Twice As Nice
Coming up, Darren Collison and Jeff Pendergraph had NBA dreams. Those dreams are now reality.
by Wendell Maxey
Darren Collison slowly unpacked his gameday clothes from a tattered turquoise Little Mermaid suitcase, and answered questions about his road to the NBA like he was veteran toting Louis Vuitton luggage.
“That messes me up a little bit,” the New Orleans Hornets rookie point guard said, sporting a smile like Ariel on the lid.
“All the veteran players gave me this. It’s cool. You have to have fun. The best thing I heard is that Michael Jordan had to do it, and if Jordan did it, every man as a rookie should have too.”
Can’t knock the kid. The style has certainly worked for him this season.
Collison is coming off a month where he won Western Conference player of the month honors after averaging 21.6 points, 8.3 assists and 1.8 steals in 13 games – including his first career triple-double – in place of an injured Chris Paul.
In this seesaw season in New Orleans, Collison now has the Hornets holding on to hope for a final playoff spot out West. He’s trying to reach a position his former high school teammate, and fellow rookie, Jeff Pendergraph is helping hold down with the Portland Trail Blazers. But for these two NBA novices, reaching the League wasn’t just part of the plan.
It was showing they belonged once they arrived.
“We have a lot of respect for each other,” said Pendergraph, the 6-9 power forward and fan favorite in Portland for his physical play and genuine likeability.
“That’s my man. I’m not surprised what he’s done. That’s what he does. He can shoot the ball from wherever he wants.”
Back in the day, Pendergraph and Collison helped turn Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. into a national powerhouse. In their final two seasons, the Eagles went a combined 62-5, forcing recruiters to take notice.
“We’ve been playing together since we were like 9 years old. It’s just real crazy. I enjoyed playing with him in high school. It was kind of like a Shaq-Kobe thing because we were the two dominant players. That’s really how we made our name to get into college,” Collison continued.
While Collison went on to UCLA where he backed-up Jordan Farmar before running the show for the Bruins the following year, Pendergraph made his mark at Arizona State. Unfortunately for Jeff, Darren always seemed to get the best of him whenever the Sun Devils and Bruins squared off in Pac-10 action.
“In college, he’d kick my butt. They (UCLA) were good. They went to the Final Four like two or three years in a row, something like that,” Pendergraph said sheepishly before coming correct.
“I talked to his teammates. I told his teammates they suck, but I’d never try and talk to him like that. But I always tried to block his shots though. Or if I got around the rim I’d try to dunk on him, but if I’m around the rim he’d probably try and dunk on me too.”
Last July on draft night 2009, their hoop dream unfolded as a first and second round selection.
“Now we’re in the NBA playing against each other,” added Collison, who went 21st overall to New Orleans.
Pendergraph was selected 31st overall by the Sacramento Kings, before being dealt to Portland in a draft day trade. While Collison has filled in nicely for Paul, it’s been the tale of two seasons for Pendergraph in Portland. After missing the first 27 games of the season after offseason hip surgery, he solidified a place in Nate McMillan’s rotation after the Blazers lost both Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla to season ending knee injuries.
But for as much as these two friends have common bonds – growing up together in Cali, playing high school ball, going at it in college, finally reaching the pros and each making that playoff push in the deep Western Conference – Collison and Pendergraph are separated by personality alone.
“He’s real animated and being around him just wants to make you appreciate life. That’s why he’s going to be successful to me in this league, not just on the court but off the court. But I’m the complete opposite from Jeff Pendergraph and that’s why we always clicked,” Collison said of Pendergraph, as he pulled back the zipper and closed his Little Mermaid suitcase.
“I’m real chill. I don’t do too much and try not to draw any attention to myself.”
Too late for that.
Wendell Maxey is a freelance writer and has covered the NBA for the past six years from New York to Portland. A contributing writer for USA TODAY, Wendell can be read more at www.beyondthebeat.net.