April 21, 2017

Excerpt from Boys Among Men

A BASKETBALL PLAYER’s success relies on unflinching confidence. A player who believes he will miss a shot usually misses it. If he hesitates after making one errant shot, that mind-set will infect his next attempts. The best players are confident to the point of cockiness. Basketball players from New York City exemplify that mentality. They don’t just want to win. They have to, as though their masculinity is on the line each time they step onto a court. The city is touted as the mecca of basketball, where outsiders make pilgrimages to see if they can play with the best at famed parks like Rucker and West Fourth Street. The city once clutched that title and reputation rightfully. In its day, it produced some of the finest players ever to play the game, those like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Cousy, and Tiny Archibald. In later years, the standing turned ceremonial and reverential. The Knicks last celebrated an NBA championship in 1973. The number of New York schoolyard prodigies who rose from the playground to the NBA likewise dwindled. False prophets came along often. The lights shone brightly and early on any player who developed young in New York. Nearly all stumbled, slipped, and collapsed on their path to greatness. Brooklyn’s Stephon Marbury was the most recent to veer from that path. He flashed signs of dominance as a quick, powerful point guard who could hoist a long jumper with the same ease with which he shot a layup. But that same mentality and conviction that had aided him in his rise to the NBA afflicted him as a professional. He became a malcontent, part of the new class of players seeking to be catered to by organizations and awarded huge contracts before proving worthy of them. Marbury became an All-Star, but also a sizable headache for teams as he ping-ponged around the league. A few years later, Sebastian Telfair, Marbury’s cousin, earned similar acclaim. Telfair was a ballyhooed Brooklyn point guard who signed a large contract with Adidas and became the focal point of a front page New York Times article before ever stepping onto an NBA court. He declared for the 2004 draft out of high school, passing on a commitment to the University of Louisville. The Portland Trail Blazers selected Telfair with the 13th overall selection. But Telfair’s career fell well short of the predicted stardom and he became little more than a journeyman throughout his NBA career. When Portland GM John Nash drafted Telfair, he recalled telling him that because of his diminutive size, he would have to pressure the other point guards on defense and push the ball on offense in order to be successful. Instead, Nash said, Telfair preferred playing in a stationary offense. “He learned pretty quickly he was getting his shot blocked a lot because of his size,” Nash said. “He just wasn’t big enough to go to the basket and deal with big guys. His confidence took a hit after a while.”

Lenny Cooke was sandwiched between Marbury and Telfair as New York’s next hyped and talented phenom. In the summer of 2000, Cooke arrived at the ABCD camp ranked among high school’s best players. He wanted to depart as the best. “I’m leaving with MVP,” he boasted to Debbie Bortner as he climbed out of her truck at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Players made reputations in New York. They became legends at ABCD. A strong couple of days at the camp could propel a high school player to the same echelon among NBA scouts as two or three solid years playing at a major university, like Duke or North Carolina. The successes among camp graduates, like Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, increased the camp’s mass appeal. If you wanted to be the best, you played against the best and the best came to the ABCD camp. Through the years, the roster did not drastically overshadow the talent Nike lured to its camp. Yet, Nike no longer featured Sonny Vaccaro, who was a siren to the young players as he built relationships and established bonds. “Sonny had a braggadocio about him like he was a prizefighter,” Chris Rivers recalled fondly. “Sonny had no problem telling you what was about to happen. He was a promoter.” Rivers aligned himself with Vaccaro in 1997 after coaching the Oakland Soldiers, one of the premier AAU teams on the West Coast. His job evolved into forging relationships with players and their families and staying in contact with them throughout the course of the year. Of course, the relationship would be mutual, and the beginning of a link with Adidas would form. Every year, it seemed, the camp featured an epic showdown between prospects who would be in the NBA within a year or two. Shortly after Cooke had made his declaration to Bortner, the camp buzzed about the on-court confrontation between Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry. Only, Rivers could not find Curry the day of the matchup. He banged on hotel door after hotel door, amazed that somehow a teenager as large as Curry could disappear. He finally found Curry, who had overslept in the room of a friend. Curry shrugged off his drowsiness and he and Brown put on the advertised show. “It was the game of the week,” Rivers remembered. “He and Kwame went at it and everybody knew they were going to be some of the top picks in the draft.” Still, Rivers provided a disclaimer to those who came to the camp. “If you’ve got a guy and you think he’s that guy, I will give him the stage to prove it. But the bright lights are too bright for a lot of people.”

