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Ahead of the Game Once the heir to Jerry West as a player, Geoff Petrie has succeeded him as the NBA's preeminent collector of talent, molding the high-scoring Kings in his image

April 15, 2002
April 15, 2002

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April 15, 2002

Pro Football

Ahead of the Game Once the heir to Jerry West as a player, Geoff Petrie has succeeded him as the NBA's preeminent collector of talent, molding the high-scoring Kings in his image

During his BMOC days at Princeton in the late 1960s, Geoff
Petrie sometimes sported a faux fur coat. The Tigers' basketball
coach, a crusty thirtysomething (now a crusty seventysomething)
named Pete Carril, used to shake his head at the sight of his
star guard in that getup and make the same comment: "Where in
the f--- did you get that?" The coat was ostentatious, all flash
and dash, and so was Petrie, a young man with movie-star looks
and a gunner's swagger. Back then you could always find Petrie
in the gym. You could be sure he was on top of all the latest
playground moves--"the master of the spin dribble," Carril
sarcastically labeled him--because he sure wasn't working on his
defense. And you knew he would single-mindedly pursue an NBA
career, grab the big money and embrace the sense of entitlement
familiar to so many who are athletically gifted.

This is an article from the April 15, 2002 issue Original Layout

Flash forward to March 24, 2002. Petrie, now the Sacramento
Kings' president of basketball operations, and Carril, now a
Kings assistant coach, are sitting by themselves in the team's
locker room at Arco Arena an hour after a 97-96 loss to the Los
Angeles Lakers. This is where teacher and pupil jawbone after
every home game, rehashing plays, critiquing players, discussing
hoops philosophy.

"You two always end up talking about the same things," Petrie's
wife, Anne-Marie, will say the next day.

"Strangely," Petrie will answer with the hint of a smile, "it
never seems to bore us."

There is comfort as well as depth in the Petrie-Petie
relationship, forged as it was through head-banging clashes and
then tempered over time. Carril, who was hired by Petrie in 1996
after 29 years at Princeton, is still a hard man, but something
suspiciously resembling tears collects in his eyes when he talks
about the first great player he ever coached. "When I look at
Geoff now, see the things he's done and the way he's done them,"
says Carril, "the sense of pride I have is impossible to
describe." The old master of the backdoor shakes his head and
pauses for a long moment. "You know what comes to mind when I
think of Geoff?" Carril asks. "He's a very wise man."

And so the Fur Coat Kid has grown into a basketball sage. Over
the past decade--first as vice president of operations for the
Portland Trail Blazers, then in eight seasons with the
Kings--Petrie, 53, has earned a reputation as the NBA's foremost
team-builder, a man with a talent for recognizing talent, and
further, one with the elusive knack for putting it together into
a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts. Even if the
Kings carry the league's best record into the playoffs (at week's
end they held the top position at 57-19, 3 1/2 games ahead of the
Lakers), they will not be considered the NBA's best team. But
they are the best team without a Kobe Bryant or a Shaquille
O'Neal, and Petrie, the league's Executive of the Year last
season and in 1999, has been their architect. Here's what he has
done to build a team that before his arrival hadn't reached the
playoffs in a decade:

--Drafted Peja Stojakovic when he was a 19-year-old playing in
Greece in 1996 and signed him to a three-year deal in '98. The
6'9" Stojakovic made the All-Star team this season.

--Acquired Chris Webber in May 1998 for over-the-hill Otis Thorpe
and over-the-hill Mitch Richmond. When Webber was being wooed as
a free agent last summer, Petrie refused to negotiate through the
press, then re-signed him to a seven-year, $123 million contract.

--Signed free-agent center Vlade Divac to a six-year, $62.5
million deal in January 1999. Since his arrival Divac has been
the team's glue, on and off the court.

--Signed Scot Pollard to a free-agent deal a month later, giving
Divac a hard-nosed backup and the cowbell-clanging fans at Arco a
tonsorially mutating folk hero.

--Drafted 6'8" swingman Hedo Turkoglu with the 16th pick in 2000,
even though a player from Turkey had never made it in the NBA.
This one's making it.

