Health permitting, Hubie, 71, was on course to coach out his three-year, $11 million contract. Next season the plan was to reward him big time ($5M) with a one-year farewell tour after which he’d retire simultaneously with West, 66, the draftsman responsible for the Hall of Fame TV analyst returning to his preferred profession following a 16-year absence.
Judging by the sorrowful sight and sound of Jerry West (above) at Friday’s press conference, Hubie’s untimely exit could easily hasten his own premature exodus. Coming off last season’s 50-win, first-round playoff finish, losing your league-honored coach and eight of the first 13 games is definitely not how things are supposed to be going in Memphis.
A confessed serial skeptic, I, nonetheless, almost certainly would’ve believed Hubie had he stated health as his singular cause for leaving. In all probability, I would’ve allowed West to ease into hiring Mike Fratello – whom he enthusiastically endorsed to Rod Thorn just before the Nets’ boss appointed Byron Scott – and kept any follow-up cynicism behind this sudden flight to a bare minimum.
Clearly, Hubie tried his best to take the ultimate high road. Then he added shortness of oomph to the equation. Offered a second motive for hightailing it. Declared his spirit, energy and passion were kaput; therefore, he had to go, too. Hubie could’ve left it with really not feeling all that well (“there’s nothing specific,” says a source, “but close to it”), but, perhaps, in all good conscience, was compelled to take his startling sendoff a step further.
Consequently, so must we. After 50 or so years around the game you don’t just lose your passion overnight, or over two or three weeks, it has to be pounded out of you. Something had to happen to turn off and shut down Hubie so completely.
So, what happened? To begin with, resentment abounded when retread Brian Cardinal arrived flaunting a 6-year, $37M free agent contract and Pau Gasol was rewarded with $86M over the same span.
Several players were overcome with envy, expressly rising free agents Bonzi Wells, who half-stepped through pre-season with a pulled hamstring, and Stromile Swift, who was unable to leverage a $10M per long-term deal out of Memphis and thus was forced to “settle” for the one-year, $6M qualifier.
Jealousy quickly deteriorated into selfishness, and did it ever show. The team’s first three games against the Wizards (seven short of a rotation), Rockets and Mavericks were disgraceful exhibitions of individualism, though, for the most part, the team concept has prevailed since.
Hubie’s pet, James Posey, made matters worse by showing up in camp with a swelled head and a bloated body; it’s uncertain when he sprained his foot, but after three games he was ordered to the injured list to rehab his act and ailment.
Furthermore, West was unable to acquire Erick Dampier in a sign-and-trade with the Warriors, but did match the Cavaliers’ three-year, $1.9M per offer sheet to Jake Tsakalidis. Meaning Hubie again had three centers he’s not especially fond of – Lorenzen Wright, Swift and Tsakalidis.
With apologies to the Chicago Tribune’s Sam Smith, whose perspective I incorrectly refuted, West and Hubie were hardly friction-free. It seems the coaching staff was upset with West’s decision to release Bo Outlaw and Troy Bell versus two second-rounders. Hubie was particularly unhappy to be the one forced to notify them when he caught wind GM Dick Versace was about to alert the media.
On top of that, when Tennessee was burning, West was in Europe. When the team was losing ugly early and often, players were going off on their own agendas and Williams was in Brendan Brown’s face, giving him a profane earful, the Grizzlies’ boss was on an extended scouting trip. When such flagrant disrespect demanded discipline, the franchise commander was overseas.
“Of course, Hubie’s health is bothering him,” I heard Warner Wolf duly note on radio the other day. “He’s sick of the NBA.”