Gerald Green cannot be serious.
“If you were to rank me as a dunker?” Green, the unquestionable best dunker in the NBA, repeats aloud, “Last place. I thank people for showing me a lot of love and support, but I would rate myself zero.”
The 26-year-old Green continues, “In the offseason I don’t work on dunks, I work on basketball skills. Don’t get me wrong, dunking is a nice aspect to have…but I don’t want to be labeled as a dunker. In high school, I wasn’t labeled as a dunker, I was labeled as a scorer. Once I got to the NBA, I was labeled as a dunker. I’ve worked so hard over my career to be more than just that, and I don’t want that to come up again because I’m back in the League.”
Green is on the money. The Houston, TX, native might still be best known for his aerial acrobatics, but his lengthy basketball odyssey—and now, return to the NBA from overseas—has forced him to become more of a complete player than ever before.
So complete, in fact, that the Indiana Pacers inked him to a three-year deal this summer, marking the first time since ’08 that Green’s been on an NBA roster to open the season. Why, then, does Green, the 18th pick in ’05, who’s clearly the most gifted leaper in the L, want so desperately not to be seen that way?
For starters, he’s come a long way—literally, in both miles and minutes—since banging home a blind one-hand jam over reigning Slam Dunk champion Nate Robinson at 2007 All-Star Weekend in an ode to former Celtic dunk specialist Dee Brown. That night, TNT’s Kenny Smith compared Green’s theatric performance to “Grandmama’s Kool-Aid” (for its sweetness) and declared, “There’s a dunk contest champion being born right here.”
Indeed, Green took home the honors that year. The next, he wowed the All-Star Weekend crowd again with his now-YouTube famous “Birthday Cake” dunk. But by the following season, Green had been let go from his fourth NBA team, and at age 23, the former first-round pick swallowed his pride and headed overseas, having exhausted every opportunity to stay in the League.
“I never thought I’d be in the situation where I’d be out the league. I just kind of thought that maybe I’d go from team to team,” Green says. “I never thought I’d be totally out the league like I was. When I was out the league, I was trying to figure out things to where I could put myself out there, through different mini camps, or go to certain places where people were playing pickup so then people could talk about me, I don’t know. I was thinking all types of stuff, and it didn’t work.”
After extended stops in Russia and China, he was invited to a Lakers mini-camp in the summer of ’11 but participated in just two practices—hardly enough, in Green’s mind, for the team to get a good look at him. So Green landed in the D-League, with L.A. D-Fenders, coached by Eric Musselman. A former NBA head coach with the Warriors and Kings, Musselman pushed Green to improve his handles and defense.
“Eric Musselman, I really have to thank him a lot in terms of my career,” begins Green. “If I could thank him every day, I would, because he was probably the one person that helped me get back in the League. He helped motivate me, he prepared me. He just showed me a different way of scoring, a different way of playing defense. I have to give a lot of credit to him for me being back.”
Muss says he was struck by Green’s eagerness to learn, since many ex-NBAers relegated to the D-League are resistant to coaching. Instead, he says, Green showed up early and left late. He became a leader and dominated in the process, averaging 19.1 ppg and shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc. After a 28-point performance to lead the West, he was named MVP of the ’12 D-League All-Star Game—which happened to be his last in the D-League.
“Gerald’s been very kind to me and our staff to credit us, but he was a damn good player the day we got him,” says Musselman, now an assistant on Herb Sendek’s staff at Arizona State. “What he allowed us to do was push him and help him with small technique things. Other than that, he could have gotten called up a month before and had the same success.”
When he finally got the call from the New Jersey Nets late last season, Green wasted no time proving he belonged, averaging 12.9 ppg and 3.5 rpg in 31 games and bringing life to an otherwise dead season in Newark. And yet, Green refused to tell himself he’d made it.
“I wouldn’t say that I was back, but it did feel good to be in the mix again. You just never know in this League. This League, man—” he pauses to consider his time in Jersey. “I’d rather play for the last place team in the NBA than the best team in Europe.”
Musselman insists Green’s outlook is genuine. “He’s hungry and thirsty to get better than he is. He doesn’t feel like he’s arrived. He feels like he’s got more to prove. And he’s got a chip on his shoulder. He’s mentally stronger than a lot of people have any idea.”
Pacers associate head coach Brian Shaw says he’s been a fan of Green’s since the lanky wing entered the League straight out of high school in ’05. Shaw, in fact, fought to sign him.
“I think what a lot of people probably don’t realize about him is that he’s not in a hurry to do things offensively. He has a lot of poise offensively when he gets the ball,” says Shaw. “He’s developed the ability to take the ball to a spot on the floor and just elevate over a defender. And he’s a very good shooter. Most people look at him and just think of him as a dunker. But there’s a lot more to his game than that.”
Green was the Pacers’ second-leading scorer in the preseason at 12.7 per, and after starting three games to open the year, he’s carved out a critical reserve role, averaging 8 ppg and 4 rpg through the first month of the regular season. But casual fans were probably more concerned with the rim-rocking alley-oops he’s thrown down or the picture that recently surfaced of him jumping a full head above the rim in practice.
Not long ago, Green turned down the 2012 D-League dunk contest. And though he hasn’t made up his mind yet about whether he’ll participate in this year’s NBA edition, when pressed he says “probably not.”
Because while it would have been enough just for Green to wear an NBA uniform again, he wants to stick around this time, which means focusing on more than just dunking. As Shaw says, “It’s still an audition for him.” So forgive him for not wanting to take his spot in the League for granted.
A season ago, Green was a nice story. This time around, he’s a key piece on an Eastern Conference contender. At just 26, he’s been around the globe and back. He’s earned a multi-year contract, the respect of his peers and the right to shed that “dunker” label. Just don’t expect him to stop producing Slamadamonth nominees nightly.
“For so many years when he was young, that was his identity. And he’s worked so hard and he’s sacrificed so much, he wants people to understand that he’s an all-around player,” says Musselman, who adds with a laugh, “It’s not like he’s going to start just laying the ball up. He knows he’s the best dunker in the League.”