in
Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Russia before helping Greek powerhouse Olympiacos win back-to-back Euroleague championships. Two years ago he captained the Macedonian team to a surprising fourth-place EuroBasket finish. We spoke by phone shortly before he came to Atlanta.

You’ve been playing professionally for more than a decade. Why come to the NBA now? After the two Euroleague championships, I just felt that I could still show something. I am thirty-one. I had some offers in Europe maybe twice as rich as what I will earn in Atlanta, but I don’t want to be the guy who says, “I could have gone to the NBA, but I didn’t because of this or that.” I don’t run away from things. It’s now or never.

Had there been opportunities to play in the NBA before? I was supposed to go to the Orlando Magic—I was in Orlando for workouts, and I received an offer in Europe I couldn’t refuse. (I was supposed to get the league minimum in the NBA.)

Just how popular is basketball in Macedonia? It’s very big—it’s the main sport. In 2011 it was the strongest EuroBasket tournament in years because all the NBA players played, and we won fourth place and almost went to the finals.

And this is from a country with how large a population? It’s 2.1 million people. Atlanta is double. Half of Atlanta can just come and take our country!

What was the reaction in Skopje to your signing with the Hawks? Atlanta just signed a contract with 2 million new fans. People told me, “Finally we have a player in the NBA. We’ll have a reason to stay up late”—because the games are on at 3 or 4 a.m. “It’s going to be your fault, but I’m going to enjoy all these sleepless nights.” The president of Macedonia called me and said that everyone is so happy.

What do you think will be the most difficult adjustment? I don’t think it’s going to be difficult, but it’s going to be a little strange. Whatever you have been in Europe—you have played and won championships—that doesn’t mean anything in the NBA. You have to fight for your spot.

Do you remember who your first favorite NBA player was as a kid? Like for everybody, it’s M.J. And I like Kevin Garnett.

Who first put a basketball in your hands? My father was a professional basketball player in Yugoslavia for fourteen years.

Ah—so probably he did. We saw his medals at home—they were our toys. There was a lot of basketball at home. Then in one year I grew twelve centimeters. I was fourteen. In my mind, I just wanted to score over the older guys. Then they took me on one of the national youth teams.

How many more good years do you think you have left in your career? I think I have four to five good years. After that I will hang the shoes up and deal more with the family and try to help Macedonian basketball go higher.

You have many tattoos. What’s the first one you got? I have one on my left leg, almost on the calf, that I wanted to be a star and have a basketball and around it to have Chinese symbols. But to be honest, I only know half of them now.

You mean the symbols? It was 2002. I know what I put on, but which one is which? I put eight of them on.

I read that cars are one of your hobbies. Yeah, almost every year I buy one Ford Mustang GT. I love American muscle cars. For sure I will get something in the States and bring it back.

When you were a child, Macedonia was still part of Yugoslavia, right? Yes, but we were speaking our own language—you had to know the Serbian language, too, because it was universal.

How old were you when Yugoslavia broke up into separate countries? I was maybe seven years old. After the falling apart of Yugoslavia, like the Soviet Union, all these countries—Bosnia, Croatia—became separate countries. You can say that Macedonia is a new country.

But it’s also very ancient—Alexander the Great is from Macedonia. Yes, this is his small, great country. We have a very big monument of him in Skopje on his horse, nineteen meters high. He started everything. After he died, slowly all of it started to fall apart. But at least we are still here.

What Macedonian food are you going to miss? I will invite you to come here, to taste all the foods—everyone will love it. Moussaka, shawarma, rolled meat with grape leaves. I have to make a Macedonian barbecue for you.

So barbecue is big there, too? We arrange with families to come, and always there’s one guy who’s at the barbecue who won’t leave until he finishes.

That might be one thing in common between Macedonia and the South. In the States everyone has barbecue.

What else can you tell the fans in Atlanta about Macedonia? Macedonia is a very warmhearted country. We love everybody who comes. Macedonia is small on the map but very big in the heart.

