Last Friday night, Leandro Barbosa and Nene met up in a place neither could have envisioned a few weeks ago. The duo from Brazil had both been traded and were suiting up for one of their first games with their new teams. The jerseys were still a little awkward. Nene was in the red, white, and blue of the Wizards and Barbosa dressed in the navy and gold of the Indiana Pacers.
They found familiarity in one another that night, but little else. Before the game, Nene, used to entering the Verizon Center as a visitor, made a wrong turn in the passageways of the arena. The Wizards acquired him as a long-term solution to steady the frontcourt when JaVale McGee’s potential finally ground itself out into aggravation. It must be strange for Nene — just 100 days ago, he entered free agency as the top center in the market and in firm position to decide his own future. He spurned offers from New Jersey, Indiana, and Houston to stay in Denver, signing a five-year contract for $67 million. Nene had planted roots in Colorado — it is the place he matured as a player, the place where he learned English, the place where doctors treated him as he battled testicular cancer, the home state of his wife, Lauren.
“A lot of things in your life, you make plans and the plans don’t go the way you want them to go,” Nene observed. “This is the hard part of the business.”
Traded players still continue to collect their exorbitant salaries, but that doesn’t change the fact that their lives are uprooted and unraveled at a moment’s notice. “This is a business” is the most common retort from players, and the answer to how they handle the fickleness of the game.
“I told my girlfriend first,” said Luke Walton, whom the Lakers traded as part of their deal for Ramon Sessions. “I thought that she would probably want to know. She thought I was joking with her. And then she was like, ‘Do I go with you or do I stay in L.A.?’ What do I do type of thing. That was obviously tough. But she’s staying. I’ve got a house there. I’ve got a dog there. I’ve got a bunch of stuff that needs taking care of. She’s staying to take care of that. When we looked at the schedule and saw that we had 25 games left, there wasn’t really a point.”
There are a couple dozen players who are currently sorting through the demands of new environs. The Wizards called for a brief practice after the loss to Indiana last week. Ernie Grunfeld, Washington’s general manager, stopped Nene before he left the practice court to ask if his new center had found a place to live. The new teams and the players’ agents are instrumental to the transition. They coordinate the flights and the hotels to stay in while they help the traded player find housing. Nene has stayed in a hotel the last couple of days, but will soon move into a luxury apartment. Lauren and their newborn baby will soon join him. Nene’s brother doubles as his personal manager, and plans to move to Washington, D.C., with his own family. Nene has already decided to keep his house in Denver. It is his family’s past, where all his friends live even if his basketball future is now in D.C.
In the NBA, trades occur for all kinds of reasons. A franchise genuinely wants a player. A franchise genuinely wants to rid itself of a player. A team wants to rebuild. A team wants to strengthen for the playoffs. Teams need more draft picks. A player needs to be added to make the exchange approximate one another. Trades can be soaked in sentimentality, like the Lakers’ trade of Derek Fisher, or barely register as a blip, like Philadelphia’s acquisition of Sam Young for the rights to Memphis’s Ricky Sanchez.
The reactions also run the full spectrum. It may be one of the first times in his life that a player is told that his talent, the thing that has gotten him everywhere, is no longer wanted in a place where he has carved out his home. Most players say that the first trade is the hardest. Numbness sets in with each subsequent trade.
Brian Cook, a reserve forward, also arrived in Washington with Nene. He is a veteran who has been traded several times in his career and had his future tied to NBA teams and also to Nick Young, Washington’s shooting guard at the time. The teams could not pull off this portion of the trade unless Young agreed to give up his Bird rights — a provision in some one-year contracts that grants a player veto power. The decision is not a light one. Devean George created a temporary snag by refusing to give his up four years ago in the original deal that would have sent Jason Kidd to the Dallas Mavericks.
Young eventually agreed to forfeit the rights, and Cook was left to wonder about his family. He transformed Los Angeles into his permanent home when he began his career with the Lakers there in 2003. Signing with the Clippers in 2010 provided a homecoming. He could see his wife, Victoria, and his three sons on a regular basis.
“My agent told me first,” Cook said. “Then after that Vinny [Del Negro] called me. They were very professional. They did a good job. A lot of times you hear on the ticker or you got a friend calling you, saying, ‘Damn, man. You just got traded?’ I thought it was real respectful that they called me and I just told them, ‘Good job and I appreciate the opportunity.’ You don’t want to burn no bridges around this league.”
This trade is still better than his first one, when the Lakers shipped him to Orlando and a pregnant Victoria visited every couple of weeks. Victoria and his sons are planning to visit soon, and he will be able to show them all the monuments, something he has been unable to do as a visiting player. But their spring break will end, they will depart, and Cook will contemplate his family’s future.
“That was the first thing that came through my mind: I’m about to leave my little boys and my wife,” Cook explained. “They’re in school out there and I was able to see them every day. To tell you the truth, I think that’s the first thing that pops through your mind if you’re a family man in this profession. This is my fourth time being traded. This time is a little bit easier than the first couple of times. When you’re young, you’re really learning about the business of this game and how the money and everything matches up.”
