The sixth man
In a bold attempt to experience the NBA life firsthand, ESPN The Magazine's Chris Palmer shadowed five players through the 2004-2005 season. In this exclusive excerpt from The Sixth Man (ESPN Books), Palmer chronicles point guard Damon Jones's month-long journey through the playoffs with the Miami Heat in May 2005.
MIAMI, MAY 3
The Heat earned something they’ve wanted for awhile, something simple but invaluable – rest. Two days ago, behind Dwyane Wade’s 34-point outburst in the Meadowlands, they swept the New Jersey Nets from the postseason. Now they’re waiting on the Bulls and the Wizards to decide their next opponent.
Coaches hate downtime like this. It messes with their team’s
Doctors have advised him to secure it in a protective boot twenty hours a day.
There’s not much that can dampen D.J.’s spirit though. He set an NBA record in the Nets series with 17 three-pointers in four games.
But my man got even more attention for what he did off the court.
Despite admonitions from the league’s front office, he appeared on TV for a Game 1 press conference wearing a $400 pair of whiterimmed Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses. NBA Commissioner David Stern protested that the pricey shades prevented Jones from communing with the nationwide audience.
“That’s just ridiculous,” Jones replied. “Who’s more intimate than me? I’ve always been the type of player that people can touch.”
Truth be told, he wasn’t all that bothered by the scuffle. He loves the attention. Those sunglasses were the talk of sports radio. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon debated them on Pardon the Interruption. ESPN The Magazine dispatched a photographer to catch them on film. Today.
The moment I arrive on the sun-soaked beach for the shoot, I spot Christian Lantry, who photographed Sebastian Telfair in Coney Island for a story I wrote a year ago. Two months later, Telfair declared for the draft, becoming the shortest prep player in history to make the jump to the pros. I like visiting Christian’s shoots. He’s got an easy rapport with people.
After thirty minutes, Jones’ silver Bentley appears on the sand.
David Holcombe, the Heat’s longtime director of security, emerges from the passenger seat – all 6-foot-3 hulking inches of him. I introduce myself. He looks me over with wary eyes. His handshake is ironclad. No up or down. Just a brief grasp. “David Holcombe, security,” he says without a trace of warmth.
Like all photographers, Lantry is fixated on light. He wants to get Jones out on the beach right away. A beautiful Brazilian woman in her mid-thirties saunters up to Jones and politely instructs him to follow her into the RV that doubles as a make-up trailer. She guides him to his seat and immediately sets to work. I grab a handful of cashews and make small talk.
As you may recall, Jones bet Shaq that the Eagles would beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
“Did you pay up?” II ask.
“I always pay up,” he says. “You’re not a man if you don’t pay up.”
The conversation halts right there.
“Did you bring your glasses with you?” Lantry interrupts.
“I never go anywhere without them,” says Jones. He reaches for his designer handbag, unzipping it to reveal four pairs of beloved Yves Saint Laurents.
Lantry explains that he wants to shoot up close. He’s hired extras to simulate Jones’ fans. They include several teenaged girls, an elderly couple, two bikini-clad models and a 12-year-old boy with bushy hair. The shoot will place Jones in the position of thumbing his nose at the league. He doesn’t seem to care. As we return to the sand, he’s in awe of the fuss.
“Man, ESPN, girls in bikinis, I must be doing something right, wouldn’t you say?”
Lantry commands the extras to jump up and down, screaming and cheering, behind Jones.
“Louder,” he shouts, snapping pictures.
“Let’s see some more energy!”
I step aside and try to chat up the steely Holcombe, who’s miffed by the music pumping from the portable speakers of Lantry’s iPod.
“No cuss words,” he says. “If a song has cuss words, I don’t want to hear it today. We got too many young people on set.”
“Juicy” by Biggie Smalls vibes through the air.
“Is there any language in this song?” he asks.
“Ah, not to my knowledge,” I lie.
I’m tired of having him bust up the groove. To loosen up his shaved head, I ask him about Jones.
“He’s cool, huh?”
“He’s one of the best guys we’ve got around,” Holcombe says.
“Yeah, cool guy. We had a great photo shoot with D. Wade back in September, too.”
Holcombe shoots me an elbow to the ribs. It actually hurts.
“Yeah, we didn’t really like that one too much,” he says.
In October, I wrote a magazine feature heralding Wade as the next big thing. The photo editor arranged for a high-profile shoot on the rooftop of a trendy South Beach hotel. Wade posed poolside, holding a martini, surrounded by a bevy of microbikini-wearing models. He wore a black jacket with his tie undone. In the next shot, he was dancing with his lovely harem, dressed to kill for a night on the town.
The tie was gone. A Miami Heat dancer, a stunning, 5-foot-10 blonde with fake breasts, was told to flirt with him as if she were at a party. She put her pink glossy lips up to Wade’s right ear and whispered something I’d give a week’s pay to hear. The picture didn’t exactly match Wade’s clean-cut image, but he was more than happy to comply.