Not for Lenny Cooke. He walked on the courts as though he owned them. At 18, he was older than most of his classmates because of years lost to academic trouble. He was a svelte, 6-foot-6-inch player, stronger, more athletic, and brasher than his opponents. He could attack a defender any way he chose, dropping back to shoot, blowing past him, or simply going through him. He was from New York and played like it at the camp under the watchful eyes of many NBA scouts. The NBA, by then, had dipped a toe into the camp. Not only did the league allow its employees to attend, some assistants and personnel coached at the camp as well. It almost served as a white flag, the league saying, If these high schoolers are going to be in our league soon, we may as well get to know them as early as we can.

Bill Willoughby knew of Cooke. He was Cooke in a different era, when the expectations to produce, placed on prodigy ballplayers, were not as immediate. His career over, Willoughby still lived nearby in 2000. He enjoyed talking to kids and wanted to provide them with more guidance than he himself had received. He worried that trouble loomed beneath Cooke’s hard exterior. One day at the camp, Willoughby pulled Cooke aside. Already, rumors were circulating that Cooke would jump to the NBA, even though he had a year of high school remaining—two if he attended prep school for a year. “Look, go to St. John’s for a year or two,” Willoughby advised. “Do it like Ron Artest and then come out like that because you’re giving the wrong impression.” Cooke nodded his head. They exchanged phone numbers. Neither remained in frequent contact with the other. Cooke set the camp ablaze, finishing near the top of the 200-plus players, which, for a New York native, meant he was somewhere on his way to being the next Jordan or Dr. J. He was the top player for the first couple of days before striking his right hand on the backboard, an injury that limited him the rest of the way. Cooke even had time to test Kobe Bryant’s restraint. Bryant talked to the kids and, during the session, Cooke confidentially challenged him to a one-on-one game. “When you get to the league, I’ll beat you in various ways,” Bryant answered. “What can you say to a champion and MVP at the time?” Cooke remembered. “There is nothing you can say. After the lecture was over, he knew my name. That made me even more bigheaded, like Kobe knows me. How you know me?” Willoughby called Cooke after still hearing that Cooke wanted to jump straight to the NBA. A man answered and said he was Cooke’s brother and Cooke was not available. Willoughby knew he had the right number. “It was him,” Willoughby said. “He didn’t want to talk to me. He didn’t want to listen.”

He did not have to. Cooke was the best, and he was ticketed for stardom. He dominated future NBA All- Stars like Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and Joakim Noah, his onetime AAU teammate. They emulated Cooke, wanting to be him.

Cooke would never play a second in the NBA.

– – –

Reprinted from Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Abrams. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

March 10, 2016

Q&A with Al Jefferson

The NBA’s prep-to-pro generation peaked in 2004 when eight high school players were taken in the first 19 picks of the draft. The Boston Celtics plucked Al Jefferson 15th, where he was sandwiched between fellow high schoolers Sebastian Telfair and Josh Smith. The following is a Q and A with Jefferson, who now plays for the Charlotte Hornets. The conversation is lightly edited for clarity.

What was it like being a part of a draft class that featured so many high schoolers?

Jefferson: The 2004 high school class was just an amazing high school class overall. Even the guys who didn’t go out of high school were still great players and wound up coming to the league. So, I just think when it’s all said and done – when we look back on it – I just think that the 2004 high school class was one of the best classes that probably came through. And that draft class – being one of the ones selected out of high school – it was just amazing. It was a special year or something that they can never take away.

What went into your decision to go into the draft and bypass attending the University of Arkansas?

Jefferson: To be honest with you, man, I made that decision when I was in the seventh grade, when I found out [about] Shawn Kemp, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant – some of those other guys who came out of high and became top stars in the league. When I heard about it then, I made up in my mind that I was going to come out of high school. But my mom and my uncle and people who were in my circle – they wanted me to prepare myself to go to college just in case my dream didn’t come true. That’s why I said, if I wanted to go to college – if I had to go to any college – it’d be Arkansas, because they were the one who really recruited me in and that was something I wanted to be a part of. But my main goal was to go out of high school.

