It was two hours before tip-off of Game Two of the 2007 NBA Finals, and on the court at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, there was one player out there, shooting midrange jumpers over and over, sliding back and forth around the lane in a semi-circle, shooting, shooting, shooting. SLAM editor in chief Ben Osborne and I stood there for a few minutes watching him shoot, making more than he missed. He was sweating Ewing-esque amounts, not pausing for water or air. About ten minutes into his routine, Ben and I looked at each other and said, “You know what? Drew Gooden is becoming a really good NBA player.”
We were, after all, at the NBA Finals, where only the strong survive. Even if the Cavs had an arguably easy road to the Finals, there was Drew Gooden, in blood, sweat and hairpatch, still standing as the second-best player on a team in the NBA Finals.
Before Game Three in Cleveland, I made a cursory trip into the Cavs locker room and bumped into Drew. I first met Drew back in the spring of 2002. The University of Kansas had been ejected from the NCAA Tournament, and word was circulating that Drew was going to declare for the NBA Draft. We really hadn’t covered him at all in SLAM, and we wanted to get him in the mag before he hit the NBA. This explains how I found myself on a flight to Kansas City, and then in a rental car driving through “In Cold Blood” country to find myself in Lawrence, Kansas. I set up the interview with Drew through the University of Kansas, since he was technically still a student there. I had one night to waste there in Lawrence, so after checking into my hotel, I drove over to campus, met the basketball Sports Information guy and talked them into letting me borrow (for the night) their entire PR file on Drew Gooden. This was a scrapbook of every story written about Drew since he’d arrived at Kansas, and the thing was friggin’ huge. It was like I was carrying around a Gutenberg Bible or something. But hey, I had nothing else to do. So I went back to my hotel and read that entire book all night and took notes. Needless to say, I will never again be as prepared for an interview.
The next day I hung with Drew. We walked all over the Kansas campus, and I quickly discovered that there was no filter with Drew: If he thought of something, he said it, for better or worse. And I don’t mean if he thought of or said something incendiary, just…anything. For instance, a few paragraphs from the article I wrote in SLAM 62…
Though he’s finished with his classes for the day and has a few hours before his daily four-hour workout, Drew flexes an extensive knowledge of the KU class schedule, and he finds us a prime position in the center of campus for optimum eye candy browsing.
“They should be getting out here any minute now,” he says, checking the clock on his cell phone. While we wait for recess we talk about video games (“I thought Metal Gear Solid 2 was the realest game last year.”), acting (“I’d be a good actor. I can act a fool for anybody…especially for money.”), what he expects the NBA will be like (“A lot of guys think they’re going to kill from the start, from the moment they come in to the NBA. It don’t work like that, though.”) and the man driving round and round the block in an old Chevy (“I can’t figure out why that man is circling around here. He’s a pastor at one of these churches around here. Always talking about, ‘We missed you last week, son…'”)
Drew was such a good interview back then that after I returned to the SLAM Dome, we started talking about a way to keep Drew in the magazine. Thus began the SLAM NBA Rookie Diary, which ran for an entire year, written by Drew Gooden. I say “written by,” but more accurately, it was dictated by Drew Gooden. To me. So every few weeks, I had to track Drew down and get him on the phone for 15 minutes, which was like trying to find Snuffleupaugus. Drew rarely answered his phone, he got traded during the season, and this was before NBA guys could do email or texting via their phone, which made it nearly impossible. But somehow we got it done, a year’s worth of diaries that were entertaining and enlightening.
In the four years since then, Drew and I stayed in touch through email and then me bumping into him at various games. (How do you think I was able to break this story?) But I hadn’t had a chance to sit with him and catch up in a while. When I was in Cleveland last year to write our LeBron cover story, I flew in and out on the same day, so I had to decline Drew’s offer to go grab dinner. And then even though we were exchanging emails through the Playoffs, I knew he’d be too busy during the Finals to go out and do anything.
So I found myself before Game Three of the NBA Finals sitting in Drew’s locker and trying to jam six months worth of catching-up conversation into 10 minutes. (I gave it a brief mention here.) Drew was attempting to convince me to travel this summer along with him, Anderson Varejao and N*SYNC’s Chris Kirkpatrick (he lives next door to Drew in the offseason in Orlando) to Barcelona. I told Drew that sounded like an amazing story, but, knowing Drew, I realized there was a pretty good chance the trip would never happen. Either way, we resolved to catch up at some point over the summer.
