In sports, particularly among the media, rumors are like venereal diseases: There are a lot of them out there, and they're quickly and easily passed around. Who's a nice guy, who's a dick, who's not talking to his coach, who slept with this actress or that celebrity--there's never a shortage of dirt or opinion. Most of it can't be printed, or even partially verified, but the gossip does make hanging around practices and news conferences more interesting. (Hey, we've gotta have something to occupy us during the downtime.)
That's why it didn't surprise me when, a few months ago, Antawn Jamison and Danny Fortson landed in Dallas with more baggage than you or I generally carry. They came complete with hardened reputations, too. Or, translated for the hip, reps. In Jamison's case, his time in Golden State served him well, establishing the young forward as everybody's buddy, a walking smile with low-post moves.
The rap on Fortson was something altogether different. Before being traded to the Mavs, he played for the Warriors, the Celtics and the Nuggets. At each stop, he was labeled the bruiser, not a skilled player so much as a hard worker, unrepentant in the paint and just as likely to grab rebounds as throw elbows. He was the badass or, depending on whom you asked, just a plain old ass. By the time he reached Golden State, he was branded a malcontent and written off as more trouble than he was worth. That sentiment was accentuated last year when he appeared in only 17 games. Sure, he missed 14 games for injuries and personal reasons, but he was also suspended four times and listed as DNP-CD on 43 occasions. That's Did Not Play-Coach's Decision for those of you who don't speak stat-sheet so well. Naturally, the immediate assumption was that he was a pain, because big guys who can rebound don't get stuck on the bench unless they're pricks, right? It didn't matter that he'd played for three coaches in three years there, or that the Warriors were perennial losers with no organizational direction. It couldn't have been that the team and its philosophy were to blame for the rift; it had to be the player's fault because that's where the culpability usually falls. It's easier and cleaner that way. Ask Nick Van Exel.
Before we go any further, you need to understand something. Pro athletes tend to be exactly what you'd expect--pampered prisses with heads as fat as their wallets. So what I'd heard about Fortson I almost accepted without question.
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What? He's a jerkoff? How unusual...
I would have left him alone, except that I needed to talk to him for a piece I was writing on Jamison. A few weeks after he'd been traded to the Mavs, I stopped Fortson after practice, expecting him to be gruff and laconic. He turned out to be anything but. We talked for a good while about basketball and life. He laughed a lot and looked me in the eye. He answered all my questions and never tried to hurry things along. When I dropped my tape recorder, he bent his 6-foot-8, 265-pound body to meet the hardwood and picked up the pieces, reassembling my gadget and handing it back to me with a smile before I knew what had happened. As I walked away, stunned, one of the beat reporters stopped me.
"What'd you think of him?" the scribe asked, nodding toward Fortson. I told him Fortson was nice and overly accommodating--the complete opposite of what I'd expected or heard. "Yeah, that was my take, too," the writer said. "Who woulda guessed?"
Since that day, I've interviewed Fortson a number of times, always waiting for him to regress and grumble about not playing on the regular or lash out as reflex. Hasn't happened. He's remained reserved and thankful, happy to be on a winner and eager to help out whenever and however head coach Don Nelson needs him. Which, depending on the night and the opponent, varies. His game-by-game minutes read like they were scripted by a schizophrenic--nine minutes here, 33 minutes there. The rhyme or reason is lost on me. On Fortson, too, I think, even though he won't bash anyone for it.
"Hey, this is still the best place for me," Fortson says with all sincerity. He is averaging a little more than three points and four and a half boards over 12 minutes per game. "You know, 'Tawn had said that he felt like he was in jail in Golden State. If he was in jail, I was under the jail. It was hard for me. Real hard. It was frustrating.
"You know, for sure I want to play all the time. Any player you talk to will tell you that. It's hard, yeah, when you play four minutes or 10 minutes one game and 20-something the next. It's hard to get in a rhythm when you haven't broken a sweat. But coming here, I was prepared for that. We have a lot of good players on this team, and there's only so many minutes to go around. Look, it's like this, I can be here and play when they need me for a good organization and a legendary coach...or I could be back in Golden State."
As a basic rule, I hate most people. I don't hate Fortson. In fact, I'm rooting for him, and not simply because he's been straight with me, or because I think he's misunderstood. That's part of the reason he's endearing, but the rest of it stems from watching him play and thinking his style is exactly what this team has always needed--a brute to occupy the lane and tax opponents with hard fouls. He caught a lot of flak for the Zarko Cabarkapa incident--for which he was nationally vilified and suspended for three games by the league after a hard foul resulted in a broken wrist for the Phoenix player--but I didn't see it as dirty. In fact, I thought it was great--the kind of I'm-tougher-than-you action the Mavs have always avoided. (Fortson says he didn't intend to hurt Cabarkapa, but he doesn't plan on apologizing either. Good for him.)
"Danny gives you effort every time out," Nellie says. "It's hard to complain about his effort."
Read into that what you will--that Nelson sees Fortson as an enforcer to be used only in specific situations or that the head coach really is pleased with his bit player. All I know is that Fortson has handled himself well, and, for any number of reasons, I'd like to see him get more court time.
"It's only Christmas; it's early," Fortson says. "Maybe I'll get more time as the season goes on. If he only plays me five minutes a game, then I'll play as hard as I can for five minutes."
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