You played with Michael Jordan in one of his camps as a high schooler. What was that experience like?

Jefferson: Oh, man, that was so amazing. It’s like a dream. When I think about it now, it seems like a dream I had, instead of looking at it like it really happened. It was like the first time I ever met him – and Michael Jordan, in my opinion, is the best player to ever step on the hardwood floor. I had a chance to scrimmage with him – I was on his team – and I remember he called me “Young fella.” He said, “young fella, when we get the rebound, I want you to run as fast as you can down the court.’ And, you know, if Michael Jordan tells you to run through a brick wall, you’re going to try and do it. I remember once we got the rebound, I took off full speed. When I looked up, the ball was coming over my head. He made a perfect pass to the point all I had to do was catch and dunk. It was just an amazing feeling. I’ve had great games on a high level, but no feeling ever matched that feeling right there that I had catching that pass from Michael Jordan and dunking the ball.

At one point did you realize that you could jump from high school to the NBA? Because saying it in seventh grade and then actually doing it is a big difference.

Jefferson: I’m with you, man, and you might think I’m crazy, but when I said it in the seventh grade, I meant it. That was something that I knew I wanted to do. I knew that there was really a great chance when I got introduced into the AAU in the ninth grade. I went from the ninth grade, never playing AAU ball in my life, to one tournament – I’ll never forget it – that already had me ranked the number one ninth grader in the country.

What contributed to allow you to be successful with this jump?

Jefferson: I knew that I was going to have to start at the bottom and work my way up. That’s what I told myself, because I didn’t want to go thinking I was a superstar in high school and think I was going to come and continue this thing over here, which is possible – but I wanted to learn. I wanted to come in and just learn – and learn from the best, these professional athletes.

Do you think that mentality is the biggest thing that separates the players who made it versus the guys who didn’t?

Jefferson:  I have seen guys come in thinking they were more than what they are. I keep telling myself every year – this is what I tell myself every offseason: “There’s always going to be an NBA draft, [and] there’s always going to be new guys who want to come in and try to take your spot.” It’s one thing getting into the NBA, but it’s another thing staying in the NBA. Because getting to the NBA – yeah, that’s a great goal. But it’s also another big goal to stay in the NBA. To me, that’s the way I look at it.

How did you develop that mentality?

Jefferson: I was raised by my two grandmothers and my mom. My dad died when I was two, so I didn’t know him. I was raised by positive people. My two grandmothers really taught me to be humble. And I remember when I had those 60-point games [in high school] and my grandmother [would be] at the game. I could have 60 points, and she could look at me and get mad at me over something I didn’t do – [not going] for that rebound or missing a block shot that she felt I could have got. Stuff like that just kept me hungry, so that way I couldn’t be satisfied going out there [scoring] 60 points and thinking I had done something. When I know that was just the beginning of this journey that I was on.

March 3, 2016

Q&A with Del Harris (Part 2)

Few coaches had more influence over the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation than Del Harris. As a young coach, Harris was an assistant on the Utah Stars when Moses Malone broke into professional basketball.  The two later re-united when Malone joined the Houston Rockets in 1976, where Harris worked as an assistant. Harris was the team’s head coach when Bill Willoughby, another prep-to-pro pioneer, played under him and when Joe Bryant joined the team in 1982-83. Harris was also the Lakers coach when Bryant’s son, Kobe, broke into the league two decades ago. The following are portions of an email from Harris concerning his thoughts on coaching Bryant and Malone early in their careers. Part 1 is on Bryant. Part 2 is on Malone. The email is lightly edited for clarity.

