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Refound Youth

Gerald Green's improbable return to the NBA

Gerald Green, the reclamation project of the New Jersey Nets, showcases a vertical of about four feet. He once dunked over a line of teammates at a high school contest. The dunk forced the remaining participants to quit, some out of reverence and others to stave off embarrassment. A couple years later, Green simultaneously dunked and blew out the candle from a cupcake sitting above the rim at the NBA’s dunk contest.

Kobe Bryant once pegged Green as “a hell of a talent,” and said that the young star reminded him a lot of himself when he first came into the league. Many favored Green to Tracy McGrady, another sinewy, slender forward who also rocketed up draft charts after a summer spent dominating fellow high school competition. McGrady had established himself as an All-Star by the time Green declared for the NBA out of Houston’s Gulf Shores Academy in 2005. “Tracy’s ability was innate and I think Gerald’s ability was innate,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the godfather of shoe marketing. “I think he was blessed with a gift.”

Green is now 26 years old. He spent the last three years in basketball purgatory. The Rockets — his hometown Rockets — offered Green only four minutes of playing time before waiving him in one of his last NBA opportunities in 2008.

Green is a final remnant of the NBA’s prep-to-pro golden era that spanned from 1995 to 2005. The NBA baptized 39 players into the professional ranks from high school in those 11 years. Some — like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James — blossomed into bona fide superstars. More often, the prep players landed well short of the premature applause and adulation in their professional careers. Only seven of the 39 have made an All-Star team.1 Some carved out decent, sustainable NBA careers. Others, like Robert Swift, Korleone Young, and Ndudi Ebi faded into basketball oblivion. Lenny Cooke, a New York City phenom, went completely undrafted.

None of the prep-to-pros have taken Green’s long, winding road to NBA relevance. This is a player Celtics coach Doc Rivers said would have been an All-Star if he had listened to him a few years ago. Green played in Russia — “Siberia was a pain in my ass,” he said. He played in China. He played in the Development League. Then came the 10-day contract with the Nets in late February.

His story is littered with the typical warning signs that plague a basketball prodigy who was awarded way too much way too soon. He is now straying away from that usual narrative into the sustainable career he once dreamed about. The Nets will fail to make the playoffs for a fifth straight season. The organization is already steered to the summer, to moving to Brooklyn, to its attempt at retaining Deron Williams. These last few games are also the most important of Green’s life because they will help determine where he goes next year.

“I never would think that I would be back here in the NBA,” Green said. “I just would have never thought. I knew I was never going to stop trying. I just thought I blew my chance. A lot of times you get a good opportunity and it never comes again. And I got a second chance.”

Green looked down at his socks. They bore the silhouette of Jerry West, the NBA’s logo.

“I can’t even tell you, man, how good it is just to be wearing these socks right now,” he said.

Green wanted to end the taunts as a freshman in high school. Brent Jackson, another kid around his size, had already started dunking, and others wondered why Green couldn’t jump as high. Green lost much of his right ring finger in a freak accident trying to dunk on a child’s rim, and that injury impairs him from palming the ball. He spent the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in high school working on his jumping ability. He knew he could jump higher, but he had not tried dunking on a rim until the open gym runs at Dobie High that fall.

“I tried to dunk with two hands and I got so high that I missed it because I didn’t know I was going to get that high,” Green said.

The lost finger made him a target for insults. Green followed a simple philosophy: He did not start fights and he did not back away from them. Kevin Cross, an assistant coach at Dobie at the time, remembered lecturing Green about playing tag in the cafeteria. The principal’s office may as well have been another class on Green’s schedule.

“He was pretty immature,” Cross recalled. “With Gerald’s case, more of it is not turning in assignments. A lot of it is laziness.”

Green did not play his freshman year because of his grades, Cross said. He played junior varsity his sophomore season and then played on varsity, but missed several games because of his school marks, as a junior.

