At the end, Ron Grinker was an anachronism. He died too young, but not before he had outlived his time.
Grinker was a moralist in a
profession increasingly populated by scoundrels, a sports agent with the sensibilities of a crusader. He was never out of touch with modern basketball, but he was decidedly out of step with its direction.
"Basketball and all of sport has become a microcosm of all society," he said. "Our standards, our morals, our moral fiber is just dwindling away, and we're all making so much money that nobody really cared. It's kind of like Scarlett O'Hara: 'To hell with it, I'll worry about it tomorrow.' The trouble is that today is tomorrow.' "
Grinker said this last February, a few days before the NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland. I had called him to inquire about the state of his game and, as usual, came away with more insight than I could possibly print. He was always generous with his time, even after he recognized it was rapidly running out.
Grinker won your trust because he would speak his mind when doing so could be detrimental to his own financial interests. Though he represented University of Cincinnati basketball coach Bob Huggins, Grinker deliberately avoided some of Huggins' most marketable players (notably Nick Van Exel and Dontonio Wingfield) because of deficient attitudes. And he didn't mind saying so.
He was as straight a shooter, in his realm, as was Jerry West.
"It will never be the same again," Grinker lamented recently. "There's too much money, too much selfishness, too many irrational and disrespectful activities.
"The trouble with today's players is not that they don't respect players on other teams. Players don't even respect the player in the next locker. I'm a huge Charles Barkley fan, but I would not want him on my basketball team."
Last of a breed
At his peak, Grinker represented roughly 10 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association, but he continued to screen his clients as if they were prospective sons-in-law.
"He didn't tell you what you wanted to hear," Providence coach Pete Gillen said Wednesday. "He told you what he thought you needed to hear. And he was right 95 percent of the time."
During the height of the Gillen-Huggins feud, Grinker represented both coaches and managed to remain above their silly squabbles. Wednesday, the two coaches put aside their differences long enough to shake hands at Weil Funeral Home. (Where are the paparazzi when you need them?)
Oscar Robertson showed up to pay his respects, and so did several less prominent players whose careers Grinker had nurtured from next-to-nothing. The overflow crowd also included Phoenix Suns President Jerry Colangelo and Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager Wayne Embry. Management types typically mourn agents about as often as Michael Jordan gets called for traveling.
"Ron was more than an agent to many of us," Embry said. "He was a friend. He was a tough negotiator, but we always felt that a player Ron represented would be someone who had a lot of integrity. That says a lot."
Voice of reason stilled
In an era of self-indulgence, Grinker was an old-fashioned advocate for common goals and team play. Recently, he came to feel as if he had been tilting at windmills.
"They don't want to win," he complained of modern players. "If you win (in the NBA) you make $150,000 and you have to work six weeks longer. Now it's about marketing, about making movies.
"Players are too busy doing endorsements and avoiding people. They don't have time to go to the court and practice. People just forget what their primary source of earning is."
Ron Grinker made a nice living off his sports practice, but he might have done better had he been in it strictly for the money. He made the mistake of caring too much.
So should we all.