Chris Wallace is on his way out of Memphis soon. Maybe to Sacramento, who would be getting a great man as well as a bright basketball mind, but it is no secret that Chris Wallace wants another opportunity to build a successful team like he has in Memphis. Perhaps it was fitting that the interview occured on D-Day with all that is happening around the Grizzlies these days.
We have always used the allegory of school with Chris Wallace interviews since he has a way of making you feel like you are learning something as much as hearing it. It is not surprising therefore that this series is titled “Class Dismissed.”
This is the 2nd part of the interview with 3 Shades of Blue. Part 1 dealt mostly with his days in Boston. Part 2 closes the chapter on Boston and discusses the Grizzlies and his time in charge here.
3SOB: What happened with the Vin Baker trade? I think that really was the salt in most people’s wounds.
CW: Now we had some hiccups. Everybody does from time to time.
We traded for Vin Baker. It did not work. I’ll be the first to admit that. Vin had some issues that came out. That trade cost the Celtics some money. It was bad PR. It didn’t really cost them that much personnel wise. We traded Vitaly Pitapiko who didn’t really do much after that. Joe Forte who never panned out. Kenny Anderson who played one more year before retiring. Now we were a lesser team that season but longer term it didn’t have much of an impact. I think he left the league after that next season. There were no draft picks involved. We didn’t trade a pick that turned into Carmello Anthony or something like that. It was just those guys and Shammond Williams so it was just the over hang of $30 million in Vin’s salary.
So it cost money, which I’m not saying is insignificant, there was a ton of bad PR from it but basketball wise it didn’t really set the Celtics back or ruined their future by putting young players into it. So that became a PR debacle. I will not not deny that.
The team went to the Conference Semi-Finals that year. Then the team and the new ownership began to dismantle the team after that. So that was really the end of that team. We won 13 playoff games in two years with Von Baker being on one of them. Without him the team won 9 playoff games. So that’s all I’ll say about Boston. I think it has been unfairly characterized a failure when it wasn’t. I’m not taking total credit. I’ve been part of management teams that covered the wagons with significant players that weren’t only important in Celtics uniforms but were also important in trades that put them over the top in terms of Kevin Garnett. They couldn’t have done that deal without Al Jefferson.
3SOB: What do you feel has been your best accomplishment here in Memphis?
CW: I guess my best accomplishment here had nothing to do with wins or losses or personnel decisions. It has to do with rekindling the passion among Memphis with the team.
Memphis is a great basketball town. A tremendous legacygoing back to the grass roots level in high school. Larry Finch, Ronny Robinson, Penny Hardaway, Keith Lee, the great Melrose teams, Vertie Sales and some other great coaches, the Tigers who won the NIT title in the 50s and the Gene Bartow team that went to the NCAA Finals against UCLA and Bill Walton and great teams throughout the following decades culminating with the great Calipari team with Derrick Rose. You have a great legacy here. Football is king in the South but basketball is a bigger deal here than anywhere else in the South.
However, and not to slight the three pro teams that have been here in the ABA, the Pros, the Sounds and the Tams, but the interest level in this team had waned considerably. Not just in measurements you can see in the box office but the interest level around town just wasn’t there. It had evaporated. So to fast forward from there to 2007 to the last 3 years in the playoffs, where I’ve compared it to an SEC Football town on a Saturday afternoon. When you drive around town you have flags flying on people’s front porches, flag on cars and Grizzlies signs and signs and “Believe Memphis” and the towels, the whole thing. That is very heartening to be a part of that and to see how this team has captured this town.
It’s not every successful team becomes so entwined in the town as this team has.
3SOB: You are seen at MUS football games despite not having a son enrolled at the school. You attend high school games in all sports all over town. You involve yourself in so many different ways around town, where there isn’t an obvious connection on why you are there. How much has that work at developing relationships and being such a visable person parlayed into the support of this team.
