The Price Is Right!
Never the biggest nor fastest, Mark Price shattered expectations (and records).
Mark Price never missed a free throw in his life. At least, that’s the way it seemed during the Oklahoma native’s 12-year NBA career. Price, who was a four-time All-Star despite his 6-0 frame, left the League in 1998 as its all-time leader in free-throw percentage. Known for being one of the most precise shooters and most prolific offensive guards of his era, his choir boy disposition hid a fierce competitor who played with a chip on his shoulder and a point to prove.
Price was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks with the first pick in the second round in ’86 (then traded to Cleveland), but because of his size, many skeptics couldn’t see him being as effective at the NBA level as he had been at Georgia Tech. Price, however, made a career out of disproving critics. He even bounced back strong from a torn ACL in ’90 to carve out a highly decorated—if injury-riddled—career where he complemented his ASG selections with two Three-Point Shootout victories and regularly finished in the top 10 in shooting and assist categories. Perhaps most memorably, Price helped the Cavs, who had gone to the Playoffs once in nine years preceding his arrival, to the Eastern Conference Finals in ’92.
The injuries forced Price to retire in ’98, and today he’s an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks, spending time teaching the shooting trade he excelled at. SLAM spoke with him after a recent practice.
SLAM: What have you been doing since you left the League?
Mark Price: I was an assistant at Georgia Tech one year, and I coached at the high school level for a couple of years. I was out of basketball and did some business-related things in the Atlanta area, but over the last couple of years, I’ve been getting drawn back into basketball.
SLAM: Did you model your shot after anyone else’s?
MP: When I was 10 years old, my dad [Denny Price] was an assistant coach for the Phoenix Suns, and they had a guy named Dick Van Arsdale, and later they had Paul Westphal. Those are the two guys who I really liked growing up. I didn’t really try to emulate them. I pretty much just developed my own style.
SLAM: Did you have intense workout sessions growing up?
MP: I spent a lot of time in the gym. I was fortunate because my dad was a coach, and I typically had a place to work out. I was always around the game, and it gave me an understanding of how it needed to be played. I understood nuances that maybe a lot of other kids didn’t have the opportunity to. I always kind of felt like a coach on the floor because of it. My dad taught me what he thought was the right way to shoot the ball, and he told me it was up to me as far as how hard I was going to work. I spent a lot of hours just trying to perfect my shot, because I wasn’t real big—I was probably only 5-11, 155 pounds when I showed up at Georgia Tech. I had to work hard on my skills.
SLAM: You were a big UNC fan, but you ended up at Georgia Tech.
MP: In the early ’80s, you didn’t have the TV exposure to all of the games like you do now. The ACC was pretty much known as the best basketball conference in the country, with the Carolinas and the Dukes and all the storied schools. Carolina was one of the few teams that were on TV a lot—I kind of liked them from that standpoint. I wasn’t what they’d now call a big “national recruit.” I was small, and a lot of people didn’t think I would be able to be successful at the major college level. I remember Carolina came to see me practice, and I think they basically told me I was too small. Bobby Cremins had just gotten the job at Georgia Tech, and they had just gotten into the ACC but hadn’t had much success. It was a great opportunity to play in the ACC and go to a great academic school. I felt like we could build a great program there, and fortunately we were able to do that.
SLAM: You are still the only freshman ever to lead the ACC in scoring (20.3 ppg).
MP: It was a combination of things. The ACC was the first conference to experiment with the three-point line, and that happened my freshman year, so, obviously, that helped. Also, we started four freshmen, so I pretty much had the green light from day one. We weren’t going to win a lot in the conference that first year, and as my career progressed at Tech, I became a better all-around player. My scoring actually dropped some because we had better players surrounding me, and we were able to win the ACC Championship by my junior year.
SLAM: When did you realize that you had a real shot at making it to the NBA?
MP: Probably my junior year, when we got to the NCAA Tournament. And in the ACC, almost every guard I played against ended up in the League. You had Kenny Smith at North Carolina, Johnny Dawkins at Duke, Muggsy Bogues at Wake Forest, Nate McMillan and Spud Wedd at NC State. It was like a battle night in and night out, and I was picked All-ACC ahead of those guys for three straight years. I think that kind of opened people’s eyes, but still, I think there were doubters. I think people kind of put me in the mold of guys who came before me, like a Kyle Macy or a Jon Sundvold. But I was quicker and able to do more things. I wasn’t really able to show it until I got into the League.
SLAM: You played a lot of minutes as a rookie in Cleveland, but you didn’t start a single game that season.
MP: They still had John Bagley, who started my first year. It was difficult because halfway through the season I had an emergency appendectomy, and I was out for six weeks. After that I wasn’t in top condition. I didn’t feel like I got to show what kind of player I was that year, but then they traded Bagley that summer and actually drafted Kevin Johnson. He didn’t come to camp right away because of negotiations, and that left me as the point guard for a while. I got myself in the best shape of my life and came into camp looking forward to showing them what I could do. By the time Kevin showed up, it was a little too late. We had some great battles that year in practice. Kevin was obviously a great player, and he went on to have a great career in Phoenix. But by me having that success, it allowed us to make the KJ/Larry Nance trade, which helped us become a contender.