Back in New York, with the Finals finally over, we started planning out SLAM 112. It would be our college preview issue with OJ Mayo on the cover, but we wanted to do some stories on good and interesting NBA guys that we could get great access with and do photo shoots are their house. Ding ding ding!
The Barcelona trip never happened, but a few weeks later, I found myself sitting at Drew Gooden’s kitchen table at his home in Orlando. (Remember this post?) I spent a day with Drew, talked hoops for hours, talked life for hours, taught him how to play the guitar and learned about Drew’s real estate investment strategies. All this and a ton more is in the feature in SLAM 112 (so go buy it now!).
Drew is not the best power forward in the NBA, and he’s not the most famous guy on his own team. What he is, however, is a genuine guy, with likes, dislikes, opinions, hobbies, hopes and dreams. And, unlike a lot of guys in the NBA, he’s not afraid to talk about any of them. He might not be an All-Star (though that’s one of his goals for next season), but he’ll always be one of my favorite people in the NBA
Here are a couple of excerpts from the interview I did with Drew (my questions are in all caps)…
THE LAST TIME WE DID A FEATURE ON YOU WAS BEFORE YOUR ROOKIE YEAR…
Yeah, when I was kind of a big deal? (laughs)
YOU WERE LIKE RON BURGUNDY? BUT THEN YOUR ROOKIE YEAR YOU BOUNCED AROUND SO MUCH…AND WE WERE DOING THAT DIARY THE WHOLE YEAR. YOU REMEMBER THAT?
Now, looking back at my diary and remember all the things I used to talk about, I used to talk about my pit bulls a lot. And with this Michael Vick thing going on…(laughs)…I’m wondering if that would have been a good idea.
WERE YOU UNHAPPY PLAYING FOR THE ORLANDO MAGIC?
Going there and having a promising future there, after making the Playoffs and playing with Tracy McGrady, almost beating Detroit in the first round of the Playoffs, being up 3-1 and playing good. And then the Magic said they needed to get bigger, and they got Juwan Howard, a guy who plays the same position as me. The next year me and Juwan were supposed to play the 4 and 5, and then the season started and we lost 19 games in a row. Looking at it now, maybe it wasn’t the smartest move. It just reminded me that it’s a business. I tried to make the best of it, Juwan was a guy that I tried to learn from as a veteran, but we were the worst team in the NBA, plain and simple. I was coming off the bench, backing up Andrew DeClerq, it was kind of a situation I didn’t want to be in.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING THAT FOR?
(laughing) Say what?
WHY WERE YOU BACKING UP DECLERQ?
At the time, Johnny Davis’ thinking was that we needed a spark off the bench. Don’t get me wrong, Johnny Davis let me do my thing once I got on the court, but it was to have a bigger lineup. I was still puny then, a puny power forward, but still agile. When I got to Cleveland I knew it was going to be a second opportunity.
WHY DID YOU WANT TO GO TO CLEVELAND?
I saw what Carlos Boozer had done there, the role he played on that team, and when that opened up and they showed interest in me, I felt that I could step in and provide that same type of presence to the game that he did, as far as being a guy that LeBron could dish to and finish, and a guy who could rebound and do other things too. So, I felt it was a perfect opportunity for me and it was like a blessing. When the opportunity came, I took it. I could have easily said, No, I don’t think so, or been afraid of having regrets, but I felt like this was a better path for me, and I think it has become that.
CLEVELAND CHANGED A LITTLE LAST YEAR, RIGHT, AS FAR AS THE SYSTEM?
Yeah. When Paul Silas was there, we were aggressive in the passing lane, tried to get a lot of fastbreak points, were kind of a run and gun type team. But with Coach Brown and the system they brought, they’re all rooted in what the San Antonio Spurs do. And coach Hank Egan, who is one of our assistant coaches, he’s almost the brains of the operation, him and Greg Popovich they came up with that system. If you think about the kind of basketball the Cleveland Cavs play, we’re a mirror image of the San Antonio Spurs.
WELL, YOU’RE NOT THAT CLOSE…
(laughs) We’re not there yet, but we’re trying to emulate what they’re doing. I mean, that’s why they beat us. Put it like this: We get to the second option, they get to the third option, so we’re not there yet. That’s what we would like to be.
