ATLANTA – Staying ready is a challenge.
Even for Willie Green.
A humble, spiritual and kind man, Green, 32, has made his way through more than a decade of the NBA by priding himself on being prepared for any moment. And in Green’s case he’s seen just about everything.
He’s been a collegiate star, winning conference player of the year honors as a senior at Detroit Mercy. He’s been a second-round rookie working to make the 76ers final roster in 2003. He’s been a full-time starter, midway through his seven-year tenure in Philadelphia. He’s had to deal with being injured, being traded, being a free agent, and feeling wanted and unwanted by a franchise.
“I think above all things, having spiritual maturity and understanding that sometimes we go through different challenges throughout life,” Green said. “And the true test of your character is development when you come out of a difficult situation.”
In Green’s two seasons with the Clippers, he’s endured a situation perhaps even more unusual, or at least something a significant number of players would struggle with. After the Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday’s opponent in the onset of L.A.’s seven-game road trip, traded Green to the Clippers in the summer of 2012, he already knew that he may perhaps be a so-called spot starter for veteran Chauncey Billups.
Billups was still in the rehab process for his torn Achilles tendon and Green would fill the void at shooting guard until Billups was healthy enough to return. Behind Billups, or Green, former Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford was entrenched as the team’s first guard off the bench. It was clear then, that Green would likely go from starter to DNP-CD.
But as Billups’ health became tenuous throughout the year, Green vacillated from 16-18 minutes some nights and not seeing the floor others… for the entire season. He started 60 games in all, including one continuous stretch of 34 games when Billups was down with a left foot injury. He rode a rotational seesaw of sorts. Billups was in and out of the lineup, while Green was the out and in.
When called upon, he was ready. He led the team in 3-point percentage and was one of the league’s deadliest threats from long range in March and April when Billups missed a dozen games with a groin problem.
As the saying goes, history has a way of repeating itself.
The enormity of what he had accomplished hit Damian Lillard on the streets of New York City nearly one year after his NBA career began. The unanimous Rookie of the Year voting, the sweep of Rookie of the Month honors, the first-team All-Rookie accolades didn’t sink in until he returned to the Big Apple with his mother for the 2013 Draft Lottery. There, on the crowded sidewalks frequented by celebrities every day, Lillard was one of them.
“When we played in New York during the season, here and there somebody would be like, ‘Are you Damian Lillard?’” he said. “Then when I went to the Draft Lottery, I went shopping on the streets and the whole day I was out it was just nonstop people like, ‘Can I get a picture?’ ‘Can you sign that?’ In New York, there are stars all over the place so once that happened, that’s when I realized it changed.”
Lillard, accompanied by the woman who has kept him grounded his whole life, was stunned by the attention. “This is the first time this has ever happened,” he told his mother. She laughed in disbelief as her son posed for photos and inked autographs in one of the biggest cities in the world. In just one season he had become one of the most notable names to watch in the league.
Last season, Lillard took backcourts by storm after the Portland Trail Blazers selected him with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. He averaged 19 points, 6.5 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game, played the most regular season minutes (3,167) and finished 10th in total assists (531).
Along the way, he broke Stephen Curry’s record for most three-pointers in a season by a rookie (185) and joined the ranks of Oscar Robertson and Allen Iverson as one of the only rookies in NBA history to record 1,500 points and 500 assists in a single season. Lillard also took home hardware for winning the Taco Bell Skills Challenge during All-Star Weekend.
Yet the laundry list of achievements didn’t translate into stardom to Lillard. He had spent his rookie year surrounded by family, friends and teammates who never altered their treatment, and a grueling schedule combined with All-Star Weekend obligations left him with little free time away from basketball.
“I didn’t know anything else [last season],” Lillard explained. “I was at practice, home, game, travel, the same thing. I wasn’t hanging out enough or being around in public to where I could see people coming up to me and see things changing.”
First-round NBA draft pick. Three-time dunk champion. One point every two minutes. New Denver Nugget. Latest addition to Pepsi’s awesome Uncle Drew series. Short man.