Harris on Malone:

Moses is the most underrated great player in the game. He was a three-time MVP and did that twice with us at Houston and then again the following year when Philadelphia signed him away from the Rockets on their way to the championship of 1982-83.  Of course without him, I was let go that same year, even though I had the most wins of any Rockets coach at the time.  I owe my entire NBA career to him.  Tom Nissalke brought me into the league after we had become friends while we were coaching in Puerto Rico.  In those days most coaches and even pro players had summer jobs to supplement their incomes and the best jobs were to coach in Puerto Rico.  Most of the coaches there were either ABA, NBA or NCAA D-1 coaches. I coached there seven summers and won the national titles in 1973 and 1974. The following year, I was coaching in Spain and thought I would not be able to go back to Puerto Rico for the 1975 season.  Tom got fired at San Antonio and so I called him from Spain and asked him if he would coach the Bayamon team for me.  He agreed, but then he got the job at the Utah Stars and my team went under financially two weeks later.  Tom had a plan.  He said that it would be good for me to go back to Bayamon and that he would come coach a couple weeks to have a vacation for his family and then after the season was over there, I could come be his assistant at Utah.  That is how I came to know Moses in his second season.  I had actually met him when he played the Pacers in Indianapolis his rookie season, but had no idea at that time that he would be a career-changer for me.

Obviously, from a statistical standpoint Moses did not suffer from coming out early to the pro game.  His second year in the NBA would have been his senior year at Maryland, where Lefty Driesell had gotten the inside track on recruiting this phenomenal player from Petersburg, VA.  He made the All-Star team and put up 19 points and 15 rebounds, but his season was cut short at 59 games when he reinjured the foot that had ended his season with the Stars.  Undeterred, the next year he upped his numbers to 24.8 and 17.6 and won the first of his three MVPs.  Still, the negative side was that he tended to remain a bit shy and certainly reserved when it came to interviews.  He lacked the personal confidence that he would have gained with a year or two in college and away from Petersburg.  Ironically, he was anything but reserved when he was in his comfort zone with his teammates in the locker room and elsewhere.  He had an exceptional sense of humor, could give and take with it.  He was loved and respected by his teammates and coaches.

Probably the central reason for Moses’ shyness and reluctance to talk to media and outsiders was that he had not experienced the world outside of Petersburg and basketball.  It was not a matter of prejudice in that one of his best lifetime friends is Kevin Vergara of Petersburg and Moses has always assimilated well with his teammates and coaches.  His trusted agent and financial people are white as well.  He was just unsure of his speech and had to get accustomed to the media world.  As he grew older and gained confidence in himself and his ability to communicate, he became much easier to understand and more trusting of media.  But he missed out on a lot of commercial endorsements because he was conservative in his life.  He was not a drinker or smoker.  He was always ahead of time to events.  He was not outrageous.  He was basically a simple man who loved what he did–play basketball.  He became a good family man and his grown sons have become quite successful and although they were good athletes, they were not of pro caliber, but have become successful in other fields. But this quietness during the time that he gained three MVP trophies kept him from becoming a household name. Virtually everyone that has gained [an] MVP has been able to turn that into significant endorsements.  Imagine it!  He is one of only nine players to win the MVP more than twice.  They are men who have had millions in endorsements or follow-up work due to their celebrity: Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Larry Bird, Julius Erving, and Magic Johnson…and Moses Malone.  All but Moses have been in significant commercials and even movies.  Moses is the least known great player possibly in the history of sports.

Moses may not have gone to college but he was extremely bright, again, to the surprise to those who confused his lack of verbosity to mean that he was not that.  For example, we took our players to the Dominican Republic to put on some exhibitions and to help their national team prepare for the CentroBasket games of 1976 or 1977.  Everyone was given Dominican money but that would do them little good in New York or Houston, so it was necessary to go to the black market to change the money to US dollars.  I speak Spanish, so I had all the players who wanted to change their money give me their money and I arranged to have it changed.  It was quite a deal.  A man came to Tom Nissalke’s room with a suitcase full of dollars.  He was accompanied by a man who sat down across the room and laid a pistol on the table.  We spread out the Dominican money in piles and the man spread out his money and we traded piles.  No problems, a clean exchange and better than one could get according to what we had been told, which is why we shopped to get the best we could get.  Later that day, I asked Moses why he had not given me any of his money to change.  He said, “I’ve done changed it.”  I asked, sympathetically, “Well, what percentage did you get?” (Sure that they had taken advantage of this young fellow who had grown up in poverty in Petersburg, VA and did not have the advantage of our university system.)  He beat my deal by a point!!

