HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The dunk was so unbelievable that TNT analyst Kenny Smith hyperventilated to broadcast partner Charles Barkley during the 2008 NBA All-Star slam dunk contest.
Gerald Green indeed puffed out a candle stuck into a cupcake on the back of the rim. The reigning slam dunk king soared above the cylinder, blew out the flame and flushed the basketball in a single, stunning move.
The joint blew up. Green lapped it up. And for one night, the then-22-year-old Green was no longer just a bench warmer for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Green is now days from turning 28, and he has never been happier. He is worlds removed from that sizzling February night in ’08, his cupcake dunk never more meaningless. These days, he is a key contributor for the surprising Phoenix Suns.
The wildly athletic wing wants substance to define the rest of his career, a journey that began as a straight-out-of-high-school phenom, the Boston’s Celtics’ first-round pick in the 2005 NBA Draft.
A rocky NBA start
Green came out of high school with a remarkable athleticism and a tantalizingly smooth jumper. He was a mostly good-natured but naive kid, a skinny baller from Houston’s southeast side. His dunks soon became the stuff of legend.
Still, Green was incapable of thinking the game beyond a playground level, oblivious to the pressures and demands of the NBA world.
“I always treated basketball when I was younger like a hobby, something I loved to do, something that kind of kept me away from doing something bad or doing something crazy,” Green told NBA.com during a phone conversation on the team’s recent road trip. “It was an extracurricular activity in my life. But once I did it for a living, I still kept treating it as a hobby instead of a job.”
After a forgettable 2008-09 season with the Dallas Mavericks, his fourth NBA team in four years, owner Mark Cuban laid out Green’s essential flaw in front of an audience of NBA executives and basketball writers at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In the context of explaining how valuable advanced statistics can be, Cuban turned to fellow panel member and Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren and famously said: “We had Gerald Green. You had Green. He does stuff [athletically] that makes you say, ‘Oh My God!’ … He just doesn’t understand the game of basketball.”
Most NBA executives were in agreement. Green just didn’t get it.
‘The tools to be successful’ now
There is irony today in Cuban’s comment. In ’05, Suns first-year general manager Ryan McDonough was cutting his teeth in the Celtics’ front office. He scouted Green extensively and liked what he saw. Boston drafted Green with the 18th pick overall, but two unimpressive seasons later packaged him in the deal to Minnesota that landed Kevin Garnett.
This summer, McDonough traded forward Luis Scola to Indiana for young center Miles Plumlee and Green.
“The way coach [Jeff] Hornacek and I wanted to play, we wanted to go up and down and try to make the team younger and more athletic and shoot a lot of 3s, and Gerald checked all of those boxes,” McDonough said. “I think he’s proved now that he does have the tools to be successful. It just took him a little while to put it together.”
It doesn’t mean Green’s sharpening basketball IQ is quite Kobe-esque yet. Last week at Minnesota, Green swished a difficult baseline fadeaway in the final seconds, first freeing himself to get the ball and then rising high to release it over the defender. On Monday, he went 2-for-16 in a painful overtime loss at New York to end a disappointing trip at 1-4.
With the Suns needing a bounce-back win at home Wednesday against the struggling Lakers, Green scored a team-high 28 points on 12-for-18 shooting. He grabbed seven rebounds, had two assists and a lone turnover. Now the team’s third-leading scorer (behind guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe), Green has seen his responsibilities increase with the void created by Bledsoe’s knee injury.
He has matured over the years, with age and failure, and has been humbled by a journey that has wound through the NBA, Russia, China and the NBA D-League six years after he was drafted. He has gained stability and perspective as a family man with his fiancee, Doris, and their 2-year-old son, Geremiah.
“I think that maturity speaks to Gerald’s personal development, but you can also see it in his game,” McDonough said. “He’s more under control, his shot selection is improved, his defense is improved and he does a lot of the little things that the coaches are asking him to do that he didn’t necessarily do before.”
A long road back to the league
Green was 24 and out of NBA options when he left for Krasnodar, Russia, a city in the southern part of the country. The next year he signed with another Russian team in Samara, a bitterly cold outpost about 650 miles east of Moscow.
The first year he went alone. The second time he brought Doris.
