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Danny Green did the hard work to change. He can teach the Raptors to do the same

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Danny Green is a champion, a 3-and-D stalwart, and a locker room spokesman. Before that, he was lost and had to find his own way.

NBA: Preseason-Melbourne United at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It was Danny Green’s birthday and Harrison Sanford, a former sports anchor in Ohio and one of Green’s best friends, was halfway across the country, waiting to hit the send button on a proposal for a co-hosted podcast between the two. Their childhood friends friends were miffed. Green -- the serious, contemplative older brother who hardly opened up to anybody -- hosting a podcast? As for Sanford, they figured he would end up pulling teeth for a living.

Green is indeed private, but the trappings of the NBA -- and his stints away from it, in the D-League, and overseas -- have changed him into a basketball statesman. During the San Antonio Spurs’ championship run, he became a locker room spokesman, a reputation that carried to Toronto, where multiple reporters waited to talk to him one-on-one after the Raptors debut victory over the Cavaliers.

Over time, he developed his own ambitions to be on the other side of the microphone. Last summer, Green attended Sportscaster U., a four-day seminar at Syracuse University designed to train former NBA players to transition into careers in sports broadcasting.

Green quickly agreed to Sanford’s proposal. The duo made plans to meet in New York and tape a mock podcast, nail down their chemistry, and shop the idea out to different media organizations.

And then a blockbuster deal sent him and superstar Kawhi Leonard from the Spurs to the Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round pick.

“I didn’t know if he was gonna be upset, disappointed, excited,” Sanford recalls. “I kinda gave him a break and didn’t say anything. Then when I asked, he was still excited to do it. And because of the nature of the trade, we decided to actually make it public. It was just going to be a pilot, essentially, and then it turned into the real thing.”

Like a good newsman, Green sniffed the opportunity and made himself flexible in the face of a time-crunch. Most importantly, he understood he wasn’t the story.

“He’s humble enough to understand that a large source of the interest in the podcast does happen because of his connection to Kawhi,” Sanford says.

Indeed, Green has been dubbed something of a Kawhi-whisperer in Toronto, as the man who knows the elusive superstar best. But he also has the tools to connect with the rest of the locker room, which is filled to the brim with players who similarly clawed for their current status.

“A lot of these guys weren’t first round draft picks. A lot of these guys were D-League. I know what they’re going through. They know what I went through,” Green tells SB Nation.

Before Green ever held up the Larry O’Brien Trophy, he was a former McDonald’s All-American who got cut from the Spurs twice, then travelled the world and back before embracing his calling as one of the NBA’s most vicious 3-and-D wings.

He was a second round pick, like Norman Powell. He played in Eastern Europe, like Jonas Valanciunas. He bounced around in the D-League, like Fred VanVleet. No matter who you are, you can see a little bit of yourself in Green, the imperfect perfectionist who came close to losing it all before finally finding his way.

Melbourne United v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

When Danny Green was a freshman at North Babylon High School in Long Island, they beat the brakes off of St. Mary’s, a private school in Manhasset. After the game, St. Mary’s coach Tim Cluess, who Sanford refers to as “the mad man”, was irate. He told his players not to bother showering. They were going back to practice.

Unbeknownst to Cluess, Danny Green Sr. was listening and enamored by the high school coach who he felt regarded the game with the fervor and seriousness he hoped to imbue on his son. He approached Cluess. “I’m gonna look at registering my son,” Green Sr. said.

St. Mary’s was a rude awakening for Green. For the first few weeks of his sophomore season, he was forced into a competitive sprinting drill that was so grueling, he crumbled halfway through. But only the winners of the drill got to stop, creating a negative feedback loop that induced his teammates’ pity, leading one to literally lift him up and carry him over the line to victory.

For a time, Cluess thought Green was going to quit.

“He wanted no part of working that hard when he first came. Danny always wanted to be a pro but I just don’t think he pushed himself to that limit,” Cluess says.

But Green stuck it out, learning Cluess’ hard-ass perfectionism by osmosis. Over time, he became addicted to progress -- to the gratification of perfecting a drill and watching shots fall into the basket, and to proving a kid from Long Island could hang in city known as the Mecca of basketball.

“Cluess was the guy that molded me into being that type of player, that type of person,” Green says.

That breakthrough carried him to Chapel Hill. After a fruitful freshman year as the the Tar Heels’ scrappy sixth man, Green was primed to take a meatier bite out of the rotation. But all that progress grinded to a halt when his father was arrested in a drug bust. “A physical education teacher at the same time, he eventually accepted a plea deal on a reduced charge of conspiracy and served 22 months, though the family maintains his innocence,” the New York Daily News wrote.

