Book Review: Game Changer
Review by Budd Bailey
You have to give Bob Whitsitt credit. The man knows how to keep busy.
Whitsitt is the only man to serve as the general manager of basketball's Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers along with football's Seattle Seahawks. He even did a couple of jobs at the same time, which is mighty impressive.
We only get a hint of what Whitsitt's life was like at his busiest when reading "Game Changer," a memoir on his time in sports. Still, it's more than enough to capture the attention of sports fans.
Whitsitt started as an intern for the Indiana Pacers in 1978, and he climbed the ladder quickly to become an important figure in the front office of the team. It didn't take long for him to move over to a better job in Sacramento, and then jump to the Sonics. Some of his best work was done there, as the team eventually became a contender behind such players as Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. Alas, he opted to move on when working for owner Barry Ackerley - who takes some good-sized shots here - became more than difficult.
Then it was on to Portland, where Whitsitt again built a basketball team that needed rebuilding. The team eventually reached the conference finals a couple of times, but couldn't take that last step to the NBA Finals. Along the way, he worked with Blazers owner and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who became an important influence on his life. Allen comes off in the book as shy and a little quirky, but grew to trust Whitsitt and put all sorts of projects on his plate. It's easy to wonder how he did justice to all of those responsibilities, since he doesn't get into details in that area.
One of those, oddly enough, came when the Seahawks looked as if they might move to California. Allen was one of the few Seattle residents who could write a check for an NFL franchise to keep it in place. Whitsitt helped make it all work, and his "reward" was additional responsibilities with that team. He was involved in bringing in Mike Holmgren from the Green Bay Packers to serve as general manager and coach. The Seahawks didn't prosper until Holmgren gave up the GM's job, which isn't surprising since it sure sounds like he had little interest in stuff that happened off the field. Whitsitt lost his job with the football team in 2005 - two years after he had resigned as the general manager of the Blazers.
Since that time, Whitsitt has stayed out of the front office of sports teams. He's done some consulting and served on boards, and then at age 61 he went to law school. It's never too late to learn a new skill.
The book is something of an excuse for Whitsitt to launch into stories, and he has a bunch of good ones. There are always a variety of reasons, for example, why a sports team completes a certain trade - even if they don't become public for a reason. In one case, the Blazers had a talented teenager in Jermaine O'Neill was mostly was sitting on the bench under coach Mike Dunleavy, who refused to give him minutes even when told to do so by Whitsitt. The Sonics ended up trading O'Neill to Indiana, where he blossomed into a fine player. Whitsitt eventually got around to firing Dunleavy. Other trades that worked out better receive some space in the book too, of course.
Whitsitt's methods for building a basketball team came under scrutiny in both Seattle and Portland, and they probably continue to make "Trader Bob" a controversial figure in the Pacific Northwest to this day. Whitsitt always was willing to take a chance on a player with personal baggage when the rebuilding the team. The price was usually discounted at that reason, so the player could be acquired for pennies, or at least dimes, on the dollar.
Sometimes that player could be rehabilitated and then moved elsewhere for someone with more talent. The theory worked well enough for the teams to move up in the standings.
However, that approach seemed to cause problems in the community with fans. Portland's basketball team picked up the nickname of the "Jail Blazers" because many of their players had run-ins with the police. Whitsitt also preferred talent to chemistry, and points out that he did a lot of research into each player and his personality before swinging a trade. It probably comes down to the idea that some people want their favorite team to win, but they want it done in the "right" way. That's an interesting debate to have, but it's fair to say Whitsitt's approach probably didn't give him a long leash with the public.
"Game Changer" certainly has enough interesting material to keep the fans of Whitsitt's teams entertained. What's more, there are enough "behind-the-scenes" material to keep fans of sports from outside the Pacific Northwest entertained. Since it's not a long book, those out-of-towners can enjoy the tales of a sports executive's time in the spotlight without making a major time commitment. It adds up to a successful review of an interesting professional life.
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