That summer, Green transferred to Gulf Shores Academy, a charter school for troubled children that showcased a burgeoning basketball program. The school was in a strip mall and coached by Ken “Juice” Williams. Williams played collegiately at the University of Houston and bragged that his team would take on all comers, including the Rockets. The team played outside of Texas 11 times Green’s senior year.

“When I first started at Gulf Shores, I was just trying to keep kids off the street,” Williams said. “I didn’t know it was going to build up to what it became. I was just asking these guys, if I start a team, ‘Will y’all stop smoking dope and shooting folks?’ I was getting the worst of the worst kids. I was getting kids straight from the jailhouse. When Gerald came over there, he was like a god. There was nothing Gerald could do that was wrong. He was at a school with a bunch of knuckleheads.”

“We helped a lot of kids get into college,” Williams continued. “Kids that would have never had a chance to go.”

The school reclassified Green as a junior because he had sat out his freshman year. Gulf Shores’s starting five Green’s senior year consisted of all fifth-year players.

“His grade point average was really low,” Cross said. “He had a 1.5, 1.6 at Dobie, at a public school. He goes to Gulf Shores, which is in a shopping center and all of a sudden he’s an A, B student.”

“A lot of people say it was my grades,” Green countered. “I never failed a class. Never. A lot of people say, ‘Aw, he was a dummy.’ The only reason I reclassified was because I didn’t play my freshman year, so I still had eligibility.”

The school’s principal, Linda Johnson, was convicted three years ago of issuing false high school transcripts for money, and officials accused school administrators of swindling $8 million by over-reporting attendance. The Texas Education Agency did not renew Gulf Shores’s charter in July of 2009.

“It hurts me,” Williams said. “I quit coaching. I ain’t even want to coach again.”

Williams, by then, had already delivered on his promise to Green of making him into a pro. Green scored a game-high 24 points in the McDonald’s All-American Game and won the slam dunk contest. Oklahoma State originally received Green’s commitment. He opted for the NBA. “At the time, I thought I was going to be a lottery pick,” Green said. “You can’t pass that up. Lottery?”

Some, like Cross, are not sure Green would have been academically eligible to play in college. “I wish he would have stayed at Dobie, but that’s neither here nor there,” Gerald Green Sr. said in a recent phone interview, adding: “That’s an ugly story. That’s a real ugly story and I really don’t want to get into that. It was a basketball decision. I’ll say it like that. It wasn’t education or anything like that. It was a basketball decision. We wanted to see him play.”

They did. But Green felt the loss of his high school as a young professional.

“I didn’t have people pulling for me in Houston because everything that had helped me get to that point had closed down,” Green said. “I had no school. I couldn’t go to my teachers who had gave me advice. I couldn’t go to them because I didn’t know where they worked at. It was a big school. Picture your school being closed down. No gym. No high school. For me, because I came out of high school, that’s like me going to college.”

The Celtics rejoiced when Green tumbled to them at the 18th selection in the 2005 draft. Green stewed. He thought he would be a lottery pick, and his advisors told him not to work out against other prospects. He had expected to go to Portland with the third overall pick. But Portland traded the selection to Utah for three draft picks and the Jazz chose Deron Williams.

Green entered a delicate situation in Boston. In Green’s rookie season, the Celtics missed the playoffs for the first time in four years and lost 12 more games than they did a year earlier. Rivers, who, at least according to the media, was on the hot seat, was reluctant to give Green much playing time.

Green played more in his second season and won the dunk contest. The outcome boosted his confidence even if his overall game had yet to develop. “I wasn’t a student of the game,” Green said. “I just felt like I could go out and play. These guys at this level are too good for that. They’re too smart, too fast.”

Still, the Celtics traded Green after two seasons with a package that included Al Jefferson and Sebastian Telfair — two other prep-to-pro players — for Kevin Garnett.