--Signed free-agent guard Bobby Jackson in August 2000 to replace
Tony Delk. Jackson is a front-runner for the Sixth Man Award.

--Filled the Kings' void at shooting guard a month later by
acquiring Doug Christie from the Toronto Raptors for forward
Corliss Williamson. Christie was NBA All-Defense second team last
season.

--Swapped point guards with the Memphis Grizzlies last June,
landing the reliable Mike Bibby for the erratic Jason Williams.

While Petrie is loath to explain what he looks for in a
player--"Maybe it's because I'm not sure myself," he says,
smiling--with some goading he reveals a few traits he values.
Petrie likes Europeans, who are generally more skilled, if less
physical. "Basketball was never meant to be an arm-wrestling
match," he says. He favors multifaceted big men, which explains
his pursuits of Webber and Divac, both sharp shooters and slick
passers.

Another skill that Petrie prizes is vision. He looks for players
who instantly recognize variations on set plays or who quickly
clear out of the way for a teammate. "Of all the stuff Pete and I
talk about," says Petrie, "we spend the most time on seeing the
game." Carril believes that Petrie's moves, while sometimes bold,
are predictable. "The way you think affects what you see, and
what you see affects what you do," says Carril, an aphorist of
the first order. What he means is this: Petrie played basketball
fluidly, believes that's how it should be played and goes after
the type of player who can give him that game. That's certainly
the style of the highly entertaining Kings, who run, shoot and
pass as well as any team in the league.

Such has been Petrie's front-office impact that he has been
referred to around the league as the next Jerry West. Sacramento
will have to win a title before Petrie can don the mantle of the
Lakers' former president, who assembled seven championship teams.
But it's an interesting comparison, because before Petrie was the
next Jerry West, he was...the next Jerry West.

At 6'5" petrie was too quick to be crowded, too canny with the
ball to be stopped in traffic (he was the master of the spin
dribble, you know) and too gifted a shooter to be given space.
Drafted eighth in 1970 by the expansion Trail Blazers and signed
to a three-year, $150,000 contract, he averaged 24.8 points and
was co-Rookie of the Year with Dave Cowens. Though Portland went
29-52, the team was young and frisky, and for one splendid season
the NBA was everything Petrie had thought it could be. While he
wasn't nearly as good defensively as West (then 32), Petrie
looked like the kid most likely to succeed him as a high-scoring,
perennial All-Star guard.

George Petrie, a tough Marine vet, had died of a brain tumor when
Geoff was 10, and sports had become Petrie's refuge. Along with
being an all-state basketball player at Springfield (Pa.) High,
Geoff was a terrific quarterback and a live-armed pitcher who was
drafted by the Washington Senators. When he got to Princeton in
1966, having responded to the recruiting entreaties of Bill
Bradley--he still has all the letters Bradley sent him--Petrie was,
he insists, into things besides hoops. He majored in sociology
and had a closet interest in art. He failed Spanish, but Petrie
says it wasn't for lack of effort. "I was behind most of the kids
who came from private schools," he says. "I had to work hard to
make it academically." But basketball was at the core of his
being. "The only true gym rat I ever coached," says Carril, who
often had to kick Petrie out of the gym at eight in the morning
and again at 10 at night.

That's what Petrie was doing--shooting around alone--when his life
changed in the summer of 1971. He was at Portland State,
preparing for his second season in the NBA, when he felt what he
describes as "a catching" in his left knee. Doctors later
connected the injury to one he had suffered playing football in
eighth grade, even though his knee had never bothered him in high
school or at Princeton. Had he known that summer morning what the
next seven years would bring, he probably would have lain down
and cried. Many observers were never aware of the torn cartilage
that gradually deprived Petrie of quickness and mobility. He made
the All-Star team in '71 and '74. During the '72-73 season he
scored 51 points on Houston Rockets defensive ace Mike Newlin,
took note of Newlin's postgame comment ("He'll never do that
again"), then laid another nickel-penny on him weeks later in a
rematch. But it was never easy, his career increasingly a miasma
of surgeries, rehabs, cortisone shots, pain and frustration. He
was traded to the Atlanta Hawks after the '75-76 season but never
played a game for them. At training camp in October '78, he
walked up to coach Hubie Brown and said, "I'm done." He gave back
$50,000 in guaranteed money and walked off to start a new life,
whatever that might be.