“She was a little upset,” he said about his wife. “I had been in L.A. for two years and coming home every day, playing with my kids and helping out. She has three of them all by herself right now. It’s different for her right now.”
The situation is a sharp contrast to Young’s. The Wizards were the league’s doormat the last few years. The team — with Young, McGee, Andray Blatche, and, previously, Gilbert Arenas — had fun, but seldom won. The trade to the Clippers represented a true homecoming for Young, who was born in Los Angeles and played at USC. “When the possibility came of him going back to L.A. and being back with his family and playing for his hometown, that was a very, very positive thing for his family and we wanted his parents to share in the joy of the moment of when it was happening,” said Mark Bartelstein, Young’s agent.
“We were in New Orleans,” Young said. “I didn’t have no clothes. I brought two outfits for the two games we had on the road. So once I got here, because I couldn’t play the first game, they told me I had to get a suit or something, and I didn’t have a suit. Right now, I’m wearing the same outfit. I can’t be in L.A. without my swag.”
Young’s brother moved with him to Washington, D.C., and was visiting family in Los Angeles when the trade went down. “Guess I’m not coming back to D.C.,” he said. Charles and Mae Young, Nick’s parents, picked up their son from the hotel and drove him to his first game. Before Young left, his Wizards teammates playfully tried to jump him one last time.
JaVale McGee woke up from his pregame nap to countless text messages on his phone from family and friends. That was how he found out he was headed to Denver. Players are alerted to deals through their agents most of the time, and find out about it on SportsCenter every so often.
“My first reaction was, when do I leave?” McGee recalled.
Players are offered 48 hours to report to their new team. McGee flew to Denver the next morning. A couple nights later, he looked at new places to live, picked out by his business manager.
“When people change jobs or move cities, they usually take time when they have to move, six months or a year, to find a house, and we get 48 hours,” said Andrew Bogut, who left his NBA home of seven seasons when he was traded to the Golden State Warriors with Stephen Jackson for Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh, and Kwame Brown. “At the end of the season, I’ve got to go back to Milwaukee, get the rest of my house packed up, put it on the real estate market, get an agent to take people through there, decide whether to sell the furniture in the house or get it shipped out here. There’s a lot of housekeeping stuff to do.”
Bogut packed two large suitcases and waited for the trade to become official. “First of all, when you get to a new city, you have to do your physical,” Bogut explained. “I got the call Tuesday and heard that I was traded Tuesday night. By Wednesday afternoon, I already had a flight booked to fly to San Francisco. You don’t have that much time to pack. You just try and get a couple of suits, get your toiletries, and you’re kind of out of there. It happened pretty quickly. Now that I’m here — I’ve been here for about a week — hopefully you have somebody in your old city that can send you some things if you run out of stuff.”
Bogut is out with an ankle injury, and his transition to the Bay Area will be gradual. Richard Jefferson’s introduction to Golden State has been much more accelerated. Warriors general manager Larry Riley, pressed against the trade deadline, managed to swap Jackson and a draft pick to San Antonio for Jefferson. This was Jefferson’s third trade. He rejoined Bogut, once a teammate in Milwaukee. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich alerted him to the trade on a telephone call.
Jefferson will approach the rest of the season like an extended road trip. He told his girlfriend about leaving, packed a couple of bags, and caught a 7 a.m. flight to San Francisco.
“In the NBA, you pay your rent for four months,” Jefferson said. “There’s not that much stability in what you do. You’re not purchasing a home unless you’ve been in a place for three or four years. When you’re in a place, especially when you already have a summer home or you’ve been with one team, I’m not going to go to San Antonio or San Francisco and just purchase a home.”
He played nearly 38 minutes in a loss to Utah two nights after the trade.
“For the most part, it depends on your IQ, and they pretty much give you a simple package,” Jefferson said of adjusting quickly to a new team. “It’s no different. I’ve been playing for 11 years. There may be different terminology. I played against the Warriors 20 times. They have to change their offense also. You lose a guy like Monta and there’s a set of plays that you’re running for him that aren’t the same. It’s a transition process for everyone.”
“If you’re in this job long enough, you can’t be sensitive,” Jefferson continued. “It’s not a job for sensitive people. You have to be mentally prepared to play for another team. If you don’t handle it well, it will affect your performance. I played for New Jersey for seven years, was ninth in the league in scoring. I got traded that summer after having my best statistical year and dedicated myself and I got traded that summer. The first one hurt. After that you just move on and understand it’s a business. Jersey hasn’t been the same since.”
He has a point. The in-season trades rarely result in an immediate championship, despite all the musical chairs being played. Rasheed Wallace’s trade to the Pistons in 2004 is a notable exception. The trades, most of the time, hardly register the desired impact. But try telling that to the players who are involved.