- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

MEMPHIS, Tenn. Memphis Grizzlies officials were huddling with advertising executives and trying to figure out the best way to capitalize on the fact that the man in the NBA logo Jerry West was now heading their basketball operation.
They came up with one ad with two guys sitting at a bar as the news comes over the TV that the Grizzlies just signed West as president of basketball operations. One guy turns to the other and says, "Freakin' Jerry West."
"That spot says it all," said Andy Dolich, president of the Grizzlies' business operations. "It was like, 'Holy mackerel, I don't know how they did it, but that was pretty cool.'"
The team wound up not using the spot but, as Dolich said, it illustrated the rush that went through the city when the remarkable news broke that West the former Los Angeles Lakers great, who was equally successful in building teams from the front office, was coming to Memphis to run a franchise that wasn't even in town two years ago.
"He is a winner," said Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley, who believes the day West was hired was "a highlight day in the history of sports in Memphis. He represents the best of what the NBA has produced in its long history."
After all, Jerry West is a 14-time All-Star, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. He earned the nickname "Mr. Clutch" for his ability to make big-time shots, and his 14-year career scoring average of 27 points is the fifth best in league history. He helped the Lakers win the 1972 NBA title as a player and added seven more as a consultant, general manager and vice president with the team.
But what's most impressive is that West represents the NBA, literally. It is his silhouette dribbling left handed that's on the league's logo and nearly every piece of merchandise or material that the NBA produces.
The Grizzlies spent many hours trying to figure out the best way to market the franchise around West in other words, sell tickets simply because Jerry West was in the building.
West did his part, meeting with fan groups around the state to promote the franchise. In a way, he was back home. West is, after all, the kid who grew up in the small town of Chelyan, W.Va., a lot closer to Memphis than Los Angeles in ways other than just miles.
"I was never really a West Coast guy," he said. "I grew up in West Virginia, and I am familiar with the culture of this area. These are friendly, gracious, warm people. If anything, Los Angeles was the biggest culture shock for me when I went there. That was more of an adjustment for me."
The last thing West wants, however, is for his personality or profile to be the focal point of anything.
"I wish I had no profile," West said. "That's one of the worst things there is for me. Some people chose things for you, but I never placed great importance on myself."
It is the rest of the league that has made Jerry West important, and rightfully so. His accomplishments as a player speak volumes, as does his work in the front office. He helped build the Lakers "Showtime" championship teams with Magic Johnson and then rebuilt the franchise to help it win three more titles with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. So when West, now 63, resurfaced in Memphis with a multi-year deal that pays him an annual salary of $5million, the rest of the league was stunned, and wondered how and why.
West, who after 27 years in the Lakers organization retired after a perceived power struggle with coach Phil Jackson, could have had any number of front office jobs in the NBA.
Teams far more established than the Grizzlies, who moved to Memphis two years ago after six disappointing seasons in Vancouver, would have loved to have him. But Heisley, a Washington native who purchased the franchise two years ago and engineered the move to Memphis, convinced West that he had another chance to build a winner. It was the right call at the right time.
"I was aimless and bored in retirement," West said. "At a certain point in your life, I think everyone has their fill of a job. The job in Los Angeles was so close and personal that the success wasn't enough I just couldn't handle the pressure there. In L.A., there is more pressure to win when you have a good team than to get a team in position to push toward respectability. I just needed something new in my life, a new and different challenge."
He may have gotten more than he bargained for. The Grizzlies, who have a 124-428 record over the last six-plus seasons, are on the way to setting a mark for NBA futility at the start of a season. They're 0-13 after last night's 95-86 loss to San Antonio and inching toward the NBA mark of 17 consecutive losses shared by the 1988 Miami Heat and the 1999 Los Angeles Clippers. Coach Sidney Lowe resigned after eight games; it is understood around the league that Lowe was pushed out by West. West then raised a lot of eyebrows when he hired 69-year-old Hubie Brown.
West acknowledges that he faces a huge challenge turning this franchise around and establishing it in Memphis.
"It's been more work than I expected, for sure," he said. "In this league today, it is more difficult to do the things to turn a team around, simply because of the 29 teams now in the NBA. If there are two or three players who everyone is interested in trading for around the league, there used to be about 20 teams. Now there are 29. We need that kind of player here, a player who can play on a high level every night, and that's one of the most difficult pieces to try to find."
Like many other NBA teams, the Grizzlies have had to deal with the struggling economy.
"In the first three weeks [after the announcement of West as president], we did about 700 new season tickets," Dolich said this week. "I'd say without the announcement, we would have done no more than 150. Our attendance is off early in this season [the Grizzlies average 12,226 at the Pyramid, compared to 14,415 in their first year], but I would attribute that to what is probably the most significant economic downturn we've seen in sports in about 30 years.
"But in terms of credibility, there is nothing else we could have done short of getting the ultimate free agent player to have increased our credibility. And even though we have not won a game, there is the feeling that there is plan and things are in place to get better."
The Grizzlies have a group of young and promising players, such as Pau Gasol, the Spanish star who was NBA Rookie of the Year last season while averaging 17.6 points, and Drew Gooden, this year's first-round draft choice.
"If you have anything to do with basketball, you know what Jerry West has done as a player and an executive," said Shane Battier, the former Duke star who was last year's No.1 draft choice. "I was thrilled when I found out he would be the captain of my ship. This organization has needed direction for a long time, and I think we have that with Jerry on board now."
Why? Because he is Jerry West, whether he likes it or not.

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