Green struggled, on and off the floor. His minutes and productivity waned, and he was living in the same house as Marcus Ginyard, the guy playing in his place. All his life, Green thrived in the presence of the coaches who pushed him. Now, the first coach he ever had, his father, was gone.

One day, he walked into a tattoo parlor and got a Martin Luther King Jr. tattoo inscribed onto his chest. In thick, black handwriting, it reads: ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’

“It’s a story to tell, a memory of the time I was going through, something that reminds me of who I am,” he says now.

Another tattoo rests on his back, depicting Danny and his father together. He got that one when Green Sr. was released from prison.

Green’s saving grace at UNC was simple, imperceptible, but impossible to ignore once recognized: he was the type of person people wanted to help.

“He’s very appreciative,” says UNC coach Roy Williams. “He makes you feel thankful. He’s very sincere.”

Williams kept pushing, and Green bounced back to help UNC to back-to-back Final Four appearances and a championship in his senior year. When the Tar Heels beat Villanova in that second Final Four to advance to the championship game, Williams was racking his brain, worried that Green wouldn’t be able to suit up after suffering an injury. He could barely walk, but he played anyway.

When the Tar Heels held the trophy at the end of the night, it was one of the happiest moments of Green’s life. Nevermind his murky NBA future. After nearly losing everything he had taken for granted — his dad, his health, the spoils of victory — to finally have it all at the same time was a dream in and of itself.

NCAA Championship Game: Michigan State Spartans v North Carolina Tar Heels Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

He didn’t get to rest on his laurels long. Green spent his rookie year in Cleveland in the shadow of LeBron James. Coaches couldn’t figure him out, and Green struggled to find his basketball calling. He was a hard worker, and willing to listen to instructions, but he wasn’t sure where to channel his time and energy. Even in high school, he did a little bit of everything — handling the ball, blocking shots, shooting threes, working in the post. He was never the main attraction on basketball team, but he wasn’t exactly a specialist either. In the NBA, that made him a taskmaster without a task.

He was traded to the Spurs and cut twice before landing in Slovenia for four months during the 2011-2012 lockout season. It was there, in the face of two-a-days and late paychecks, that the magnitude of the opportunity he was squandering came into view.

Green came to terms with the fact that he wasn’t going to have plays ran for him. If he wanted to make his mark, he would have to hunt his shot opportunities, run harder off screens than anyone else, and constantly work to place himself in the eyeline of the Spurs’ Big 3.

When the lockout ended in December, the Spurs re-signed him, but he was a 15th man on a roster full of wings. Then Manu Ginobili broke his hand, and with a game against the Golden State Warriors on the line, Gregg Popovich called Green’s name. He had one job: Put the clamps on the scorching hot Monta Ellis.

This time, Green was ready. Ellis cooled off, the Spurs won, and Green played every game the rest of the season. He rekindled the satisfaction in progress that began at St. Mary’s and never looked back.

“The first time around, I was too cool,” recalls Green. “I didn’t have a real sense of urgency. I wasn’t as hungry. I think [Popovich] saw that I had that urgency I needed, of trying to get a job, keep a job, trying to break in the rotation, taking a job seriously.”

His job was to fill holes where others couldn’t. He sank clutch 3-pointer after clutch 3-pointer during the Spurs’ back-to-back Finals runs, and at one point he was the NBA’s best transition defender.

Off the court, filling holes meant opening himself up. The quiet nature of Duncan, Leonard, and LaMarcus Aldridge left an outward communication vacuum that Green stepped into, sounding more and more like a locker room spokesman after every scrum. In time, he opened up behind closed doors as well, infusing the lessons he learned from his Hall of Fame teammates into younger peers like Kyle Anderson, Jonathon Simmons, and Derrick White.

Green spent the Raptors’ opening night victory over Cleveland talking constantly with C.J. Miles and VanVleet, and he sat on the end of the bench with Greg Monroe and Malcolm Miller. It was just his first game, but he was directing traffic like a guard, at times pointing Kyle Lowry in a certain direction. These are developments that would have sounded foreign, if not impossible, to his podcast partner a decade ago.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a total turn phase,” Sanford says. “But it’s definitely a revelation.”

Now that Green’s gone from pupil to veteran, he feels compelled to pay it forward. His stories of transformation will be instrumental for a team that hopes to make a deep run this year, but has always disappointed in the playoffs.

“It’s hard to change how people look at you,” Williams says. “But you can change that thought if you change your actions.”