CW: I would say very little. I don’t think fans are going to get turned on to put their money down because the General Manager attended an event. But I made a promise to Mr. Heisley and Stan Meadows when I was interviewing for this job, that I would go out and do my part to get involved in the community and kind of evangelize. I said I can’t control a lot of things like where we are going to draft, who we can get in a trade, injuries or things like that but I can control the amount of effort and time we spend out in the community. That’s certainly something we can make happen.
And of course I love this town. I think it is fantastic. It’s just a great place. I love being out meeting people. I try to be out as much as possible. I don’t think I’ve every turned anyone down without a scheduling conflict. I try to get out and meet as many people as I can. As long as one person is there I want to meet them.
3SOB: I remember the first time I met you.
CW: We were at Buffalo Wild Wings with your blog right?
3SOB: It was before the blog actually. It was just a group of friends getting together and I emailed you and asked you to join us. You came and talked to us for over 2 hours, answering all our questions. I wrote my first blog about that night actually. I think you underestimate just what an impact you have had. I’ve had so many people tell me “I saw Chris Wallace here, Chris Wallace put together stuff for our charity auction”, etc.
CW: That’s very nice to hear. I really believe that 90% of why people support a team is what they see on the floor. I tell our community affairs people that I am very proud of everything we have done. They have set the bar for the entire country in community involvement. They have given out over $26 million in the community with worthy non-profits around the Mid-South area. They have won national and international awards for their work.
That’s the responsibility of a pro sports team to give back but I don’t think people are going to come to games because of what the team has done in the community. It isn’t because of the charitable activity. It still comes down to the entertainment value of the team. People come out to watch the team. They buy tickets to see teams they are invested in and take pride in as a Memphian. If can’t check off those boxes they aren’t coming no matter what you do.
I see the other (community involvement) as more of a responsibility. Now I am sure it has touched some people but 18,000 people aren’t coming to a game because they love what you did in the community.
3SOB: The team has sold out games in the playoffs, but do you think this playoff run will carryover to the regular season? The team only had 4 or 5 sellouts this year.
CW: I’m not sure what we did in the regular season. I’m not in the ticket department but I just do my very unsophisticated man in the street. A hell of a lot more people come and talk to me about the Grizzlies in the last 3 years than when I came here. It’s not even comparable. I see a lot more kids wearing our gear. Its just not all Michael Jordan throwbacks or Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson.
3SOB: A lot fewer opposing jerseys in the stands?
CW: Right. Now you are going to get some of that. That’s never quite bothered me the way it does other people because of my background with the Celtics. When you are with one of the iconic franchises, I don’t care how far your team dips, there will be people supporting you every place you go. I’ve been with lottery teams with the Celtics and you can look up in the crowd in Salt Lake City when we play the Jazz and there are guys wearing Kevin McHale jerseys, and Danny Ainge, Larry Bird.
I remember once during the Stockton and Malone era in Utah and we got lucky and went into overtime and won. There were Boston guys working out in Utah at the time that had green jerseys on. The throwback jerseys from 5-10 years earlier. They ran beside our bus after the game cheering the team all the way down the street. Now this is a lottery bound team. No chance for the playoffs and they ran for 5 blocks or more right beside the bus. It was funnier than hell. The players were getting out of their seats looking out the windows. The guys were banging on the bus at stop signs.
So you’re going to have that. I was with the Miami Heat. We played the Knicks. We had a ton of overweight, chubby 50+ New York guys with their Larry Johnson jerseys on, their Willis Reed throwbacks causing commotion up in the stands. That comes with teams like the Celtics, Knicks and Lakers. I understand that. That never really bothered me. I certainly hope we have more people there than they do. And some of those people who come to the games aren’t coming from the city where the team is based. They are coming from an hour or two drive away. Maybe we can convert them. What do they say in church? Get the back sliders? Get the sinners into the sanctuary and maybe you can convert them.
This concludes the second part of the interview. Part 3 picks up with the growth of the Grizzlies franchise from the dark days of 22 wins to the Western Conference Finals and to the future of Chris Wallace.