The Culture Club – An Old School Coach and a Young Team Changed a Franchise
On November 12, 2002 The Memphis Grizzlies, off to an 0-8 start, fired head coach Sidney Lowe. Well technically he resigned, but that is semantics. New President of Basketball Operations Jerry West was determined to turn around a franchise that had never had a winning season since its inception in Vancouver. Speculation swirled all day as to who would be tabbed as the successor. So many people had opinions, and so many people would be wrong.
The Memphis Grizzlies were sort of in their honeymoon with the city. Most of the fans were still just happy to have a team when the Grizzlies entered into their second city in their newly adopted hometown. There were bigger stories around the NBA that season anyway. The return of Michael Jordan to the NBA with the Washington Wizards and the continued dominance of the Lakers with Shaq and Kobe highlighted the league. The freshly minted Memphis Grizzlies were not on anybody’s radar, and for good reasons. Aside from the splashy hire of former Lakers General Manager and all-time NBA great Jerry West, what was there to talk about. Since the 1995-1996 season, when the Vancouver Grizzlies came into existence, the team had never won more than 23 games.
There were some signs of progress during their first season in the Bluff City. The team did tie the franchise record for wins, with 23, and did sport the leagues Rookie of the Year in Pau Gasol. Adding to that the number 4 overall pick Drew Gooden and a series of draft day trades by West gave the fans some optimism heading into the 2002-2003 campaign. The 0-8 start, however, had put a damper on that. So Jerry West pulled the trigger on head coach Sidney Lowe, and did something nobody expected. He didn’t hire a young assistant who could “relate” to the young core of Jason Williams, Pau Gasol, Drew Gooden and Shane Battier. Jerry West went radical, old school, and off the script. He reached backwards and pulled from the past into the present. The new Grizzlies coach would be Hubie Brown.
Hubie Brown’s professional head coaching career had begun in in 1974 before most of the players on the Grizzlies had been born, and in a league that no longer existed. Hubie led the Kentucky Colonels of the old ABA to the title in 1975 and continued coaching until the league merged with the NBA in 1976. After this Hubie had two stops in the NBA, with the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks. Known for his flashy 70’s wardrobe and curly hair, Hubie had some other quirks. For one thing, he believed in 2 – 5 man rotations that would substitute at set times in the game. The starters for 8 mins, then the subs for 8, followed by the starters for 8. Hubie also believed in establishing a style. He believed in having a core system. He believed in establishing a culture. A culture of winning.
For an old school coach, Hubie proved quite adapt at some of the new statistical analysis methods. His years as a color analyst had kept him sharp and up to date on how the game was being scouted, coached and played. Hubie was ready to unleash this on the NBA with a group of kids so hungry to win they would do anything Hubie said. A mid-season trade sent Drew Gooden and Gordon Giricek to the Orlando Magic for former Rookie of the Year Mike Miller. Now the core was essentially set. Hubie began to change the course of not only the team, but the whole franchise.
The 2002-2003 season ended with the Grizzlies setting the franchise record for wins with 28. While this did not set the NBA world on fire, it did prove a precursor of things to come. Hubie and the Grizzlies established a style, a culture of tough defense and a fast brake style of offense. Getting into passing lanes and creating chaos. After starting the season 0-13 and 2-18 after their first 20 games, the Grizzlies got down to business going 10-10 over their next 20 games. The last 42 games produced 16 more wins, but more importantly the score differential dropped to less than 2 points per game over the last 40 games. The team was losing, but they were losing close games.
Now Hubie had an entire off season to work on the team. To instill fundamentals. To teach the culture of winning. The roster returned virtually intact with tow key additions. Shooting guard/small forward James Posey was added for toughness and play making. Point guard Earl Watson was added for back court depth and to guide the second unit. Each player knew their role and the expectations. The 10 man rotation proved to be a success for a young team with everyone knowing their minutes and when they’d be in the game. The Grizzlies were ready to make some noise.
The first 20 games of the 2003-2004 season went very differently from their first two in Memphis. The first 20 games ended with a 12-8 record. This included wins over the Lakers and defending champions Spurs. This propelled the team to a historic turnaround. The Grizzlies would finish the season with 50 wins and playoff birth. Jerry West would win the Executive of the Year and Hubie would win the Coach of the Year. While the playoff’s did end with a sweep at the hands of the Spurs, the culture of the team was established.
The Hubie era would end in November of 2004. Hubie would later say that his time in Memphis allowed him to confirm that his methods were successful. What has followed has been an offshoot of this success. Hubie’s old protege Mike Fraetello would also come out of the broadcast booth to lead the Grizzlies to 2 more playoff appearances around the same basic core group of players Hubie had. After a 2 year run under Mark Ivaroni, Hubie’s lead assistant from his time with the Grizzlies, Lionel Hollins was tabbed to revive the franchise. This led to the Grit-Grind era, which is now considered the golden age of Grizzlies basketball. Then Dave Joeger, a Lionel assistant led the Grizzlies to two more playoff appearances.
Since November 12, 2002 the Memphis Grizzlies have had 10 playoff appearances in 16 seasons including three trips to the second round and a trip to the Western Conference finals. To this day whenever Hubie Brown comes to Memphis to broadcast a game he is greeted with acclamation and appreciation. The Grizzlies named their Hall of Legacy “Hubie Hall” in appreciation for the job he did. Then Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson said that, despite playing in 12 cities for 13 different coaches, his time with Hubie Brown in Memphis had the most influence on him. There is no franchise in any sport than can point to a single person affecting a franchise more profoundly than the affect Hubie Brown had on the Grizzlies. Hubie brought the franchise legitimacy, toughness, and a culture that to this day is still felt in the heart of the organization.