Bonzi not singing the blues
MEMPHIS, Tenn. Ñ The new favorite son of the Memphis Grizzlies laced up his white tennis shoes, winked away a compliment and sighed.
'Wait until I start hitting my shots,' Bonzi Wells said. 'Them boys are going to be in trouble.'
The old Wells confidence is rolling again.
Wells' psyche had taken its shots and was in tatters during his final weeks as a Trail Blazer. Relegated to an off-the-bench role and booed every time he touched the ball in his final appearance as a Blazer in the Rose Garden, the Bonzi swagger and smirk were missing in action.
Now he's a kid on a new playground, with a get-out-of-jail-free card provided by Memphis General Manager Jerry West, who traded for him last week.
Already, the change of scenery is paying dividends.
He was greeted with a standing ovation by the Memphis crowd as he entered his first game Friday against Washington. Then he contributed 12 points and six assists in a win over the Wizards.
The warm and fuzzies on that night paled in comparison with those after his matchup Sunday with his former team at the Pyramid. Wells not only played a big role, he was the difference down the stretch, scoring 10 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter of the Grizzlies' 93-79 come-from-behind victory over the Trail Blazers.
'It was fun,' Wells said. 'A lot better to win than to lose. Those guys are still my friends over there, but I wanted to beat them.'
Afterward, Wells walked to halfcourt, where he met ex-teammates Rasheed Wallace, Ruben Patterson and Jeff McInnis and exchanged hugs. Ditto with Blazer assistant coaches John Loyer, Jimmy Lynam and Bernie Smith.
Some people in Portland still like him.
Wells had already shaken hands with Blazer coach Maurice Cheeks after reporting to the scorer's table in the third quarter.
'We just said, 'What's up?' ' Wells said.
Wells' reputation was shot in Portland. In Memphis, his honeymoon period has begun.
'Memphis rescued me,' Wells has said many times since the deal was made that sent Wells to the Grizzlies for Wes Person, a draft pick and money. 'It's a breath of fresh air.'
The public in Portland almost demanded that Wells be removed from the roster after six-plus years as a Trail Blazer. The first warning was fired two years ago when Wells' ill-advised comments about Blazer fans reached the pages of Sports Illustrated. His image took a series of shots after that, beginning with three suspensions and a number of other incidents a year ago, continuing with his single-fingered salute to heckling fans and finally with the erosion of his relationship with Cheeks this fall.
Wells has taken thinly veiled shots at Cheeks, the Portland coaching staff and his former teammates since arriving in Memphis, where he is under the direction of 71-year-old curmudgeon Hubie Brown.
'This is the type of team I need to be on to show my true colors,' he said of the Grizzlies.
'The spacing is excellent, the coaching is excellent, there's a lot of unselfishness here. I don't have to worry about all the things I used to have to worry about.'
Not that Bonzi ever created any of the trouble that has been associated with the Portland organization in recent years.
Wells and his agent, Bill Strickland, had been pushing for a trade since the shooting guard began a two-game suspension a few weeks ago. He was penalized for using obscene language in berating Cheeks when he removed him from a game.
West has been lavish in his praise of Wells, lauding his skills as a player and downplaying his reputation as a troubled person.
'Absolutely not,' West said when asked if the trade for Wells is a gamble.
Wells makes it clear he appreciates the unbridled support.
'Just to hear somebody talking upbeat about me was a blessing,' Wells said. 'It made me feel good in my heart because everybody has been down on me lately. That recharged my battery. I just can't wait to get back to the love of the game.'
Wells is already heavy into spin control, blaming the Portland media for exaggerating his problems. But he says he doesn't have anything against Cheeks: 'We got along fine. It was just time to part our ways.'
Asked if he has mixed emotions about the Wells trade, the coach chuckled.
'Mixed emotions?' he asked. 'No.'
This from a coach who works as hard as any in the NBA in getting along with his players.
The Grizzlies are thrilled to have Wells. He's starting with a clean slate.
'Everybody deserves a second chance,' Memphis assistant coach Lionel Hollins said. 'He will have to behave, but we expect him to. He's been great so far. He gives us a player with athleticism, a guy who can take it to the basket, post up, play some defense. He really fits in well with the other guys in our lineup.'
Brown, who considers himself owner of a Ph.D. in basketball, said the likes of Wells is nothing he hasn't dealt with before.
'I coached Bernard King,' he said. 'Bernard had the best year of his career under me.'
And, of course, Brown has turned around point guard Jason Williams and made him a new man Ñ or so the party line goes.
The Grizzlies like to run, especially when Williams is running the show. That will jell nicely with Wells' talents. He is a streak shooter but very good in transition, and he ought to score plenty of baskets on the fly.
Brown already has tremendous confidence in Wells, who had the ball in his hands the last few possessions of Sunday's game. He is coming off the bench, but the guess here is that he will be a starter soon. He very well could become the Grizzlies' best player. He has that kind of talent.
For now, Wells will be on his best behavior. He's smart enough to know he is fortunate to have a new opportunity, and he will do what he can to cultivate good will and enhance his reputation in Memphis.
But sooner or later, Bonzi will screw up again. He always does.
On Jan. 7, when the Grizzlies next visit the Rose Garden, he will hear more boos than he has heard in his life.
Bonzi Wells can run, but he cannot hide.