MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Meet Gary Colson, 68-year-old National Basketball Association rookie.
These days it's a different life for the long-time college basketball coach and administrator. But to him it's not much different sitting in The Pyramid arena just off the Mississippi River as opposed to the old gymnasium on the Valdosta State campus.
"Whether it's 18,000 in here (at The Pyramid), or a full house at the old gym or at Georgia Christian, it's all the same," Colson said during an interview prior to a recent NBA game. "It's a full house. It's exciting. It's contagious."
Earlier this year Colson moved back east after 30-plus years on the West Coast. He followed an old friend, NBA legend Jerry West, to Memphis to run the city's new NBA franchise, the Grizzlies.
Colson is West's right-hand man, the assistant to the president of basketball operations.
"I'm with him constantly, whether it's recruiting, scouting, dealing with security, taking to players, whatever," Colson said. "It's my job to make his job a little easier. I'm a jack of all trades, and Jerry trusts me to do what I have to do."
Colson's first head coaching job was at Valdosta State College, from 1958 to 1968. He turned the new men's basketball team around, winning eight straight conference titles and advancing to the NAIA national tournament.
He moved west after that, coaching at Pepperdine, New Mexico and Fresno State. He was an assistant athletic director at Cal-Santa Barbara when West called him last April.
"Jerry said he was getting bored," Colson said. "He was talking to Atlanta and Memphis, and he said he wasn't going without me.
"I asked him if he was serious. He was. That was a great compliment to me."
By the end of the month, the two were on a plane and taking over the Memphis franchise which is starved for success in a college basketball-crazed town.
The future can be a bright one for the Grizzlies. The city's fans expect more from the team now that West runs the show. Last year's 23 wins matched a franchise high. But that's 23 wins in 82 games.
There's a new $250 million arena, the FedExForum, going up just south of Beale Street, the famous music tourist attraction. The Grizzlies will be in that in 2004.
But the present? The Grizzles fell to 0-8 Monday night with a home loss to Golden State. They're the only winless team in the NBA, and many local and national columnists expect head coach Sidney Lowe to lose his job soon.
"This is nothing new. I'm a builder," Colson said. "Every program I took over was down.
"The honeymoon here won't last long. But time will take care of that, we'll make a difference. I'm impatient, and Jerry's very impatient."
Through roster changes, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA.
"It's an unbelievable challenge," said Colson, who has a four-year contract with the team. "We'll make a difference here before its over.
West owes Colson a big thank you for a life-changing happening in the NBA legend's life.
A quarter-century ago, West came to speak at Colson's tipoff banquet at Pepperdine. Afterwards, West asked Colson about someone who caught West's attention. It was the senior captain of the cheerleading squad, and West wanted to meet here.
Colson arranged a dinner for the three the next day.
"They didn't even know I was there, and they didn't know I left," Colson said. The cheerleader is now West's wife, Karen.
A few years later, West wanted Colson to come work for him when West coached the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I was reluctant because we had a good ball club at
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Pepperdine. And he was independently wealthy, and could walk away at any time," Colson said. "He coached two years. I made the right choice then, but this time it was different."
And now life is different. His wife, Mary Katherine, was from the West Coast. He's been out there for 30-plus years.
"I like Memphis. I like the people," said Colson, who has a home on Mud Island overlooking the Mississippi River. "I've gone back to my roots now. No more
fancy plays. We go to Wal-Mart."
He still stays in contact with family and friends from South Georgia.
"My brother Wally has a way of picking me up and I have a way of picking him up," Colson said.
He's also in contact with his former Valdosta State players. Many attended when Colson was inducted into the Valdosta State Athletic Hall of Fame in 1998. Two of his players, Mike Perry and Bobby Ritch, have also been inducted.
He's also familiar with the Blazers' current successes, including the rise of the men's basketball program under Jim Yarbrough.
"I'm real proud of what he'd done," Colson said. Yarbrough's returning the favor, hanging banners in The Complex reflecting the program's past successes.
"Valdosta State gave me a chance to come back home and coach," he said. "I cherish those times and the players. Everyone graduated. They took pride in their classwork.
"We dominated the GIAC, and we beat a lot of good clubs. It opened up the doors to go up to Division I at Pepperdine."
Colson's family moved to Lowndes County in 1948. Gary Colson graduated from Georgia Christian School, and he went on to David Lipscomb College and Vanderbilt before returning home.
"I grew up with Wright Bazemore and Billy Grant, playing tennis and having a wonderful time," Colson said. "I can't believe they're gone."
Colson still considers himself a kid. Hanging around young players all these years will do that.
"I've never not been around young people," Colson said, looking out on the court at his current group of youngsters. They may all be NBA millionaires now, but they still do something for the old coach.
Whether it's in the big NBA arena or the small community gym.
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