“This is the life,” he said.
Jones seems to be enjoying himself, too – despite the prying eyes of his chaperone. He flashes a great big smile from behind the wheel of his Bentley as Lantry spools through his last roll of film. Those overnight van rides in the CBA are a thing of the past now, something to laugh about. Damon Jones never has to set foot in Black Hills, South Dakota, again.
WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 14
When Damon Jones finds himself in the spotlight, when a question, any question, no matter how routine, is posed, he loves to wax poetic.
His voice softens, rising in time to the drama of the story he’s telling. He uses pauses to great effect. If nothing else, the man’s a performer. He covets the podium. And you can’t fault him for that. He waited a lifetime for this moment. And his faith and his hard work are finally paying off. With Shaq watching from the sideline, the Heat advance to the Eastern Conference finals, making quick work of the Wizards in Game 4. O’Neal’s tortured thighs will get yet more rest before they have to face the biggest challenge of the season – a looming showdown with the Detroit Pistons. For Jones, this is a good time to reflect. And, as it so happens, he’s sitting behind a microphone with an audience in front of him.
“Can you really sum up how this feels?” I ask him.
He reaches for the mic. Pulls it closer to his mouth.
“This to me is…it’s something I’ve waited for. Coming from where I did, not knowing whether or not I’d have a job the next morning, the 10-day contracts, constantly getting traded…all this right now is payback for all the hard work I’ve put in. I want to just cherish this for a minute.”
He leans back in his chair, beyond the microphone’s reach, shakes his head and whispers to himself, “Eastern Conference finals, man.”
MIAMI, MAY 23
According to team rules, Miami’s players must arrive at AmericanAirlines Arena two hours before tip off, but tonight they begin trickling in the door an hour early. Each finds a thick blue sheet of paper at his locker. Printed in red ink in the upper right hand corner of the page is the recipient’s name. Across the top: Detroit Personnel. Below: a detailed scouting report for every player on the Pistons, compiled by the Heat coaches and scouts after viewing hundreds of hours of game film. If a member of the Pistons has so much as sneezed in the last six months, Miami knows about it.
Detroit forward Darvin Ham, famous for once shattering a backboard in the NCAA basketball tournament, has played a grand total of ten minutes in the postseason. The Heat critiqued them: “explosive leaper, lob threat! (after to), only 3 fgm outside 2’, vg offensive reb’nder.” [Translation: great leaper, lob threat (after a turnover),
Damon Jones skips over both players. The Pistons he may be called upon to guard are underlined in red ink. Carlos Arroyo will no doubt take umbrage to being labeled a “slow footed, poor defender…[who] flops,” but that’s how Miami’s staff sizes him up. Jones doesn’t waste time committing that to memory, though. He’s consumed with guarding Chauncey Billups, the Most Valuable Player of the 2004 Finals: VERY EFFECTIVE ON DRAGS, WILL BULLY TO MIDDLE, UP-&-UNDER=R SH (BASE), AVG PULLUP J, KICKS LEGS & FLOPS, BULLDOG IN POST!
In other words: SIMPLY A NIGHTMARE.
And so, as his teammates file into the locker room, Jones hustles to the court, sore foot and all, to begin preparing for his assignment. His backup, Keyon Dooling, is the fastest man on the roster, but he has special instructions to shadow Rip Hamilton, whose “quick C&S (catch and shoot)” and maddening fakes are destined to create match-up problems for Dwyane Wade.
“I already knew that,” Dooling says, folding the blue scouting report in half and tossing it aside like a bubble gum wrapper. “We just have to go out there and play. I’m aware of what he can do and I’m ready for it. This is what you live for.”
He’s right. Scouting reports aren’t worth a lick if you can’t put the ball in the hole.
The Pistons smell blood from the start. With Shaq’s ailing thighs limiting him to five-minute shifts, they circle Wade like hungry sharks. Jones is in no position to help – Billups has him covered at every turn. Fortunately for the Heat, Billups and Hamilton are struggling on offense, too. Detroit leads by one at the half.
With Jones in a funk and Wade searching high and low for his touch, the bulk of Miami’s scut work falls to Dooling in the second half. During an official’s timeout in the third quarter, the Heat guard explodes at Hamilton, smacktalking him nose to nose on the way to the bench. The two slap, grab, push, pull and cuss one another on
In the locker room afterwards, Dooling isn’t ready to call it quits.
“You know, I wouldn’t consider him a physical player,” he says of Hamilton. “He does a lot of running around out there, but I don’t sweat what he does.”
“What was all that back and forth business between you guys?” I ask.
“I don’t know, but he better know I ain’t no punk. He better try that stuff on somebody else, because I ain’t gonna back down.”
