SALT LAKE CITY — Dennis Lindsey, the young, new general manager of the Utah Jazz, never forgets that amid the barrage of phone calls, meetings, negotiations, contract issues and media interviews that come with his job, he must return to the fundamentals of his profession. Every day, he shuts off the lights and the phone, ignores the email and watches videotape in the darkness of his office, stopping only to make notes.
"One thing I've been told is that the higher you move up in an organization the further you get away from basketball," he says. "That's a mistake. The lifeblood is player procurement and keeping good players. I block off certain periods of the day so that I can get back to the core of what I do and one of my strengths."
This is where his NBA career began, watching video, and it's one of the reasons he has risen rapidly from the bottom of the front office to the top: He is skilled at evaluating basketball players.
As Jazz executive vice president Kevin O'Connor notes, "When you look at the draft, it's not so much taking guys like Tim Duncan first. That's a no-brainer." He points to three less obvious and overlooked players Lindsey selected as assistant general manager of the San Antonio Spurs — DuJuan Blair (the 36th pick of the 2009 draft), Tiago Splitter (28th in 2007) and Danny Green (plucked from the developmental league in 2009).
"Those are things you notice and you go 'ooooh,' " says O'Connor. "Will those guys be all-stars? Probably not. But they're good players on a terrific team and they were undervalued; they should've been picked higher. That is a guy who is a proven talent evaluator."
The 43-year-old Lindsey becomes only the fifth general manager hired by the Jazz since they arrived in Utah in 1979. O'Connor held the position for 14 years — second-longest in the NBA at the time — while also pulling double duty as vice president of basketball operations.
Early last year, the Jazz, convinced they were understaffed by NBA standards, decided they needed someone to share the load — more specifically, someone to take over the GM duties. Because of the lockout, they postponed the search until this summer. With a preliminary list of potential candidates, Jazz president Randy Rigby began calling team executives around the NBA.
"Dennis' name kept popping up," he says. "I did some Googling and learned a lot about him."
Lindsey, the Spurs' assistant GM at the time, wasn't on the original search list, but now he was. Rigby received permission from the Spurs to interview him.
Says Rigby, "What I liked was the consistency of what people were saying about Dennis — a high-quality character, very collaborative, a team player, very bright, not a big ego, a strong family man — that was very important, too."
"We hired Dennis because he has the same DNA we do," says O'Connor. "You see the guys from other teams in the stands at college games. Dennis and I spent a lot of time together on the road. You look at the way he conducts himself. You see what kind of person he is. You see how he treats other people. You see if he's considerate and has a good attitude and arrives early for the game. That's a premium with us. I liked his professionalism."
Apparently, others were similarly impressed. Lindsey had been offered jobs by several clubs in recent years but decided they weren't a good fit. When Utah called, he knew immediately this could be the chance he was looking for. He admired the Jazz organization for the values they espoused and the caliber of the teams they put on the court — a team much like the Spurs. He discussed the situation with his two teenage sons.
"They had been through it a couple of times (job offers)," he says. "I told my boys,'We're going to speak to Utah. I need you boys to know this is a club we have some alignment with. You need to think about it because I am excited to speak to them.' "
After meeting with Jazz ownership — Greg and Gail Miller — and key Jazz executives, he was sold.
"He felt Utah was right for him," says Carol Dawson, the former Rockets GM and Lindsey's close friend. "I could see it in his face. I had never seen him like that after the previous offers."
Lindsey, who will collaborate with O'Connor, Rigby and CFO Bob Hyde in building the Jazz and handle the day-to-day operations, still marvels that he has landed here.
"I'm blessed," says Lindsey. "I wanted to be a Division I coach. That was the path. Then the path took a tangent. I could've been happy as a middle-school coach."
Lindsey has a reputation as an open and friendly man who puts everyone at ease immediately.
"Y'all are gonna love him," says Dawson. "He's just an exceptional human being. The way he carries himself. The way he greets people. He doesn't ruffle feathers. He has no ego problems. He's just a good guy."
Dawson, a wonderfully affable man who spent three decades in the NBA, mentored Lindsey in Houston. Lindsey still quotes some of the advice Dawson offered him. Don't make promises you can't deliver. Return every phone call. Treat everyone well — and not just when they have something you need. Always tell the truth. Remember, this is a people business.
Lindsey peppers any conversation about his career with mention of Dawson and Spurs GM R.C. Buford, among others, for the wisdom, guidance and opportunities they gave him. He also makes frequent mention of his parents and his upbringing.
Dennis Sr. and Carol Lindsey raised two children of their own in and around Freeport, Texas, but really they raised many more than that. They lived in and ran the Brazoria County Youth Home, which meant they shared a house with anywhere from 10 to 14 kids at a time. They were black, white, Hispanic and Asian and most had been abused, abandoned and poor. Young Dennis lived with these large, diverse families in three different houses, surrounded by an ever-changing cast of children.
"His folks were so good," says Dawson. "There were no strangers in their house. They were raised as their own."
Says Lindsey, "As a young, selfish teen, I had mixed emotions. I wanted my parents' attention. I mean, when we went to a restaurant, there were 16 of us. But deep down, I knew what they were doing was a gift. To this day, I lean toward those experiences in understanding people. I learned a lot of lessons."