March 2, 2016

Q&A with Del Harris (Part 1)

Few coaches had more influence over the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation than Del Harris. As a young coach, Harris was an assistant on the Houston Rockets when Moses Malone joined the organization in 1976. Harris was the team’s head coach when Bill Willoughby, another prep-to-pro pioneer, played under him and when Joe Bryant joined the team in 1982-83. Harris was also the Lakers coach when Bryant’s son, Kobe, broke into the league two decades ago. The following are portions of an email from Harris concerning his thoughts on coaching Bryant and Malone early in their careers. Part 1 is on Bryant. Part 2 is on Malone. The email is lightly edited for clarity.

Harris on Bryant:

In Kobe’s case, he had exceptional individual talent for that age and had grown up in the home of an NBA player, whom I coached when Kobe was a little boy, and had played a good bit against NBA players in the Philly area while in high school and those were advantages for him.  But, unlike LeBron and Jordan, who had some college at least, Kobe came to a team that had won 48 and 53 games the previous two years and had just added Shaq simultaneously with Kobe.  LeBron and Jordan were allowed to go their own way because they came to teams with much lesser talent.  The Lakers were the youngest team to make the playoffs both his first two years and he had All Stars Eddie Jones and Cedric Ceballos playing ahead of him at the time and we had veterans Byron Scott and Jerome Kersey as well, who were very good players and had excellent seasons.

Unfortunately, for him he was injured in the summer of his rookie year and got off to a slow start as a rookie, but still made the all-rookie team as did his rookie teammate, Travis Knight, while his third rookie teammate, Derek Fisher, had a nice rookie season as well.  The Lakers won 56 games despite Shaquille O’Neal missing 32 games due to injury.  Such was the strength of the overall team combined with his injury at the start that were reasons why Kobe did not score more than 7 points per game that season.  Nonetheless, he made such progress that he started 6 games during the year and by the end of the season had earned the right to significant minutes.

To help him mature as quickly as possible, I coached the Lakers’ summer league team and had him and Fisher play just so I could connect better to Kobe and give them both more experience. Before the season we lost Scott and Kersey in free agency, a mistake in Scott’s case as he was a good mentor for Kobe, but added Rick Fox, who played ahead of Kobe because he and Jones were so formidable defensively and we needed that, since Kobe was not the defensive player at 19 that he became, particularly at the small forward spot.  To make more room for Kobe to play minutes, we moved Horry to the power forward spot, a great career move for him but one that was criticized heavily in that everyone thought he was a good small forward.  He became a great power forward matched to great centers like Shaq and Olajuwon.  So the second year Kobe’s minutes went up to 27 per game and his points from 7 to 15.  He was clearly our sixth man and although he did not start except for one game, he was integral to our winning 61 games.  Had Shaq not missed 21 games due to injury this season we would certainly have had the best record in the league that belonged to the Bulls and Jazz who tied at 62 wins.  Ironically, had Shaq not missed the 53 games in Kobe’s first two years, the Laker’s would certainly have won more than 60 games both years.

Kobe and Shaq did not start off as rivals, again another myth.  Obviously, those first two years Shaq was the natural focus of the team, even though we had All-Star players in Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel and other very good players in Horry, Fox and Elden Campbell to note a few.  Kobe only started 7 games those first two years.  I was only there for 12 games the following season in which we went 6-6 in the lockout year.  While Kobe was a starter by then, I saw little friction.

February 23, 2016

Q&A with Flip Saunders

Flip Saunders had just joined the Minnesota Timberwolves as the organization’s general manager in 1995 when he combined with Kevin McHale to draft Kevin Garnett- the first high school player drafted into the NBA in two decades. Soon, Saunders became the struggling team’s head coach, tasked with nourishing Garnett’s growth. The pair developed a substantive, lasting relationship and Garnett matured into the league’s MVP. They both went their separate ways and reunited when Garnett agreed to a trade that sent him back to the Timberwolves last year. Saunders died from cancer in October at the age of 60.

The following is an interview Saunders conducted for ‘Boys Among Men,’ lightly edited for clarity.

What has most stuck out to you about coaching a young Kevin Garnett?

Saunders: Well I think maturity, but more than anything, that kid’s respect for the game. I mean, he came into the league and was the first player in 25 years since [Bill] Willoughby to come into the league [directly from high school]. He had great knowledge of the players that had played and what they’d accomplished, and basically what opportunities that they gave him. Just his whole respect that we saw—Bill Russell was Mr. Russell. Mr. [Jerry] West, Mr. [Elgin] Baylor, everything was always mister. I think he came in and to have that kind of respect for the league and the players that were in the league, it made him feel where he had an obligation to how he performed, how he prepared for his games, to come in and prepare ultimately to have success every time he stepped on the court.

