Dennis Lindsey did everything for two years. High school football, baseball and basketball coach during the same calendar season. Leading man for freshman teams, guidance for junior varsity clubs and assistant on three varsity squads. All while teaching physical education classes and aiding special ed students.
“We won district [in football], and I’m out there drawing up plays in the sand,” said Lindsey, during an interview last month at a restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City. “The experienced coaches were making fun of me. It was just a terrific experience.”
The statement is textbook Lindsey. Modest but passionate. Unselfish but highly competitive. A self-believer and self-achiever who Aug. 7 became the first GM not named Kevin O’Connor in 13 seasons for a small-market Jazz organization averse to abrupt change.
Now, the basketball junkie who went from an entry-level video scout with Houston to a trusted confidant inside San Antonio’s highly regarded inner circle has been charged with turning Utah’s post-Deron Williams potential into something real.
To initially succeed and ultimately outmaneuver superstar-laden franchises based in Los Angeles and New York, Lindsey will rely on beliefs he’s long subscribed to: A cohesive group is stronger than its individual parts; one break in the chain causes an entire circle to suffer; low risk sometimes results in high reward.
Despite the Miller family’s millions, Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan, and on-the-court legends John Stockton and Karl Malone, the Jazz have never won an NBA title and haven’t been to the Finals since 1998. Lindsey isn’t foolish enough to believe he’ll soon change that, and grand public statements aren’t his nature. A soft Southern drawl captures his public persona, and he methodically sticks to New Age catchphrases in vogue among the current crop of young GMs.
But Lindsey’s got a little O’Connor in him. He’s not afraid to “go nuts.” And he’s confident, bold and experienced enough to believe he can help Utah raise the bar to heights the Jazz haven’t seen since 2007, when Carlos Boozer and Williams were a deadly pair.
“I’m going to say this and start this now by saying it: The Jazz organization, the state of Utah, the Salt Lake City community has a lot to offer,” Lindsey, 43, said. “I think you may have to do it a little bit different here. I think you may have to be a little bit more patient and a little bit more organic. But we have the infrastructure, the commitment from the Miller family, to do well. And so we’re in this thing to compete and do our best.”
Days after Jazz owner Gail Miller wept during a news conference and O’Connor vowed day-to-day operations of Salt Lake City’s primary sports export were in Lindsey’s hands, the ex-high school coach disappeared. The calming coast of California was calling, and Lindsey took his wife and four children to Santa Monica, where a 2011 NBA lockout that barely ended in time for a compressed 2011-12 campaign finally washed away.
Lindsey’s daughters went swimming and shopping. His sons walked the pier and played pick-up basketball games against their dad. The father decompressed, officially leaving the Spurs’ recent Western Conference Finals disappointment behind and focusing on a promising Jazz future that’s loaded with expiring contracts, an enviable salary-cap situation, and talented young names belonging to Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter.
More than 300 text messages from friends, family members and colleagues reminded Lindsey he’d made it. The journey had been worth the cost: 16 combined NBA seasons apprenticing in Houston and San Antonio amounted to more than he could have ever imagined.
“That’s humbling. I’m honored to be one of 30,” Lindsey said. “Didn’t plan it — it just happened. A little surreal. Very stimulating, as you can imagine. When your name’s on the ledger, you wake up a little earlier.”
Which is exactly what Lindsey did. He kept his promise for a California family vacation, but also tended to his inner fire, waking up early every morning and spending hours familiarizing himself with Utah’s organizational structure. Lindsey ate quiet breakfasts, caught up with old friends, wrote down private thoughts and did it all from the comfort of a porch near the Pacific Ocean.
Then the NBA roared.
On Aug. 10, the Lakers traded for once-in-a-lifetime center Dwight Howard, triumphantly crowning a summer that already featured Steve Nash as a free-agent prize and again positioned the flashy purple and gold as the center of the league’s universe.
Lindsey’s getaway was over. His first thought after learning Superman II was flying to Los Angeles? Welcome to reality.
“That’s a proud franchise that has the wherewithal to spend some money. … It’s still incumbent upon us to compete and figure out where we can have our advantages,” Lindsey said.
Personal advantage played a key role in Lindsey’s atypical rise. His cachet in San Antonio provided the Miller family with the faith to pay top dollar to two front-office executives without wincing.
“He’s got a very coach-centric view of basketball and scouting that has been supplemented by a very keen understanding of the numbers of basketball, the math of basketball,” Spurs GM R.C. Buford said. “His ability to walk into an analytics discussion and a technical coaching discussion and feel comfortable in both environments is maybe his most distinct skill set.”
As integral as San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich and ex-Houston GM Carroll Dawson were to Lindsey’s hire, a youth spent learning new names and foreign faces shaped him more than the NBA ever could.
Lindsey can’t remember the first era — he was too young and life was too new. The second stuck. The third will last forever.
Hard, honest work wasn’t enough for his father. Being a “real saint” was too simple for his mother. So while Lindsey grew up in Freeport, Texas, constantly trading football cleats for sneakers as the sport seasons changed, his parents reached out.
