Grizzlies general manager Billy Knight -- a good guy and a good GM -- just got canned. Welcome to the real "Big Time," Memphis. In pro sports, changes can occur at any moment and the public gets little -- if any -- insight into the situation. The Grizzlies brain trust has shut out everyone, including members of its own staff who might leak information anonymously. Simply put, the Grizzlies management is wearing a poker face right now. So are they hiding a royal flush (i.e., does owner Mike Heisley know what the hell he is doing?) or are they bluffing?
Much of the spotlight has fallen on president of basketball operations Dick Versace. Versace has a spotty career record at best and is widely disliked by many members of the media. His most notable accomplishment was a coaching stint with the Indiana Pacers. According to the Grizzlies' media guide, Versace "developed" Pacer Reggie Miller to All-Star status. (One can only wonder what Reggie thinks about that.) He got the job with the Grizzlies because then-new owner Heisley was a longtime buddy. Here are some of Versace's Grizzlies career highlights:
n According to Craig Daniels of The Toronto Sun, Versace tried to make the Grizzlies PR staff pay his $10,000 NBA-instituted fine for saying that the Toronto Raptors would tank in Canada. Versace reasoned that the staff did not prep him on the question of Toronto's viability and so were personally (and fiscally) responsible. The good thing is that since PR personnel get paid so much more than team presidents, no one on the staff would have felt the pinch. Not that much, anyway.
n Versace hired head coach Sidney Lowe (which was a good thing). But then, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Stephen Smith, he bragged to people in the stands of Vancouver's GM Arena about how he would coach the team, should he (humbly) get the opportunity to do so. Versace started such antics after only 20 games into Lowe's career. Lowe would go on to record the two best regular seasons in Grizzlies history and played a major role in developing the team's young talent.
n During the 2001 draft, Versace wanted Eddy Curry, who eventually went to the Chicago Bulls. Billy Knight insisted on Pau Gasol. According to veteran NBA writer Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune, Versace went so far as to threaten Knight's job if Gasol didn't pan out. Knight won the battle and Memphis drafted the eventual 2002 rookie of the year. Chicago, to put the matter delicately, did not.
* After the 2002 season, Versace fired GM Billy Knight and blamed the firing on owner Michael Heisley. Rumors from insiders say that Versace was furious that Knight got the credit for drafting Gasol.
And Versace may not be done. So here's a word of warning to Grizzlies head coach Sidney Lowe: Watch your back. Any number of scenarios could develop that would leave him out in the cold. One is that Versace could fire Lowe, "demote" himself to coach, and then let Lakers mogul Jerry West run the head office as GM and president. Another scenario is that West could become president (West has said he doesn't want to be GM), and Versace would become GM and coach.
Give this to Versace: He's opportunistic. If either of these scenarios happen, he would take control of a team that should easily win over 30 games next year. Versace would also benefit from West's presumably adroit touch in the front office. Versace would be known as the man who turned the Grizzlies into winners, even though he'd be using the talent acquired by Knight and developed by Lowe.
But will Lowe really get fired? Heisley has said publicly that while he wants Lowe on the team and he would be surprised to see the coach go, that decision is not in his hands. Heisley charged Lowe with developing talent this year, not winning ballgames. Lowe has one more year on his contract, and here's hoping he gets to fulfill it. But if Lowe can't pull off 35 wins or so next year, don't count on him being around the following season.
Peter Vescey of NBC says that West is leaning toward coming to Memphis. But in what capacity, no one seems to know. Change, power struggles, good guys getting fired. It's all part of the big leagues, Memphis. Get used to it. The best -- or worst -- may be yet to come.