Before they were Hornets

by May 06, 2008

By Ben Osborne

For better or worse, my watching of NBA games is tied inextricably to our magazine and website. When I see a team or player doing well, my mind tends to wander to “did we do him in SLAM recently?” When the answer is yes, and I’m still thinking about that player or team the next day, I either ask Sam to mention/re-run said articles, or I do it myself.

Last night I was noticing Julian Wright, whose boxscore line wasn’t all that much but is a compelling package with his defense, length, athleticism and, well, ballsy ballhandling, and Tyson Chandler, who I pray to God John Paxson has nightmares about every time he tries to sleep. Most relevantly, while the Hornets are obviously Chris Paul’s team, these two guys are key players on a squad that has the defending champs in a daunting, 2-0 hole. And yes, they were in SLAM in the last 12 months, in the same issue, in fact (SLAM 110, about a year ago). Brett Ballantini got at Julian for our first-person Backboard section, while the artist formerly known as Mr. Undeclared, aka Ben Collins, who is actually rumored to be re-appearing in this site in the coming days, did a sweet feature on TC last summer. I think it presaged Tyson’s rise to prominence quite nicely. It’s kind of cool to see how these two have come along. Check ’em.


The month leading up to the NBA Draft feels like an internship. It’s a little taste of the pros. I’m trying to get a feel for the workouts and all of the things that go along with being a professional.

Some of the skills stuff on the floor comes easiest. I’ve always tried to be versatile. My high school coach had me playing some point guard, and in college I played some power forward. I’ve gotten a lot of different looks.

But I want to be more than a skilled player. I’m a genuine person, and that goes a long way. There are a lot of intangibles I can bring to a team. I’ll do the little things on and off the court, keeping morale high.

As a Lottery pick, you’re expected to not just have potential but to produce for a team in a lot of ways. You might not have pressure on you right away to be a leader, but teams want you to have leadership qualities, and I have them. I’m not afraid to ask questions and learn. I’ll make a smooth transition to the NBA just by being personable. I’m going to step up to the plate rather than sitting back like I’m a little kid riding along in the back seat of the car.

You think I’m a tweener? Well, I’ve heard that at every level, and I’ve never let it be held against me. I make the coach’s job harder because there are so many ways to use me. How can being versatile be a negative? Someone who knows they’re a 2, who only wants to play the 2, he just focuses on being the best 2 he can be. Me, I’m stacking up skills like LEGOS, gradually getting better at every position.

Look at the way the NBA is changing now, where a team like Golden State has interchangeable players who all can do a lot of different things. Versatility is at a premium. No disrespect to Shaq, who’s obviously one of the greatest players ever, but the League is starting to move away from his kind of player. Now even guys who are big, like Carlos Boozer, have skills. Yeah, Boozer can knock you down, but he’ll knock down his shots, too.

Kevin Garnett is a guy I’d love to play with. He’s paved the way for a lot of big guys, like me. He started the versatility trend. He inspired me growing up because I was always the tallest in my class and coaches would stick me in the post and I’d say, No, I can play everywhere. I loved playing pickup ball with bigger guys, so I could try to get a feel for what it’s like to play away from the basket. Garnett made me realize I can do a lot of different things on the basketball floor.

Until my senior year of high school, after the McDonald’s All-American Game, it hadn’t hit me that I could play in the NBA one day. Now, just two years later, I’m going to be a Lottery pick. It’ll be weird to be sitting in the green room, after years of watching other guys sit there during the Draft.

I’m looking forward to Draft night, but for now, I’m trying to work on the little things so I can feel comfortable when I’m in there. If I don’t take care of business now—if I’m daydreaming about the Draft instead of working on my skills—I’m not going to feel too comfortable sitting there in my suit and tie in the green room.

His Time is Now

Tyson Chandler is fighting exhaustion. Between flying to his teammate Chris Paul’s De La Hoya-Mayweather fight get-together and attending multiple birthday parties for his young daughter Sacha-Marie, dude is running on empty. “I was a zombie for a few days,” he says.

But you know what? Adventures like this are some of the things he probably should’ve done a long, long time ago. You try having the weight of the basketball world on your shoulders from the first second you picked up the rounded hunk of leather. Tyson simply never had much of a chance to have weekends like this. Too much pressure. Almost no time. When Tyson turned 13, he was already growing at an almost exponential rate and had the skills of a guard. Whispers that he would be the first seven-foot point guard were already surfacing; college recruiters were already looming. At a time when other kids were concerned about wearing too much cologne to a school dance, this kid was worrying about wearing too much cologne when 60 Minutes came to do a story on him.

By that point, even if he wanted to trade in a basketball for Solo cups, low ceilings and whatever else high school life is like in San Bernardino, CA, it wasn’t going to happen. Because it was never truly his choice to make. “I wouldn’t want my son to go through it,” he says. (This is purely hypothetical; Sacha-Marie is currently the only heiress to Chandler family child stardom.) “It could definitely be too much for someone my age.”

As a freshman in high school, Tyson opted to transfer to Dominguez High School in Compton so his growth as a basketball player wouldn’t be stunted by lesser competition. And with that came 90-minute rides to school. Every day. Both ways. But even in that endless, arduous trek, the game never lost its allure. “My whole life, basketball has been fun. It’s never felt like a job,” he says. “With all the expectations growing up, there were always doubters. There was always someone saying, ‘Aw, he can’t be that good.’ But that’s where I got enjoyment—I wanted to prove all the doubters wrong.”