Over the next several years, watching basketball often made
Petrie nauseated. He moped around a lot and, in keeping with his
quiet nature, internalized his frustration. His first marriage
was going badly, but his three children were a joy; he was
divorced in 1984 and got custody of the kids. He dabbled in real
estate, managed the office of the Trail Blazers' team doctor and
took over the basketball team at Willamette College in '83-84
when the coach went on sabbatical. "I missed my prime, and there
were times when I thought, This just isn't right," says Petrie.
He's asked how good he could have been with a healthy left knee.
He stares into space for a long time before answering. "That's
not for me to judge, I guess," he finally says. Sacramento coach
Rick Adelman, a teammate of Petrie's for three seasons in
Portland, plays judge. "Geoff would have been one of the alltime
great ones," he says. "No question in my mind."

Petrie's life started to change in 1984 when the Trail Blazers
hired him to do color commentary on radio broadcasts. Soon he
began working one-on-one with players, then he joined the front
office in customer relations. Following the '89-90 season, owner
Paul Allen promoted Petrie to VP. In his four years in that role
the Blazers were among the league's top teams, reaching the
Finals in '92, when they lost to the Chicago Bulls in six games.
Petrie seemed to have everything--he loved Portland (still does)
and had close friends around him (Adelman was the coach) and a
vibrant new wife (Anne-Marie, a former actress and dancer who is
remembered around the NBA for her butt-wriggling dance with the
Charlotte Hornets' mascot at the '91 league meeting). But in May
'94 he abruptly resigned. He has kept quiet about his reasons and
continues to do so, though it's an open secret that the Trail
Blazers organization had become splintered. Petrie and Adelman,
among others, favored keeping together the nucleus of the team to
make another run at the title; others felt it was time to break
it up and, perhaps, to send Adelman packing, too. Indeed, shortly
after Petrie left, Adelman was fired.

Petrie's life in Sacramento has gradually become comfortable and
familiar--he compares the city with Portland in its small-town
feel and in its fervor for the NBA. He enjoys having his son,
Mike, the Kings' assistant video coordinator, working in an
office near his own. He can still "lope around a little" on the
knee and plays tennis with Carril. He sketches landscape plans
for his backyard. He cooks, trying to replicate dishes that he
and Anne-Marie have enjoyed at gourmet restaurants. He picks up
his acoustic guitar and works out Van Morrison tunes. "You always
had the sense there was a lot more ticking inside of him than he
showed," says John Hummer, a Princeton teammate whose NBA career
was also cut short by injury. "I'm so glad it's come out."
Anne-Marie never knew the junkie, only the exec. "He's good at
every single thing he tries," she says. "You know what it's like
living with somebody like that?"

Petrie also likes staring out his Arco Arena office window and
seeing his old coach. He might catch the 5'6" Carril
demonstrating an old-school hook shot to the 7'1" Divac or see
Carril's countenance turn sour if the Kings bungle a half-court
set. Later on, Petrie knows, he will mosey back to the coaches'
room, and he and Carril will pick up the thread of an old
discourse, plunge into what Petrie calls "our endless My Dinner
with Andre conversations." Those moments are even more special
for Carril, because he sees in Petrie the past and the present,
the boy and the man, the raw material and the finished product.
And he very much likes what he sees.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHEN WILKES Nary a bobble Petrie has shown an unerring eye in turning the Kings from an also-ran to a team with the league's best record.B/W PHOTO: FRED KAPLAN Run and gun A prolific scorer as a Blazers rookie in 1970, Petrie has made the acquisition of marksmen like Bibby a priority in Sacramento.COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (PETRIE AND BIBBY) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Vlad to be here Petrie's quiet patience last summer helped keep the outspoken Webber from bidding adieu to Divac and the Kings.
"Basketball was never meant to be an arm-wrestling match," says
Petrie, who prizes European players.
"When I look at Geoff now," says Carril, his old coach, "the
sense of pride I have is impossible to describe."