Other Notable Faces from the Revamped Bench

Paul Millsap
The Hawks may have lost Josh Smith to free agency, but they made a terrific offseason pickup in six-feet-eight forward Millsap, one of the NBA’s most underrated talents. Playing out of the spotlight in Utah for several seasons, Millsap put up numbers very similar to Smith’s. While he isn’t a game-changing defender the way Smith can be, Millsap is a more efficient scorer, and his bargain contract gives the Hawks flexibility to fill out the roster over the next several seasons.

Elton Brand
Until injuries slowed him down, Brand was a beast. Playing forward for the Bulls and the Clippers, he averaged 20.3 points and 10.2 rebounds a game, twice making the All-Star team. At thirty-four, with a repaired shoulder and Achilles tendon, Brand knows he is now a role player—last season in Dallas was his first time primarily coming off the bench. He remains an effective post player and a pick-and-pop partner for speedy guards like Jeff Teague. He’s one of the league’s most respected locker-room guys, and the team
will benefit from his steadying presence.

DeMarre Carroll
In a Carroll highlight reel, you won’t find dazzling crossover dribbles, silky smooth post moves, or windmill dunks. What you will see is sheer exertion: floor dives for loose balls, second- and third-effort rebounds, disrupted fast breaks, deflected passes, hands everywhere. The Hawks are Carroll’s fifth team in as many years, but his unbridled hustle and his scrappy style of play have kept the six-feet-eight forward in the league and earned the respect of fans and teammates alike.

Market Movers

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

“It sounds preposterous,” the New York Times declared. “A businessman from Atlanta blows into New York and walks off with the colonnaded high temple of American capitalism. No more will New York be the master of the New York Stock Exchange.” And yet if regulators approve the $8.6 billion purchase of NYSE Euronext, then Jeff Sprecher, the founder and CEO of Atlanta’s IntercontinentalExchange, and Kelly Loeffler, his wife and ICE’s vice president of investor relations and corporate communications, will indeed have shifted the inner sanctum of the 221-year-old free market temple to a blocky glass building in an office park along the Chattahoochee.

The cultural significance is hard to overstate. A company that made its name by adopting twenty-first-century technologies will acquire an institution whose image seems positively quaint: blue-jacketed traders, ticker tape, the opening bell. Even though Sprecher says little will change initially, it’s hard not to take some civic pleasure in all this. Here is little old Atlanta, so often viewed by New York with a mix of derision and condescension, taking over the very symbol of American commerce. What’s next? The Yankees?

Sprecher with NYSE CEO Duncan Niederauer, on the exchange floor.

AP Photo/Richard Drew

Sprecher’s acquisition comes at a pivotal time for the NYSE, which has seen its profits squeezed by competition from online exchanges. It’s also been plagued by volatility brought on by high-frequency, computer-generated trades. In the “flash crash” of 2010, the Dow lost nearly 1,000 points within minutes as lightning-fast trading algorithms echoed each other’s digital panic. Sprecher has made waves in the commodity markets by putting limits on high-frequency electronic trades, and he’s been outspoken on the need to reform what he sees as an equities market that is too fragmented and complex for its own good (and the average investor’s). Perhaps ironically, the man who made a fortune from electronic trading is bullish on the NYSE’s human touch.

Sprecher, fifty-eight, grew up in Wisconsin, studied engineering, and was recruited out of college by Trane, an air-conditioning company, ultimately opening a new office in Southern California. At night he earned his M.B.A. at Pepperdine; as part of his coursework, he studied a company that built power plants. One of the executives left to form a new company and took Sprecher with him. Sprecher eventually bought out his partner, and when the opportunity arose in the late 1990s to buy a small firm in Atlanta that provided power companies with a network to buy and sell power, he threw himself into creating an efficient online marketplace. The company was called Continental Power Exchange, but Sprecher wanted it to be an exchange for trading more than power, and he wanted it to be international, so IntercontinentalExchange (ICE) was born. Enron had an electronic platform, too, but once Enron imploded, the industry rushed to ICE. With 1,100 employees worldwide, and 383 in Atlanta, the company operates exchanges and clearinghouses for commodity trades and derivatives. By any measure, ICE’s success has been staggering. Last year ICE cleared $552 million in profit on $1.4 billion in business. In 2011 Sprecher’s total compensation was $8.7 million.

