I am standing on the sideline at the Los Angeles Lakers practice facility in El Segundo. Antawn Jamison shoots free throws on a basket on the far end of the gym. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol practice jumpers a few feet away. Although I have questions about Howard’s health, Gasol’s conditioning, and Jamison’s role on the 2012-13 Lakers, my mind wanders to David Parcells’s dark, wood-paneled living room in Chapel Hill. It is 1998. On David’s always-shaky television, Jamison kneels on all fours at center court of the Alamodome. He kisses the Final Four logo and walks, slump-shouldered, to the locker room. The Tar Heels have just lost to Utah. David stalks around his kitchen, a glass of orange juice agitating in his right hand. I try to say something positive, but there’s really nothing to say except who the hell could have imagined that a dumpy un-recruited point guard, a 7-foot stiff, and their fat coach would take down Antawn, Vince, and Ed Cota?
Back then, it was An-TAWN Jamison. If you pronounced it An-TWAN, you got clowned in school. A before W, dude. That went double if you preferred Vince Carter over Antawn. The correct order in Chapel Hill: Antawn, then Vince. Three months later, they would go in that order in the NBA draft. Yes, Vince would occasionally dazzle the crowd at the Dean Dome with some superhuman display, but Tar Heel fans like to think of themselves as an educated bunch who value the consistent, hardworking contributor over the flashy dunker. Antawn was the most automatic two points in college basketball. He got our nod.
He dominated in strange ways — flipping hook shots from his hip, cradling the ball up under the rim, banking runners from weird, unfamiliar angles. Despite being slender and undersize, he caught the ball deep in the post and scored with an almost gentlemanly efficiency. The father of one of my close childhood friends had this to say about the school’s best forward since James Worthy: “He plays like the game respects him.” At Carolina, Jamison’s unorthodox game grew from necessity. “Back in high school, I was like Dwight Howard,” he explained in our recent interview. “Just dunking and running up and down the court. Once I got to college, though, guys were like three inches taller than me and 40, 50 pounds heavier. The only thing I had, really, was my quickness, and because Coach [Dean] Smith wanted me in the paint, I had to figure something out. All those scoop shots, the creativity came naturally. And ’cause it wasn’t broke, I just went with it.”
By the time Jamison won the Naismith and AP National Player of the Year awards, he had cemented his legacy as one of the most popular Tar Heels ever — the seventh player in team history to have his jersey retired, joining Michael Jordan, Worthy, Phil Ford, Lenny Rosenbluth, George Glamack, and Jack Cobb. Jamison, like so many Tar Heels, describes his years at Carolina as “the best three years of my basketball life.”
It ended with him on all fours, kissing the logo at the Final Four while Andre Miller and Michael Doleac celebrated with Rick Majerus.
Which is why, standing a few feet away from the sixth man of one of the most-hyped NBA teams in recent memory, my mind keeps wandering back to David Parcells’s living room in Chapel Hill. Some athletes grow up with their public and deposit distinct personas across distinct eras. There are four Michael Jordans spread out over 25 years. There are five or six Muhammad Alis. Other athletes never extricate themselves from their collegiate accomplishments so that when you look at them, even if they are 50 or 60 or 70 years old, what you’re really staring at is a 19- or 20- or 21-year-old kid. The Christian Laettners, Miles Simons, and Charlie Wards don’t have much of a choice in what they evoke. They are defined by their college days because their NBA careers did not produce any points of comparison. Their narrative of greatness was cut short, boxed up, and placed within a specific, conditional context.
Antawn Jamison is — was? — something else.
Jamison has made $140 million over a 14-year career, played in two All-Star games, and won the Sixth Man of the Year award. His career 19,246 points ranks 44th in NBA history, ahead of Scottie Pippen, Tracy McGrady, Chris Mullin, Kevin McHale, Chris Webber, and current teammate Steve Nash. How did a consensus national player of the year out of North Carolina, who played with Nash, Dirk, LeBron, Arenas, and now with Kobe and Dwight, who has always been known around the league as a great teammate, who has put up numbers that put him in very rare company — how did that guy never get his own Nike commercial?