Down 1-0 at home, the Heat need to find a way to counter Detroit’s punishing backcourt and Dooling looks more and more like the solution. He’s reed thin, but unlike Jones, he can match any guard his height in strength and intensity. No one openly criticizes Jones’ effort, but it’s clear that he’s Miami’s weak link.
Dressed again in his civilian clothes, Dooling stands up in his polished loafers and adjusts his collar. Across the room, Damon’s locker is vacant. He has come and gone.
“We’ve got to be ready for Chauncey,” Dooling says. “He’s a bulldog down there.”
Bulldog, eh? Sounds like he read the scouting report after all.
MIAMI, JUNE 6
The blue scouting reports are history. If the Heat don’t know what to expect by now, they’re in trouble. It’s all about heart and pride and faith tonight – the three words printed on the laminated green card sitting on the seat next to Alonzo Mourning’s locker. The same cards can be found at the lockers of Dwyane Wade, Eddie Jones, and Rasual Butler. The team has gone Biblical. Inside the arena, the air is positively supercharged.
When the Heat march onto the court for warm-ups, Wade is nowhere in sight. Gulp! Hours earlier on ESPNEWS, I reported that he’d play. His teammates need him. Miami’s fans need him. You can see the anxiety on their faces. Where the hell is he?
When the buzzer sounds, the crowd rises to its feet in a rousing ovation. Wade trots from the locker room like he’s Willis Reed himself.
Play opens at a furious clip. With Wade struggling to recuperate, Shaq has been telling everyone in sight that he’ll carry the Heat. He works inside for a pair of dunks to give Miami an early 9-4 lead. Rip Hamilton answers, with Keyon Dooling clawing away at him by drilling his first six shots. Laboring to find his stroke, Wade hits a
That is, until late in the first quarter when he steps on Chauncey Billups’ foot, rolling his ankle. He limps to the locker room to have it re-taped, returning to play thirty-two ineffective minutes. His final line: one point and two assists. The Heat hang on, pulling points from Udonis Haslem and Eddie Jones. Detroit counters with scrap,
When the buzzer sounds, putting an end to the 88-82 loss, Miami’s fans slump in their seats in disbelief. Inside the Heat locker room, the playful banter is replaced by a chorus of whispers. The wave of good feeling is gone. Losing summons change – means the players soon will go their separate ways, never to unite again on the court. For days, Van Gundy had blasted the media for suggesting that his team was unbeatable. Despite Shaq’s power and Wade’s brilliance, he insisted the Heat were vulnerable. He was right, and he couldn’t be more unhappy about it.
Somewhere between the bench and the press conference podium, he has lost his sportcoat. His hair is ruffled beyond repair. He can barely speak.
“I don’t think from a professional sense, from a basketball sense, that I’ve ever been more disappointed,” he says. “I think [Miami owner] Mickey Arison, Pat Riley and GM Randy Pfund have done such an unbelievable job putting this team together. I didn’t want it to end like this.”
Jones emerges from the training room, ginger-stepping toward his locker, 15 feet from the door. He’s dressed in a plaid shirt that just might be made of flannel. After dropping his jewelry and sunglasses on his seat, he turns to face the media. Tape recorders come darting at him from every direction.
“Can you sum up the way you feel, Damon?”
He exhales and drops his head, shaking it slowly from side to side.
His voice is barely audible.
“This is devastating. This is just…I can’t understand…”
“Is shock what you’re feeling?”
“Complete shock. This team has worked eight months for a common goal and now we’ve failed. This pains me to come up short. There were so many things that we could have done in the late stretches of the game that we failed to do. Shaquille wanted to take the blame, but I won’t let him. As his friend, I won’t let him. I love him. I love this team. I have to shoulder the blame. As the point guard, it was my job to get him the ball and I didn’t do it. There’s no excuse.”
The next question defeats him. He pauses and clears his throat, but he can’t summon the words to answer it. It’s strange to see him like this, stripped of his personality, the vibrant light that flooded the Heat locker room on so many nights, the gift that drew players from all walks of life into his orbit. In the NBA’s eyes, he’s expendable
The tape recorders click off en masse. I’m startled by the violence of the moment. It’s like being seated at a dinner table with a family that’s disintegrating but laboring to keep up appearances. In the silence of the room, you’re struck by the silverware tapping against the plates.
The reporters break their huddle, Jones picks up his things and heads for the door. I search for something to say, but once again come up short. He’s thinking about the biggest loss of his career and I’m thinking about closure.
A local TV reporter cuts me off, offering a handshake and words of condolence. Jones barely acknowledges her – clear sign for me to step back. Nothing I say is going to comfort him. I stand down and he makes his way to the exit. It’s an abrupt and awkward ending to our unforgettable journey – the best season Damon Jones ever had.
Chris Palmer has traveled the NBA circuit for five years as a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of two books, Wide Open: The Autobiography of Jeremy McGrath and Streetball: All the Ballers, Moves, Slams & Shine
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