By Ben Osborne
Besides attending most of LeBron James’ press conferences in San Antonio and posting a few columns from the arena down there, the most “work” I did during my trip to River City involved interviewing some of the guys who have little to no chance of seeing a second of action during the Finals. For one thing, players such as this are very accessible because obviously most reporters are talking to the stars. For another, they’re more fun to talk to, because they can open up a little more than their more prominent teammates. Most relevant to you, the SLAM reader, is that some of these guys were probably very much on your basketball radars over the last few years, only to basically disappear off the map this past season.
I zeroed in on Jackie Butler (a minor fan favorite last year as a Knick), Shannon Brown (out-played LeBron at the ’03 Jordan Brand All-American Classic, put in three solid years at Michigan State) and James White (former SLAM feature subject, all-world dunker). While some of the older benchwarmers in the Finals don’t seem too happy about their current status, the guys I rapped with all said the right things about learning from the experience, and acknowledged that the bonus money they get for being part of a team that gets this far is nice too. I asked the NBA’s VP for Basketball Communications, Tim Frank, exactly how much loot was at stake; the email he sent me was kind of confusing, but the bottom line is that the Spurs team will end up with $2.6 million to split up. This is to be split amongst players, coaches, and support staff, but I know that stars often give their money up (I was told that Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson definitely did this with their share of the Warriors’ loot) so that the guys who make less get a bigger bonus. The players also get a front-row seat to the best games of the year and some serious practice time while most of their contemporaries are either on a beach or working out in a much less intense environment.
Anyway, here’s some truncated q+a’s with three of the coolest dudes “playing” in the Finals.
Jackie Butler, Spurs: He may have only played 11 games all season, but he’s got arguably the best playoff beard ever and he’s pretty entertaining.
SLAM: You got some attention last summer when you signed that free agent deal, but then they didn’t use you too much. On the upside, you made the Finals—how would you describe the experience?
JB: It’s good, man. First time in the Finals, just gotta sit back and watch, then come back next year and see what I can do.
SLAM: How do you take advantage of this time? Is the extra practice like a gift?
JB: Right, a gift to get my game. Staying in the gym everyday and working hard and playing with the best guys. And hopefully I’ll be playing next year.
SLAM: Is that the attitude of all the bench guys? That this as a good opportunity to keep working on your games with the team?
JB: Yeah, it’s good. Even the days I have off I go to the gym and work and do the little things while the team is getting rest and go to the gym and work on my game.
SLAM [Lang jumped in here]: Somebody emailed me today and asked me about your beard. You look like you’re from Philly.
JB: I’m from Mississippi. I was gonna cut it but we were two (wins) away. But I trim it a little bit, I keep it down. I don’t want to get too wild, so I keep it nice and trimmed.
SLAM: Have you ever had it like that before?
JB: Naah, first time.
SLAM: It’s totally the Philly look. Like Freeway. Where are you from in Mississippi?
JB: I’m from McComb, Mississippi.
SLAM: Do you ever cross paths with Monta Ellis?
JB: Oh yeah, I played him in high school a couple of times. He was tough, but we had a good team so they were close to all the recruits and stuff. They had all the good players. If his coach hadn’t done all that recruiting…
SLAM: Yeah, I hear his coach is really intense—Thomas Billups. I don’t think he and Monta talk anymore.
How about Jonathan Bender?
JB: I think he’s just chilling. I guess he’s retired now?
SLAM: Yeah, that’s why we want to talk to him. It’s nice he got a lot of money, but I’m sure it’s hard for him that he can’t be out playing.
JB: I feel bad myself. You can’t play that game that you love. I know what he’s going through, but it ain’t all about the money.
Shannon Brown, Cavs: The well-built former Michigan State star showed some flashes in 23 appearances this year (5 starts), but playing-wise, this year was basically a wash. He did make a point of saying how happy he was to be on our website because he “wants to make sure all the SLAM readers out there remember I’m still around.”
SLAM: You’re not gonna be out there in a key moment in any of these games—
SB: Hey, I might be.
SLAM: Yeah, who knows? But even if you don’t get out there, just talk about being here and all the free practice.
SB: Yeah, a lot of free practice, but it’s special to be able to be in the NBA Finals. I’ve been a part of a Final Four and this is even bigger. To be the last two teams playing in the World is something special. This is great. I love this. We work hard, both teams work hard. It’s special—all of the national coverage. It’s something you can’t even explain.
SLAM: What are the things you’ve learned basketball-wise to work on now and over the summer?
SB: It’s just every aspect of your game. You’ve gotta be an all-around player. You’ve gotta be able to do everything.
SLAM: What type of player do you see yourself becoming?
SB: The same player I’ve always been. I’m gonna get out, run, have fun. Shoot the ball, score the ball, get some steals. Just go out and play basketball and have fun like I’ve been doing it all my life.