Was it Vinsanity? During the early years of their careers, the two were inextricably linked. In Chapel Hill, the order was Antawn, then Vince, but nobody really thought it would stay that way. In the public’s eye, they existed almost as siblings — Antawn as the workman older brother and Vince as the talented, layabout kid who hadn’t quite figured out how to corral his talents into a 40-minute effort. When Vince figured it out in Toronto, Antawn, and frankly the rest of the league, took a backseat to the Half-Man, Half-Amazing show. The Warriors won a total of 36 games between 1999 and 2001. The Raptors won 92 and advanced to the second round of the 2001 playoffs, where Vince and Allen Iverson engaged in what should be remembered — but for some reason is not — as one of the great shootouts in league history.
“It was tough,” Jamison admits. “We are always going to be linked together. Vince was one of the faces of the NBA. He was on SportsCenter every night and I was in a situation where we were losing. I didn’t play much my rookie year, my second year I got hurt. I started really doubting myself for the first time in my life. I doubted if I made the right decision by leaving college early. I doubted if I could sustain a career in the NBA. And the person who helped me through all that was Vince. Even when he was having all his success, he always called me to tell me not to doubt myself and just go out there and compete every night.”
Vince eventually burned out. Antawn kept plugging away. For the past five seasons, Antawn has been, by all measures, a much better basketball player than Vince. But stardom in the NBA comes one of two ways — either through crazy dunks or through success in the playoffs. During his formative years, Vince did both and to him went the spoils, the perennial All-Star appearances, the shoe contracts, the canonic talk. Jamison’s role didn’t change much from college to the pros — he was asked to carry the bulk of the scoring load and rebound. The fate of his team rested on just how efficiently he could perform those tasks.
Was it his game? Or was it the Warriors? Did the mini-hooks and slippery post moves we adored in Chapel Hill just not translate to the NBA’s highlight economy? Antawn Jamison does a lot of things when he catches the ball, but none of them could ever be described as electric. In college, he occupied that rare space where a player is lionized both for his play and his leadership. Usually sportswriters bestow so-called intangibles on a college player as a compensatory gesture for the millions he will never earn as a pro — here, Mateen Cleaves, we know it’ll never get any better than this, so here’s our token of appreciation. Jamison’s early years in Golden State stripped him of his reputation as a team-first sort of guy. When you win in the NBA, fans and the media try to figure out ways to describe your game in positive ways. When you lose, what once was “creative around the hoop” gets downgraded to “limited athleticism.” And if you play in Oakland and the Warriors are bad, “limited athleticism” gets downgraded to total, stony silence. By the time he scored 24.9 points per game in his third season, the hype-makers of the NBA, who are always moving on to the next, shinier, dunkier thing, had already walked on by.
On those terrible Warriors teams, Jamison’s scoring responsibility actually increased from what it had been in college. During his rookie season, the team’s leading scorer was John Starks, who pumped in 13.8 points per game. After a productive but injury-plagued second season, Jamison began to think about his own numbers. “I remember the coaches and front office telling me, ‘We didn’t draft you to not score.’ So I went out there and put it up.” The Warriors lost and lost often. Jamison says those days with Golden State were marked with a lot of selfishness and he didn’t really learn how to play as a professional. “I dealt with a lot of ego there,” he said. “A lot of me, a lot of ‘I gotta get mine,’ a lot of ‘you’re not going to take my spot, young buck.’”
By the time he finally got out of Oakland, the book had already been written on Antawn Jamison — a nice scorer, but not somebody you can build a team around.