The Missouri County Youth Home was nearby, and abused, abandoned children were in need. As many as 16 kids under one roof were soon protected by the Lindsey name. The family home in Freeport was temporarily left behind, while Lindsey’s mother and father became substitute parents for disadvantaged African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic and American Indian children.
Time and energy that could have been given to Lindsey were devoted to faces he barely knew. By the time Lindsey had emotionally moved past a second- through fourth-grade stint at the youth home, a stay that followed his sophomore season in high school was under way.
“You show up at a basketball game and you’ve got 16 people [with you] and everybody looks different,” Lindsey said. “You get the stares. You get parents’ divided attention.”
He added: “I had an atypical upbringing that really impacted me to this day.”
Now, Lindsey sees a method behind the madness. The values his father was teaching. The truth behind his mother’s — who later died in a car accident — self-imposed sainthood.
When Lindsey’s devotion to high school coaching paid off in an assistant job for a junior college basketball program in Pensacola, Fla. — a gig that saw Lindsey handle recruiting duties for the men’s team, help with the women’s program and run a dormitory — the kid who once balked when his parents spread their love finally understood what Missouri County really meant.
When a Houston general manager’s job many in the NBA thought should’ve been Lindsey’s in 2007 was unexpectedly given to Daryl Morey, the compassion and empathy instilled in Lindsey at an early age were paramount, eventually allowing him to become O’Connor’s replacement in Utah.
“Dennis combines some terrific skills. He’s very confident, but at the same time incredibly humble,” said Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN analyst and former coach of the Rockets and Knicks. “Plus, he combines the old-school traditional scouting methods with the cutting-edge analytical method. Because he can cross into both worlds, it allows him to be very, very unique.”
The 2012 version of Lindsey is a composite of his past selves. He’s still compassionate, still understanding. His world continues to revolve around sports and family. But for the first time in his career, he has the power to green-light futures, end tenures and ignite endless debate.
“I make a bunch of bad decisions: ‘He’s a nice guy, but … ,’ ” said Lindsey, joking about the shelf life of most NBA GMs.
Lindsey was armed with a Blackberry and iPhone during the mid-August interview, occasionally taking notes while a reporter asked questions. Utah’s new GM is well-read when it comes to the revamped collective bargaining agreement, yet doesn’t hesitate to praise experts such as Larry Coon for their insider knowledge.
When it came to the Jazz’s unmapped future, though, Lindsey put up his first public wall. He made light of his desire to return to Pensacola with a hacksaw and remove a brick from the dormitory he once patrolled. He openly discussed away-from-the job hobbies that revolve around hiking, pick-up basketball and reading biographies. But bring up names such as Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Raja Bell, and Lindsey immediately sounded like someone who spent five years in San Antonio fine-tuning his craft under masters such as Buford and Popovich.
Bell’s messy, unresolved buyout: No comment.
How are Jefferson, Millsap, Favors and Kanter going to fit together this season in the paint, and can the foursome co-exist long term, as O’Connor often stated?
No comment disguised as an answer.
“We have good players that we hope to keep,” Lindsey said. “We have good [draft] picks coming up. We have option-value, as far as potential money under the luxury tax and salary cap to create a path. We’ll have a full year to evaluate it.”
It was GM-speak at its best. Buford and O’Connor incarnate, with Popovich at the core.
Lindsey’s ready for the grind.
“He’s a cerebral basketball junkie,” said Tom Penn, a former executive with Portland and Memphis, who was recently linked to Philadelphia’s open GM job. “He’s in the trenches. He knows everybody and everything. And then he’s very thoughtful and intelligent. … That combination fits perfectly with Kevin O’Connor and the Utah Jazz organization.”
Dennis Lindsey file
Position » Jazz general manager
Age » 43
Career » San Antonio vice president/assistant GM (2007-12), Houston vice president of basketball operations and player personnel (2002-07)
NBA start » Rockets video coordinator/scout in 1996
Pre-NBA » Assistant coach at Fort Worth Southwest High School and Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College
Playing career » Baylor (1988-92)
Born » Freeport, Texas
Dennis combines some terrific skills. He’s very confident, but at the same time incredibly humble. Plus, he combines the old-school traditional scouting methods with the cutting-edge analytical method. Because he can cross into both worlds, it allows him to be very, very unique.”
Jeff Van Gundy
ESPN analyst and ex-NBA coach, on Lindsey
Dennis Lindsey has taken over day-to-day basketball operations for a Jazz organization that exceeded expectations last season, finishing 36-30 and making the playoffs during a lockout-compressed 2011-12 campaign. But while Utah has potential, it’s also loaded with uncertainty. Star players such as Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap hold expiring contracts, training camp could feature battles for three starting spots, and the Western Conference has only become tougher. Factor in everything from the unresolved Raja Bell buyout situation to possible extensions for Jefferson and Millsap, and Lindsey will be busy during his first year on the job.