Garnett was cognizant of the game’s history from the beginning?

Saunders: He was very much a preparation guy. He was always locked into what he was doing. I thought he had basically a photographic memory in that he could remember everything. I remember times where we’d play somebody four years later and he’d say “Four years ago, we got him to pick and roll this way,” against Tim Duncan or somebody good. He was very much a student of the game and he was like that from day one. And he came with a little bit of an edge. When he played, he knew that there were so many people who said he wouldn’t be able to succeed. I remember the first game he ever played in exhibition was against Milwaukee when [Glenn] Robinson kind of went after him a little bit, chirped at him a little bit…I remember every time that we played those guys from then on, his intensity to play against those guys was at a different level. I remember he had one time when Glenn Robinson, he scored on him. A year later, it was one of those things where he took the pride that he was going to try to dominate those guys because they had questioned him when he first came into the league.

How did Kevin react to the veteran leadership on the team as a young player?

Saunders: We set up some safety nets, so we were very much aware. We signed Sam Mitchell and Terry Porter. We winded up having two guys, veteran players, that could show him what it was to be professional. And those guys were very important in the locker room in his maturation over the years…Christian Laettner was the best player on the team at that time. I think he questioned how good Kevin was going to be or what he was going to be. Christian said something about Kevin and Sam said, “Hey, that’s the ticket. That’s the franchise right there. If you can’t deal with it, you’re probably not going to be around here.”

How did Kevin handle the jealousy he received from teammates and around the league?

Saunders: I guess the thing I’ve always respected about Kevin is his only agenda that he has is to do what it takes to win. That’s all he really cared about. He never cared about fanfare. He very rarely went out on the road. Later, he started going out to some restaurants, but early, he pretty much kept to himself because he knew that there were people at hotels, not tons and tons of people, but people waiting to get autographs because he was a high school kid. He wasn’t totally comfortable with that whole situation. He just wanted to play ball and go out and compete and play.

How were the practices with him?

Saunders: When it’s your best player, those other guys don’t have a choice [to play hard]. I mean Kevin is a pretty dynamic guy in practice. When it comes to practice, he’s an alpha dog. You either follow him or he’s going to run right over you. He believes that everyone should give 100 percent all the time. If we are talking about an exhibition game, he wanted to play, [when] we wanted to rest him. He played for the fans. We had to tell [equipment manager] Clayton [Wilson] to go hide his uniform because he was looking in the equipment room for where his uniform was because he wanted to go out and play. That’s just how he was.

February 12, 2016

Q&A with Darryl Dawkins

Darryl Dawkins was known as much for his colorful quotes as his thunderous dunks. In 1975, Dawkins became the first high school player to be drafted and play in the NBA when the Philadelphia 76ers plucked him with the fifth overall pick out of Orlando’s Maynard Evans High School. He played in the NBA for 14 seasons and in three NBA finals. While he had trouble living up to the hype of being drafted straight from high school, he still carved a distinguished career and averaged double figures in nine seasons. Dawkins died of a heart last August at the age of 58. The following is a transcript of an interview Dawkins conducted for ‘Boys Among Men,’ lightly edited for clarity.

What was the transition like being the first to be drafted from high school into the NBA?

Dawkins: Basketball is still basketball. And if you’re being drafted out of high school into the NBA, No. 1: people who normally don’t talk to you now all of a sudden talk to you. Girls who didn’t normally like you, all of a sudden like you. I was very fortunate because I came in with Harvey Catchings, Doug Collins, Freddie Carter … a bunch of good guys who, more or less, talked to me to say, “Hey, don’t go to that side of town. Do this, do that.” …The veterans try and pull all kinds of tricks on you. They pull your shorts and do this and do that, and once you learn those tricks and learn them fast, and start doing them to them, they start saying, “Hey man, you going to be fine.”

After all these years does it surprise you that you were able to make the transition?

Dawkins: Grew up on a dirt road, chicken coop, lived in a house that leaked when it rained. I look at it more as a blessing than anything else. Just a blessing. And when you treat your blessings right, they always come back to you.

