This week it was announced that Lionel Hollins is out as Head Coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. Last week 3 Shades of Blue sat down with Chris Wallace to talk for what will likely be the last time as well. The interview is long and so we have decided to break it down over several days.
Chris Wallace came to Memphis to follow in the footsteps of NBA legend Jerry West. It was not an easy time here in Memphis. West left the franchise in disarray. The team was coming off the worst season since moving to Memphis after three straight failures in the playoffs. Wallace had the challenge of rebuilding the franchise with a meddlesome owner, an inexperienced coach and a team past their prime. These were the beginning of the darkest days in Memphis Grizzlies history. Now 6 years later Wallace is out, not with the team (yet) but out of the decision-making process.
The discussion was an education not only on the Grizzlies past but his past as well. Chris has always had a professorial tenor when he discussed the Grizzlies and the NBA. He truly seemed to want the fans of Memphis to understand the league as he saw it. He wanted to educate people, to build the interest not only from the record but from appreciation of the beauty of the game and the players who make their careers playing it.
Without further ado here is the likely the last time fans get to be educated by the knowledge of Chris Wallace. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
3SOB: You are rumored to be looking for another job but you are still under contract with the Grizzlies. Do teams have to ask for permission to talk to you?
CW: Teams have to ask for permission. In the NBA, if you are under contract in any regard, you need permission to talk to someone. Take it to the extreme level if you are a ball boy and something happens and a team wants you to be the Head Coach, you still need to get permission to talk to them.
You can’t just go like happens in college. So you don’t see a lot head coaches under contract in the NBA moving to another team. They’ve either been fired or their contract has expired or they have been sitting out for a while. Like you heard some talk about Jerry Sloan wanting to get back into it but it didn’t happen in Milwaukee.
So It’s different than in college where, from what I’ve seen, the contracts don’t mean a great deal as far as preventing movement from one school to another in the midst of a contract.
3SOB: Is that because of the union situation or …
CW: No. It’s not because of the union. It’s NBA rules.
So anytime you approach someone who is under contract that your interested in for a job, then permission has to be granted. And if a team doesn’t want to grant permission then it goes no farther.
3SOB: So in a sense you are like the lowest ranked ball boy…
CW: It’s the same for anybody under contract. In the NBA, you have to have permission from your team for an outside team to approach you and have discussions with you. Let alone hire you. That’s the standard procedure.
3SOB: You had an interesting path to get to where you are today. Before coming to Memphis you were in Boston. What happened in Boston?
CW: Well look back at when I came to Boston. I went to Boston in 1997 as the General Manager for new Head Coach and President, remember he had President beside his title, Rick Pitino. So I essentially served him.
One of the more interesting and rewarding parts of my job under Rick was I was basically dealing with Red Auerbach. I made sure Red have everything he needed, was up to date and all that. So I was the person who dealt with that. Not too many people get to have that access in whatever field they are in with someone that importance.
If you look at the history of the NBA. It is mind-boggling, and I won’t embarrass the young person with the Grizzlies who I was talking to, who didn’t know who he was. He wasn’t on the basketball side but another part of the operation, but Red is easily one of the top 10 most influential people in the history of the NBA.
3SOB: I’d say one of the top 5 and closer to the top of that list than the bottom.
CW: So to have access, now he was in his 80s at the time, but to have that access on a daily basis was quite an opportunity and education.
3SOB: Now, if Pitino was President, did he not have time for that role…
CW: No. He just wanted to make sure things didn’t fall through the cracks with Red being informed with what we were doing. Rick’s the Head Coach too. So he’s got a lot going on being Head Coach and President of the team. So I came there with him. Our first year we were the 2nd most improved team in the NBA behind the Spurs and Tim Duncan who they got in the draft and went from 15 wins to 36.
This shows you the power a big market works. We were a lottery team. Despite the improvement, we were still a lottery team. We weren’t going to make the playoffs. We had an All-Star in Antoine Walker, but we didn’t have anywhere near the compelling players that the Grizzlies have with Zach, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and the rising popularity of Mike Conley. There was nowhere near the connection between our team and the community at that time. Not that they were disenfranchised. We were just getting started. We still sold out something like 26 to 28 home games.
Now think about that. A lottery team, we got an all-star on the rise but he hasn’t caught yet in the public conscience and the rest of the guys are here and there type players who might remain with us or might now. They hadn’t really registered by and large. Dee Brown was on the team but he hadn’t really played but they sold out that many games. That shows how strong the tradition and the fan base, size of the market.
So then we hit the NBA lockout of 1998-99 and Rick’s regime lost a lot of steam during the lockout because one of his strengths as a coach, he’s as good as there is in the business in conditioning players. He believes in conditioning himself. It’s a sacred value to him. And skill development with players go hand in hand with conditioning. Now he couldn’t touch these players from July 1 of 1998 until the lockout ends in 1999.
That lockout lasted longer than this last one. This recent one was over in December. That one lasted into January. So it was six months since we touched our players. Many of the players became like regular people. They went through Thanksgiving and Christmas. During that period of time, how many people do you know enhance their conditioning during that period? Maybe in your lifetime you can count the people who do that on one hand.