Green conceded that the trade from Boston shook his confidence. “But at the time, we wasn’t winning,” he said. “Paul [Pierce] and a lot of players — not to a point a finger — but a lot of players were just going through the motions, just trying to get through this game and get to the next game. When you’re winning, you worry about every day, every day just trying to get better. When you’re losing, it’s ‘OK, Let’s just hurry up and get through this and get out of here.’ When you’re winning, it’s a whole different atmosphere. I didn’t understand a winning atmosphere until I got to Dallas. When I got to Dallas, that’s when I understood, ‘Wow. We’ve got to really take things seriously. These people don’t play.’ Because it’s going to build up until you get to around this time and playoffs hit and you’ve got to be right. You’ve got to be ready. You can’t be asking the same questions in April that you asked in November.”

In Minnesota, Green found himself competing against a glut of young small forwards. He asked for a trade. “He won the slam dunk contest,” said Randy Wittman, Minnesota’s coach at the time. “He was an athlete. It was a tough transition for him, coming out of high school. He thought it was probably going to be an easy transition walking in here because of his athletic ability.”

The description is a sharp contrast from the dedicated player Rick Nelson coached when Green played AAU and attended practices with him in the morning and evening. “I couldn’t believe it,” Nelson said. “When I heard that, I’d ask Gerald, ‘Why are they saying that? It’s not you.’ And all of a sudden you get a label, if you already think they’re soft and they’re an 18-, 19-year-old kid going to a party and hanging out like all the rest of them do. It wasn’t done right. From the day it started on draft night and all his agents. It was BS.”

Green became a poster boy of the prodigy gone wrong, a cautionary example to younger players. The Rockets and Mavericks brought him in for stints before quickly parting ways. The perception, grounded in a lot of truth, became a hard-to-shake label.

“You look at Gerald Green, that kind of kid, and you go, `Wow, these kids are so talented. He can shoot. He can dunk. He can jump,’” Phil Jackson once said. “But the problem is they don’t know how to play and they don’t know how to fit a role. They don’t know what the job requires for them to be part of a team.”

Green did not have a job in the fall of 2009. He contemplated going to college and starting a career outside of basketball. He instead signed with Russia’s PBC Lokomotiv-Kuban.

The team played in small, cold gyms. They practiced twice a day. Green underwent a severe culture shock. “I’ve never been to a whole country and not seen one black person,” Green said. “Just never seen it. And then when you’re black, they look at you crazy because they’ve never seen it either. You’re just as shocked as they are. A lot of times, people come touch you like, ‘What is this?’ They’ll touch you and look at your skin to see if it’s paint. I’m not playing. All Russia is not like that. You’ve got your big cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg. Some cities understand that there are black people. They do exist. But the smaller cities, the little villages, they’ve never seen it.”

That is the setting where Green started learning the game instead of just playing it.

“I’ve always loved this game,” Green said. “I lost a little bit of it my year in Minnesota and my year in Dallas not playing, but man, I went overseas and people really think that I lost my love for the game, but actually, I found it. I was playing and then I missed the game of the NBA so much because I wasn’t in the NBA. I knew then, in my first year overseas, I said, ‘I have to get back.’ I don’t know if I’ll ever get that chance, but I told myself if I ever get that chance, I’m not going to take things for granted. I’m going to go hard every day because every day is not promised.”

He returned for another season in Russia with BC Krasnye Krylya. He played in China before quickly being released following his team’s bad start. “In China, what was so messed up is you play 35, 36 games,” he said. “We had only played four games and you’re already making decisions? We’ve still got another 34 games left. We can go 32-3 right now. You never know, and I was averaging like 27.”

Green perused his options before this season. He settled on the Development League after talking to Los Angeles D-Fenders coach Eric Musselman. The Development League consisted of small cities, small crowds, and small paychecks with improvement being the motivation.

“He wasn’t worried about trying to get called up,” said Musselman, a former coach of the Sacramento Kings. “He was worried about trying to become a better player.” Musselman counseled Green to absorb everything and told him that, if he did, he wouldn’t be with him for long.