How did you handle the newfound wealth?

Dawkins: Everybody – cousins I had never even known or seen – always has their hands out. You never see anybody with their hands together. And people show their true colors when money’s involved.

What was the deciding factor for you in making that decision to jump straight to the NBA?

Dawkins: My mother believed in me and said, “Boy, you can do this if you want to, but you got to put your head into it.” The money? Yeah, it was more money than I ever seen in my life. …That was a decision, and this was the hard part, if you say there’s a hard part. You go through another town. You check into a hotel. You’ve got a whole room to yourself. You can order room service. You call home at Thanksgiving and they say, “Jessie’s here making the string bean casserole.  Grandma made the sweet potato pie. Louis made the banana pudding.” And I say, “I don’t want to hear that, man. I’m on the road – I’m way out here in California somewhere.” That, probably, was the only hard part. But I knew how to cook when I was 14, so anything that was being made at home I could make for myself. But the hardest part is what are you doing during idle time? I started writing poetry. I stated cooking and tweaking recipes. I’ve always had a fetish for cars, and I did like women. So I occupied my time that way, besides playing basketball.

When did you start realizing NBA teams were paying attention to you in high school?

Dawkins: Somebody came in the door to the gym that you didn’t recognize, you knew he was there to see somebody. Now, [Philadelphia’s director of player personnel] Jack McMahon, the guy that came to scout me, was sitting up in the corner – big Irish guy with a parka on and skull cap. Now, we don’t have a winter in Florida, so he was like a sore thumb sitting over there. We said, “It’s a scout, man. I don’t know man, look what he got on. He’s got tweed pants on.” We don’t wear no tweed in Florida, man. It’s too hot. Santa Claus can’t even come down here, he’d pass out with all that leather on.

You were considered one of the game’s first entertainers. How did that originate?

Dawkins: My imagination’s never failed me. I’ve been witty with words. I always think of something crazy to say, but I entertain myself. And I entertain kids, and I bet I’ve seen more kids than players in the league right now because when you go somewhere, they don’t want to see you say, “Well, they played great basketball. We have a great team. We were fortunate and played better than they did” … You want to hear him say, “Yeah, I gave them 40 this week. I got 40 for him. I got 40 for your mother. You bring your sister and mother. They ‘aint gonna stop me. Come on.” I think that’s missing and it’s not a knock or beat up on people, it’s people wanting to be entertained. If you got the best players in the world, why not brag about your team? Brag – the thing that I see now, when we played stars guarded stars, I guarded Kareem or Magic guarded Doc or Doc guarded Bird. That’s just the way it was. Now, the stars don’t guard the stars. They take a guy off the bench tell him they’ve got to guard him so he can save his energy on offense. George Gervin guarded guys. It’s different. I think the NBA’s getting back to that now, or they’re trying to get back to it.

February 8, 2016

Q&A with Moses Malone

Moses Malone paved the way for others to trail in his footsteps when he bypassed college for the American Basketball Association, signing in 1974 with the Utah Stars. He made an impressionable mark in the NBA, winning three MVPS and averaging 20.6 points and 12.2 rebounds over 20 seasons. Malone passed last September at the age of 60. The following is a transcript of an interview Malone conducted for ‘Boys Among Men,’ lightly edited for clarity.

Your recruiting from colleges was intense. You were offered cars and money. What was that period like for you?

Malone: I really didn’t look at it like that, but I just thought it was like a great opportunity that half the colleges wanted me to play for them. My main concern was—I love the game not for the money, I just loved the game to play the game for, like, orange juice and cookies, and stuff, on the playground. I never thought I was a great athlete or a good athlete. I thought I was just a hard [working] guy that loved to play the game when I was coming up.

Rumor has it that you played in a pickup game with your friends from home and beat the University of Maryland’s team

Malone: Yeah, I’m the type of guy, I always like the challenge. I always like to play against the best players, so I always try to pick guys that I have the opportunity that I can play with, that I know they could play, but I only try to play guys that were better than us. Because we always liked the challenge. In Petersburg, Virginia, I had guys that were better than me and I would play against them. This was the only way that I could be better is if I played against guys better than me. But I chose all my homeboys from Petersburg High against the guys from the University of Maryland. And we ended up winning.