Loeffler, left, owns the Atlanta Dream with Mary Brock, right, who is married to Coca-Cola Enterprises president and CEO John Brock.

AP Photo/David Tulis

Loeffler’s family are grain farmers in Illinois. She followed job prospects around the country, moving up the ranks at Toyota and then, after business school, working on Wall Street. A job brought her to ICE in Atlanta, where she met Sprecher. They married nine years ago. In 2011 Loeffler and Mary Brock bought the Atlanta Dream WNBA team. Today, the forty-two-year-old Loeffler sits on the boards of the Atlanta Symphony, the Red Cross, Georgia Research Alliance, Skyland Trail, Central Atlanta Progress, and the Atlanta Sports Council. When Saxby Chambliss announced his current U.S. Senate term would be his last, the AJC floated Loeffler’s name as a potential candidate. (She didn’t appear entirely from nowhere—Loeffler gave $10,000 to the Georgia Republican Party last year, and $750,000 to Mitt Romney’s Super PAC, one of the largest individual gifts in the country.)

Four years ago, the couple bought their first house together. But it wasn’t just any house: The 15,000-square-foot mansion in Buckhead made history as the most expensive real estate transaction ($10.5 million) ever in the city of Atlanta. Modeled in the style of an old European estate, Descante (as it’s called) is a stucco, steel, and limestone structure that boasts Versailles parquet in the dining room, a library with a secret passage to the living room, and a nineteenth-century pool house from France.

Although increasingly active in Atlanta civic life, the couple haven’t sought a national spotlight. But the spotlight is catching up. We met in a modest corner office at ICE headquarters, where the most prominent feature was a whiteboard covered in basic arithmetic that likely represented the fate of millions (of dollars, if not people). Sprecher struck the more casual pose, Loeffler was a little more guarded. Both were still a bit bemused by all the attention.

(Editor’s note: Remarks are edited for clarity and length.)

You’re fifty-eight, your company is a huge success, you’re at an age when some people are starting to think about retirement. But instead, you’re taking on the symbol of American capitalism. Why?

Jeff Sprecher: The amazing thing about this company is that it keeps presenting really interesting intellectual challenges. And working with the NYSE and also with their foreign businesses just seems like a really interesting project. I’m an engineer; I like to fix things and organize things, and this just seems like a really interesting canvas to paint on.

Has that been a strong motivation at different steps of your career—this intellectual challenge as opposed to a purely financial one?

JS: Financially I was in a position that I could have lived a nice life without working many, many years ago. But life is kind of an adventure, and I don’t know what else to do, and what would bring me the kind of challenges and opportunity to meet interesting people and visit new places.

ICE has been known within the financial world for a while, but the New York Stock Exchange is recognized well beyond that. Do you feel like you’ve been under the radar?

JS: Yeah, absolutely—and there’s something nice to be said about that, by the way.

Kelly Loeffler: We have been under the radar, but in 2006, ICE was the best-
performing stock in the United States, so we got recognition for that. Jeff got recognition for being one of the top three CEOs. So there are times when it does pop up, which is just enough for us because we don’t really seek it out.

ICE went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 2005. Did you have an inkling at that time that you might come back and buy the whole thing?

JS: No. In fact, ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange was really the highlight of my professional career. It’s a very iconic moment that makes you take pause when you’re up there, realizing that you’ve gone from a private company to a public company. The idea that we would actually come back and help others do that was never in our minds.

How did ICE come to be?

JS: My partner and I started an alternative energy development company in California. I did that for seventeen years. Ultimately I bought him out and became the head of the firm and built and owned and operated power plants all around the country. The power industry in the United States was deregulated in 1978, which was the same year as the airline industry was deregulated. [Deregulation] allowed entrepreneurs to come in and build, own, and operate power plants. California was on the leading edge because Jerry Brown was the governor and was very interested in alternative energy being developed by private parties.

