In March, 2011 Danny Green was at a crossroads. After winning an NCAA Championship at North Carolina, Green was chosen in the 2nd round (46th overall) by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2009 NBA Draft. He was cut after appearing in just 20 games his rookie season.
He was signed by the San Antonio Spurs and cut six days later. He was signed by the Spurs again, and cut again, seemingly relegating him to a meager future in the D-league or a life of obscurity playing overseas. It was admittedly a difficult time for Green. “The second time I was cut by the Spurs was the low-point,” Green says. “Being home for two months, not knowing where I was going to go, what I was going to do,” he told the New York Daily News in 2013.
Green ignored the advice to play overseas from his agent and instead chose to try and find a path back into the Association by toiling away in the NBA’s development league. It was during the less than glamorous stretch in the early spring of 2011 that Green picked up the phone and made the call that would later cost him millions. Jeff McDonald, the sardonic beat reporter covering the Spurs for the San Antonio Express News, described the voicemail Green left for Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.
Fed up with the D-League life — the bus rides, the bad meals and the budget hotels — Green picked up the phone and dialed the number of the NBA coach who had cut him two months earlier.
Gregg Popovich didn’t pick up, so Green left a voicemail.
This is what Green said: “I’m ready. If I get a second chance, I’ll do anything possible to get back on the team. I’ll hand out towels, pass out water. This time around, I won’t take it lightly. I’ll do any little thing I can do.”
The story goes that Popovich was so moved by Green’s display of humility that upon listening to the struggling player’s pleading message he immediately signed Green for the remainder of the season. But, as is the case with most things Spurs, there was more to Popovich’s decision than that.
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams described what happened next to the NYDN.
“Pop and I are very good friends. And Pop was very straightforward with me,” Williams says. “And I feel like it was my job to help Danny understand what Pop wanted. And I think Danny accepted all those things, and understanding that the way he was playing the first time there didn’t work. And so he came back and he changed.”
And true to form, Popovich removed all the warm and fuzzies from the burgeoning narrative that would make for one helluva Lifetime movie.
“Roy and I teamed up and gave him a big dose of honesty to let him know why he’s being cut, and he’s going to keep getting cut if he doesn’t do A, B and C,” the Spurs coach says. “We both got on him pretty good, just being honest, to let him know where he stood. And he took the advice from both of us and turned out good.
“It was all about his head, about his approach, his aggressiveness and confidence and that sorts of things.”
But despite Popovich’s best effort to cast the story as just another in the long line of his run-of-the-mill hard-assery, there is something to be said for both Green’s bravery (and humility) in making the call, and for Popovich’s foresight and willingness to give the kid one last chance despite having little evidence that the Danny Green Experiment would ever end well.
Most who have followed the Spurs’ organization closely know that Danny Green has replaced Tony Parker as Popovich’s favorite outlet for release. He is Pop’s straw man, not only quick to be benched for the slightest mistake, but also liable to be yelled at vehemently by Popovich while sitting near the end of the bench when another player screws up.
Michael Erler of SB Nation described Popovich’s predicament in dealing with Green in a well-written portrait of the lanky shooting guard last summer. “Green’s fatal flaw, even more than his lack of skills, is that his focus drifts. He loses track of assignments at times. His attention wanders. What should be routine plays go haywire,” Erler wrote. It’s a necessary and perpetual reminder from Popovich that, as Erler concluded, “you’re not good enough to coast, Danny. Not even for a second.”[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”Spurs” title=”More San Antonio Spurs articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
But, with that said, Green has proven himself to be a valuable and rare NBA commodity. A long and more than capable perimeter defender with a sniper’s mentality who’s worked tirelessly to improve his inside game and ability to score at the rim. He has proven himself to be a legitimate, viable NBA starter. His value is evident on both ends of the court as one of the best long-range shooters in the game who has also developed into a deceptively adroit shot-blocker down low.
That particular set of skills, coupled with the NBA’s looming salary cap increase, makes Green worth more than the four-year, $40 million dollar contract he signed to stay in San Antonio. Significantly more.
Danny Green does not fit the Spurs prototype. He is quick with a smile and fist bump in the tunnel leading to the court, even to those of us layers removed from any semblance of their inner circle. He shows emotion. He talks about his feelings. During the Spurs’ championship run in 2014 Green’s face lit up in a post-game press conference while describing how confident he felt when he’d hear Tim Duncan on the court yelling at him to “LIGHT IT!” when Green was squaring for a shot.
