Monday, December 24, 2007

Geoff Calkins Spreads His Wings

Geoff Calkins has been a strong voice for the city of Memphis and the sports community in general for many years. His honest and well written columns have been known to both infuriate and inform people depending on their pre-conceived views fo the subject but one thing is uncertain. Calkins gets people to think about the subject. The guys at 3 Shades of Blue were fortunate enough to ask Geoff a few questions and here is what he had to say.

3SoB: My first question has to do with your new radio show and your old one. First, what niche do you feel you and Gary can fill in your show that isn't being filled now and how did you get involved with radio in the first place?
GC: Gary Parrish -- the rare guy who is very funny and actually knows stuff, too -- would want me to say that we're going to fill the awesome niche. Because we're going to be awesome. Go ahead, ask Gary. He'll tell you this.

I am less confident that we'll be awesome, but I do think we'll have fun. And I hope the show will be smart. Smart and fun. That's the essential mission statement, right there. I'll probably laugh more than I did on the other show but I don't want to preside over two hours of silliness. We'll have great guests including Sam Smith (Chicago Tribune) and Gordon Edes (Boston Globe), who are coming over with me. Dan Wetzel, the national columnist for Yahoo Sports, will also be a regular guest. We're still figuring some other things out.

As for how I got involved in radio in the first place, that was all George. Three years ago, he asked me to be his co-host. It's been a lot of fun. But George is cutting back to an hour and I wanted to do my own thing. So rather than stay and do the hour with George and then another two hours on my own -- that's what 560 was offering -- I decided to jump and do the show with Gary, who happens to be a very good friend.

3SoB: You and Ron Tillery seemed to have an almost antagonistic relationship on the radio. How much of that was done to promote listeners and how much was real?
GC: Some people don't believe this, but I don't ever say or write things just to bring in an audience. I mean, I hope people like my column and my radio show. But I don't ever think to myself, gee, let's make this outrageous argument, or let's pick this fight, because it might perk up circulation or ratings. I don't think that's how the world works, for one thing. I think people respond to authenticity.

As for me and Tillery, we disagree about some fundamental things. He thinks Heisley is a fabulous owner. I think Heisley was a fabulous owner who has made some serious mistakes the last few years. He thinks the split between Heisley and the local owners is a non-issue; I think it's a huge, continuing issue. Stuff like that.

3SoB: Gearing things back toward the Grizzlies, you made a prediction during the pre-season that attendance would a major issue with the Grizzlies this year. So far that has been very accurate. What do you think, if anything, the Grizzlies need to do to win back fans?
GC: I don't think it's going to be as easy as lowering the price of bottled water. Once fans stop caring about a franchise, what gets them to start caring again? Usually, it takes a signature event. In Cleveland, that meant getting LeBron James. In Miami, it meant getting Shaq. In Boston, it meant getting Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. And so on and so forth.

The Grizzlies need something fabulous to happen for the franchise. Simply being five or ten games better than last year isn't going to do it. They have to win a playoff series, develop a star. Something along those lines. The other two happenings that could create some momentum for the franchise would be:

* Trading Pau Gasol. I just wonder if Memphis fans are ever going to rally around a team that's led by Pau. How can you love a team if you don't love the team's best player? And while I think Pau is one of the true good guys in the game, it's pretty clear to me he's not ever going to be loved in Memphis.
* Selling the team to the local owners. Don't get me wrong, I don't think a sale would result in 2,000 more fans a game. But a lot of wealthier Memphians have bailed on this team because they've bailed on Heisley. Some of them might come back. And I think the locals would have a better shot of persuading Memphians this to be engaged in the franchise.

3SoB: You have brought up Michael Heisley twice already in our conversation. It appears that you believe a large part of Memphis' problems stem from the absentee landlord syndrome but Heisley has been aggressive in getting quality people to run the team (Jerry West and Chris Wallace), has appealed to local support by hiring Gene Bartow and hired the most sought after coach this summer. He allowed the team to acquire the players they wanted with a few exceptions as well. This is the same method he has used with his successful turnarounds in the past (hire smart people and give them the resources they need to succeed). What exactly do you feel he has done wrong?

GC: I should be clear on Heisley. I like the guy. He's remarkably engaging and down-to-earth. He answers his own phone. I don't know that I've met many billionaires, but there can't be many who are more friendly and accessible than Heisley has always been.

I also think Heisley - and his right-hand man, Stan Meadows - don't get nearly enough credit for the job they did developing FedExForum. Just look around this city at all the corruption and the wasted money and the projects coming in way over the expected price. FedExForum was built for $250 million, exactly as promised. Ownership has to get much of the credit for that. They didn't waver, didn't give in to those who wanted to enrich themselves over the project, and produced a building that might be better than the city deserves.

Having said all that, the same stubborn, bull-in-a-china-shop philosophy that worked with FedExForum doesn't necessarily work in running a basketball team. Heisley finds good people and pays them well. But he also blows up at people, manages through fear, and doesn't care who he offends. Take FedEx, for example. Why would Heisley and Meadows risk alienating FedEx? The company could practically fill the building with employees. FedEx may be the team's most important resource. But by the time Meadows was done negotiating the naming rights deal, certain FedEx executives never wanted to speak to the guy again. The same goes for the local owners. If you're Heisley, wouldn't you want to have them on your side? Wouldn't that be good for business, in fact? Wouldn't that help you get the price you want for your team?

Heisley deserves a world of credit for bringing the team to Memphis. He deserves a world of credit for making the FedExForum project work. But the recent stuff? Not so much.

3SoB:To follow up on the Gasol comment about fans not supporting a team led by him Rudy Gay has seemed to take over for Pau as the primary scorer and face of the team. Do you believe that the animosity to Gasol will retard fans acceptance of Rudy? Do you think fans can accept Gasol as the #2 man in Memphis with his contract?
GC: I think fans would love to have Pau as the No. 2 man. Could you bring in Kobe as No. 1? I don't think anyone is reluctant to "accept" Pau. I just don't think people love him. They loved Shane. They don't love Pau. But none of that has anything to do with what they think of Rudy or anyone else.

3SoB: If Michael Conley is as good as we have been led to believe then next year the Grizzlies will have 28 yr old Pau, 29 yr old Mike Miller, 23 yr old Rudy, a 24 yr old Darko and 21 yr old Michael as the starting 5. Is this a team the fans could build around or are we still going to need another new face?
GC: That lineup just isn't good enough. There's not a legitimate, annual all-star in the group. The Celtics have three of those guys. The Grizzlies don't have any. I have moments -- an increasing number of them -- when I think Chris Wallace and Iavaroni made a mistake thinking they could build a winning team around Pau and Miller. It's not because Pau is impeding the progress of Rudy, it's because you need stars -- big, compelling stars -- to win and draw fans. Rudy might turn into one, but I'm certainly not sure of that. Mike Conley has promise but hasn't proven anything yet. So, absolutely, the Grizzlies have to add a new face and maybe more than one.

3SoB: Finally what is the starting date for your show and when do I need to get in line to be the first caller?
GC: Jan 2. From 7-9 in the morning on 730 AM. Heck, you may be the only caller, for all I know.

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