California decided in the mid-nineties to further deregulate the industry and really open it up so that consumers could buy and sell power from whomever they chose. I thought there should be a free market exchange where buyers and sellers would meet. What ultimately happened was the state decided to build its own highly government-regulated exchange. I was so concerned about that, I thought I should start a free market exchange outside the state of California for the other forty-nine states, and that’s how I started Continental Power Exchange.

And it was in Atlanta because this is where the technology was?

JS: I found a small company here that was losing a lot of money. They had sixty-three electric utilities that they were working with to try to create a computer system that would hook up the electric grid and allow these utilities to dispatch power in a coordinated way. In the mid-nineties, I was very interested in the fact that they had sixty-three electric utilities on a network, and I figured that if we built a trading platform, we would have sixty-three natural customers that we could convince to trade power.

I bought the company in 1997. The Internet was just really starting. We spent between ’97 and 2000 building the ICE trading system. By the time we launched in 2000, private networks were becoming obsolete and it was all about the Internet. So it was odd—the thing I liked about the Atlanta location was its connectivity to a private network, but by the time we launched, we launched on the Internet.

Enron built a platform called Enron Online where you could buy and sell all kinds of commodities from Enron—they were the buyer to every seller and they were the seller to every buyer, so they sat in the middle of the market. When Enron failed in 2001, the market wanted a neutral platform where they could meet many buyers and many sellers and help diversify their risk, and that’s what we had.

You’ve found moments when an industry was changing and there was a need for a new service or a new platform. What’s the opportunity you see now in moving from commodities exchanges into stocks?

JS: My career has been defined by being in the right place at the right time, and much of it is due to regulatory change or change in business practices. I have this view that the market is looking for a simplified and protected venue where entrepreneurs can go back to capital-raising activities and people that want to own stocks can have some confidence when they buy and sell them. I think the pendulum went too far in the electronification of stock markets and I think it’s going to come back, and I think that the New York Stock Exchange will have an outsized voice in helping to drive the direction because of the iconic nature of the exchange.

You describe ICE as being “entrepreneurial” even now. What’s an example of that?

JS: It stems from the fact that I have no idea how to manage people. I’m not a professional manager, so I have tended to hire and attract people that like to be self-
sufficient and self-directed, and we have a culture around here that if there’s some work that needs to be done, somebody jumps on it and does it and everybody gets out of their way. We allow people to stretch. That keeps good people here and I don’t have to know how to manage them.

I believe that businesses need to constantly be taking risk, and I believe if you constantly take risk that you will fail more often than you succeed, and that you should not view failure negatively. The thing that we view negatively is somebody who is failing and not recognizing their failure and doing something to correct it—or trying to cover it up. People like that don’t enjoy working here, and so it sort of self-selects.

So what’s an instructive failure for you?

JS: We tried to buy the Chicago Board of Trade [in 2007] and we failed, and we tried with NASDAQ to buy the New York Stock Exchange [in 2011]. Those were very, very public attempts that failed. In all of them we acted incredibly professionally. And when we failed, we admitted that we did not succeed, we wished other people well, and got out of their way and moved on. I think we learned from it and matured by it and left in good standing. Which is about all you can ask for in a failure.

KL: It was kind of a win-win outcome. We didn’t end up with the Chicago Board of Trade, but we ended up with a lot of stature in the industry and respect, and people learned about us. They saw the capabilities, and they hadn’t seen that before.

For a casual investor, what’s going to change under your ownership of NYSE?

JS: I don’t know. I only know that we’re going to try to make the markets better and more responsive to the needs of the average individual investor and people that truly want to raise money. That’s the high-level goal. I have a view that good companies are really just collections of good people, and really good people care about their customers and the way they do business. And if you take that attitude, revenue and profit will ultimately flow from that, and you don’t really have to worry about the revenue side of the business.

KL: [Jeff] solves problems better than anyone I’ve ever seen in my professional career, which has spanned Wall Street and the automotive industry. ICE has shown willingness to step into very difficult, challenging problems, saying that we’re going to take on the hard issues and solve them. Ultimately that’s led to revenue.

