Thursday, April 26, 2007

Memphis and West: A Lesson in Failure

“Leaders establish the vision for the future and set the strategy for getting there; they cause change. They motivate and inspire others to go in the right direction and they, along with everyone else, sacrifice to get there.”
-John Kotter

Jerry West has tendered his resignation effective July 1st, 2007. After 6 years at the head of the franchise West has decided the team needs a new voice to lead the franchise going forward.

When West arrived in Memphis he stated his vision to make this a model franchise. While few people really knew what that meant he changed the way the franchise was viewed by the fans and the league with just his presence. He made his first major move when he fired Sydney Lowe only 8 games into the new season. Hubie Brown was hired. Brown brought discipline and a mentality that winning is a process not an end result. He coached the Grizzlies to a 28-46 record that year.

When Brown succeeded the crowds supported Brown not because anyone bought into Jerry West’s vision or even understood what his vision was. They bought into Brown’s vision because he communicated this every night in the press conferences. Jerry West was given credit for being behind everything if Brown was this successful as the coach. Who cares if no one knew what West was thinking in his box in the sky, the success on the court meant he had a plan and we should trust him.

‘Trust in Jerry’ became a popular phrase around Memphis.

The next season the Grizzlies caught fire and during a beautiful 50 win year the Grizzlies could do no wrong. West was a genius winning the league’s Executive of the Year. Hubie Brown won Coach of the Year. Things couldn’t have been better in Memphis. Who cares if no one knew what West’s vision was for the future, the Grizzlies were on the right path.

Then things started to go wrong. First, Brian Cardinal was signed to a free agent contract larger than James Posey’s, the previous year’s team MVP. West paid far over market value for Cardinal and it raised a lot of eyebrows. Players began to express unhappiness with the lack of playing time under Brown’s system that had 10 players basically playing for 24 minutes a game. It really got weird when Brown complained that West was spying on him with an equipment manager. Even though the team was moving into a new arena and coming off a 50 win season and the first playoff appearance in franchise history, it seemed no one was happy. No one was on the same page. There was no shared vision of the future that everyone was working toward.

Then suddenly Brown was gone.

Thanksgiving Day he told the team he was retiring effective immediately due to health problems. In 2 months the Grizzlies had gone from an up and coming NBA team ready to take their place in the upper echelon of the NBA to a team in disarray without leadership and without cohesion. Within 8 days West brought in another old school coach, Mike Fratello, to take over the team. The rumor was that West wanted a disciplinarian coaching the team to control the egos and to get the players to focus on team and not individuals. What was left unanswered was the question of how Fratello fit into Jerry’s vision. Granted Fratello had a reputation as a disciplinarian but how would his coaching philosophy mesh with the vision West had for the team?

Fratello won a lot of games with the Grizzlies but also upset players and fans. West sat alone in his suite watching intensely. Fratello seemed to be the anti-thesis of Brown. He was short and curt in press conferences compared to Brown’s rolling monologues on the game. While Brown seemed to enjoy educating the press about the game, Fratello seemed to be irritated. Gone was the personality on TV that had him called the “Czar of the Telestrator.”

Fratello totally changed the manner of play on the court as well. The Grizzlies went from an up-tempo team that attempted to wear down their opponents with pressure and the depth of their bench to the slowest team in the league that apparently wanted to lull their opponents to sleep. Still West was stoic. The strong man behind his Forum suite’s glass partition never came out and explained how this move was getting us closer to his vision of the ‘Model Franchise.’

The termination of Fratello and hiring of Barone brought along a pronouncement that the team would be changing again to a running up-tempo style and true to his word Barone did give the fans that. He played the youngsters and the team ran the ball. Barone joked with the media, with the refs and even his own players. West barely said a word about how this move fit into his vision of the future.

And no one knows yet what West saw as the future of the franchise.

West has always been quiet, reserved and shy. His press conferences rambled from point to point and he often left people with no idea what he really meant. He did not express his vision of the future of the franchise. No one knew his strategy to get the team there. He motivated people in the short run by reputation but by being too closed and guarded in his plans for the team he didn’t have anyone buy into his vision of the future. People didn’t work together because very few understood what direction they were going.

Hubie Brown coached the team to run and use their athleticism to outscore the opponents. He didn’t run just to run. Everyone had a place on the court and Brown expected them to be in the right place at the right time but pressure and speed were valuable keys to the team’s success. Fratello wanted to control every aspect of the team. He preferred to slow the game down to make sure that he controlled what was happening. The Grizzlies went from one of the higher scoring teams in the league to one of the best defensive teams in two seasons. Under Barone the team became one of the highest scoring teams again in a matter of weeks. At no time were the fans involved or educated about the reason for these moves. What was the vision? West had 4 coaches in 5 seasons (Lowe, Brown, Fratello and Barone-and that isn’t including the 4 game stint of Lionel Hollins) and another one on the way this summer. Where is the plan? One minute the team is running the next they are taking the air out of the ball only to have it refilled with Helium. Is it any wonder the fans turned away?

If leadership is establishing a vision of the future and establishing a path to get you there then West failed to lead this team. A lot of things can be blamed on the owner but the failure to communicate a vision of the future lies at one man’s feet. He may have had that vision (and I suspect he did) but he failed to get the players to buy into it. He didn’t communicate this vision so the fans and the players had a hard time buying into it. Without that commitment and motivation the sacrifices weren’t made to help it succeed.

West is right about the team needing a new voice. Hopefully this time it will be one people can hear both on the team and in the community. To turn this franchise around it will need sacrifice on a lot of people’s parts. Things must change. The team has to create an identity that everyone can rally behind and all of this comes from the leader’s ability to communicate his goals and visions.

West didn’t fail in Memphis because he didn’t have a vision. He didn’t fail because he didn’t make sacrifices along the way to succeed. He didn’t fail because he didn’t cause change. He failed because he kept the vision to himself. Without the understood vision all the sacrifices and effort, all the attempts to motivate and inspire eventually fall on deaf ears. One man can’t do it alone.

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