Records dont define new GM
Colleagues speak highly of Blazer executive John Nash
During his 14 years as a general manager in the NBA, John Nash has won as many friends and admirers as basketball games.
Nash's teams were 457-649 in the regular season and 6-15 in the playoffs during his stints in Philadelphia, Washington and New Jersey from 1986-2000. Normally that wouldn't warrant an offer for another GM position.
But the 56-year-old Philadelphia native has left an impression on those around him during more than three decades in the NBA and college basketball. And this week, it resulted in his being named the Trail Blazers' new general manager.
'You can't always go on wins and losses Ñ it should be about how a man does his job,' says Jack Ramsay, the former Trail Blazer coach. His relationship with Nash goes back to the days when Ramsay was coach and athletic director and Nash was a student at St. Joseph's in the mid-1960s.
'In my mind, John has been successful at every place he's been,' Ramsay says.
Former NBA head coach Matt Guokas was a star player under Ramsay at St. Joe's when Nash was a busy-bee student worker in the athletic department.
'One of the unfortunate things in the business is, you are judged by your record,' says Guokas, an NBA and college basketball TV analyst. 'That doesn't mean you aren't good at your job or what you do. A lot of it has to do with timing and the personnel available to you. In John's case, that hasn't always been good.'
Nash served five years as business manager and assistant GM to Pat Williams in Philadelphia. In 1986, Nash took over for Williams, who two weeks earlier had traded Moses Malone for forward Cliff Robinson (not ex-Blazer Uncle Cliffy) and center Jeff Ruland. Ruland quickly injured a knee and wound up playing just five games as a Sixer.
'With Moses gone, (owner) Harold Katz promoted John and told him, 'Pick up the pieces,' ' says Phil Jasner, veteran beat writer of the Philadelphia Daily News. 'He did the job well.'
On to Washington
During Nash's four-year reign, with Hall of Famer Julius Erving winding up his career the first season and Charles Barkley emerging as a superstar, Philadelphia posted three winning seasons and a record of 180-148.
In 1989-90, the 76ers won the Atlantic Division with a 53-29 mark and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals under coach Jimmy Lynam. A few weeks later, Nash was out and Gene Shue in as GM.
'I left of my own volition,' Nash says. 'I was running both the business and basketball sides and told Harold it was too much and I wanted to do basketball only. He said, 'I don't want to lose you on the business side.' I don't think he believed I would leave. I had a couple of opportunities and went to Washington.'
Nash experienced six straight losing seasons with the Bullets and compiled a record of 161-321. But he acquired some talent, including Chris Webber via trade, and in Nash's final season the team was 39-43 under Lynam.
Then it was on to New Jersey, another perennial NBA burial ground. In his first year, Nash engineered a nine-player trade in which Shawn Bradley was packaged with three teammates and sent to Dallas. Ultimately, the Nets wound up with Stephon Marbury and Keith Van Horn out of the deal.
Nash also pushed to select high school phenom Kobe Bryant with the eighth pick in the 1996 draft, but first-year coach John Calipari Ñ who had major control in personnel matters Ñ opted for the security of 22-year-old Villanova senior Kerry Kittles.
'It would have been a gamble because the only high school kid taken to that point in many years had been Kevin Garnett,' Guokas says. 'I remember (Nash) telling me in the days leading up to it, 'This could be the best player in the draft.' It would have been a risky move, but John's instincts were good.'
After a 26-56 first season, the Nets turned it around to go 43-39 in 1997-98 and made it to the playoffs. After two succeeding poor seasons and a change in ownership, Nash was let go.
'Sometimes, you get some groundwork laid for the situation to turn into something good, but the patience (by ownership) isn't there, and it gets short-circuited,' says Geoff Petrie, the Sacramento president of basketball operations.
'But John's reputation is solid,' says Petrie, who has known Nash since their days growing up in Pennsylvania.
Those who know Nash say many of the same things about him.
Ramsay: 'A very capable guy. Straightforward. You always know where you stand with John. Knowledgeable. Industrious. Knows the league.'
Guokas: 'Bright. Articulate. Willing to listen and absorb the opinions of others. When it comes to conclusions, though, he stands up and takes charge.'
Nash also has something else going for him: personality.
'Very friendly, polite to everybody, a genuinely good guy who tries to help people,' says Boston Celtics assistant Dick Harter, a Philadelphia native who has known Nash for 30 years. 'You look at his record and say he never got it done, but there are (extenuating) circumstances in most cases. Portland probably made a very good pick.'
Nash's people skills should help in dealing with players, fans and the media.
'I don't want to say he's going to be a breath of fresh air, but it's something like that,' Petrie says. 'I don't know (new Blazer President) Steve Patterson well, but I get that impression from him, too. They are both good people who are going to live in Portland, and that's a good thing for the franchise.'
'High on our list'
Published reports that Nash was the Blazers' fourth choice as GM are 'absolutely inaccurate,' Patterson says.
The Blazers' short list included a half-dozen candidates, among them Ed Stefanski, New Jersey scouting director; John Hammond, Detroit vice president of basketball operations; Chris Wallace, Boston GM; former GMs Jerry Krause (Chicago) and Pete Babcock (Atlanta); and Gary Fitzsimmons, Golden State assistant GM.
Stefanski could have had the position, though terms weren't discussed, and he returned to the Nets with a bump-up in title and salary. None of the others came close to being offered the job.
The Blazers had pretty much settled on Nash two weeks ago, but owner Paul Allen and Patterson decided to take a little extra time to make sure. No other candidates were interviewed from that point on.
'John has always been very high on our list,' Patterson says. 'It's unfair to him to suggest otherwise.'
Nash faces a daunting task.
'They have to cut salary Ñ their payroll last year ($105 million) is mind-boggling Ñ but they want to stay competitive,' Guokas says. 'That will be difficult in the Western Conference, where probably five teams are better, personnel-wise.'
And the Blazers are attempting to clean up their image by giving deportment a higher priority.
'It is a winning team, and there's good personnel,' Ramsay says, 'but John has a challenge ahead.'