The individual stockbroker doing trades on the floor—is that really going to be extinct?

JS: What I can tell you is that today when you buy a stock—when you go online to buy a stock on your trading account—it can be executed at one of an estimated 250 different locations in the United States. There’s only one that has humans involved; the other 249 are all electronic. There’s a reason that there are still people on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. There’s still a need for them or they wouldn’t still be there. And the reason I’m interested in learning about them and figuring out how to better support them is that the other 249 trading venues are overly complex and linked together, and the pendulum has swung too far, too fast in the electronification. The question is, can we bring it back to where we put some humans in there?

Kelly and I recently were invited to an event in Silicon Valley where we were able to meet a lot of the founders and CEOs of many of the high-profile technology companies that we all know and use. What was sad was that most of them thought that it would be a bad thing to go public. They would prefer to remain private companies; they would prefer to raise money through Silicon Valley venture capital; they would prefer to have private stock markets. What they’re really saying is, “We don’t want to deal with all the complexity that it takes now to be a public company.”

Do you see that as a regulatory challenge or the nature of the markets?

KL: It’s capital markets, stock markets, Sarbanes-Oxley, the costs of being a public company and all of the requirements.

JS: The recent problems of the Facebook IPO, the recent flash crash—all these things are cumulative, and so the only way that that’s going to get fixed is if you start changing the trajectory. It’s going to be a thousand small steps to bring confidence back.

For a short window, we’re going to have a lot of attention paid to us as we go through this transaction. We want to use the attention in a positive way to try to change the trajectory. It’s not something that we can do alone, but the New York Stock Exchange is an amazing venue to have that dialogue.

I’m offended that the current solution that the exchanges and brokerage firms and government are all working on is to just close the markets when they crash—pull the plug. If I sold you a car with an accelerator pedal that every once in a while would stick when you were driving down the freeway, and I told you, “Don’t worry, we’ll make the car shut off and then just wait for five minutes and turn it back on and see if it works,” you would give me the car back and you would probably sue me.

Is that how they dealt with the flash crash?

JS: What’s being worked on now is that after the market crashes 10 percent, it will shut off. It will wait for a period of time and then restart, and see what happens. I think you need that kind of safety valve in there, but that isn’t the solution. That’s a Band-Aid over a really bad problem that needs to be fixed at its core, and that dialogue needs to exist. And I think it’s wrong to ask government to fix it. This is a complicated problem, and you need the industry to come together and think of common solutions that everybody can work toward. And if the industry can do that, then I’m sure government would validate them.

Let’s talk about government—since your name, Kelly, has been in the news. Did you ever run for office?

KL: My only venture into the actual campaign field was running against my best friend for student council president in eighth grade. It was all about the campaign posters and how many of the kids you could talk to at lunch break.

Is that something you’re both equally interested in, or does one of you drive that a little more than the other?

JS: Our politics are slightly different, so . . .

KL: I’m more conservative.

JS: There are certain candidates that she has an affinity for and certain candidates that I have an affinity for, and we like to support good people. When we first started giving money to candidates, it was an interesting thought process because it’s not a charity. But the more we work with government, the more we feel that it’s important that we support good candidates and have good government, and unfortunately it takes a lot of money to run for office. There’s just no getting around it.

But now your profile is a little bigger, and more public with the purchase of the New York Stock Exchange. Does that make you want to be more or less politically active?

JS: It’s a good question and it’s one we’ve been wrestling with, because it’s only a question that has come lately. Your political giving is all disclosed, and so . . .

You gave a very large gift to Mitt Romney.

KL: We both did.

JS: We separately gave a lot. In that case, we met Mitt Romney and got to know him personally many, many years ago, when he was trying to run in the primaries against John McCain. We met him at a neighbor’s house here in Atlanta when people didn’t really know who he was and he was just exploring whether he could even run. We got to know him and his wife, and have been to his house many times and they’ve been to our house. Taking politics off the table, the Romneys are really lovely people, and well intended. We’d never known anybody that was running for president and actually had a friendship with them! And so it was easy to support a friend. [Turns to Loeffler] Is that fair?