Was the transition to professional basketball tougher than you had imagined it?

Malone: Definitely tougher, because the main thing coming out of high school, the thing is you gotta get used to the guys bigger than you, strong as you, tall, just like you, and got more experience than you. So you’ll have some butterflies but you can’t be afraid to play. You gotta come at it with a mental toughness and be physical to let them know that you’re going to stand your ground. Once I established myself, and said that I was not going to back down, just play hard and keep doing things to try to win ball games, they’ll look at me like, “Well, this guy ain’t too big; we might take advantage of him”, but then they look at me like, “This guy got a little talent.” And I think I got all that from playing on the playground in my days in Petersburg, Virginia, when I used to play against older guys and guys tougher than me.

Basketball aside, what was the transition like as a teenager moving from Virginia to Utah?

Malone: Well, there’s a big difference. You’re moving [to] the other side of the country. You’re up in Utah. You’re up in the mountains and as a young guy out of high school you just realize it’s a new custom, you gotta get used to it. You know, there’s a lot of experience. I had another young guy on the team that I played with by the name of Bruce Seals. Me and Bruce Seals were together a lot. We were young, so we had an opportunity to grow up and realize what this could be. Guys around me would make sure I did the right thing, that I would not get into trouble. But it’s a big opportunity, just growing up.

Were you nervous when you decided to make the jump from high school to the ABA?

Malone: I was never nervous. I just wanted to make sure that, as I make my decision it’s going to be the right decision, if anything happens it’ll be on me. And then if something happens bad, then it’s on me. Ain’t no one make the decision for me. I can’t come and say, well, “I put the blame on you.” The only one I can blame is Moses. Moses Malone. That’s the only one I can blame. No one else.

When did you realize that as a high school player, you were being scouted to immediately become a professional?

Malone: See, that’s the whole thing. I never knew that I was being scouted. I just loved to play the game. I remember the first time these people were scouting me. I never thought I was good. My homeboys thought I was good, but I never thought I was good. I just loved to play the game. I used to love the challenge playing against the best guy, playing against the best player, because then I could figure if I was good enough for this challenge. I always loved the competition. I always want to play people better than me and I get better because I had homeboys that tell me if you play against the best, then you’ll be the best. And I was never scared of the challenge, because I didn’t start playing the game until I turned 13-and-a-half. When I turned 13-and-a-half, then I turned 15-and-a-half, they didn’t want me to play on the playground no more because I would dominate.

Were you surprised that it took a whole two decades between Dawkins and Willoughby and Kevin Garnett before high school players decided to do it again?

Malone: No, the one thing I do—I give a lot of respect to high school ball players. By coming into this game, and the one thing about it—probably embarrassing for a guy that went to college and a pro—when you got a young high school guy coming in, people don’t know what to say. And I think that’s one of the problems with me. I had dominated so much when I came out of high school, people were trying to figure out who taught this guy this game. Who I learned this game from. For me, I learned this game on my own…When I see that guy coming out of high school, and he’s one of the best players coming out of high school, that shows me a lot. That shows me you got a lot of talent, but you gotta understand that you gotta be smart enough to be the individual guy, to accept what you’re doing. You can’t let no one pull you down. And when I see guys like Kobe, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett’s still doing what they’re doing, man. It just makes the high school ball players that came before very proud.

You were the first guy to be drafted to professional basketball from high school, yet you had an amazing career. How did you manage it?

Well, you gotta have coaches, and people don’t believe this. You gotta have coaches, and you gotta have people that believe in you. You don’t win, you don’t get to this point without players or your team. When you’re playing with five guys, and 12 guys, it’s a unit. You gotta be a unit. When I went to Philadelphia, it got to be a unit. The other guys have to understand what you’re doing, because nobody wins by themselves. When I went into the Hall of Fame, when I went to the Virginia Hall of Fame, when I made the All-Star team, or when I win a championship, or when I do this, when I make money, these guys with me helped me get to that point. Every guy I played with helped me get to that point. Nobody can do it by themselves. Guys helped me get to that point. And what people don’t do? They don’t ever give little guys credit. You only give the superstar credit. But you ain’t got the engine, the engine ain’t never going to run. You gotta have someone there for you to make you who you are.