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."
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
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."Next Page >
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.
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