So he did. In his final season at Dominguez, Chandler recorded 20.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per game, sometimes as a small forward, sometimes as a power forward and sometimes as a 5. This versatility? Completely, absolutely not on purpose. “It was kinda brought upon me,” he says about his adaptability. “It’s nothing that I did. It’s a blessing and a curse.”

College coaches would have loved him for it, were they not already resigned to the fact that this 7-1 manchild was obviously headed right to the NBA. So, in March of ’01, Tyson Chandler put his name in the NBA Draft. He’d finally be able to figure himself out, he thought. All that pomp and attention? Not anything more than any other budding NBA star would get. All those expectations? For an 18-year-old kid in the NBA without a true position, for the first time he might, at last, be granted some room for error. All that pressure? Gone for good.

Little did Tyson know the pressure was just beginning.

“It was a setup,” he says. It may sound like Chandler still has some leftover hostility surrounding the Draft-night trade six years ago that sent Elton Brand to the Los Angeles Clippers for the second pick (a pre-selected Chandler) along with the fate of Chicago basketball for the next five years. But Chandler is actually completely composed about the whole thing.

“When me and Eddy [Curry, the fourth pick and fellow 18-year-old seven footer, who is profiled on page 74] were drafted, we were taken back to the Michael Jordan legacy,” he says. “He was the greatest ever and we were supposed to do what he did. But there’s no way anybody can ever do that again.”

He could’ve been drafted by Vancouver and had his growth obscured by a move to Memphis. The Clippers could’ve kept him and he would have had time to develop in the shadow of a Laker threepeat. Hell, he could’ve been selected by Washington and Jordan himself with the first pick in the ’01 Draft and there still probably would’ve been less pressure. But just when Tyson thought he was nearing the end of the non-stop spotlight, it intensified to the point of absurdity.

By the end of his first year with the Bulls, still months shy of his 21st birthday, Chandler had started 31 games and led the team in blocks. But, half a country away, Elton Brand continued piling up double-doubles. The Bulls finished 21-61, tied for the League’s worst record. The Baby Bulls weren’t Michael Jordan. Put together, the Baby Bulls weren’t even Elton Brand.

Two more seasons and more of the same. But in ’04-05, things started to look up. Playing the position where he would eventually find his most success—center—his 8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game helped the Bulls to 47 wins and their first Playoff appearance since Jordan’s retirement. Those numbers also netted Chandler a six-year extension to stay in Chicago.

But then Curry’s heart condition led the Bulls to jettison him to New York; Chandler was one middling season away from the same fate and he knew it. “(Eddy and I) were never able to find our whole identity there,” says Chandler. “And it didn’t really get bad until my last year.”

Sure enough, Chandler fell out of favor with coach Scott Skiles and, in the summer of ’06, got dealt to the New Orleans Hornets. The Baby Bulls were officially dead. But Tyson Chandler wasn’t done fighting.

“I’d always been a player who was highly regarded. Everybody wanted me. I was top of my class; top of everything. Everyone was always fighting to get me,” Chandler says. “But the first time it happened—for someone to say they didn’t want you? It was a shock. I even wanted to be traded, but it was still a shock.”

You would have no idea that Chandler is 24, listening to him speak today. His words about his last summer as a Bull are wizened. He speaks about the first part of his career like it was a different job entirely. Perhaps that’s because it was a different job entirely. And his new coach wanted to make that clear immediately.

“Coach [Byron] Scott’s first words were this: ‘Forget everything that happened to you. I just want you to let it go. You’re in a different situation. You’re gonna play the center position but with all the freedom and range and creativity I know you can bring,’” Chandler says.

“We had a situation for Tyson to be reborn here,” says Hornets big-man coach Kenny Gattison. “His situation is totally different from what they needed from him in Chicago.”

But there was still one last fight Chandler was certain he could win—he was sure he could out-rebound Elton Brand because, well, he was sure he could out-rebound anyone. “The one thing that he talked about in training camp was being the best rebounder in the League,” recalls Scott. In 13 of his first 17 games as a Hornet, Chandler pulled down double-digit rebounds, including an 18-rebound night against the world champion Miami Heat.

“Getting me into the new city, it took me a little while to adjust and fit in,” says Chandler. “But once I started to take off, everything started to get really positive really fast.”

By year’s end, Tyson was a fantasy beast, finishing second in the League in rebounding with 12.4 per game to go with 9.5 points, 1.8 blocks and a .624 field-goal percentage. Chandler was finally with the company he belonged amongst.

“Once Tyson puts his mind to something, he gets it done,” says Hornets point guard Chris Paul. “With all due respect to Kevin Garnett, next year, I think he’s gonna take that rebounding award. Because he hasn’t even come close to fulfilling his full potential yet. I can’t wait to see him finish out the remainder of his career here. With his age and his ability, I wouldn’t trade him for any other center in the League.”

Now, for the first time in his life, Tyson Chandler is not thinking about all of the things that defined him. He’s not thinking about all of the battles he lost in Chicago. He’s not trying to play himself out of harm’s way. He just wants to be able to get through a sentence about himself without any of the qualifiers that used to go along with it. Because, unless you’re Michael Jordan, one man cannot win a Championship.

He is willing to try and be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, though. “That’s all me, Chris and Coach talk about: You start out with a great point guard and a great big man. We had Magic and Kareem growing up and you put them together for a Championship,” Chandler says. “We’re constantly working on our games because that’s what we want.”

He just needed to get out of Chicago to chase it. “I would do it all the same way,” says Chandler. “It set me up for what I’m about to experience now. Back in Chicago, my eyes were wide open and I was not really looking at where I needed to be—where I wanted to be. I said it, but in my heart, I wasn’t focused on it. But I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. Now, I feel like my career is just beginning.”