“Everything he said became true,” Green said.

Nets general manager Billy King phoned Kenton Edelin, Green’s agent, shortly before the All-Star break. King offered a 10-day contract for Andre Emmett, a former point guard at Texas Tech. The problem? Edelin did not represent Emmett. King had the agents mixed up.

“I said, ‘Hang in there. We may call you back,’” King said.

Green showed up on the Nets’ radar when small forwards Damion James and Keith Bogans sustained season-ending injuries. King would, in fact, call later, and offered what basically amounted to a tryout for a tryout. Green would match up in a one-on-one workout against swingman Alan Anderson. Avery Johnson would supervise the workout, and his selection would receive a 10-day contract to the Nets.

Green arrived in Houston for the tryout the day after playing in the Development League’s All-Star game and winning the MVP. He left the gym disheartened. His shot did not fall. He could have done better and thought the opportunity, his second chance, had slipped by. Edelin called him later and Green relayed his dismay. Green received another phone call from Edelin a few minutes later and informed him that he had the 10-day contract.

At Green’s first practice with the Nets, Johnson told his new swingman to be aggressive and, if he had a shot, to take it. If not, Johnson warned, Green would not be with the team for long.

The Nets offered Green a second 10-day contract and guaranteed him for the season on March 18. He guarded Steve Blake, Kobe Bryant, and Metta World Peace in a game against the Lakers. “He’s a much better defender than he was when Doc had him,” Johnson said. Green has scored 20 points or more in seven games and dropped 32 points in an overtime game against Cleveland. He did this against the Rockets.

The play is familiar to those that know him even if it came as largely a surprise to the NBA.

“He still jumps out the gym,” Nelson said. “He still shoots the hell out of the basketball. So what is he doing now that he didn’t do before? His confidence is up. He’s got confidence now. You’ve got to understand, when you go to the D-league and when you go overseas, at that stage of the game, you have nothing else to lose besides being sent home.”

The Celtics locker room lists the names of each player who has previously worn an active player’s number in a nod to tradition. Garnett wears Green’s old number. Green’s name is curiously crossed out. Some suspect it is because of Green’s initial surprise that the Celtics awarded Garnett his old number. Now, Green says it is an honor for Garnett to wear it and that he would have made the trade too.

“It’s the first thing [Green] told me: ‘If I had just listened to all the things you were telling me and putting it into play, I would probably still be here,’” Rivers said recently before the Nets hosted the Celtics. “I told him, ‘No, we would have traded you. We needed to get Kevin and those guys.’”

The Nets lost, despite a team-high 15 points from Green. He and Garnett met in the innards of the Prudential Center after the game. They are connected through the trade, the one that restored Boston’s championship luster and also tipped off Green’s long journey. They are also linked at both ends of the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation: Garnett as the one prepared for the NBA, and Green, the cautionary tale until now.

Garnett told Green to keep working and that he was happy to see him in the NBA again.

“It’s good to see Gerald happy again and smiling,” Gerald Green Sr. said. “It’s been kind of tough seeing him down and everything, but now he’s starting to be himself again. That means more than anything else.”

“I feel like he graduated from the school of hard knocks,” Green Sr. said. “The University of Hard Knocks, or hopefully will be graduating. He learned a lot from being in Russia for two years and China and all. I don’t see how you can get any better education than that.”

Green will again be without a team this summer. But it should not take long before he lands another job and his NBA future is finally secure. “Everybody wants to be a superstar,” Green said. “I understand that probably won’t be me. I just want to be a productive player in this league. When I retire, I want people to look at me and say, ‘Gerald Green, he was a winner. He brung it every night. He didn’t give up. And that’s what I want to be about. I want people to remember me not just as a dunker.”

Filed Under: NBA, Sports

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Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. He is working on a book about the NBA's prep-to-pro generation of players.

Archive @ JPdabrams