No more sharing time

Basketball Digest,  Nov-Dec, 2004  by Tom Kertes

STAND RIGHT NEXT TO HIM IF you dare, look into those deep brown eyes staring down at you from somewhere very high in the stratosphere, and the words "big," "huge," and "enormous" surely scoot through your mind.

No question, Erick Dampier is a big player. Big as in a muscular 6'11", 265. Big as in suddenly, mysteriously, and enormously improved. Big

enough, in fact, to have been a huge player in this summer's hot stove shenanigans, even in an offseason where the likes of Shaquille O'Neal,

DOUBLE DOWN If Dampier duplicates his 2003-04, he's the steal of the summer. Tracy McGrady, Gary Payton, and Steve Francis also changed teams.

Want big? Think of the U.S. Olympic Team, for whatever reason going to Athens without a true Big Guy (fine as they are, Tim Duncan and Amare Stoudemire both are forward/centers). Who could they have had? The first to fit the bill would be, of course, Shaq-who declined. The next? Yup, Dampier.

Just how and when did nice guy Damp leap to this level? Always known as a talented-but-underachieving big lug through eight NBA seasons, Dampier suddenly exploded to a 12.3 ppg, 12.0 rpg (fourth in the NBA), .535 field goal shooting (third), and 1.87 bpg level last year. All were career highs-in fact, he'd never averaged more than 11.8 ppg (which came in his second season) or 8.7 rpg. Ask him about the sudden change, and the low-keyed center just shrugs. "I was always sharing time before," he says. "So I never had a chance to play more than 20 to 24 minutes a game. But last season, with Adonal Foyle's injury and everything, I knew I'd be out there 30 to 34 minutes no matter what. That allowed me to just relax and play my game." In the process, Dampier was the difference in about 10 to 12 victories for the sill-nothing-special Golden State Warriors.

Wagging tongues, professional cynics, and pretty much the remainder of the world credit Dampier's ability to become a free agent in 2004 as the real reason for his unprecedented randiness. Dampier's answer is, flatly, "I had $16.8 million left over the next two years on my Warriors contract. And I opted out."

For much of the summer, Dampier's opt-out didn't appear to be a smart career move. Curiously few teams were competing for his services--and none offered the dollars he'd left on the table. The lowly Atlanta Hawks and his own homely Warriors both anted up $50 million for seven years, while the New York Knicks offered their midlevel exception.

The big man wants said world to know that the next stage of his career should be titled, "Winning Big." "Look, I've been in this league, what, six or seven years [actually eight] and I've never won more than 35 or 36 games [actually 38]," he says. "Hey, I'm not getting any younger. I'm not going to play forever. So my first priority at this point in my career is to find a team that can get to the playoffs--and has a shot at winning the championship.

Which is why all summer long Dampier claimed his preference, given the choice of Atlanta vs. New York, was the Knicks, "even if I have to take less money," he says. "Sure, I'd consider taking the midlevel-for one year." The Knicks were further intrigued because Dampier is one of the few big men in the NBA who's big enough, strong enough, and talented enough to have had some success against all-of-a-sudden-in-the-East Shaq. "I know how to play him," Dampier says. "Dude's only human. You meet him early, put a body on him, And don't allow him to get to his comfortable spots. Sure, I've had some good games against Shaq. I intend to have many more."

Whether Dampier would really have taken less money, or he was just using the capped-out Big Apple-ites as kind of trampoline-slash-leverage in a big leap toward bigger bucks from other suitors, the big fella ended up being packaged in a multiplayer deal with the Dallas Mavericks. It was the second quality-for-dreck trade the Warriors--apparently content in the role of Mavericks farm team--have made with Dallas in as many years. Best of all for Dampier, Sugar Daddy Mark Cuban bested the center's going rate by a few million per year--a typical Cuban "signing bonus"--pushing Damp to $10 million-plus per season.

New York, which aims to assemble a Finals team By Any Means Necessary, is left to ponder what could have been. "He would [have made] all the difference for us," says Knicks swingman Penny Hardaway--Dampier's close friend who was assigned to squire the Big Guy around the Apple upon his Knicks visit. "A real, legitimate big man with his skills. We would [have] immediately become one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference this year."

COPYRIGHT 2004 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group