CHICAGO – Hissing matches over loyalty, love of team and just who betrayed whom first tend to be limited to the big dogs of the NBA. Witness the rhetoric that went flying about, via the media the other day, involving Ray Allen, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat and the Brooklyn Nets.
Most of the working stiffs (relatively speaking) of this or any other sports league know a different reality when it comes to the bond between player and team. Generally, it’s covered by the Don Draper quote, said in a moment of pique over Peggy Olson‘s need for affirmation: “That’s what the money’s for!”
The business aspects of sports get pounded home so frequently – you’re an asset (until you’re not), anyone can be traded, your contract can end up being more marketable than your skills – that teams, teammates and fans shouldn’t gripe too much when a player, rightly or wrongly, gets out front of the process, as Allen did in exiting Boston a year early rather than a year late.
Meanwhile, for every Allen, James or Garnett, there are dozens like Chauncey Billups, All-Star caliber players who have been forced to move time and time again, regardless of their wishes. And there are hundreds like Mike James, who move for professional survival, cobbling together careers out of one- or two-year stops.
Allen has switched teams, what, three times? Milwaukee-Seattle via trade, Seattle-Boston via approved trade and Boston-Miami as a free agent. Garnett has moved twice now, James and Pierce once each.
Billups and James each has them beat. Billups, back with the Pistons this autumn, has changed teams eight times and played for seven different franchises, with two stops in Denver and Detroit. Mike James has moved 11 times and played for 11 teams, repeating himself only with Houston while awaiting his preseason fate with Chicago.
“You have to be a chameleon,” James said. “You have to be able to adjust to any environment. You have to continue to stay true to who you are and keep working every day, regardless of the outcome of the situation. People [around you] may change but the game is still the same. So you need to just play the game the right way regardless of the faces you’re playing with.”
Both point guards, both products of non-basketball factories (Colorado for Billups, Duquesne for James), their pro careers scarcely could have begun more differently. The former was the No. 3 pick in 1997 behind Tim Duncan and Keith Van Horn while the latter, one year later, went undrafted. Immense expectations vs. zero expectations, turned out it didn’t matter – Billups moved three times before he’d played the equivalent of two full seasons, James bounced from Austria to France to Rockford, Ill., before reaching the NBA with Miami at age 26.
After stops in Boston (no, he wasn’t Duncan), Toronto and Denver, Billups had two productive seasons with Minnesota, but the Timberwolves’ contractual commitment to oft-injured Terrell Brandon sent him to Detroit in free agency. Reminded of that Minny mistake, Billups said: “But how many teams can say that? Nobody thought I would do what I did, after the start that I had.”
The Detroit years – from 2002-03 into 2008-09 – were the best and most stable of Billups’ career, with six conference finals appearances and a title in 2004. But then Allen Iverson came available and it was back to Denver. Then to New York as a chip in the Carmelo Anthony trade. Amnestied so the Knicks could pursue Tyson Chandler. Two broken seasons with the Clippers due to an Achilles tear and other ailments. Now back to the Pistons. Churning at the back end not unlike churning at the start, never mind his career earnings of $100 million or more.
“It’s been rough the last couple years, more from the injuries than moving,” Billups said after a preseason game against the Bulls. “Being traded and moving, I’ve been doing that my whole career. That’s not hard to deal with. But injuries…”
First in Denver, his hometown, then in Detroit, Billups thought he had found his forever basketball homes. He wound up playing twice in each, sandwiched around the other teams. “Nobody wants to just pick up and move every year or every two years,” he said. “But you deal with it the best you can and see how it works out. Nobody wants to have that kind of instability.”
The one-team NBA player, who clicks quickly, fits perfectly and stays from start to finish, is more ideal than real. Even among the old-school set. Of the guys selected in 1996 as the NBA’s “50 Greatest,” only 20 of them (40 percent) spent their entire careers with one team. Add free agency and salary-cap restrictions, and it’s a wonder anyone stays put these days, loyalty be damned.
For a plugger like James, understanding that he might have to move a lot made the moves easier. “A lot of times, most of my trades, I asked for,” he said. “I felt like I got to this game basically on my own – I snuck in through the back door. If I didn’t feel like a situation was for me, I was never afraid to say, ‘I want to go somewhere where at least I’m trusted and respected and someone will give me a chance.’
“So I could have been some places probably longer in my career, but at the same time, you can be somewhere you don’t want to rock the boat but then you find yourself unhappy. I always figured management can trade you and get rid of you at any time they wanted to, so why shouldn’t the player have a hand in the decisions in their career?”
Freed from ever feeling as if he let people down, James, 38, has played with a chip on his shoulder, his one reliable traveling companion through the moves. He believed he was most appreciated when he was gone – OK, he’s been paid more than $32 million in NBA salaries too – and now, hustling for a roster spot in Chicago, he still believes.
“I’m better than everyone who’s not in the NBA,” James said. “Believe me, I’m pretty sure I’m better than a lot who are, but because of my age, I won’t get the opportunity. At the same time, I’m always going to keep plugging.
“I found myself every year facing, ‘You’re not this’ and having to prove, ‘Yes I am,’ ” the journeyman guard said. “Then when I proved that, it was like there was a cockiness to me. And then management would be like, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ ”
Guys like Billups and James know who they are. Stop after stop after stop.