KL: Sure.

JS: But I have really good relationships with people on both sides of the aisle, and as a company we are completely nonpartisan. We give money to good candidates, Republicans and Democrats and Independents. I think to the extent that people have come to know us in Washington, they know that we as a company are nonpartisan, and frankly this company is incredibly diverse. The employee pool at this company comes from all ages, all races, all religions, and many people that we’ve recruited are immigrants who were raised outside the country who are citizens now. We run a process here where we really want the employees to talk about who they want to give to and who the company gives to and help direct that. I believe that’s in the interests of the company, and I believe that it’s in the interests of our employees that they are politically active. So the answer to your question is we really try to separate our personal giving from what the company represents, and I think we’re respected for that.

So when your name appeared in the press—when Senator Chambliss announced that he was not going to be running again—Kelly, what was your first reaction?

KL: Obviously that’s very flattering. That is not something that in life you expect to be said about you or considered for, honestly. But I also have said that I’m very committed to my work at ICE. It’s just nothing I had anticipated, and clearly . . . It’s an interesting idea. We’ve received a lot of really nice calls.

JS: Including from a number of senators and former senators that have now heard about the article outside of Atlanta. Which is interesting.

Jeff, is that something you’ve ever imagined—political life?

JS: No, I actually think my wife is better suited for it, honestly. It’s a shame that the Republican party only has four women senators—the Democratic party has sixteen, which is still underrepresented. I think it’s a shame that there aren’t more people who go to government who have worked in business, and go there with the intent of contributing and then coming back and not being career politicians. I think that’s what the founding fathers envisioned for the country. I really believe that we would be better served by having more diversity in Washington. I’m a middle-aged, bald white guy, and I think there’s enough people like me in Washington. I think we’d be better off recruiting a lot of diversity. I think that’s why her name was floated by somebody, because people would like to see younger professional women and minorities recruited into government.

How did you come to own the Dream?

KL: I met the former owner of the Dream, Kathy Betty, in Arthur Blank’s box at a soccer match. Kathy was so enthusiastic about the [Dream] and said, “You guys have to come.” So we went to a game and just were blown away. We said, “This is a great sport, a great experience,” and then when Kathy asked us if we were interested in owning the team—she’d asked the same question to my business partner Mary Brock and her husband, John—we both said absolutely.

It came together in a really positive way. And owning a sports team is so much more than what we thought it was in terms of being a part of the community, the impact you can have, the people you can reach. Basketball is a big part of it, but it’s not all of it.

Jeff, are you a sports fan?

JS: I’ve become a WNBA fan as a result of my marriage.

KL: He’s a great fan!

JS: I try to attend every game I can. I’m fortunate that I can get a really good seat.

Do you feel like Atlanta is a global city? Are we there yet, or is something holding us back?

JS: I do feel that it is a global city, and I think one of the real assets that we have is our airport, which allows easy access by Atlantans around the world, and it allows people from all around the world access to Atlanta. And if you look at the Internet and traffic to websites, we have some of the highest-trafficked sites on the web, which are really taking brands like CNN and the Weather Channel and UPS and Home Depot and Coca-Cola, to name a few, around the world.

KL: If you think about the companies that are here that are excelling that are global companies—the companies that are globally minded, that are branding globally—that means that the leadership is thinking globally, and that’s attracted a wide range of disciplines to Atlanta. So we find it very easy, as a company that has half of our revenues outside the U.S., to be based in Atlanta.

Do you feel like you then have peers in the business world in Atlanta, being a company that is so global—when you’re interacting with other business leaders, do they have a similar outlook?

JS: Yes. In fact, one of the unique things about Atlanta is that the major business leaders in this city care deeply about the city and are very civically involved in the arts, in the university system, in the charities. There’s this lovely element of Southern hospitality and giving back that I think pervades senior managers in this city. And maybe it all started with Robert Woodruff, or it’s personified by him and the Woodruff Foundation. But it’s not done in order to have your name in the society pages like it is in some communities. It’s done for a true sense of giving back to the community.