SLAM: Did you see Cleveland hoops culture changing when you were with the Cavs?
MP: Cleveland fans were great. With myself, Brad Dougherty, Larry Nance and Craig Ehlo all there for a bunch of years, people really developed a relationship with us. I felt like I had a lot of support from the fans there. We all kind of groomed the franchise together.
SLAM: Talk about the ’92 Eastern Conference Finals.
MP: It seemed like every year we had to play the Bulls in the Playoffs, and that’s when Jordan was doing his thing and beating everybody. We always had great series’ with those guys, but unfortunately, the Bulls came out on top. I have great memories of playing with those guys. Most of the time I got matched up with John Paxson or BJ Armstrong off those teams. Poor Craig Ehlo got stuck covering Michael the whole game (laughs).
SLAM: Would you say that was your best season?
MP: As a team, that was one of our best years. I had about four or five really good years in a row, particularly in ’91 when I was first team All-NBA. I was blessed, because there weren’t a lot of expectations for me when I showed up in Cleveland. I was proud of what I was able to accomplish there, and it really shot past any expectations that I had.
SLAM: You played in four All-Star Games. Was one of them more special to you than any other one?
MP: They were all fun. In ’93 and ’94, I had really good games. In ’93, I had one of those games where I really felt like I was in that zone. I also had won the Three-Point Shootout that same weekend. I can’t remember what my percentage was from behind the three-point line, but it was pretty high.
SLAM: Actually, you won back-to-back Three-Point Shootouts. Was it important for you to defend your shooting title?
MP: I always looked forward to it. I won it the first year, I won it my second year, and I was looking forward to coming back to try to win it three times, but I got injured that year and couldn’t. I always loved competing in the shootout. I can’t speak for the guys who are in the dunk contest—that might be a little more physically demanding—but when I was shooting, Larry Bird had won a couple, Craig Hodges won three times, and I was just going out to try to knock one of them off. I thought it was more interesting when a defending champ came back and tried to keep the crown.
SLAM: Do you feel like you were unfairly labeled a shooter? Did you feel like there was always more to your game than that?
MP: When people look back, they tend to focus on what a good shooter I was, but I felt like everybody—particularly opposing players and coaches—knew the things I could do. I never really felt that I didn’t get the respect that was due, but I think now, looking back, people tend to focus just on the shooting. When you hold a record in a shooting category, it’s bound to happen. It doesn’t bother me. I guess it’s better to be remembered for something than nothing [laughs].
SLAM: Would you say you had a rival or a guy you always needed your A-game for?
MP: Isiah Thomas. We were in the same division; he gave me problems and I think I gave him problems [From what I hear, Zeke cosigns completely.—Ed.]. He and I were always a good match-up. Back then we played each other six times a year. When I got into the League, there weren’t many scoring point guards. Tim Hardaway, Gary Payton and Kevin Johnson all came in after me and looked to score. It made it tough night in, night out to defend players like that.
SLAM: Do you see yourself as an NBA head coach?
MP: I see myself being a head coach one day. Like I said, I felt like a coach my whole life. I got the opportunity to work with the Memphis Grizzlies last year, and now I’m working with the Hawks to do what I can to help these guys and learn as much as I can also. Hopefully an opportunity will come.
– - – BONUS QUESTIONS – - -
SLAM: Do you have one greatest college memory?
MP: By far it would be winning the ACC title. To go from kind of like last place to first place in a two year period of time was pretty incredible feat at the time. To have the success and help build a program at Georgia Tech—where a lot of people thought it couldn’t happen—I think I take a lot of pride in what we were able to accomplish. There are a lot of guys still around Atlanta, one of the guys I played with, Duane Farrell, works in the Hawks front office. I still try and get down to as many Tech games as I can. The tendency is that a lot of the guys that played here, stayed here and I run into them pretty often.
SLAM: Were you disappointed you weren’t a first-round draft pick?
MP: I was a little disappointed, I hope that I might have gotten picked in the first round. The Atlanta Hawks had the 20th pick that year and they drafted some guy that never even put on a Hawks uniform. I was a little disappointed that those things didn’t materialize, bit I was the first pick in the second round and getting sent to Cleveland was really a blessing for me because, once again, it was a team that was starting over and hadn’t had much success up to that point and play a lot, which really helped my career.
SLAM: You guys played 17 playoff games that year—the deepest you went in your career—what was different about that Cavs team?
MP: We felt we had a chance to win the whole thing. It was exciting because it was actually Larry Bird’s last year and we knocked the Celtics out of the playoffs in a 7 game series in the semis. It was just a lot of excitement because we’d been to the playoffs before and we’d been trying to get out of the second round, it was a maturing process that got us into the Eastern Conference Finals, but ultimately we were unable to get through that last road block.
SLAM: Were you slowed down a lot when you tore your ACL in 1990?