Players are no different. During that time, people were talking about their pulling the plug. That there would not be a season. So now we come back in January, after the first of the year, we’re not exactly the finely tuned machine we were with Rick the year before and we had three weeks to get ready. So he lost his momentum that year. Antoine Walker wasn’t in great shape. We never really got going. That was year 2.
Then we had year 3. I think we end up winning 34-36 games. We never got back down to winning in the 20s or the teens. But Rick had a tremendous amount of self-imposed pressure. He wasn’t in danger of being fired. He had that contract. He had 6 years remaining on a 10 year deal. It was an unbelievable contract. But to achieve what he has, or Pat Riley, John Calipari, you have a tremendous personal drive. You don’t achieve what he has without it. Without putting a lot of pressure on yourself. He was feeling that.
Now we get into the 4th year and on January 8th he walked. We played in Miami. The team goes out one door, get on the bus and head back to Boston. Pitino goes out another and goes to his home in Miami. He resigned. Walks away from $20 something million left on his contract.
3SOB: That had to be shocking.
CW: We knew. We could see it coming. It was starting to take a toll on him. In those type of situations when you see it coming the players can too. So they lose their edge. Overnight we were 12 and 20 something and Jim O’Brien took over as Head Coach. He was on the staff. He had served on the staff of the Knicks, he was Jack Ramsey son in law. He later went on to become Head Coach of Indiana, Philadelphia and Dallas before he retired. He took over.
The Miami game was on Saturday night. We practiced Sunday. Monday we played Portland who was a really good team. They had Rasheed Wallace. Damon Stoudamire was on that team. Zach Randolph hadn’t been drafted yet but they were a very good team. We took them down to the last minute before losing. We could feel something changing. We tweaked a few things, moved some people, did a few things differently and were .500 the rest of the way. 24-24 the rest of the way. We got back into the playoff race. I think we were eliminated in the last week, week and a half of the season. It was a hell of a turnaround. So that season, with very limited personnel changes but a major emphasis on team defense, we got back up to 36 wins again.
It seemed like the whole thing under Pittino we ended up around 36 wins or around there. So the next season we won 13 more games. We win 49 and get into the playoffs. The Celtics had gone six years without making the playoffs. That’s an eternity in Boston. We won two rounds. Over Philadelphia, coached by Larry Brown with Allen Iverson, and Detroit. We got to game 6 of the Conference Finals against New Jersey with Jason Kidd.
Along the way we had a game that was eerily similar to the Grizzlies Game 1 against the Clippers last season, in the opposite way. We were down 26, 27 points, whatever it was, toward the end of the 3rd quarter and came back to win that game. We actually blew them away. We won by 6 or 8 points and were in control at the end. It wasn’t a last second shot like it was in Memphis. People were going crazy. So we survived that interim year against all odds. The media had us all being executed. Now we had gone farther than any Celtic team had in 14 years.
Then we come back the next year and right before training camp the team was sold to the current owners. I made a comment the other day that every NBA owner should hire me because if you hire me it’s almost guaranteed that you can sell the team for a profit (laughing). It just happens when I am with a team it gets sold.
So they sell to this group but they didn’t take over until Dec. 31. So it is like when Robert Pera took over but it went even later into the season. So they take over Dec. 31, 2002. In the 2003 season we dip down to 44 wins in the season but we get back into the playoffs. We win the first round in six games over Indiana. We’re in the second against New Jersey. Now while we are in that series I go overseas to scout in Europe. While I am in Spain, scouting, the ownership calls Danny Ainge and puts him in charge of the basketball operations.
So when I look at my tenure in Boston, where I was the guy on top, because I think it has been misreported many times that we failed, it really wasn’t. We were down. We only won 10 games with Rick when he walks. I’m not saying I take any credit for it. Jim O’Brien deserves it but we were .500 the rest of that time.
3SOB: So you were GM at that time. Did you hire Jim O’Brien?
CW: No. The ownership did.
Then next season we won 13 more to win 49. Win 9 games in the playoffs that year and won two rounds to reach the conference finals. That was further than any Celtic team had done in 14 years. Then we come back the next year and win 44 games and another round in the playoffs. So I don’t characterize winning 3 rounds in two years a failure considering where the team came from.
Now I’m not saying they should build a monument to us beside Red Auerback but it’s not a failure. It gets reported in a negative light so much because the people that write these articles never look this stuff up. They just talk off the top of their head. So I am glad, if for nothing else,in my estimation to set the record straight. We didn’t fail. We provided the new regime Paul Pierce who is going to go into the Basketball Hall of Fame. I think he’s the leading scorer in the history of the franchise.
Then I worked with Danny Ainge from 2003-2007 before I came to Memphis. I worked with Danny Ainge that brought in a good bit of that talent that brought in the players on that 2008 championship team. For example Al Jefferson was needed to get Kevin Garnett. Rondo was acquired at that time. Leon Powe contributed off the bench. Kendrick Perkins came in that time. I drafted him (in a trade with the Grizzlies). Ryan Gomes who we acquired. Gerald Green. Particularly Al Jefferson was the raw material to do the Kevin Garnett deal.
So I was in Boston 10 years. I only ran the team, in a very loose sense, for a very short period of time. Which was just a little more than two seasons and we won a significant amount of games in the playoffs.
That is the end of Part 1.Part 2 goes on to talk about some of his issues in Boston, we talk about the Grizzlies and Chris Wallace’s plans moving ahead.