Jeff, I saw that you were reading a book about the graffiti artist Banksy. What do you think about Atlanta’s Graffiti Task Force? Where do you fall on the question of graffiti as art?

JS: I don’t believe that anyone should deface anyone else’s property or deface public property. What I do like is graffiti, graphic art, where an artist is using the canvas or other medium to make a statement. I find that there are some really interesting young artists out there who have great commentary about our society and are able to do it in symbols and words that can be incredibly profound. Just recently we had at the High Museum an artist named KAWS, whose work I collect, and I have a number of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the original graffiti artists. So it’s not so much graffiti like you see on the highway wall as it is avant-garde statements through works of art.

Are there boundaries between home and work, or is work fair game everywhere?

KL: It’s fair game everywhere. I’m sure there are times when I talk about it and he’d rather not and there are times he’s talking about it and I’d rather not, but that’s part of respecting your spouse. I come from a farm, and so I grew up seeing my parents work together on the farm. They also had a small trucking company together. They had a great working relationship, they were entrepreneurs, they took risks together, there were good years and bad years. It’s not been different from Jeff’s and my experience at ICE.

JS: There are many fabulous things about being a public company CEO, including the compensation, but it’s a job that doesn’t end. So it’s been fabulous to have a spouse who also is engaged, because it allows us to have a really complementary friendship and marriage around this company.

Of course, a marriage is a partnership and a business tends to have hierarchy. How do you navigate those two models?

KL: Just like you would in any other organization.

JS: I think Kelly feels like she needs to overachieve, honestly, to make sure no one from the outside would ever think that there’s any kind of nepotism in this firm. But we all started this company with just a handful of us, and we’ve grown up together. The management of this company has worked together for years, and we all know where our strengths and weaknesses are and work well together, and so in that sense it’s been a natural part of the evolution of this company. We brought Kelly in originally to help organize the company so it could go public, and it’s been a fabulous public company, so she has great respect within the firm, which makes it easy.

Are you still connected to the family farm?

KL: Yeah, we love it. Jeff and I have a couple small farms, so we’re remaining in the family business.

JS: Your family helps run them.

KL: And some of the farms have been in the family and have just passed down. Because we’re in commodity markets, we find the business of agriculture really interesting and clearly very important. I’m so proud to have been raised on the farm, and I love the connection that I still have to it. I grew up working in the fields, so I never want to get away from those memories.

Four years ago you bought a home. Not just any home, but one of the most significant properties in Buckhead—and in the city. What does it mean to you to have that house, and to live in that place?

JS: More than anything that we’ve talked about, that house changed Kelly’s and my life. We have no children and we have a large house, so we made a decision that we would make it a very public house, we would open it for fundraising and for charity events and for political candidates, and it was really those activities that caused people to first meet Kelly and me—it actually wasn’t the success of the company. It was the civic work that we decided to do to help justify owning such a beautiful property and wanting to share it with people. And so as a result of that, we’ve been incredibly welcomed into the neighborhood and we’ve met a lot of really interesting people—not just the people in Buckhead that live near us, but people from all over the city and state that have come to an event at our house. It’s been really rewarding.

KL: We don’t take it for granted. I still try to walk through it every day with my cat. I walk through it and look at it and appreciate it, because it certainly doesn’t define who we are, but we’d be wrong not to appreciate it and enjoy each day that we live there.

Did you know that you had this desire to be hosts, or is that something that you realized with the house?

JS: It came with the house. As we were walked through the house by a Realtor, and before we even made an offer, we got a call from the director of a major charitable organization who said, “I heard you looked at that house; if you buy it would you allow us to use it for a party?” So as we were thinking about making an offer on the house, we were thinking about whether or not we should make it a more public place, because it’s way more house than Kelly or I ever wanted or need.

We closed on a Friday afternoon and the following Tuesday we threw a major Red Cross charity event, with all the boxes and everything! It was insane.

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

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