Jamison says he learned to coexist with superstars when he got traded to Dallas, where he played with Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley, and current Laker teammate Steve Nash. With Nash running the point and his load lightened, Jamison had what was arguably his best season as a pro. He scored 14.8 points per game, won the Sixth Man of the Year award, and made his first trip to the playoffs. His usage percentage dropped from 24.5 percent in 2002 (a season in which he played with Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, and Larry Hughes) to 20.7 percent in 2003 with Dallas. With Finley and Dirk taking care of the perimeter, Jamison cut his 3-point attempts down from 2.5 to 0.5 per game. As a result, he posted by far the best shooting percentage of his career — 53.5 percent — good for fourth-best in the league. After the season, Jamison told team owner Mark Cuban that he wanted an opportunity to get more playing time. Cuban honored the request by trading Jamison to Washington, where, reunited with Arenas and playing alongside Caron Butler, he made four consecutive trips to the playoffs. When things fell apart in the Wizards locker room, Jamison asked to be traded to a contender. He went to Cleveland, where he has been the Cavs’ primary scorer in the post-Decision era.
It’s fair to ask: Why did Jamison ask to leave Dallas? Why, after losing at a near-historic clip for five years in Golden State, did he beg out of a playoff team? Why was playing time so important to a guy who seemingly had found his perfect niche as Dirk Nowitzki’s backup scorer and perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate? It’s an answer that might rankle the sort of media guy who conflates “team” with “family” and “winning” with “ethics,” but within the context of Jamison’s career, “I want more playing time” makes sense. At some point, every Sixth Man of the Year has stared grimly at his trophy and thought, Should’ve been starting. Jamison now admits that while his 14 years in the NBA had been marked with a lot of individual accomplishments, he missed feeling the buzz of contributing to a great team. He had not really felt that way since college. Dallas came close. In Washington, Jamison made two All-Star games, but the Wizards won exactly one playoff series during his six years there. In his 25 games with LeBron in Cleveland, he never felt like he had the time to situate himself within the Cavs system. These Lakers, he said, were the opportunity he had been waiting for his entire career.
Save the partial season with LeBron, Jamison has played the majority of his career on teams that can be described as either “decent” or “terrible.” The term “big-time scorer on a bad team” has become one of those pejorative word contraptions that gets thrown around too casually, especially when the talkin’ heads start talkin’ championships. If today’s basketball fans were to draw up a list of “big-time scorers on bad teams,” I’m sure Jamison would be somewhere on there. But while it’s true that there have been plenty of players in NBA history who could put up 20 a game for two or three years, there haven’t many who have produced 20 points and eight rebounds over a 14-year career. If Jamison is simply a “big-time scorer on a bad team,” he’s among the best of those the league has ever seen.
That said, I don’t think the label is fair. In his first year in Washington, the Wizards improved from 25 to 45 wins. Jamison was the only relevant addition to their roster. In 2008, with Gilbert Arenas sidelined for all but 13 games and Caron Butler missing a quarter of the season, Jamison led the Wizards to 43 wins and the last of their playoff appearances. This might not seem all that impressive, but pretty much every player who has dragged a bad or injured team to a .500 record is already in, or headed to, the Hall of Fame.1 None of these maxims, of course, are absolute. But a player’s overall quality is gauged through approximations, especially in basketball (hence a term like “big-time scorer on a bad team”), which lacks baseball’s milestones and football’s lionization machine. Jamison passes more of these tests than he fails. He has a much better reputation as a team player than Glenn Robinson or Mitch Richmond or Terry Cummings or Vince Carter ever did. He made two Final Fours and won the Naismith. He was one of the all-time greats at one of college basketball’s all-time great programs. So why, when I ask myself, “Will winning a championship with the Lakers put him over the top?” do I just kind of laugh nervously and check the Twitter feed in my head for insta-trolls?
Jamison’s career should be an interesting test case for what, exactly, garners accolades in Springfield and how the committee will weigh cumulative stats over the perception of a player’s dominance. With two more relatively productive pro seasons he will pass the 20,000-point, 8,000-rebound mark for his career. Only 20 players in NBA history have reached both those milestones: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Moses Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, Dan Issel, Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Havlicek, Artis Gilmore, Patrick Ewing, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, Robert Parish, Elgin Baylor, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, Walt Bellamy, Bob Pettit, and David Robinson. Each one of those players sits comfortably in the Hall of Fame or will soon be enshrined there.