SLAM: How about playing with LeBron? I was at the MCI Center for that Jordan Classic game. I think you guys shared the MVP, although you probably deserved it. Is it kind of crazy being back with him?
SB: It’s a blessing. God does everything for a reason. I’m back with LB and he’s still doing his thing. We’re in the NBA Finals. I’ve seen him put on a performance in Detroit that was unbelievable. He’s just out here having fun, being LeBron James. Not stretching, just being himself.
SLAM: What was it like being on the bench for Game 5?
SB: It was bananas, man. He was pulling up for threes! He was just out there having fun. He got a good flow of the game and he took over.
SLAM: Coming from SLAM, where we cover the American high school scene closely, I love seeing guys like you, LeBron, Daniel Gibson coming up through the system and doing well. I’m happy for you guys.
SB: But I’m not done.
SLAM: We know. You’re on our radar. Where are you gonna be in the summer?
SB: I’ll play in our summer league and stuff like that. Trying to get my game better.
SLAM: Are you gonna be up in East Lansing at all? State seems like a pretty tight-knit program; are there good runs there in the summer?
SB: Yeah, I was up there a couple of weeks ago. It’s good because they don’t really play by the same rules. They play defense, but when I say they don’t really play our rules, I mean, they zone up. So, if I get past one man there’s another guy. It’s just a different look.
SLAM: How’s everything going?
JW: Good. Being here is really a blessing in disguise. Even though I’m not playing, I’m on a team with a lot of veteran guys. A lot of guys that have been to this point before. Looking at their poise and looking how they’re carrying themselves, I’m just learning stuff from them everyday.
SLAM: What other things basketball-wise, maybe Pop or the GM or whoever wants you to be working on now, so that if you’re here next year you’re out there playing…
JW: For me to be able to be out there in a situation like this, they’ve gotta be able to trust me on the defensive end. That’s probably the biggest thing. Being able to go out there and being in the right spots at the right times and do the right things so they can trust me. If they had the trust in me right now, I’m sure I’d be out there. It’s hard for them to put a rookie out there in a big-time situation like that when they haven’t played all year.
SLAM: What’s it like as a rookie with this franchise? Everyone looks at it as such a veteran team, with a lot of guys that have been here for a long time. Are they accepting?
JW: Since I’ve been here, and I came kind of in the middle, they were accepting with open arms. Everyone thinks this is kind of like a boring team and stuff like that, but we have a lot of guys that have fun. Everybody is pretty open-minded. Everybody is fun and a good guy. Guys like Bruce Bowen, one of my best friends on the team. They pretty much just welcomed me with open arms.
SLAM: You’ve been with them since when?
JW: I’ve been with them since the second game of the season. Actually, the first game was against Cleveland. They took me off waivers and the first time I was here they were playing Cleveland. I came in the middle and I didn’t know the plays. It was gonna take awhile to get into the system. Then they sent me down to the D-League, played well in the D-League, then came back up and I didn’t really get to play until the end of the season.
SLAM: I know everyone complains about the dunk contest, especially our readers, who know a thing or two about what you can do. They were like, “Why wasn’t James in it?” Did the NBA talk to you at all?
JW: I was on an NBA roster the whole time, but I was in the D-League when they picked the contestants. Still, I was trying to kind of petition to get into it.
SLAM: But you woulda’ been there if you’d gotten invited?
JW: Oh, no doubt about it!
SLAM: And you would’ve won?
JW: Oh, that would’ve been an easy victory! Easy victory. I’ve still got stuff in the bag. Everybody knows my stuff from high school. In high school and college contests I busted some stuff out the of bag, but I’ve got even more stuff I’ve been saving my whole life that I will only break out on the center stage of an NBA Dunk Contest. I’ve got unbelievable stuff.
SLAM: And do your teammates know about you? Do you dunk a lot in practice and stuff?
JW: Oh yeah, they know it. I had about eight dunks this year in four games. I hope the NBA can get me in next year and show everybody what’s going on.
SLAM: How about the summer? Will you play for the Spurs?
JW: Yeah, I’m playing in both of the summer leagues. Las Vegas and Salt Lake.
SLAM: Then do you stay around here or do you go back to your place in DC?
JW: At the end of this season, I’m gonna go home and get like two weeks rest, then come back and I’ll probably be here for most of the summer.
SLAM: I don’t know if you know the numbers, but if you guys win you get a nice little check. Not to mention a ring.
JW: And I can’t be mad about that. I get the best seat in the house, get to be around great guys, learn everyday, be around basketball everyday and get a check doing it. And get a ring? I can’t be mad about it.
SLAM: This series doesn’t seem like much of a test, but that Suns series had to be pretty intense. What was it like when Robert had that foul on Steve? This place must’ve been going crazy in the middle of all that.
JW: This place is electrifying. This town, period, is pretty crazy. After the game, people go out on the streets and cheer.