MP: When I came back, I was like the quickest guy back at that time for maybe the next 11 months after. Once you have a major injury like that, your body starts compensating and you start having problems with other parts of your body and I think that’s what started happening toward the end of my career. Initially, I didn’t feel like it slowed me down that much, but I guess it did later.
SLAM: You played about seven more years after that, were you in a lot of pain at times?
MP: I think every player is going to play in a certain amount of pain if he plays for very long. Yeah, towards the latter part of my career it go to be more difficult to be out there on the court.
SLAM: Do you remember anything about the 1994 FIBA World Championships in Canada?
MP: It was a pretty impressive team that we had, the next team started struggling a little bit, we had a pretty nice team and I don’t think we had a close game at all from what I can remember. I played about half of the game, like everyone else. Don Nelson was our coach and he split the time around, started different guys during different games, and it was a lot of fun.
SLAM: They’ll remember you in Enid, Okla., where they named a sports arena after you.
MP: It was awesome. It’s where I got my start, in that small town. They named the arena after me and it means a lot that people appreciate what you’ve done, not only in my career, but in the attention it brought to the town and the state. It was a great honor.
SLAM: Talk about your last three years in the League, was it frustrating to be out there and know you weren’t 100 percent?
MP: Not only that, but I got traded to Washington and I was coming from Cleveland where year-in-year-out we were battling in the playoffs. Besides that, I only played seven games that year because of foot surgery. I ended up going out to Golden State, that was a struggle as well. I was able to play a full season, but the team just wasn’t a good situation. In the last year, down in Orlando, we didn’t make the playoffs, but we were battling for a spot most of the year. It kept my competitive juices flowing up until the end. By that time, I had three kids – real young – and we had to move four times in four years and I felt like it was just time to move onto other things.
SLAM: Is there any difference to you between the NBA you played in and the NBA you’re coaching in?
MP: There are not as many really quality big men in the league as there used to be—what you’d call true centers. I don’t know why that is. Even when I was playing, we had Brad Dougherty, there was Patrick Ewing and Olajuwon, Robert Parish in Boston, everyone had a good big man and you just don’t see that right now in the League.
SLAM: Was it special for you to play against and with your brother in the NBA?
MP: The first time was really strange, we grew up playing against each other, but I’m five years older. It was a little weird the first time because you want to do well and you want to see him do well at the same time. I was kind of established in the league and he was trying to make his place. After that, you kind of get over it and do what you have to do. We didn’t talk trash much, we didn’t really get a ton of time on the court against each other. He was coming off the bench, I was starting, but it was fun when we were in Washington together, although I didn’t get to play much that year, it was fun to get to be on the same team and be around each other.
SLAM: Would you have traded some of the personal success to have won a title?
MP: Yeah, I think that every player that plays wants to be on a championship team. That’s what you strive for. I think that personal success comes out of your team having success. Even though we didn’t win a championship, what we were able to accomplish during my years in Cleveland led to my personal accomplishments. It’s kind of a tough question because, the personal accomplishment comes from trying to compete and doing everything you could do to win, but sure, everybody that plays wants to have a championship ring.
SLAM: Who are the guys you enjoy watching in the League now?
MP: Obviously, with my ties to the Cavs, I love watching LeBron play. He is obviously not only a great athlete and dominant scorer, I like the way that he passes the ball and tries to get his teammates involved. He makes his teammates better and that’s what I consider the mark of a really great player. I really enjoy watching Dwyane Wade play and I love watching Joe Johnson play on our team. He’s a guy that might be a little under the radar, but he always gets it done. I like working with all the guys, but I’ve been working with Marvin Williams and trying to extend him and he only shot 10 3-pointers all of last season. I work with all the guys and enjoy it so far.
SLAM: Is there a secret to being a great shooter?
MP: The secret is you have to have good technique and you’ve got to spend the time and put hours and hours in. There is no quick-fix. You hear the term, “pure-shooter,” but what people would call a pure shooter is a guy that’s probably spent a lot of time in the gym working on it. It’s important to get the right technique to guys and that’s what I’m trying to do now, with pros and college guys in the summer.
SLAM: There has been a lot said about your short tenure as the head coach of the South Dragons in the NBL of Australia, is there anything you’d like to say to kind of close the chapter on that?
MP: Well, it was just, a disappointment that I wasn’t really given a real opportunity. They didn’t follow through with what they asked me to come out there and do. There is really nothing more I can say about it, I was really never given a real opportunity. It’s too bad because I was really looking forward to it, but since it didn’t work out, I’m back here.
SLAM: Many athletes talk about their faith, you being pretty devout, were their times when it was very comforting or helpful to you?
MP: It was really my entire career. My faith was strong because of my size and what I had to sight against. Because of my size, there were a lot of people who doubted what I could do. It was really my faith and belief that God had a plan for me and that it didn’t really matter what anybody else said. I was going to work hard and do the best I could with what God had given me and kind of leave the rest up to him. There are many times when my faith was huge in allowing me to keep with it.