“Basketball doesn’t have a language,” Green said. “When I got on the floor that was the only time I felt I was really able to communicate with the Russians out there. Basketball is easy, that’s the easy part being out there. It’s away from basketball, when you’re living at home by yourself and you’re trying to buy a box of food and you can’t understand any of the labels; and trying to get from Point A to Point B in Russia. But I felt like if I could overcome that I could overcome anything.”
Despite posting strong numbers in Russia, the NBA offers didn’t come. As the NBA headed for a lockout in the fall of 2011, Green prepared for a third season overseas, in China. After a month there he was cut. “It was the lowest that I got since I was playing basketball,” Green said.
He would sink lower. The Lakers called with an invite to attend their abbreviated training camp after the lockout ended. Green went to L.A., but for five days was unable to practice while awaiting clearance from the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). Then the Lakers cut him.
Green credits Eric Musselman, coach of the D-League’s Los Angeles D-Fenders during the 2011-12 season, for his NBA return. Musselman asked Green to play for him with the D-Fenders, the Lakers’ D-League affiliate, for a pittance of what he would earn going back overseas.
“And thank God for Eric Musselman,” Green said. “He just really had all the confidence in me in the world. He put me in situations to succeed and he was a great coach for me, a great guy, a guy that I will always be friends with.”
Musselman couldn’t believe it when Green told him that he wanted no part of the dunk contest at the D-League’s All-Star festivities that year.
“I remember sitting in our staff meeting and I said, ‘I can’t believe this guy is willing to just sit in his hotel room while the dunk contest is going on in front of NBA people,’ ” said Musselman, now associate head coach at Arizona State. “But that’s how much that athleticism, that dunking label kind of wore at him.”
Musselman pushed Green, prodded him with constant positive reinforcement. He never held him back, but also never let him off the hook. Green lit up the D-League. He was named the 2012 All-Star Game MVP.
It was his last game in the D-League. The New Jersey Nets called.
“Anybody who would have had his background, played at the high school he played at, went directly to the pros, anybody would have his issues,” Musselman said. “It just so happens that he was a freak athlete and had like a bionic body. If he didn’t have that, I think people would just attribute it to, ‘Well, he’s young, he’s still growing.’ I think people gave up on him too early, and what a lot of people would call ill-advised shots or poor timing on shots, that’s Gerald — you’ve got to let him go.
“He is a 3-point specialist. If he didn’t have that dunking ability people would think of him as a really streaky guy who could put points up on the board in a hurry and change the complexion of a game. But I think because of his athleticism and dunking and all that, I think people have a misconstrued perception of how good of a shooter he is.”
Here to stay in the NBA?
Green signed two 10-day contracts with the Nets, who then signed him for the remainder of the season. Over 31 games, Green played some of the best basketball of his career. He averaged 12.9 points a game and shot better than 48 percent, 39 percent from beyond the arc. After the season, Indiana signed him to a three-year, $10-million contract.
But Green’s shooting touch escaped him in Indiana, again opening his shot selection to criticism. Pacers coach Frank Vogel eventually lost patience, and Green again turned himself into an all-flair sideshow. He opted into last seasons’s All-Star weekend dunk contest held in Houston, but failed to complete a complicated second attempt.
During Indiana’s run to the Eastern Conference finals, he was a non-factor. The same old question — does he get it? — began to crop up all over again. Then, one season into his three-year deal with Indiana, the Pacers were done.
“Indiana gave me a chance, they did give me a chance; I just didn’t play well,” Green said. “I didn’t play like I wanted to play.”
McDonough took the low-risk gamble to bring him to the rebuilding Suns, Green’s seventh team in seven NBA seasons. On Wednesday, he played in his 38th consecutive game, but just the 310th of his career, the equivalent of less than four full seasons. He’s played in just 197 games since those first two, long-ago seasons in Boston.
“I never thought I’d be in the situation [having an NBA career] I’m in now, so I never really understood or really learned how to play or really how to understand the business of [playing in the NBA],” Green said. “I played because I loved to play. I didn’t really understand what it took to be a professional. I think by me going overseas and being in the D-League and seeing the different kind of leagues and seeing how those guys grind and put in the work, I understood that it takes a lot of work to be successful.
“So my job is just to go out there and try to give it my all every day.”
Green also has learned another lesson. He adamantly reiterates a decision he made months ago regarding the 2014 dunk contest.
“I’m not doing it,” he said.