KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Johnny Dawkins has known Danny Ferry since Ferry's DeMatha High School basketball team whipped Dawkins' Mackin squad when they were growing up in the Washington, D.C., area.
Not surprisingly, Dawkins wasn't among those worried if Ferry was ready for his new job as general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers when he was named to the post last week.
"I definitely think he's ready," said Dawkins, associate head coach at Duke University. "He's learned from the masters."
Some who have been in Ferry's shoes in professional basketball believe that just as strongly. A few of them took over a team at a younger age than Ferry (38). And their argument isn't built only on the fact that Ferry's father, Bob, spent 17 years as general manager of the Washington Bullets.
Pat Williams, senior vice president of the Orlando Magic and former GM of the Philadelphia 76ers, probably has had more conversations with Bob Ferry than Danny. But Williams pointed out the great teachers who guided Ferry along the way.
Ferry's mentor was DeMatha's Morgan Wootten, "the greatest high school coach of all time," Williams said. At Duke, Ferry was tutored by Mike Krzyzewski, "one of the most prestigious college coaches of our era." Ferry played overseas, then in the NBA for 13 years. He apprenticed for the past two years with the San Antonio Spurs, "considered the best-run organization in the NBA." He's been around the pro game "since he was breathing."
"You tell me who has a resume like that?" Williams said. "You could search forever and couldn't find anybody more ready for this challenge than Danny Ferry."
Lived and breathed basketball
As Ferry said at his press conference last Monday: "I grew up in it. I heard my dad] cursing agents when I was 9 years old.
"I've been around great, enriching environments."
But when Bob Ferry was driving to his weekly lunch with Red Auerbach last Tuesday, it might have been no coincidence that Ferry recalled a conversation he once had with the legendary Boston Celtics coach and president. It came soon after Danny Ainge was named executive director of basketball operations for the Celtics in 2003.
"I asked Red what kind of GM he thought Danny Ainge would make and Red said, 'I think he'll be good. He's smart and he's lucky,'" Bob Ferry said. "Here's the greatest GM who's achieved so much admitting how much luck means in all this. You'd expect Red Auerbach to say he did it all himself. You have to be in this business to understand what good fortune you need."
None might need it more than Ferry.
The LeBron effect
With $28 million in salary-cap space available when NBA free agency opened Friday, Ferry must find the right parts to complement superstar LeBron James. Deals will be made quickly with the most coveted players. Ferry's lot could be set before he gets his first night of eight hours' sleep.
If James doesn't see improvement this season and the Cavs don't make the playoffs, he'll likely be gone in two years. That could lead to the fall of the big domino -- movement of the franchise.
So even if free agents' prices are right, Ferry needs good fortune to come on down.
"In San Antonio good things are happening, but they had no idea [Manu] Ginobili and those players would be this good," Bob Ferry said. "You do the best you can and study hard. If you study hard there's less chance of relying on luck."
As Williams said: "It always comes down to talent. You've got to draft well and develop well and trade wisely."
Former Cavs general manager Harry Weltman understands Ferry's task, even with the key piece of the puzzle in James.
"Yeah, that helps, but they still have a number of holes to fill," Weltman said. "They've got several good people in place, but it's going to be a difficult situation. The East is probably going to get stronger next year as well."
Those who know Ferry think he has the character and inner strength to succeed in a tough situation.
Had to handle comparisons
Ex-Cavaliers general manager Wayne Embry brought Ferry to Cleveland in November 1989 in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers for Ron Harper and Reggie Williams. Billed as the next Larry Bird, Ferry received a 10-year, $34 million contract, but failed to live up to the hype. Although he played for the Cavs for 10 years, Ferry averaged in double figures only twice, in 1995-96 (13.3) and 1996-97 (10.6).
"The way he handled himself, the way he dealt with it all, to me he's a role model for kids and adults who have to go through adversity," Embry said.
"He had so much stress early on trying to live up to expectations he knew he could never reach," said Steve Kerr, Ferry's teammate in Cleveland and San Antonio and now a TNT analyst. "He persevered and became a very important player. He wasn't a superstar, but he was a man of great integrity, a great teammate who worked as hard as anybody."
Longtime Cavs broadcaster Joe Tait said: "Even when he was chained to the bench by Lenny Wilkens, he'd still come down to the arena at night with his wife to shoot. She would rebound for him. He worked an hour, an hour and a half to keep his skills up and improving. The fact that he lasted 13 years as a player tells you something about a man's fortitude."
But Ferry also has the ability to relate to everyone, from the man who unlocked the Coliseum door for him to the city's business leaders. Embry recalled once when he learned Ferry had been rough-housing with one of the maintenance crew during his night shootaround and split the man's lip.
"If I'd have known that I probably would have fined Danny for horsing around and running the risk of getting hurt," Embry said. "But his ability to relate to people is one of his great attributes.
"I felt the real key to our success in the late '80s and '90s was having everyone take ownership in what we were doing, from the guy sweeping the floor during timeouts to the customer service people. Make them all feel a part of it and buy into what you're trying to do. That's the kind of attitude Danny has."
Dawkins noticed the same traits in Ferry when they played together one season at Duke in 1986. Dawkins was a senior and the leading scorer, Ferry a freshman as the Blue Devils lost in the NCAA championship game.
"Every place Danny has been has been better for his experience," Dawkins said. "He helped create a great environment with Coach K. In Cleveland he was always a team guy. The expectations people placed on him in Cleveland, the next Larry Bird, were difficult for him to live up to. I understood.
"If you spend five minutes with him you'll know he's a good person with a good head for the game."
Parents offer their perspectives
When Ferry served as director of basketball operations in San Antonio the past two years, Bob Ferry watched his son mature as an executive. While Danny showed his considerate side serving as a mentor to the interns, he developed an edge.
"I was able to watch him in a couple meetings and got to see his style. I was very impressed," Bob Ferry said. "He's got strong opinions, but he's also able to listen."
As his mother, Rita Ferry, observed: "He's got different kinds of intelligence. Not just intellectual, he thinks things through. He's very honest with himself."
Bob Ferry was 33 when he became general manager of the Bullets and thinks his son is way ahead of where he was.
"Danny has far more education in basketball than I ever had and probably more than 90 percent of the GMs around the league," Ferry said. "I went from assistant coach to GM and I was the deer in the headlights. I was doing bold things and I didn't know what I was doing. Some days I was like, 'What am I getting myself into?'
"There's no GM school. There's no way to learn this other than going through your rookie season like a player. In a way it's easier when you're brand new. You don't have that fear, you haven't had bad things go wrong."
Tait is amazed at how many sons he sees follow in their father's footsteps because they "got their basic training with their old man grousing over his corn flakes." But he's among those optimistic about Ferry's arrival.
"I think Cleveland is fortunate to have both him and Mark [Shapiro]," Embry said, referring to the Indians general manager. "I don't know Romeo [Crennel] or the Browns people, but I think Cleveland sports are in good hands."