As told to Nate Hopper:
I am five-nine even. With no shoes. Five-nine-and-a-half with shoes.
I’ve got a brother that’s six-one; I’ve got another brother who’s five-eleven/six-feet. I got a little brother that I’m taller than, thank god. My little sister, too. My dad’s, like, six-one-and-a-half, six-two almost. My mom is the short one; she’s the little Smurf.
We’re a competitive family—we compete in everything we do: playing cards; if we’re walking down the street, we want to be the first one down the block.
When I was younger, I was a bit of a feisty fighter type of guy. That’s something my father told me as I was becoming a man: You don’t go picking fights, but you don’t run from any of them. And I was more afraid of my father than anybody else I had to fight.
I don’t condone myself being like that—I just love to be a happy, positive person—but if I feel like they’re disrespecting me, I’ma let them know, and I’m not the type to argue.
I’ve blocked some of the greats, some of the Hall of Famers. But Yao Ming—I was just in the right place at the right time. I was in help defense, and I went to go jump and block it, and I was like, Either he’s going to get blocked, or I’m going to get dunked on. So I rolled the dice, and I ended up winning.
1. When Green returns to his hometown of Detroit in the offseason, he likes to visit Belle Isle Park. It is a 982-acre island park in the Detroit River, connected to the city by MacArthur Bridge, where the Green family still holds reunions.
2. In 2003, as a senior at Detroit Mercy, Green was named the Horizon Conference Player of the Year when he averaged 22.6 points per game on 49.0-percent shooting. Green has had the second longest NBA career among past winners of the award, dating back to 1979-80. Former forward/center Brian Grant, who won the player of the year award twice at Xavier, played 12 NBA seasons (756 games). Green is entering his 11th year (624 career games). Recent past winners include Gordon Hayward, Norris Cole and Ray McCallum Jr.
It’s been a while since we saw Uncle Drew hit the courts to school hordes of unsuspecting streetballers, but it was worth the wait. With a new (or should we say, “old”) acquaintance in tow, Uncle Drew is ready to wreak havoc all over again. We spoke with “Lights Out” aka Nate Robinson, on how Part III came down and how he may take his next battle into the virtual world of videogames.
When were you first approached about participating in the Uncle Drew spots?
This summer when I got back from Portugal. My agent called me and asked me if I wanted to hear the good news or the great news. I was like, “I want to hear the great news first.” So he told me about that and I was stoked, I was excited. I couldn’t wait. I kept asking, “When is it?” I kept bugging him.
I’ve been bugging Kyrie for like the last year and a half. It finally came true.
What was the good news part of the conversation?
He said that he lowered his car insurance by switching to Geico. I was like, “Yeah, I knew that was coming.” [laughs]
Did this announcement happen before you and Kyrie went at it in the summer in New York?
Actually it happened after New York. After we played against each other the Uncle Drew thing came up.
You think that had any influence?
I don’t think so. I’ve just been bugging him. Kyrie was probably like, “We gotta give it to Nate. He’s probably the best character for Uncle Drew III.” It was just a perfect relationship, a perfect bond. This is just the beginning of a great relationship with the brand. I’m really looking forward to collaborating in the future with Pepsi Max and with Kyrie with Uncle Drew.
What’s your character’s name and did you come up with it?
Robinson: They had me as another name and I was like, “Nah, I wanna pick my own name.” I picked “Lights” and it was for my uncle, his name was Orlon Robinson. He died of diabetes and his nickname was “Lights”–we called him “Uncle Lights.” It was something I wanted to give as a tribute to my uncle, because my father and my grandmother on my dad’s side, all think I look like him a lot. I have his personality. I love my uncle, he taught me so much. He didn’t get a chance to really see me blossom in the NBA, so I got the chance to show him how much I really love him and appreciate him when they let me change the name. When I told them the story about it they were like, “That’s cool, that’s the perfect name.” So my name is “Lights Out” Jenkins. [Ed note: Minnesota Lynx star Maya Moore will play Light's sister, "Betty Lou Jenkins."]