Ronnie Lester's 24-year run ending
The Lakers' assistant GM is one of more than 20 personnel let go by the team
LOS ANGELES -- He was on his way to a storage unit when I called. That's the only destination in front of him that's certain at the moment.
The storage unit, then Chicago at the end of the summer. Maybe.
This hasn't been a good year so far. Already he's lost his job, gotten divorced and sold his house. The team he helped assemble underachieved and got swept out of the second round of the playoffs.
And yet Los Angeles Lakers assistant general manager Ronnie Lester considers himself one of the lucky ones.
All day Thursday, you heard about how the NBA lockout will affect millionaire players and billionaire owners. But the real casualties of the lockout are far less wealthy and well-known.
Barring a last-minute change of heart, Lester's 24-year run with the Lakers will end when his contract expires this month.
By then, at least 20 other Lakers staffers, including almost all of the scouts who work under Lester in the basketball operations department, will have already packed their belongings and headed home.
They've been told little by the team, except that employees whose contracts expire on or after June 30 would not have their contracts renewed, and their jobs may or may not open up again down the line.
"I'm not worried about myself, I'm worried about the other people on our staff that are really good and have young families and mortgages," Lester said. "I'll land on my feet, but those guys who aren't as established, I think they're in a little trouble."
Lester has worked with these men for the past three decades. He's trusted them. Before the NBA draft, he had to say goodbye.
"I feel bad because they're great guys, they love the Lakers, they love working for the Lakers," Lester said. "They work really hard and they're really good at their jobs and now they're being thrown out in the cold with mortgages and kids to support, so it's not a comforting thought.
"I know from 10 years of being around those guys, they know what they're talking about and when you lose guys like that, who know your culture, how you do things, it's not going to be easy to bring someone else in here, or for whoever else is going to do the scouting, you're losing great experience with those guys."
He made me promise to publish a few of their names.
"Irving Thomas, who lives down in Miami. Adam Filippi, our European scout. Those two guys are invaluable," Lester said. "Gene Tormohlen, he's been with the Lakers for at least the last 20 years.
"I learned so much as a young scout just talking with [Gene], going to games, talking through things with him. That's what the Lakers are going to miss. Having those guys who have been around, those old hands who have seen everything and can tell you what they do in all those different situations. The Lakers are going to miss that."
It's still weird for him to speak about the Lakers in the past tense. He's been a Laker nearly half of his 52 years. In another month he'll start figuring out what he'll be next.
He's grateful to the Lakers for hiring him as a scout back in 1987 and for everything that came after. But he's confused about why it's ending this way.
"It's awful funny that the Lakers, one of the highest grossing teams in the league, could do this to their employees, just throw them out in the cold," he said.
I ask if there's any chance there has been a misunderstanding about what comes next. Teams have to tread carefully on any matter related to the lockout or risk huge fines from the NBA.
Lester said he thinks something else is going on.
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"The Lakers have not done a good job in communicating that to anybody whose contract has ended," he said. "Obviously the Lakers don't want these guys back, don't want the scouts back, or they would've said something in that regard.
"So I don't think anybody is coming back. They've not treated people well in that regard."
Lester wasn't fired or laid off. By all accounts, he's still greatly respected within the organization and around the league. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak considers him both a friend and one of the best assistant GMs in the league.
He just didn't protect himself well enough last summer when the Lakers gave him the option of signing a one-year contract for the same pay as before, or a three-year deal at a 30 percent pay cut.
"I guess I'm just a little disappointed how it all has come to an end," he explained. "I'm not angry at anyone. Probably disappointed more than anything.
"Anytime you move on from something you've been there a long time, there's some sadness to it. But they say change is good too, so we'll see what comes of it."
Lester won a title as a player for the Lakers. He's been a part of seven more as part of the front office.
He was the first Lakers employee to scout Andrew Bynum back at the McDonald's All-American camp in 2005 and the loudest Lakers employee to recommend the chubby 7-foot, 275-pound high school center from New Jersey with the 10th overall pick in the 2005 draft.
Though Bynum is a grown man now, going into his seventh season whenever this lockout ends, when I caught up with him Thursday afternoon, Lester told the story of the first time he saw Bynum like it was yesterday.
"Coach Bill Bertka and myself went to watch him during the week of practice they had before the McDonald's All-American Game," he said. "He was just so big. The first time I saw Andrew Bynum come out of the locker room, I pointed and said to Coach Bertka, 'Who is that?'
"He was overweight, chubby faced, chubby bodied. He needed to get in shape, but what a difference from the other high school kids."
Two months later he took a redeye to New York to watch him again.
"I didn't recognize him. He had lost 30 pounds," Lester said. "That in and of itself, that kid losing 30 pounds in two months, that was pretty impressive right there. You knew the kid would work if he wanted something bad enough.
"After the workout, I called Mitch and told him 'If he's there at 10, I don't know how you can pass the guy up.'"
A few months later, Lester arranged for Bynum to work out privately in Chicago for Jim Buss, the team's executive vice president of player personnel.
"He liked the kid, as we all did," Lester recalled. "When you're going to draft a high school kid, I think you have to get ownership behind you. Jimmy saw the kid and he liked him."
A few days before this year's draft, Lester met with Jim Buss again.
He asked one last time whether it was too late to change the course the team had decided to take.
"Look, bad things happen all the time," Lester said. "It's how you react that matters. That's how I have to look at it. I'm trying to see it as an opportunity."
But right now there is only loss. The Lakers' loss.