TELL ME ABOUT MAKING THE NBA FINALS.
In order to get out the East, you have to beat the Detroit Pistons, and that’s a known fact since my rookie year. We went down two games against Detroit, and the same thing happened the year before, and that was the only thing we could bank on, that we were down two games the year before and had chance to win it at home.
HOW DID YOU DO IT THIS YEAR AND NOT LAST YEAR?
Well, there’s a guy on our team named LeBron James. (laughs) That guy, if you don’t know who he is, he was kind of the reason we got past the Detroit Pistons.
WAS THAT GAME FUN TO WATCH? THE VIDEO GAME JAMES GAME?
That game…Video Game James. That game was like, you don’t want anybody to touch the ball but LeBron James. I didn’t want it. I’m not even coaching and I’m like, y’all get out of this man’s way and let him carry us. To score 29 of our last 30, was that what it was?
YEAH, AND I THINK IT WAS 27 IN A ROW.
(laughing) Me and him did a lot of damage — I scored the other point. I think me and LeBron did a lot of damage. If it wasn’t for me and him, we probably wouldn’t have got past the Pistons (laughing hard).
HE WAS HITTING THOSE FADEAWAYS…
And cocking his leg up and hanging then shooting!
HE DID THE ONE WHERE HE CROSSED OVER BEHIND HIS LEGS AND WENT RIGHT AND PULLED.
That was Game Five in Detroit, and that’s when we had a chance to come back and win Game Six and we won it, Daniel Boobie Gibson had a big game for us. Then the next thing we know, we got hats, confetti’s falling down…we’re going to the Finals! I’m like, We’re in the Finals! Like, we’re in the Finals! Like, we’re in the Finals! We’ve got a chance to win the whole thing! This is what we’ve been talking about the whole year! From the first day of the training camp, we were in the huddle going, One-two-three, Championship! And now it’s becoming realistic. I mean, we believed in it, but the Finals! Never been there before in franchise history. So when we finally got there we were in awe.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO GET BETTER NEXT YEAR? YOU WANT TO BE AN ALL-STAR?
I’m keeping my same regimen I always keep, I try to become better and work on my weaknesses. I think I can become a better shotblocker. Shotblocking is like rebounding, and it takes a knack. A lot of times I know I can block a shot because a guy’s shorter and less athletic than me. I want to be a better presence down low defensively as far as blocking shots. I feel like I’m strong enough to hold my ground, but shotblocking will help us out a lot as a team. Changing shots is huge and when you play against a team that can change your shots, it’s tough to play against.
THE THING I GET MORE EMAILS ABOUT WITH YOU THAN ANYTHING ELSE IS YOUR HAIR. SOME KID WROTE IN AND ASKED WHY DREW GOODEN HAS PUBIC HAIR ON THE BACK OF HIS HEAD.
Alright, see, do you even remember…
YOU’VE TOLD ME WHAT IT IS, BUT I DON’T REMEMBER…
Remember the braid? I can’t braid it, though. (laughs) It’s a duck tail, or people call it a rat tail, in Memphis they call it a Gucci. Everybody was growing the Mohawks back, doing the ’80s thing, so I was like, I’m going to grow a duck tail.
But you know what? It was a thing at the beginning of the year, and I told dudes I was going to keep it the whole season. They were like, ain’t no way you’re keeping it the whole season. I didn’t think I was going to keep it the whole season, no way in hell. So I did it, and we were winning, I was getting attention, everybody was talking about it, I was like, You know what? Let me just leave it. The biggest thing I had to deal with the whole year was the fans in the stands on the road. Oh, my god. I just tuned it out every game and it became second nature. I’m out here with a patch on the back of my head and I gotta hear all the pube jokes, gotta hear, Hey you missed a spot, or Who’s your barber, Scot Pollard? I was hearing it the whole year. So I had to go through the pain and the misery to enjoy the fruits of my labor.
Yeah. And now I got a lot of hot foreign chicks that watched the Finals, don’t even speak English, that come up to me and be like, I know you! I’m like, Where you know me from? They’re like, The thing on back of your head, I know you! So you know, I’m getting a little action that way, too, so why not leave it right now? (laughs) The ducktail has come a long way since training camp.
RIP, ducktail. But long live Drew Gooden.