Gerald Green doesn’t want to talk about dunks.
That’s the first thing he tells me at the conclusion of the Phoenix Suns’ morning shootaround in an overcast San Antonio. It’s not for a lack of them. There was the time he blew out a candle in the dunk contest, the time he windmilled an alley-oop, the time he threw down off the backboard as a rookie. Green’s Wikipedia page has 24 instances of the word ‘dunk.’ LeBron James’ has three.
Yet there’s so much more to the man than YouTube highlights. After all, he lost part of his right ring finger in an accident as a child. He was cut from his high school basketball team twice. He was once compared to Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady coming out of high school, yet he never came close to living up to those comparisons and was out of the league just four seasons after he was drafted. He navigated a winding road back into relevancy that took him through Russia, China and the D-League.
So, no. Gerald Green doesn’t want to talk about dunks.
"Nah, hell no," he says. "I don’t want to be remembered for dunks, even though that will probably happen. Hopefully I can win a ring before it’s all said and done. Hopefully they’ll remember me as being a champion."
Michael Hickey/Getty Images
An uneven childhood sent Green careening toward his NBA future. His home life was stable and he wasn’t a bad kid, but some of his choices were – skipping school, earning poor grades, running around the streets.
When he was 11, he lost most of his right ring finger in an accident. While jumping to touch a door ledge, a ring on his finger caught a protruding nail, tearing it to the bone and leaving no choice but amputation. At 15, he lost his grandmother, who he was very close with, in a murder-suicide. He was a naturally gifted athlete and basketball player, but his grades and immaturity hurt him even on the court when he was cut from his freshman and sophomore teams.
In the summer of 2003, Green transferred to Gulf Shores Academy and found the man who helped him become who he is today: Ken "Juice" Williams, a former player at the University of Houston.
"I looked at that kid and I said, ‘I got a pro on my team,’" Williams tells me by phone. "And everyone who I said that to thought I was crazy."
Green credits so much of his development to Williams. "Everybody thought I wasn’t going to amount to shit," Green says. "He’s the only one who’s seen me and believed in me, believed I was a good kid, believed I could go to college or maybe go to pros by playing basketball."
Coming out of high school, Green, at 6’7, 192 pounds, with a 39-inch vertical leap and a sweet, confident stroke, had all the makings of an NBA swingman. But he didn’t play like one when Williams first got hold of him.
To break Green’s habit of drifting down low into the post, Williams stopped practice and made the entire team run. It only took one instance before all of Green’s teammates were yelling at him any time he strayed below the 3-point line. In the meantime, Williams had Green dribbling everywhere -- at practice, at home, late into the night, after lunch.
"I told Gerald, ‘You have 15 minutes to eat and then you’re going to come out here and dribble the ball,’" Williams says. "And it’d be cold out there, and he’d come out there. He never mumbled one bad word. He just did it."
Green entered the 2005 NBA Draft as a senior, the final year before David Stern imposed an age limit. He chose to forgo a scholarship at Oklahoma State University, believing he would be selected with the third pick. Instead, he tumbled all the way to Boston at No. 18, out of the lottery and into an uncertain future.
After a forgettable rookie year, Green averaged 10 points in 81 games his second season in Boston and appeared to be finding his rhythm as a professional. Few could have predicted he would fall out of the NBA two short years later.
That following summer, Green was dealt as part of a package for Kevin Garnett, leaving Boston with only a 2007 Slam Dunk Contest championship to show for his time there. ("That’s a great trade," Green says. "I’d trade myself for Kevin Garnett.") He played for Minnesota briefly before a trade returned him to his hometown Rockets, but Houston waived him weeks later.
A season with the Dallas Mavericks in 2008 stands out because it was his last in the NBA for nearly three years. He only averaged 10 minutes in 38 games under first-year head coach Rick Carlisle. Still, he left an impression on his teammates.
"He was an unbelievably gifted, jumping out of the gym," Dirk Nowitzki recalls. "He was good with us, he just -- I don’t know. He never really found his role, but there were games where we were either up big or down big and he would come in and get 10 points within three, four minutes. I mean, I guess you could see it then already how explosive he was."
Green doesn’t know why Dallas didn’t work out or why he found himself jobless the following fall. "Maybe I was still too young," he says. "I don’t know."
Green spent the next two years in Russia, but his lowest point of his career came in China in 2012. Green played four games for the Guangdong Foshan Dralions before he was cut because his team had lost all four, even though he was averaging 27 points. Out of options, Green returned to the States and entered the D-League.
"Gerald was humiliated," Williams says. "He was humiliated. I know he was. But he never said nothing about it to me. He just said, ‘Coach, I had to go through something and now I’m back.’"
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Green never contemplated retirement during those years abroad. He had to find his way back to the NBA. It was the Nets who noticed Green laboring in the D-League and signed him near the end of the 2012 season. The Nets were terrible, only winning a third of their games, but Green was excellent in the 31 games he played for them. That led to a contract with Indiana the next year, but the Pacers’ grinding, defense-first mentality didn’t suit Green’s game well.
Once again he found himself as part of a throw-in of a deal for a veteran when the Pacers traded him, Miles Plumlee and a first-round pick to Phoenix for Luis Scola. Only this time, at the age of 28, Green had found a true home on a good team.
"We have a system that fits him, and we just kind of let him go," Suns coach Jeff Hornacek says. "Do I think he needs to grow as a player in terms of when to shoot? Some times are bad, but overall, you know, he makes the right decisions and is really doing a great job for us."
Nowitzki sees it, too: "He settled down, he lets the game come to him, and he’s in a perfect role there -- come in, don’t think about anything, let it fly, get his game off, and that’s what he’s great at."
Green has always had confidence on the basketball court, but it’s extending off of it, as well. After years where he refused to even talk about his damaged finger, he’s finally embraced it, recently supporting a four-and-a-half foam fingers promotion from the Suns. He also accepted a recent cut in minutes and his first DNP-CD in Phoenix with grace, understanding that midseason trades leave him less minutes. His contract is up next season, but he doesn’t want to leave.
"I want to retire here, man," he says. "The Suns gave me an opportunity to revive myself and why would I want to go anywhere?"
Green may not get his wish to be remembered as a champion. Few do. The dunks that have defined him to this point will survive in the NBA much longer than he will. But if he is to be remembered for something, the winding path that brought him here is the most poignant picture of his career.
"If there’s someone going through something else, he’s going to say, ‘Gerald Green went through it,’" Williams says. "Gerald came out of it. Sometimes I find myself with tears with my eyes, because here was a kid who played for me when he was a younger boy, and now he’s turned into this."