Grizzlies bear down on success, playoffs

NBA: Under Hubie Brown and Jerry West, Memphis has been transformed from a laughingstock to respectability.

March 31, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - As Hubie Brown was holding court with reporters before a game against the New York Knicks last week at Madison Square Garden, an old friend popped his head into the middle of the scrum.

"We're still foolin' 'em," Brown said in his famous raspy staccato.

In the case of Brown's latest reclamation project, the Memphis Grizzlies, he's also beatin' 'em.

With an overall record of 48-26, including an NBA-best 23-5 since Feb. 1, the Grizzlies have made the quantum leap from laughable to respectable to remarkable since Brown took over an 0-8 team early last season.

Using a formula that worked in all of his previous stops, starting with the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association, as well as the Atlanta Hawks and Knicks, Brown has again proved that he can win with a 10-man rotation and an interesting collection of mostly no-name players.

"We cannot be prouder of any team we've coached than this team," Brown said. "They play hard, and they're in the games. Until you get that X next to your name, that will be the biggest accomplishment for this franchise and, more important, a great reward for what Jerry West has done."

The X - Brown's terminology for identifying teams that have clinched playoff spots - came with a 94-88 win at Toronto and Utah's subsequent defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers later Sunday night.

It marks the first time in the franchise's nine-year history in Vancouver and Memphis that the Grizzlies will play in the postseason.

"It's a great turnaround for this franchise," said third-year forward Pau Gasol of Spain, who is as close to a star as the Grizzlies can claim, leading the team in scoring (18.0) and rebounding (7.9) in an efficient 31.8 minutes a game. "We've surprised ourselves. I can't believe where we are at this point. It's just wonderful."

Said Brown: "If we get this done here, Jerry made a statement the other day, this would be the greatest satisfaction in his career. Think about how fast he's done this."

What West has done as president of basketball operations since taking over in April 2002 is transform a franchise that had never won more than 23 games in a season and had won fewer than 20 three times in its first four years in Vancouver. (The Grizzlies were also 8-42 there in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.)

The biggest and certainly most controversial move West has made was hiring Brown, then 69 and out of coaching since starting a successful career as a television analyst in 1987.

From the beginning

It was not an immediate success. Memphis lost its first five games under its new, or more accurately, old coach.

"A year ago, our goal was to be in every game in the last three minutes," Brown said. "The team we took over, they had a minus-10.9-point differential. We got the differential down to a minus-2.1 and we were only out of two games."

The Grizzlies finished the season with 28 wins, the most in franchise history, but wound up losing 11 of their last 15 games. It said to West that more moves had to be made.

After making only one major trade last year - acquiring Mike Miller, now the team's starting shooting guard, as well as Ryan Humphrey and two high draft picks from Orlando for Drew Gooden and Gordon Giricek, the Grizzlies have been one of the NBA's busiest teams since last summer.

Forward James Posey signed as a free agent, giving the Grizzlies another athletic frontcourt scorer to complement Gasol. Bonzi Wells, a troubled but talented guard in Portland, came to bolster the second team. The Grizzlies also acquired center Jake Tsakalidis and forward Bo Outlaw from Phoenix.

Brown gives all the credit to West.

"Not one guy that he brought ... does not fit our style perfectly," said Brown, who at 70 is the oldest full-time coach in NBA history. "You can have a guy up above you, but if he continues to bring you talent that doesn't fit the style, then what good is it because the chemistry will never come."

It doesn't hurt a team's chemistry when 10 players are averaging more than 19 minutes a game and only one, Gasol, is playing more than 30. Or that players such as former No. 1 pick Shane Battier don't complain, at least not publicly, when their minutes and roles are diminished.

Just as Brown got highly flammable point guard Jason Williams to play within a team concept for the first time in his career, Wells is now up for this season's Mr. Congeniality award. Brown said that Wells has been "Mary Poppins compared to some guys I've coached" and Wells has thrown his own verbal bouquets at his coach.

"You automatically have respect for him," Wells said. "He's an older coach and has so much knowledge of the game, you can't do anything but respect him, You just want to come in every day and learn."

The players follow three simple rules: Don't be late, play hard and know your job.

In a year when stars such as Philadelphia's Allen Iverson and rookie sensations such as Denver's Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic) have tested their coach's power and patience, Brown is clearly in charge.

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