Lindsey discovered basketball in junior high. He insists that his skills on the court were not so much natural as they were developed through hard work. Whatever the reason, he became an all-state high school guard who attended Baylor University for four years on a basketball scholarship.
"In seventh grade I was starting to grow, and I was getting better (in basketball) every day," he says. "I loved the incremental improvement. It was a calling for me. I knew I was going to be in sports and I wanted it to be basketball. I had great clarity early that I have to find a way to make a living out of this. I thought it would be as a college coach."
During his sophomore season at Baylor, Lindsey suffered a tragedy that changed him forever. His parents were driving home after watching Dennis play a game for the Bears when a drunk driver struck their car head-on, killing Carol.
"There are moments that become tangible as to who you are," he says. "It made an immature kid grow up fast. She was key to the family and to who I was."
He returned home for a couple of months to be with his family and to recover from a basketball injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season. He helped care for his sister, who was injured in the accident, and his father, whom he describes as "physically and emotionally devastated."
"You go through life and one door is shut and another opened," he says. "I met my wife very soon after that. I don't think that was by chance. That happened for a reason."
After graduating from Baylor, he set out on a career path he hoped would lead him to the Division 1 coaching ranks. He began as an assistant coach in basketball, football and baseball at Southwest High in Fort Worth, and later became an assistant coach at Pensacola (Fla.) Junior College before his career veered sharply in a different direction.
Through an acquaintance in the Houston Rockets' organization, he learned that the team had a job opening for a video coordinator. He flew to Houston for the interview.
"Rudy (Coach Tomjanovich) and I had discussed what kind of guy we wanted, and five minutes into the interview I knew we wanted him," says Dawson.
It was an entry-level job, but, as Lindsey says, "I felt like I was stealing. Someone was paying me to watch basketball. I was immersed with a championship-level organization with Rudy and Carol and learning."
The job demanded hours of watching, editing and piecing together video (this was the pre-digital age), and when he wasn't doing that he was filling out forms, marking checklists, and writing a description of each player. Consider the enormity of the evaluation process and the pressure that comes with judging hundreds of players everywhere — the NBA, overseas, college, free agents, developmental leagues — and paring the list down to just a handful of players based on subjective measurements of talent, size, skill, mindset, character, work ethic, and ability to fit into the team's scheme and environment. Based on those evaluations, millions of dollars are spent and the fate of the club is affected for better or worse for years to come.
"There are a lot of situations where you whittle it down to a few names you really like and they're not going to be available," says Lindsey. "You have to understand the market and timing and the art of making deals. It's a cooperative effort of many."
The move to the NBA was a bold one. Lindsey, whose wife Becky was expecting their first child at the time, took a significant pay cut to accept the entry-level job, at the age of 26. But Texas was home for both of them, and Becky was a coach's daughter — her father was former college and NFL coach F.A. Dry — and was inured to such things.
"She probably thought I was a little crazy," he recalls. "There were a couple of moves that I made that certainly created some lively debate. But she knows the business and she saw how competitive I was and what my ambitions were. We talked about it and prayed about it and visited people about it for guidance."
Although it's the bottom rung of the ladder, the video coordinator position has provided a springboard for others besides Lindsey — Lakers coach Mike Brown, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra and former Rockets coach Tomjanovich, to name some.
Dawson feared that Lindsey would return to coaching, as well, but it didn't happen. Lindsey moved up rapidly in the front office. Three years later, he was named director of player personnel, and two years after that he was vice president of basketball operations and player personnel.
"He was already handling those duties long before he got the official titles," says Dawson. "I just trusted him. He was one of the first guys to start using the computer (for evaluating players). He was doing that 'Moneyball' stuff — looking at tendencies. He knew how often a guy went to the baseline and where on the floor his scores came from."
In 2007 — 11 years after Lindsey took the video job — he was named vice president/assistant general manager of the San Antonio Spurs.
"The message is that coming in at an entry level, no matter what you're doing, you should be able to gain job satisfaction and, secondly, it's very important to realize you don't skip steps," he says. "I haven't skipped steps. The fundamental message is that there are opportunities if you're willing to work and be honest and treat people the right way."
Five years later he has landed a GM job in Utah, where he will work with a front office rooted in patience, stability and consistent success.Comment on this story
As Dawson told his protégé, "Most of the time you're going to a team as a new GM cause someone has wrecked it. But they've got a good team. You've just gotta keep it going."
Lindsey has been called a "fit" for the community and organization by various members of the Jazz organization. He's a religious, family man who says, "These jobs in pro sports can dominate your life and you can become selfish. With a wife and four children and a large extended family, I try to set aside time for them.
"We've had great peace of mind about each decision. Faith is important. Everybody has fundamental beliefs. That is something that was impressed on me in childhood, the standards of what you believe and how you act. Those principles are tried and true. And when you make important decisions, you've got to let go and listen."
Looking at the practical challenges ahead, O'Connor offers the last word: "Dennis is a key addition. We've added somebody who is really going to help us develop strategies in the long term, another pair of eyes on how to grow the Jazz. It's a friend we're going to get to work with."