Even if you take rebounding out of the equation (and why would you?), there’s a decent case for Jamison’s enshrinement. It’s not that easy to find a modern comparable for his career — Mitch Richmond averaged 21.0 points per game and made the playoffs four times in a 14-year career, but never put up anything approaching Jamison’s rebounding numbers. Glenn Robinson averaged 20.7 points and six rebounds over a much shorter career spent playing on much worse teams. Chris Bosh rebounds better, plays better defense, and will most likely end up with multiple championships. Terry Cummings provides the closest match, but he padded his stats as a bench player for the second half of his career. If Jamison hangs on with the Lakers for the next three or four seasons and ends up with somewhere around 21,000 career points (certainly within the realm of possibility, especially considering how his numbers improve when his scoring burden goes down), he may end up as the highest-scoring player in NBA history to not make the Hall of Fame.2
His only competition for that distinction? Vince Carter, who sits at 21,135 career points.
It’s always hard to get an active player to talk about how he will be remembered, but Jamison seems to have given the subject some thought. At the end of our time together in El Segundo, I asked him about how a championship might change the way people think about him. Gasol, Howard, and Kobe were shooting free throws nearby and Jamison turned his head and looked over at his new teammates. “If I win a championship, I’ll be put in a different category,” he said. “I know where I am with the totals, the averages, the scoring list or whatever. But I didn’t win in high school. I didn’t win in college. To have such a roller coaster career in the pros and to be a professional night-in and night-out and to know I put in the work and did all those things I needed to do to be successful, man … ” And here, the composed, intelligent veneer with which Jamison conducts his media responsibilities broke down for a second. He smiled broadly, looked up at the rafters, and said, “Man, I deserve it. I want one bad. I envision it all. I envision holding that trophy up, I envision going to that parade, I envision getting that ring. It’s the only thing that keeps me motivated, having my name associated with a champion. I just deserve it.”
A great athlete creates two legacies: the one owned by the public and the one that flickers in his own mind. The first inevitably bleeds into the second. Antawn Jamison is chasing a championship in his twilight years because he does not want to be defined by individual accomplishment and team disappointment, two concepts created by those of us who do not play the game, the same people who will turn around and dismiss him as “a big-time scorer on a bad team,” who will later reclassify his late-career championship as “Dwight’s championship,” and who might cordon off his legacy to only those things that happened in Chapel Hill.
The athlete never wins when he engages with these abstract achievements. He has no control over his public narrative, and the more we, the jury, watch him try to become memorable, the quicker we cast him off into our mean, little dungeons. Seeing Jamison ride down Figueroa on a Lakers championship float will probably not dislodge the memory of that kiss in the Alamodome, but that’s only because I grew up in Chapel Hill and felt awful when Antawn, Vince, and Ed Cota couldn’t beat Utah. Most of our judgments of athletes are as arbitrary, and they are seldom kind.
And yet. The redemption narrative in sports almost never adheres to the rules of time and space. Part of the joy of following an athlete over his entire career comes from our faithfulness and how it allows us to live several lives at once. Whenever I watch Ichiro-in-pinstripes slap a ball into right field, I am actually watching two Ichiros. My anxiety over whether or not the ball shoots past the second baseman transports me right back to 2001, when I would routinely take days off from work to go sit in the right-field bleachers of Safeco Field. Antawn Jamison has never really had a shot at redeeming that Alamodome kiss. What if he hits a Robert Horry shot to win a crucial playoff game? What if he comes off the bench with the Lakers down 15 to the Thunder in Game 7 and rallies them back to victory? Would that change how we remember him? I’m certain Jamison has envisioned these scenarios. And although we can load up these fantasies with qualifiers, doubts, and caveats, who are we to tell him — and our younger selves — exactly how to feel about it?