Green was particularly emotional after the Spurs lost to the Clippers in an epic first round playoff matchup earlier this summer, at one point stopping the interview to wipe tears from his eyes. He explained his emotions to Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express News “Because Manu and Timmy are the greatest teammates I’ve ever had,” he said. “It sucks I couldn’t do it and get a win for them.”
And he has shown extreme resilience in handling the onslaught of perpetual reprimand that Gregg Popovich is famous for. It’s almost as if he understands the necessary and sometimes vulgar reminders that he’s just not good enough to coast. It’s almost as if that fateful voicemail from four years ago bound the two together in some sort of enigmatic contract. Both sometimes struggle in meeting the terms of the deal, but are better off for having entered into it.
So here we are: July, 2015 and NBA free agents are swimming in money. Or as Jalen Rose would say, “gettin’ dem checks.”
Khris Middleton and Brandon Knight each got $70 million. DeMarre Carroll got $60 million. Iman Shumpert? He’s getting $13.3 million per year from Cleveland, who also just paid Kevin Love $109 million. AND REGGIE JACKSON GOT $80 MILLION![newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”Free-Agency” title=”More from 2015 NBA Free Agency” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
Danny Green chose to re-sign in San Antonio at a price significantly below (either annually or in total dollars) what each of the players above signed for. Now this crop of free agents is no different than any other year–they are getting paid what the market will bear. But the choice Green made, to stay in San Antonio rather than cashing in elsewhere, is telling. Sure, credit is due to the culture that Gregg Popovich has created within the organization and that Tim Duncan has so unselfishly imbued. But credit is due to the grounded, selfless nature of Danny Green too.
Who would’ve thought this guy would ever make it? Not only do I get my old job back, but they gave me… https://t.co/je15X1eo0o
— Danny Green (@DGreen_14) July 1, 2015
No one would have blamed Danny if he left for greener pastures. The bloom and the wilt of a career is an incredibly short period of time for any professional athlete, and one blown knee is often enough to force a sudden end. He would’ve been well advised to take as much money as he could, from wherever he could, to secure his future. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he chose to stay.
Those that know him best would probably say that Popovich has never discussed Green’s desperate voicemail, much less used it as some sort of negative carrot to be hung just out of the reach of one of his players as some sort of unfair quid pro quo. Because while sufficiently demanding to the men that play for him on the court, he treats them as equals away from it; at times even as if they are superior to him.
For his part Green has likely never discussed that phone call with Popovich either–but you can bet he remembers it. And whether it is for the love of his teammates, his desire to win, or an invisible debt that he feels obligated to repay because of a phone call he made long ago, Green chose to stay in San Antonio, foregoing tens of millions in the process.
The Spurs found themselves in an unfamiliar position during this most recent period of free agency; the organization that prefers to fly under the radar made the biggest splash with the signing of coveted big man LaMarcus Aldridge, the bargain basement acquisition of David West and the surprising coup in landing center Boban Marjanovich, the Euro League MVP.
But the ability to keep Danny Green could prove to be as valuable a move as any of the above. ” San Antonio is home for me. I know the system and the organization. It’s an easy way of life. Anywhere else, you don’t get the same weather, the same type of fans and people. It was a situation where I was willing to come back for less,” Green recently told SAEN reporters gathered in Las Vegas for NBA Summer League games.
And memories of a voicemail or not, Green seems completely grounded and grateful for the opportunity afforded him. “The road, the path, the roller coaster that it took to get here, I don’t take anything for granted,” he says, five years later.
“It’s so much sweeter now that I’m living this dream. I just hope I don’t wake up,” Green said in a release from the Spurs. “I’m a prime example that you don’t have to be the greatest, the most athletic or the tallest. Just work at it and something will come. You might not land on the moon every time, but you can get pretty close. And that won’t be a bad place either.”
As for Popovich’s response upon learning the news that Green decided to stay? “He said, I’m surprised you still want to play for me. I promise I’ll be nicer this time,” Green recalled.
Does Green think he’ll be playing for a kinder, gentler Popovich this time around?
“I probably don’t believe him,” he said.